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AWOL at Warderick Wells

A week later the boat lay to two stout anchors at Warderick Wells in the central Exumas and left a distinct wake behind her in the narrow curving channel between the island and a broad shoal so shallow it was almost awash. The tide funneled through this ditch and the boat stood taut to her anchor chain like a bird dog pointing to a pheasant. When the tide reversed she fetched up on her other anchor and pointed the opposite direction. Only at slack tide did she face into the wind.

If it was a ditch it was a lovely one, glowing with blue light, carved by eons of tide between a long white sand beach and glimmering flats tinged with green and yellow.

Here we were content to spend a few days, Santos getting his fill of beach, the boys catching up on their lessons under Dorothy’s tutelage while I put the finishing touches on a plywood dinghy I was building on deck to replace our afflicted inflatable. Deflatable would be a better description. The rubber dinghy had a terminal skin disease—its fabric had gone flaky, it wheezed from a dozen open sores that had been patched time and again. Water leaked in through the floor, air leaked out the pontoons. It had come time to take it ashore and shoot it. The new dinghy would be light, fast and not leak. The boys were looking forward to trying it out after lunch with the outboard motor.

“Lai lai lai!” Dorothy called from down below. That was a Chinese call to eat that originated from her mother’s childhood in China. I put down my plane and headed below, leaving Santos on deck. The awning was up, he was snoozing a puppy power nap in the shade with the cool sea breeze blowing over the deck— God’s air conditioning. I let the sleeping dog lie and headed below for lunch.

A paroxysm of barking assailed our ears. The dog was awake and at it again as a dinghy from one of the other boats passed by. We shouted at him to stop but the noise continued unabated. Nobody wanted to get up and go on deck to hush him so we waited him out. The other boats in the harbor were far enough away we didn’t have to worry about their being disturbed. Finally it tailed off and stopped with an odd, plaintive—aggrieved—yelp. It meant nothing to us at the time…but we were to learn.

We lingered over lunch, discussing Raffy’s history lesson, the Mongol invasion of India. Already Raff loved long deep discussions of history and politics and would keep me up past my bedtime. He would thrive at a university—but where was the money to come from?—we sometimes worried, intentionally in the boys’ presence. $17,000 a year? $20 grand? The boys knew from an early age that they’d definitely have to be bright and deserving enough to win scholarships if they wanted to go on to college.

Dorothy used to remark that Raffy had an unusually long attention span for a two year old, but I put it down to a fond mother’s bias—until the day in his sixth year when…We were trolling in the skiff, slowly, through the narrow channel that runs behind Lovango Cay and Congo Cay. Dorothy caught a fish, hauled it in without much struggle and we all stared at it—being avid free divers we prided ourselves on knowing the fish but none of us had seen this one before. Except skinny little tow headed Raff, six years old who looked at it carefully and said "I think this is the synodus intermedius. …or something. I don’t know how to pronounce it.”

"What…?!"

"It’s in the book."

"What book?"

"Our fish book,”

“That’s the Latin name?”

“I think it’s also called a sand diver."

"You have GOT to be kidding!"

He had learned to read a year ago and for the last several months his favorite book was Caribbean Reef Fishes which gave the fish’s Latin name as well as its English under the picture. But come on…So help me God, when we got back there it was in the book, exactly as he had said. Six years old and he knew the Latin names of half the fish in the book!

Eventually the table got cleared, the scraps collected, the dog called. No dog. Not again!

A familiar drill re-enacted itself. . The family came pell mell up the companionway and out the hatches and beat the deck, shook out the topsail, looked under the dinghy, between the jerry jugs stored on the after side decks. The dog was gone—again—but how? We had blocked the accessible scupper holes with off cuts of 2 x 4 lumbers to prevent a repeat of the accidental skid into the drink that happened in Port Canaveral.

Over the side the tide was running hard in the direction of the open sea—could he have made it to the beach? We looked towards the shore and saw no sign of him. But there was a dog, loping down the beach, what looked from a distance like a yellow lab. Where had he come from? No matter, that must have caused the furious barking. And that explained what had happened to Santos—he must have willfully jumped overboard to go socialize with that dog. He had a powerful urge to be noticed by other dogs, we’d seen that already—especially by big dogs.

“What are we going to do?” wailed Diego, dancing from foot to foot, his face a grimace of worry.

“We’re going to go look for him, right Dad? We’ll take the new dinghy—it’ll be a lot faster.” suggested Raff. It seemed a good idea so we launched the dinghy for the first time ever and screwed the 8 hp outboard on the transom. Raff and I jumped in, and I started the engine, put it in gear and gave it some throttle. The cockleshell shot off like scared rabbit. It was fast all right—maybe too fast to be stable. It tore over the surface like a low projectile from a cannon, leaving a rooster tail.

We headed for the beach and cruised its length, calling Santos by name. The yellow lab came bounding up, without our dog. That was compelling evidence that Santos hadn’t made it ashore—he would have been playing with this one if he had. At the very least he’d have been on the beach. Our boy wasn’t one for exploring the xerophytic cactus and thorn bush typical of the low dry Bahamas.

“We’d better go check the drop-off” said Raff worriedly and I nodded. The current would have taken him through the calm water of the channel and then abruptly spit him out in the open sea, and pushed him out beyond the line of the islands. Out there where the ebb tide flowed east to the sea it ran against the oncoming waves and wind. On windy days this conflict created a race of turbulent water that visibly whitened the sea with breakers. Not good for Santos.

Nor for us. When we got to the mouth and started encountering the steep swell I brought the dinghy to a halt, but even with the engine in neutral the tide funneled us out into more confused water. Suddenly all about us the waves were agitated, jumping up, forming into peaks which broke and tumbled making a sound like white water rapids. It slapped alarmingly at the thin plywood sides of the dinghy and slopped a couple of gallons in. That got our attention and suddenly fearful of being swamped we forgot about looking for Santos and motored back into calmer water, sitting on the floor to keep the cockleshell more stable.

We motored back and forth at the edge of the race but didn’t dare venture out in it even to get around the corner and down the coast and we couldn’t see anything so tiny as a Schipperke’s head among the tossing waves.

“Well, decrepit as it is, the deflatable is still more seaworthy than this hot rod. We’d better go pump it up and bail it out and come back here to search further out.” I said. As we approached Breath, Raff and I were hoping he’d turned up, but Diego and Dorothy were looking at us, body language anxious and we knew. We all fell to work in a hurry, scooping water out from the inflatable, pumping the bellows to tighten the pontoons, transferring the fuel tank and the outboard.

We were all so busy that we didn’t register the approach of a skiff. Up came a proper inflatable—a new one—with Santos dancing on its bow! A vigorous looking man in his late 30’s with a black beard and wearing the top to a wet suit guided the skiff alongside and said with a grin, “This is a dog, right? If it’s not yours, I’m going to keep him…feisty little guy!”

“ Santos!” we exclaimed in relief. His whole body expressed such delight there was no doubt that he was ours. The eyes in his eager fox face shooting out affection, his stump wiggling his rump while he stood precariously on the bow, balanced on three feet, gesturing with his forepaw, beckoning to Breath.

“I was out spear fishing and on my way back I caught sight of something swimming…I knew it was mammal, but couldn’t figure just what…an otter? A seal? But he was eager enough to be fished out and he shook like a dog. Then I see you all scurrying about, getting the dinghy ready and I put two and two together.”

That made three close calls in as many months. This time he hadn’t accidentally fallen through. He’d purposely jumped. He must have climbed the rail or gone up to the bow where the anchors pass over the side. No mesh, no netting would stop him. He was agile as a cat, nimble on his feet and, once he got used to the boat, never did he by mistake fall in. I began to realize that we were dealing with a wild man, a force, and we might as well let him live his life and hope for the best because there’d be no stopping him.

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