Living The Harbour Island Dream

by Roy Schmidt

In retrospect, it is no surprise that I would come to live and work on a small island. As a youngster, I fantasized about a self-sufficient island life. When I was still in grammar school in New York, I obsessed about a generator for my bicycle that would power a headlight on the handle bar. I saved my allowance and finally got one. It had a small wheel that turned when pressed against the front tire, making the light glow. It was an exciting off-the-grid experience and one of my early treasures.

I was obsessed with the idea of breathing underwater. I bought a war surplus gas mask and experimented with it in the bathtub, trying to get it to stop leaking around my face.

At age nine I was introduced to sailing on our small family sailboat. Depending on only wind to propel us was an intriguing experience. The following summer my folks rented a 15 foot sailboat for me, and I loved sailing it by myself in the Great South Bay. My greatest sailing joy was to go out on a full-moon night with nothing but the wind, stars, and me.

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 Browsing through my Grandfather’s National Geographic magazines was fun, especially if I found pictures of tribal people whose women wore only grass skirts. In one issue I came across a story of a place in western New York State called The Thousand Islands. I read the whole article, thinking that there might be one small one there for me – such a titillating thought. I quickly forgot about browsing for pictures of nubile native girls in grass skirts.
By my early teens, I had doubts about the island fantasy providing a living, so I began thinking of being a dairy farmer. This would be the ultimate in self-sufficiency – grass in, milk out. After learning that it required rising before dawn seven days a week, I soon lost interest. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, only that it would never be working in an office in the city.

Later in college I went through the motions of getting a business degree with no particular career goal in mind. What did I do after college graduation? I took the path of least resistance and went to work in my father’s plumbing and heating wholesale business in Long Island City, a most uninviting place with the only greenery being an occasional weed poking through a crack in the pavement. This meant untold hours spent in traffic jams while commuting from the Long Island suburbs.

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I got married at twenty-one, had two daughters (Laura and Amy), and toiled in this business for fourteen long years, fooling myself that this was rewarding and satisfying. My father died during the third year, but managing it with my brother-in-law, George, from then on proved no more enjoyable.

Although the material benefits were substantial, the lack of job-satisfaction sapped my spirit. In the last few years I became restless. My heart wasn’t in it, and I felt like a phony. A traumatic divorce at the time also fed the unrest. At thirty-five I knew I had to make a change, but for what? I needed to break out and do something that was entirely my own.

My father had been gone for several years, but in my mind the business would always be his. Besides, I did not like the plumbing and heating business. My dreams placed me at the helm of a large sailboat, testing the elements and exploring the island harbors of the Caribbean.

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Operating my own charter boat was an appealing thought. I already had a 48 foot catamaran that I bought in Miami and sailed to Long Island, New York. This was not the right boat for chartering. The accommodations were not adequate for charter parties. I began designing a large, three-hulled trimaran with a small aft cabin for me, separated from the main cabin by a center cockpit.

My brother-in-law, George and his second wife Joan (my sister had passed away when I was twenty-two) were aware of my desire for a change. George and I had been discussing buying out the interests of the other inactive family members. I soon saw this as a possible opportunity for departing the business if George was willing to buy my share.

For a vacation they had rented a house on an island in the Bahamas. They invited me to join them for a long weekend visit. While this sounded like an enjoyable diversion, my sights were set on getting to the Caribbean, the Windward and Leeward islands of the Lesser Antilles southeast of Jamaica. From an earlier visit to Nassau, I was not intrigued by what I saw of the Bahamas. I looked on this weekend as a mere interlude to my goal.

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In April 1968, I was seated at a window on the Bahamas Air flight for the twenty-five minute trip to North Eleuthera, some sixty miles due east of Nassau. The transparency of the water showing multi-colored coral reefs below was mesmerizing. However, the string of small coral islets, more like rocky outcroppings with no sign of vegetation, that ran along the route were starkly unimpressive.

As we arrived over North Eleuthera, my view from the window showed a rather barren, flat landscape with little foliage. The surface was pockmarked with small depressions that seemed to have some sort of leafy vegetation within. It looked more like a moonscape, and I felt that this might indeed be a long weekend.

Looking around after disembarking from the plane did nothing to alter my impression from the air. What passed for a terminal building and Customs office was a drab concrete block affair. Equally unimpressive was the collection of vintage station wagons and sedans that waited to taxi passengers to the ferry dock for the ride across the harbor to Harbour Island.

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I picked the car that looked the most capable of the half-mile trip. As the taxi began to ascend a slight rise in the road, I told myself to try to make the best of the weekend. I had no idea that cresting the rise would be the beginning of a complete change in my attitude and life. There before me lay a scene I could only have imagined.

Across the two mile stretch of the pristine water of the harbor sat the jewel that is Harbour Island. I was immediately captivated by its beauty. The taxi descended the short distance to the ferry dock where a few small boats waited to carry passengers across the harbor. Small native boys clambered toward the taxies to carry luggage to the boats for whatever tips they could get.

I could not take my eyes off the island. Rather than being flat, it was hilly with an array of houses and quaint cottages clustered along the waterfront. Painted in bright pastel colors with contrasting shutters, the profusion of white roofs gleamed in the sunlight. As the small ferry drew closer an unexpected feeling came over me. Could this be where I was meant to be?

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The long weekend was about to become an eighteen year sojourn of romance, happiness, creativity, and constant struggle interspersed with humor, and challenge. While I envy the imagination of fiction writers, this chronicle needs no embellishment. It is a true story, perhaps even stranger than fiction.