The Exumas 1949 – Nick Finneran

(Excerpt from Nick Finneran’s Staniel Cay, Authorhouse, 2004, available at www.nickfinneran.com)

Our bow was pointed west toward the shallows of the Exuma Bank.  We were sailing back out of the Staniel Cay anchorage on the reciprocal course on which we had entered via the western channel.  On our port side, the water was very shallow, and was fringed with black coral heads sticking out of the water here and there.  On our starboard side, to the north, we saw a sailboat that had anchored on the northwest side of the island.  The sailboat must have been a recent arrival – It hadn’t been there when we first sailed in.  I glanced astern, toward the Staniel Cay anchorage from which we had exited.  I glanced back a second time.

“Damn Bolsheviks,” says Tony.  “Those dead Russians were up to something.  Probably smuggling heroine or opium or something.  Sneaky bastards.  Wait till we tell the authorities”

“Looks like you’ll soon get your chance,” I said.

Looking back at the Staniel Cay anchorage, a movement had caught my eye.  As we exited the Staniel Cay anchorage via the western channel, I noticed a ship entering the anchorage from the eastern channel – from the open ocean side.

“Looks like Navy,” I said.  “I’m gonna luff up.”

The ship was still far away, but the distance was closing.  Tony looked back and studied the ship carefully.  He jumped through the companionway and disappeared below, reappearing in a few seconds with the binoculars.  I remember nearly a minute passed by while I did nothing except watch Tony’s expression.  He looked hard through the binoculars.  His face changed from a frown to a smile.  But it was a nervous smile like I had never seen from Tony before.  It was like he has pieced together a thousand pieces of a terrible puzzle in a matter of seconds.

“Don’t luff up Nick.”  It was one of the only times in my life I ever heard Tony whisper, and it gave me the creeps.

Tony stood up purposefully and walked forward down the starboard deck.

“Head up Nick.  Point us into the shallows.”

“What the heck?”  I said.

“Reach up into the shallows.  We’ve got a good head start.  They won’t follow us in there,” said Tony.

“What the heck?” I said again.  “Why don’t we just wait here for ‘em and . . .”

“Nick, turn us south now,” was Tony’s calm but short reply.

So we did.  I turned Jack hard left onto a broad reach and we went racing into the shallows on the western side of Staniel Cay.

“It’s one of the old YMS-class American minesweepers.  It definitely ain’t one of ours though, ‘cause we gave ‘em all away to the French and to the Russians to use as coastal patrol gunboats.  I remember a few years ago when the Navy had ‘em all rafted up in Little Creek, Virginia, ready to be sent overseas.  Odd numbers for DeGaulle, even numbers for Stalin, or something like that.  Two hundred eighty tons, one hundred thirty-four feet long, three-inch gun.  They’re made of wood.  Shallow draft, but not as shallow as us.”

Tony continued to study the gunboat for another few minutes.  “She’s a Russian,” he reported.  “I can see the flag . . . and a puff of smoke too . . . from the deck gun.”  Tony lowered the binoculars and looked hard at the gunboat.  “What the heck are . . . They’re shooting at us!  Those sons-of-bitches are shooting at us!  Son-of-a-bitch!  Good thing we turned into the shallows!”

The Soviet gunboat stopped at the end of the Staniel Cay channel and fired about a dozen three-inch shells at us.  None came close, but we heard the whistling of the shells pass over our heads.  Tony watched the Russian closely through the binoculars and hummed Waltzing Matilda at a volume and with an uncommon shakiness that betrayed his fear, and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  After about fifteen minutes, we had sailed far enough south that we were out of range of the Russian’s guns.

“Why the hell were they shooting at us?” I asked nobody in particular.

“Cause we saw something we shouldn’t have.  Anyway, it’s getting dark.  Let’s cross west over this bank and get back out to deeper water.  Looks like that Russian ain’t gonna come out past the end of the Staniel Cay channel.  Not in the dark, anyway.” said Tony.

Less than an hour later, we were safely a mile west of Staniel Cay.  The breeze had softened, and the surface had hardly a ripple.

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