“By the time I had left Abaco, I’d stopped taking pictures of fish and started taking pictures of people.”
2019 was a weird year for me. In mid-December 2018, I’d lost what I had thought to be my dream job in the fly fishing industry. The event was a pretty crushing blow to my mental health. I had just started with the company earlier that year and was finally feeling like I had things under control. But come December, my apartment was packed up and I was heading back home to Pennsylvania thinking that I was on my way out of the industry I was so determined to make an impact in.
Then, fast forward to March 2019, when I got a call from my friend Alex.
“Hey, buddy, what do you have planned for August?”
“Nothing much” I replied, “Probably just messing around here in Pennsylvania.”
“Well, how would you like to be the summer caretaker at the Delphi Club in Abaco?”, he inquired.
My heart leapt like a hooked tarpon. I made my first trip to the Bahamas the summer after my junior year at Pitt. Since then, the warm flats of the Caribbean haunted my daily thoughts and nightly dreams.
“Hell yeah, I’m in,” I said within a millisecond of Alex punctuating his sentence.
Five months later, I found myself wheels up out of Newark, finally headed to my temporary island home. I arrived just as the current lodge manager, Max, headed off on his annual 6 weeks of vacation. His partner and co-manager, Nicole, introduced me to my new best friend, the lodge dog, Bear, and showed me the ropes of running the operation. Over the next 40 days and 40 nights, I would get to know the island more intimately and viscerally than I would have ever thought.
Over the next 3 weeks, I had the privilege to explore every inch of the southern Abaco flats chasing just about every species that swims there. Bonefish, Barracuda, Tarpon, Triggerfish, and Jacks were abundant, and as each day passed, I felt more and more like I was truly in paradise. This was all until I read an NHC alert about a likely cyclone development in the Atlantic. Over the next few days, the symbol on the NHC page turned from a number four into a named storm, Dorian.
As the storm drew closer, the staff began preparing the property for the coming onslaught. Storm shutters were installed, the generator tank filled, and all eyes were glued to the Weather Channel. It was during this time that I got to know the staff more intimately, and we began to feel like a team fortifying our positions against the near 200mph winds that the Category 5 hurricane would bring.
Dorian seemed to be taking its sweet time getting to Abaco as it soaked up all the moisture it could off the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico. Eventually, it rounded the corner past Puerto Rico as a hurricane, and set its eye on Abaco. Each NHC bulletin only reinforced our fears as the storm seemed to slow down on approach. I sat glued to the TV, unable to focus on much beyond what we needed to do to get ready for the storm.
As Dorian loomed just over the Eastern horizon, we made the call that the staff’s families should join us at the lodge. Delphi sits 70 feet above the sea and is farther south than the storm’s forecasted path over Marsh Harbour where they all lived in a settlement called “the Mud”. Within days, our team grew from a handful of staff to a big family including kids as young as 3 months.
Over the next few days, I got to know our team in ways I had never anticipated. I learned how to play dominoes as we sat on the balcony killing time, waiting to say good night, and ride out the worst Dorian would throw at us in our rooms. As night fell, the winds picked up and so did our fears. This was to be one of the strongest storms on record, and we knew we were in for something big. As the winds hit their apex, we all tried to get as much sleep as possible so we could be ready for whatever the morning held.
I awoke to the sound of knocks on my room’s door. Anticipating the worst, I got dressed and put boots on only to find Smithy – the team lead – with a hot plate of food and coffee. We took a walk around the lodge assessing the damage. To our elation, the lodge survived with only some torn fencing and a lost gutter. Delphi stood, and somehow so did our cell signals. As we would come to find out, Marsh Harbour was not so lucky.
After making sure all of our team was okay at the lodge, our thoughts turned to Marsh Harbor and the need to check on the staff’s loved ones and homes. This journey – usually just a 20-minute drive – would take 3 days to come to fruition as the 24-foot high storm surge waters rescinded from the roads. In the meantime, we did our best to find diesel for the generators and the trucks we’d need to recover what we could from the wreckage of Marsh Harbour.
Two anxious nights later, we got word that we’d be able to make it north to town through the receding waters. We plunged the Delphi Hilux through water up to its door handles, and after 2 hours, the crew and I pushed into the ruins of Marsh Harbour. The town was in shambles and so were our spirits. It became immediately clear that it was going to be a mournful afternoon. The staff’s homes were leveled, but luckily we were able to find the majority of their friends and families, scraped up but doing alright at the Government building. Over the remainder of the day, we wandered the flooded streets as bodies were recovered and the US Coast Guard helicopters circled overhead. I had never seen such devastation in person. We loaded the bed of the truck up with the team’s recovered belongings and headed back through the floodwaters to our home.
Stuck together on the lodge grounds, I bonded with the staff as we worked to find more diesel and food to sustain ourselves. The team made several more trips north while I stayed at the lodge, working with the crew to clean up Dorian’s damage and keeping our stateside team informed of our status. I received word that the lodge manager, Max, had secured a flight in and would be arriving on the island to relieve me and take a more seasoned lead, making sure the lodge and staff were properly taken care of. Max arrived the next day with a giant bag of Dunkin Donuts and other relief supplies for the team.
The next day we drove to the airstrip to help unload relief supplies being flown in by NGOs and private pilots and to hopefully find a ride home for me. After helping unload medical supplies, I got up the nerve to ask a pilot if I could get a ride back to the USA. We loaded up the plane, including a family of new refugees, and took off. As our wheels lifted up, a sense of relief and guilt washed over me. I knew that I was lucky to get out, but I feared for the well being of the island and the people that now held such a special place in my heart.
As the weeks passed, dozens of fundraisers popped up to help the island recover, and millions were raised. The island was worlds away from being anywhere close to recovery, and the road to complete restoration is going to be a long one, especially with the outbreak of COVID-19 and increasing restrictions on travel. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, albeit miles long. The Bahamas have recently announced that they will be attempting to reopen in early October. With 60% of the island nation’s GDP being tourism-based, the best thing we as anglers can do is travel back as soon as possible. I know I will be.