At the Cathedral of the Casuarinas, Nourishment for a Sailor's Soul

A religious service in the Bahamas reflects the spirit of cruising sailors.

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Kathy from Mariah Joy delivers the weekly message during Beach Church at the shady Cathedral of the Casuarinas, in George-Town, in the Bahamas.Herb Mccormick

Just before 10, on a beautiful Sunday morning in the incredible Bahamian harbor of George-Town, the dinghies began landing on the beach. On most days, this particular patch of sand is better known as Volleyball Beach, but on Sundays it shifts identities, assuming a name inspired by the massive tropical pines that cast a broad, welcome shadow from overhead. The Cathedral of the Casuarinas, they call it, the meeting place for a weekly religious service for sailors that's known as Beach Church.

In one form or another, Beach Church in George-Town has been in existence for the better part of a decade. Originally founded by some visiting cruisers, in its early years the leader of the congregation was Pastor George Beckman, an ordained priest who'd founded a prison ministry before presiding over a far freer, sunburned flock. Other ministers followed Beckman's lead until a couple of years ago, when the "seated" reverend decided he should have a real parish and split for the mainland. At that stage, the regular sailors who visit George-Town on an annual basis did what they always do when something needs attention: They took matters into their own resourceful hands.

I'd arrived in George-Town in early March to cover the yearly George-Town Cruising Regatta, a two-week festival of volleyball, bridge, tennis, and Trivial Pursuit tournaments; potlucks, parties, and talent shows; and, yes, even a couple of sailboat races. It was my first time in George-Town during the crazy regatta scene, but lots of cruisers return year after year. Many refer to it as "summer camp for adults."

The one brief respite from the practically nonstop madness was Beach Church, which I attended on the last Sunday of the regatta. Just for the record, among the dozens who'd taken seats on long benches beneath the swaying casuarinas, in all likelihood I was probably the least religious person there. But the folks at Beach Church are nothing if not inclusive, and there was even room for a heathen like me.

The service began simply, to the sounds of a violin, and then it was time for the Beach Church Choir to sing their first song, "Come Worship the Lord."

"Let our voices be the church bells ringing out through the anchorage," said the choir leader as a preface to a hymn that, indeed, was soon carried out to sea.

The "opening prayer," as always these days, was invoked by one of the cruisers in the congregation, a gentlemen introduced as "Dodd from Vesper Light." (In George-Town, as in much of the cruising world, sailors are known strictly by their first names and their boat handle, the latter ably replacing one's family name.)

"I'm not a prayin' public person, but I can assure you that my offering is from my heart," said Dodd, with a hint of a Southern drawl. "A good, strong Southern Baptist 'Amen!' would be appropriate if any of my words ring true."

After Dodd's opening and, indeed, heartfelt prayer ("Lord, please be my navigator on shore and my guide at sea"), the leader of the congregation, Norm from Carpe Diem, asked that anyone who hadn't attended Beach Church this year stand up and make a short introduction. There are other, similar rituals that occur on a week-to-week basis: the prayer basket, to which cruisers contribute their written-down prayers; the offer of a Bible to anyone who might wish to carry it aboard his or her boat (multiple translations are available); and plenty of music and singing.

Beach Church is a Christian-based service, but in no way is it heavy-handed or even overly religious. In fact, the underlying tone to the entire affair is simple, and underscores a very earthly truth universal to anyone who's sailed to George-Town: We're blessed to be here, healthy and safe after a voyage across open water, and surrounded by caring, generous friends. It's open to everyone, and everyone who comes is encouraged to participate.

There are no sermons at Beach Church, just "messages," and the message on this day was put forth from Kathy on Mariah Joy. She spoke passionately and evocatively about the moments of "divine intervention" that are part and parcel of life in a small boat on a big ocean. She admonished "whiners" to take a good look around and appreciate the beauty and kinship all around them. And she talked about the mixed emotions all sailors feels when they leave George-Town, which is far more than just an anchorage to so many who cruise there.

"I'll miss the sky, the cloud formations, and especially the night sky," she said, knowing that the season was coming to a close and that many boats would be heading out very soon. "I'll miss seeing the slowly rising full moon, God's night light, that's such a help on our voyages to help speed us on our way. And, yes, I'll miss you. I hope to see all of you next year."

The penultimate song was an Eileen Quinn tune that seemed most appropriate, especially the chorus: "I've got seashells, I've got souvenirs, I've got songs I've penned. I've got photographs, I've got memories, but mostly, I've got friends."

And then the congregation clasped hands and, in unison, sang the Lord's Prayer, after which fresh coffee from all the sailors' thermos bottles was served, along with pastries and other goodies, fresh from a dozen galleys.
Too quickly, really, the congregation disassembled and headed back to their boats, soon to be replaced by a new set of dinghies. After all, morning was giving way to afternoon. The volleyball games would soon begin.

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