Four decades, five boats and 100,000 nautical miles ago, I tacked the ketch Autant into Bimini harbor on a light southeasterly. I planned to stay a week or two before moving on down-island. It didn’t work out that way.
Autant was a 1927 William Hand-designed classic with a sweet sheer. Forty feet overall, double diagonal strip-planked, gaff-rigged and club-footed, it was a spartan vessel, to be sure: no electronics (no electricity!), no tankage, no engine. Traditional to a fault, you might say. The youngest thing aboard was its skipper: long-haired, laid-back and looking for adventure, or at least a cold Heineken at the Compleat Angler as soon as the anchor was set.
In those days, the Compleat Angler Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 2006, was Bimini’s social hub for sundry sailors, fishermen, smugglers, and the hatful of tourists who flew in and out daily on Chalk’s Ocean Airways’ tubby, amphibious airplanes. It was a welcoming island inn boasting cozy rooms, a pine-planked pub with ceiling fans and a ring-toss in one corner, and live calypso music most evenings. Young Jimmy Buffett was known to drop in from time to time, but the Angler’s main claim to fame was its legendary association with Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and drank and occasionally brawled there back in the day. The spacious, book-lined “Hemingway Room” adjacent to the bar was an unofficial museum devoted to the renowned author, its walls festooned with fading photos, news clips and trophy fish. It was here that a brand-new calypso standard debuted.
No sooner had Autant arrived than summer settled in with light, variable breezes, never quite steady enough for us to sail onward. My “week or two” layover stretched into a month or two or three. Well, you don’t measure adventure in miles, so I made new friends, smiled at the tourist girls, and got comfortable with island time—passing the days with boat chores, reading, spearfishing and, being a singer/songwriter of sorts, strumming my guitar whenever the mood struck.
One lazy late afternoon, a buddy and I brought our acoustic guitars into the Hemingway Room, kicked back on the double-wide sofa, and set to pickin’, swapping chords and riffs, taking turns singing and harmonizing. It sounded pretty good, and people began to drift in. Someone bought us a round, and the music picked up a notch.
We went back the next day around happy hour, well before the local calypso band opened for the evening, and more people showed up to listen. Word got around that a couple of vagabond sailors were playing music in the Hemingway Room, and pretty soon the place was jam-packed with people drinking and laughing and singing along. The Angler’s owner, Ossie Brown, saw his happy-hour bar business quintuple that week and ponied up unlimited free drinks for the musicians. The music got louder, the jokes got raunchier, and the crowd swelled to standing-room only. We’d pass the hat, raking in more than enough for our daily rum and conch fritters—and life was good.
One day I picked up my guitar and wrote a song I called “Layin’ Low in Bimini,” a lazy, melodic, islandy tune about hangin’ out there. That evening I played it for the crowd in the Hemingway Room, and everyone seemed to like it. Now, it so happened that a local musician friend—a bass player named Jimmy, who looked exactly like a black Mr. Clean—recorded our show that night on a little tape deck. I still have a copy of it: scratchy music and laughter and jokes and noise. What a fun night! What a happy little episode that was in the life of this cruising sailor/musician.
A quarter-century later, I happened to stop off in Bimini again, an older sailor with a newer boat. Evening found me at the Compleat Angler once again, sipping a cold one and enjoying a pretty good local band playing the same old calypso and reggae standards the tourists always wanted to hear. “Yellow Bird” fluttered to an end, and then, to my utter astonishment, they launched into “Layin’ Low in Bimini.” My song! A few lyrics were altered, but these kids who probably weren’t even born when I’d written the tune and played it there so long ago were singing my song!
They stared at me for a moment—another drunk tourist, they figured—and politely replied: “No, mon, dat’s an old Bimini song. You no write dat; it been around forever. Old island song, mon.” Nothing I could say dented their certainty. “Layin’ Low in Bimini” was a calypso standard they’d grown up hearing the local bands play, probably starting with Jimmy the bass player. These kids would teach it to their grandchildren someday. Wow.
And that, mates, is the true story of how I wrote a “traditional” Bahamian calypso song all those many nautical miles ago. The islands have always been the heart of my cruising life. It’s gratifying to think I gave a little something back along the way.
Tor Pinney has logged 150,000 nautical miles under sail. His articles began appearing in Cruising World back in 1979. You can hear an old, homemade recording of “Layin’ Low in Bimini” here.