Coco Cay – Sample Chapter from What Time Is the Midnight Buffet?

Friday, July 26, 2002

We were due to anchor off Coco Cay at 10:00, with passenger transfers beginning at 10:30. When we awoke at a little before 9:00, the ship was stationary. Off the verandah a small flat island was visible, a couple of squat structures rising above everything else. The sun was winning the battle for dominance, and the seas were sloshing at 1-3 feet. A ferry carrying staff and supplies was halfway to the island, and another was loading directly below us.

Raj set breakfast up on the verandah, and we watched the preparations continue. A pair of laughing seagulls hovered off the side of the verandah waiting for a chance to steal our food, but I kept them at bay. When passengers started boarding a ferry before 9:30, we grabbed the beach bags and a pair of priority embarkation tickets before sprinting to the elevator for a ride to deck 3. The tickets were one of the many little perks we received for booking a suite, and they allowed us to board any ferry without waiting. I sympathized with the other passengers, who were instructed to wait in the theater for their boarding number to be drawn in a lottery of sorts. We stepped right on to the second boat and arrived on Coco Cay well before 10:00.

The design of the landing at Coco Cay allowed the 200+ passengers to quickly disembark the specially designed ferry. We passed on the opportunity to have our photo taken with the mermaid, and continued past some small shelters where vendors were setting up their merchandise. Behind a fabric fence, it looked like a new shopping village was taking shape, and the sounds of construction filled the air. A cluster of wheelchairs and strollers with balloon tires sat empty waiting for passengers. I stopped at the snorkel rental hut while Kris scouted the beach for an ideal spot.

I found her settled under a palm tree near the end of the beach. Over a sea wall behind us, Galaxy glittered in the sun. I dumped the snorkeling gear on the sand, walked straight into the perfect blue water to waist depth, and looked down. Ten toes, all a normal flesh color, stared back at me. I could feel them.

The mandatory snorkeling orientation was about to begin, so we retrieved the equipment and joined the group. A life vest must be worn here, even by those who bring their own equipment. The vest is designed to be inflated through a mouthpiece, and it can easily be emptied so that you can dive to the bottom without interference.

Pop-Pooof. A woman in the group had gotten ahead of the instructor, and pulled the emergency cord that discharged a tube of carbon dioxide into the vest. We would hear that sound throughout the day, as curious people were unable to resist the temptation. The woman was sent to get a replacement vest.

The instructor pointed out the best snorkeling areas. Directly in front of us was a wide shallow area where we could find fish concentrated around a couple of plane wrecks and a sunken boat. The lifeguard at an offshore tower would feed the fish upon request. To our left, around the end point of the island, lay a much deeper reef. I figured we were good for a half hour of underwater entertainment.

We went straight into the water and snorkeled for almost two hours. In this time we only covered the shallow area. Rumor had it that the planes had been shot down by the DEA, but unless the bad guys had welded supports to the fuselage beforehand, this was not true. The planes were placed here to attract fish, and that they did.
We were too tired to continue to the deeper area, which is a shame. I imagined it would be closer to my memories of the reefs in the Virgin Islands, more interesting than the area we did cover. Maybe next time…

Back on the beach, it was lunchtime. People were returning to nearby chairs with food, so we set off to find the source. Under a cluster of trees a short distance away, lines formed at a building housing a grill and buffet. As we waited our turn, aggressive seagulls repeatedly swooped down and grabbed food from anyone who turned away for even a moment. People were regularly excusing themselves to cut in to the line for replacement hamburgers and hot dogs.

The line moved slowly, but we eventually came away equipped with a decent lunch. The burger was a little crispy, but I was not willing to give it up to the gulls. We found a picnic table in the shade of some low-growing trees, which also afforded protection from the screeching birds. Hitchcock would have felt right at home here.

Kris spotted a giant iguana that was lounging just a few feet away. He was obviously very well fed, but gladly chomped on some lettuce that Kris tossed his way. We had an iguana as a pet once, and he grew to be about 4 feet long. ‘Guansky’ lived in the boys’ bathroom. When we were in the mood for some fun, we’d send unsuspecting relief-seeking houseguests to use the facility. Then we would sit back and wait for the scream. This amusing activity aside, iguanas do not make very good pets in my opinion.

Near the lunch area, I spotted the waverunner hut and went for a look. A large sign out front displayed a long list of prohibitions for participants:

* No Excessive Speed
* No Wake Jumping
* No Wave Jumping
* No Racing
* Follow the guide
* Maintain 300’ Separation
* Etc., etc…

If the sign had been just a little bigger, they would have had room to sum it all up with a simple “No Fun”. Maybe this wasn’t a good choice, after all. In bold letters, the sensible zero tolerance policy for riding under the influence caught my eye. I had just been thinking about a pina colada, but now I had reason to dismiss the idea.

Carrying lemonade, we went back to our encampment. It was already 2:00, and there really wasn’t much time before the Waverunner session at 3:00. We sat in the sun for a while, and I took one of the rented floating beach mats into the water for ten minutes of pure relaxation. I’m going to buy one of those things some day. Even though I would carry two of them around for the rest of the day, we never got another chance to float around. All the while we sat on the beach, waverunners buzzed annoyingly offshore.

I took a couple of pictures for the record, and it was time to go. “Well, have you decided if you’re coming with me?” I asked Kris.

“Oh…I guess so,” she answered. “It does look like fun.”

We packed everything up and headed to Waverunner headquarters. There were convenient shelves available to hold our stuff, beach mats included. The little straps that give your glasses a chance to survive vigorous activity were available at the check-in desk. For a couple of bucks each (on the room card), we made the investment. After an introductory video in an air-conditioned room, we put on life vests and headed for the Waverunners. Over my vest we added a set of straps that provided cushioned handles for Kris to hang on to.

On the dock, we were introduced to our guides — a young man and a younger woman. The male guide said, “Who wants to go fast?” I raised my hand, as did a couple of others. Kris nudged me, but the cushioned lifejacket reduced the impact.

“We don’t want to go fast,” said Kris. I kept my hand raised. “Put your hand down!” She nudged me again.

The guide counted off the go-fast wannabes. “One, two,” he said before pointing to us. “Three.” He kept going until he reached the eighth and final participant.

“Listen up!” said the guide. “I will go first, and our other guide will go last. You will launch in your assigned order at her signal. We will maintain 300-foot intervals until I stop. You must follow my exact path because there are coral reefs all around. That’s why you must ride with a guide while you’re here.”

Again I wondered if we were wise to take this excursion. We could be relaxing on the beach with a cold drink, having fun.

The guide continued with his speech. “When I stop, you should gather with me until everybody catches up. After our first stop, we’ll be heading into open ocean. It’s pretty rough out there, so there’s no way to avoid some jumping. We will forgive you.”

Hmmm…this was sounding better.

“We will then go around to the other side of the island and stop for a rest. Ready?”

The group murmured an affirmative, and the guide gave the instruction to start our engines. When all the waverunners were running, he took off and curved toward Galaxy, which was anchored offshore. The follow-up guide pointed to waverunner #1, and blew a whistle. The driver launched smoothly and followed the guide’s wake. The whistle sounded again, and waverunner #2 took off.

Our turn. I gripped the handlebars tightly, and at the signal hit the gas. We were instantly flying, and I tried to get a feel for what the machine could do. Kris immediately transformed into a back seat driver of the worst sort, shouting warnings and pleading for mercy. “Ahhhhh! Take it easy!!”

Ahead, waverunner #2 came to an abrupt halt. I think the girl driving got scared and wanted to let her father take over. I had to make a split-second decision, and scanned the water for obstructions. Seeing none, I swung far to the right and gave the sled some more gas, passing the stopped waverunner in an arc at least 400 feet away.

Kris pulled so hard on the handles attached to my vest that I had to secure myself with the handlebars. From a few inched behind my ear she screamed, “You can’t do this! You aren’t supposed to pass! Slow down! Don’t get so close! Stop! Wait! Oh…myyyy…Gawwwwd!!” I rolled my eyes and steered back on course behind waverunner #1.

The leader stopped at the entrance to the bay, and we slowed to join him. It took some time for the others to catch up. The guide asked if anyone wanted to change positions in the lineup, and I volunteered for the number two spot. Kris groaned, and increased her handhold. The guide warned us that we were about to leave sheltered waters and go out where the waves were dancing around.

“All right, dude,” I thought. On the signal, we went.

I watched the guide when he took off, and his technique seemed to be to hold the throttle wide open and hang on. I decided to give it a try. We hit the first wave and launched into the air. The sled slammed back down with the engine screaming before we got the water equivalent of traction, launching us up the next wave and back into the air. A woman behind me was screaming. Sounded like someone I knew.

We established a regular rhythm: Bang, whoosh, scream (engine) — bang, whoosh, scream (woman), bang… I knew anyone within earshot would be well and truly annoyed, but this was seriously fun. Huge sprays of water hit me in the face, and my mouth was full of salt. My sunglasses remained fixed in their proper spot, but I desperately needed windshield wipers.

I found that I could establish a less jarring rhythm by timing things a little differently. It was possible to get the waverunner skimming over the wave crests for good distances. We kept encroaching on rider #1’s space, and I’d have to back off. When you let off the throttle there is absolutely no steering control, leaving you are at the mercy of other forces. Faster please. It is easier that way.

We rode around the far side of Galaxy. I wanted to look, but thought it better to concentrate on keeping the sled upright. The waves became larger and more closely spaced, changing the whole dynamic of the ride. I don’t think I ever really discovered the secret to handling the beast, but it was fun to try different approaches to the current situation. Kris eventually became silent. Her face seemed to be burrowing into my neck, and her death grip on the handles continued to pull me slightly off balance. We were making progress. Around the far tip of the island, we entered a calm bay and again paused. Just in time for me. I had been holding on so tightly my hands ached and I had lost my finesse on the throttle. White knuckles contrasted sharply with tanned hands.

“How are you doin’ back there?” I asked Kris.

“I’m all right,” she answered. “I think I’m getting used to it.”

“Do you want to drive?”

“No way!”

As the others slowly filed in, the lead guide dove into the water and came up with a huge starfish. We passed it around while we waited. Kris was carrying a waterproof camera, and another driver offered to snap our picture.

“Did you take any pictures while we were moving?” I asked.

It was a rhetorical question, but she answered anyway. “Are you insane?”

When everyone had gathered, we were again offered the chance to swap places in the running order. I was sorely tempted to put us in the lead position behind the guide, but I deferred out of respect for my passenger. We reversed our route, traveling back over the largest waves where we spent more time in the air than in the water. The kids would be proud. I didn’t hear any more human screaming behind me — it was quiet back there. We repeatedly had to slow down to maintain the proper spacing, which became quite an annoyance after a while. The guide did not make an intermediate stop on the return trip, and we soon approached our departure point. As we motored in to the dock Kris said, “I can’t believe how slow the first waverunner was going. You should have asked to go first.” I rolled my eyes again.

Back on shore I noted that it was five and a half hours after noon in the next time zone eastward. We had avoided having anything to drink because of the waverunner policy, and shared a strong mutual desire for a pina colada. Floating mats and snorkeling gear safely returned, we set out for the beachfront bar.

Timing is everything, and ours was terrible. The bar had just closed, and the staff was cleaning up. Even though the last ferry didn’t leave for an hour yet, there were very few people left on the island. A man sweeping the floor told us that we might be able to get a beer at the hut near the dock. When we got there the crew was packing up, but they were glad to serve us a round of Beck’s beer, and then another. Kris ran over to the market area where the vendors were also packing up. She got some end-of-the-day bargains on t-shirts. As 5:30 approached, the last ferry pulled up to the dock, and we went to the end of the short waiting line. Our bags were hand searched in case we had met up with smugglers, and we boarded.

Back on the ship, we paused in the hallway of the third deck to examine large engineering drawings of the Galaxy. The engine bay is three decks high, and the propeller shaft must be 200 feet long. No wonder it is noisy at the Captain’s table. There are elevator shafts and secret passageways in the core areas of the ship behind the doors marked “Crew Only”. Our interest in the behind-the-scenes action was piqued. We agreed that Tracy Kidder (Soul of a New Machine, House, etc.) should write one of his insightful books about life on board ship. Maybe I’ll have to do it…

We talked to the guy vacuuming the stairs. “Yes sir. Beach days are the worst. We vacuum the whole ship three times to get the sand”.

Galaxy raised anchor and departed before we even got back to the cabin. Once there, we took the afternoon’s goodies on to the verandah for a bout of relaxation. The sea gulls that had been dogging us all day kept up with the ship for an hour after departure, hoping for one more treat. Around 7:00 p.m., as I returned to the verandah from inside, Kris shushed me and signaled for me to stop. My eyes followed as she pointed forward and slightly up. On top of the wall separating our verandah from the neighbor’s, a tiny yellow bird sat watching us. Kris crumbled some bread from a leftover finger sandwich onto the table. The bird considered it, but flew instead to the next partition. Galaxy must be well known within the bird community in these parts.

For dinner this night, we had fork-tender rack of lamb. I tried the frog’s legs. You could put hot sauce on them and sell them as Buffalo wings. No one would be the wiser. We all discussed the day’s activities. Mike went parasailing. He was only up in the air for a few minutes, but liked the experience. Alan and Jodie snorkeled, and like us were sunburned on the backside from floating face down for so long. Everyone was very tired. Bandasak had a personal favorite on tonight’s dessert menu, and he brought each of us one to try. That meant that some at the table, me included, had three deserts tonight. There were no leftovers.

We went to the Theater to see Becky Blaney, “The Southern Bell of Comedy Magic”. This was her debut evening on board, and for the first ten or fifteen minutes we thought we’d made a big mistake by attending. Kris later told me that she was trying to think of a way to get up and leave without being overly rude. Eventually though, Becky got down to business and became entertaining. By the time we left, the awful opening was a faint memory. In fact, Alan and Jodie went to see her again to try and figure out how some of the tricks were done.

We made our way slowly back to the cabin, both of us ready for sleep. Although I carried a $20 bill, I didn’t think I could stay awake with all those hypnotic lights and sounds in the casino. In the room, a familiar sight: The bed turned down, the next day’s newsletter on the desk, chocolates on the pillows, and the towels in the bathroom where they belonged — no cute little folded towel critters here. This is a classy operation. On the pillow, a cute card featured a child’s drawing. Kris collected these every night, and it was only after returning home that we realized the cards were appeals for donations to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. We responded with a check.

We noted something remarkable at dinner, and it was even noticeable in the room. With the propulsion systems set to slow for the short trip to Nassau, it was much quieter. We were due in port early the next morning. We needed to go home with some gifts, and decided to sacrifice the short day by shopping. The consensus at the dinner table held that Nassau’s Straw Market was not to be missed. Alan told of striking a hard bargain there on a hat that he bought for $8. He stuck to his offer even as the vendor told him how many hours it had taken her to make the hat. He admitted he felt guilty, but everyone insisted that this was the way it was done at the Straw Market.

Kris is not a bargainer. It is for people like her that the Saturn automobile company was created — one price, no haggling. How would she fare in the cutthroat world of the Straw Market? Hmmm…..

I fell asleep thinking about something very important the Waverunner guide said. “Coco Key”

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