March 23, 2019
The Ragged Islands, Bahamas.
The southernmost point of a seventy-five nautical mile stretch of cays nestled in the wilderness. With the exception of two islands, they are unpopulated.
Explorer Chartbook refer to the Jumentos Cays and Ragged Islands as “little dots on a small-scale chart. Not the same as being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more than a thousand miles from the nearest land, but still the middle of nowhere.
The epitome of a communication black hole.
Our last cell tower reception had been March 8, when we left Salt Pond, Long Island.
The first cell tower we would see is located in Duncan Town on Ragged Island, the only settlement in the Jumentos Cays and Ragged Islands, and the only place cell service was even a possibility.
Currently, we were at anchor about ten nautical miles north of Duncan Town, just outside of cell range.
After two weeks of being at anchor in bays almost completely to ourselves, or maybe with one other boat in view, we found ourselves, possibly unfairly, quite annoyed at the small armada of four boats that had appeared in the distance and were in the process of anchoring next to another boat in the bay next to us.
It was the same group that had also invaded our space nearly a week before, at one point approaching us in their dinghy to ask if we had left the pair of sparkle covered flip-flops, being brandished in one of their hands, on the nearby beach.
To be fair, they currently were a bay away; and the greater victim was certainly the poor boat already at anchor that they all plopped down next to. Harmless enough… just bloody annoying.
Yet, we had been hearing one of these four boats yammering endlessly on the VHF since Long Island a month ago. They always seemed to be contacting other boats, discussing and relaying the day’s activity schedule and immediate future plans. Even at 6am, we would hear them calling in to Chris Parker’s weather broadcasts on the SSB radio.
During the previous weeks we had grown tired of hearing the immediately identifiable and thoroughly grating New Jersey accent every time the voice crackled through the speaker.
And here they were again… instead of heading back to George Town, which had been the tentative plans relayed during earlier radio communications.
It was the eventual drone of an outboard engine that alerted us that visitors were approaching in a dinghy… the same guy who had asked us about the sparkly flip-flops… great.
However, this time, instead of flip-flops they brought a cryptic message: Has anyone been in touch with you? We were told that attempts were underway to contact you regarding the death of a friend of yours in Indonesia…
We had heard nothing.
We immediately picked up anchor and made for Southside Bay at Ragged Island, near Duncan Town and the area’s only cell tower. But, upon our arrival, we discovered that there was no cell signal. We had heard days ago that there had been no cell service for days. Apparently, the problem had not yet been resolved.
Almost immediately, we were hailed on the VHF by the sailboat anchored next to us.
They asked the same question…
They then told us that they had heard that a request to locate S/V Exit had gone out on a SSB net broadcast days ago regarding the death of someone we were friends with in Indonesia. A sailor we had met earlier, while anchored near us in Thompson Bay, Long Island, was listening to the broadcast, recognized our name, had relayed our earlier position to the net moderator, and was sending word to boats in the area to keep an eye out for us.
Fortunately, though cell service was down in the area, our Iridium Go! was now functional, allowing us to send and receive basic emails through a satellite connection instead of cell tower service.
After several email exchanges to a number of perople, a clearer picture began to materialize.
Tragically, one of our Scuba Junkie family, Rachel Kelley, whom we had worked with in Malaysia for nearly five years, had just passed away.
Rachel had returned to the U.S. after being diagnosed with cancer during our last year managing Scuba Junkie. After a hard fought battle, she had made an amazing return to Scuba Junkie and Mabul Island last year to resume teaching diving.
Sadly, her health took a turn for the worse, and her condition deteriorated quickly enough that emergency evacuation was just not possible.
Rachel passed away on March 15, 2019 in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, with both family and friends at her side.
Rachel was an inspiring individual with an immense heart. She could surgically admonish someone’s political opinions while, at the same time, lovingly pet Scabby Pete the cat. Her commitment to teaching made her not just an incredible dive instructor, but also an energizing mentor. As a Scuba Junkie, she was not only friend, but also family.
Her final dive was far too soon; she was far too young. Those of us who had the incredible fortune of knowing her are better for it. We are all less without her. Her laugh was all it took to brighten a room.
And while we mourn Rachel’s passing with a heavy heart, we are simultaneously inspired by the Herculean effort that was put forth in getting word of this information to us.
A number of Scuba Junkie family (we love you Ric, Rohan, Lydia, Amanda, Dani, Simon) tried to get through to us via text message, Facebook, email, etc., but we had been without signal for almost two weeks.
Dani, who was at SJ when we first arrived in 2008, reached out to a yacht captain/dive friend in the Virgin Islands, who checked our blog site and posted a request for assistance on the Bahamas Cruisers Facebook page. Word made its way to the Cruiseheimers Net on SSB radio, where it was heard by S/V Imagine in Thompson Bay, Long Island.
Strangely enough, S/V Imagine had spoken with us weeks ago while randomly passing us at anchor in his dinghy. Now, he updated the SSB net of our recent location and passed word through the local morning cruisers’ net on the VHF.
Someone else who received the VHF net replied that he had seen us anchored in the Jumentos Cays and we should be within the Duncan Town cell tower range within a few days.
Meanwhile, we had emailed our friends Christian and Mary, aboard S/V I Wanda, inquiring about the SSB broadcast. They contacted the net moderator and informed him they had made email contact with us. That evening, the sailboat that had hailed us on the VHF when we arrived at Ragged Island, S/V Dot’s Way, contacted the SSB net and updated them as well.
Though the circumstances certainly were heart-rending, thank you to every single person who played a part in the effort that went into getting this devastating information to us in the North Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of nowhere, smack dab between Cuba and Long Island, Bahamas.
💙💙💙💙💙 Rest In Peace Rachel.