Barracudas in the Bahamas

December 25, 1969. Age 8.                           

We landed in Nassau, checking in to the Sheraton Hotel, located on a remarkable white sand beach. From our room I could see the emerald green water with brown patches where Dad said the coral reefs grew. The palm, banana, and mango trees dotted the resort paths that wound around the hotel grounds. We spent many days at the beach, swimming in the pool, and learning to snorkel and dive for shells. But the highlight of our trip was a day-long sailing trip on a fifty-foot Chinese Junk. The ancient wooden ship with its stern raised up was painted rust red and had three huge red sails with wooden slats in them that unfurled like rolled up paper. We went aboard and found a seat. 

There were about twenty-five people on the charter, couples and families alike. Mom wore black cat-eye sunglasses with her hair tied up in a blue scarf. Her mouth turned up on the sides, red lips pursed, looking like she was going to heave at any moment. She didn’t say much, keeping to the seat she found near the middle of the ship, the most stable and secure. My older sister, Monica, nine years old, also looked seasick but sat on the side of the ship with her legs dangling off, wind blowing her long blonde hair. Karen, my six-year-old younger sister, and I found a seat near Mom, who was sitting quietly, watching everything.

Dad, in cut-offs and a tank top talked to the Captain and walked around the boat like he owned it. His brown leather floppy hat covered his already sunburned bald head. He taught us that the right side of the ship was “starboard” and the left side was “port.” He said the front of the boat was the “bow” and the back of the boat was the “stern,” and that the bathroom was called the “head.” We tried to remember the nautical terms. 

As soon as the boat began to sail, it heeled over slightly, and I moved to the high side with Monica and dangled my legs off the side too. Mother planted her feet three feet apart and used them as steadying anchors, knees together to keep her stable on her seat. The sky was clear and blue and the ocean azure. It moved in little waves out of the way of the bow of the ship, in a mesmerizing and methodical way. It was my first time aboard a sailing ship and I instantly loved it—the rhythmic movement and color of the water, the distant horizon, and the smell of the salty, fishy water. I was home!

All my friends at home in Windsor, Ontario, where we lived with our Mom, were building snowmen and ice skating for Christmas break, but I was here in paradise watching the white sand bottom speed underneath this great big boat. A seagull hitched a ride on the bow, surveying the crackers and drinks on deck, until somebody moved too fast and it flew away. An older man and his wife came and sat next to me. The man asked where we lived, and what I liked best about the ship. I told him about learning to snorkel and loving the pretty colored fish. 

“Have you seen any barracudas?” asked the man.

“I don’t think so. What do they look like?” 

“You can’t miss a barracuda; they’re long, skinny, shiny fish with big mouths full of teeth.”

“Really?” I said, horrified. My eight-year-old mind saw a giant sea monster.

“Oh yes, they are all around us.”

I turned to Monica. “Did you hear that?”

“Yes,” she said with wide brown eyes. I scooted a little closer to Monica so that our legs touched.


We fell quiet after that, still mesmerized by the moving ocean and the white sand at the bottom. I stared over the side of the boat, imagining a school of barracudas following the boat. The wind died down a bit and the boat slowed and leveled off enough for everyone to see shells and coral along the bottom. Dolphins were spotted on the other side of the boat. Monica, Karen, and I ran to the other side to see them jumping and playing. Dad came and sat next to us and we watched the dolphins romp and play like children happy to be free at the park.

“Dad, some guy told me there are barracudas in the water here and that they have big teeth,” I said. 

“Which guy?”

“That one over there.” I pointed out the man and his wife on the other side of the boat. 

“Don’t worry about the barracudas. They are more afraid of you than you are of them,” he said matter-of-factly. 

How could those barracudas be more afraid of me? I saw the ocean swarming in long, skinny fish with huge teeth. The dolphins swam off, and Monica threw up over the side of the boat.


After several hours we arrived at our island destination. The Captain announced transportation by dinghy to the island for lunch, but Dad thought waiting for the dingy to take us ashore was absurd. 

“We will swim ashore, girls. It isn’t that far,” he announced with a puffed out chest, proud of his three Norwegian, blonde-haired daughters and our swimming skills. 

The distance looked pretty far to me. I wondered how many barracudas were out there waiting for me. Monica and Karen were studying the distance too when Mom said, with more force than I ever remember her using before, “I will take the dingy.” 

A line had formed for the dingy, and trips were underway to the island. Waiters and crew members set up tables with food on the beach. 

“I don’t want to swim ashore, Dad. I want to go in the dingy with Mom,” I announced, trying for as much force as I had heard Mom use.

“You most certainly will not, Leslie. All three of you girls will swim with me. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you.”

“What about the barracudas?” I asked.

“I told you not to worry about the barracudas. Just forget about them.”

“I can’t forget about them. They have teeth.”

“Are you going to trust a stranger more than you trust me?”

I shook my head no, but my heart said yes. I went and stood by Mom in line. 

“Leslie, get over here right now,” he demanded. 

I shook my head again. “Dad, I’m scared and I don’t want to go.”

Dad whined, mimicking my voice, “I’m scared and I don’t want to go.”

Scared of the barracudas, and mad at Dad for mocking me, I stayed in line as Dad and Karen jumped into the water holding hands. As soon as we heard the splash, Monica and I ran to the edge of the boat and watched as Karen crawled onto Dad’s back, held him around the neck, and kicked like a frog as he swam ashore. 

They were not eaten alive, and it was years before Dad stopped teasing me about the stupid barracudas in the Bahamas. I had no sense of enjoyment at defying my father or sacrificing my little sister to the barracudas. It left me feeling like a failure and a disappointment. Those feelings propelled me for years to overachieve, in an effort to earn back Dad’s elusive pride. 

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