There has always been the sea. It surrounds and nurtures each gem like island. It tempers the chill northern winds of winter and the humid heat waves of summer. Its currents bring tantalizing flotsam from distant and mysterious places far to the south. Its depths yield up bounties of food and sometimes treasure. There are times when it tests a man’s mettle, tries his soul, and tempers both to produce a hardy breed of sailors who take pride in their power to live in harmony with the powers of the wind and waves. They are the Out Islanders. Here seamanship is the measure of a man. They each set out to sea in sturdy boats of horseflesh and heartpine, a prayer to the white man’s Lord on their lips – an incantation to Okolun, the ancient African God of the sea in their hearts. Born of the Yoruba in Nigeria, their religion became Haiti’s Voodoo, Jamaica’s Obeah – and here the Bahamas – Scratch. By any name, it is a powerful magic, the taproot of daily life that can shape the primeval forces of nature to make a man strong – or to make him die.
One day above all others is paramount in the demonstration of each man’s prowess under sail – August Race Day. This is the holiday weekend when sailors from each island of the Bahamas converge on a tiny cay off the East coast of Andros. Off the gently curving beach at Mangrove Cay they race their boats. The winner is the best sailor in the Bahamas. In the days before the race, the little community is alive with the excitement of preparation, the scheming of the crews and captains – the spell casting of the Scratchmakers.
These are the men and women who keep alive the old traditions. They are said to have power over the winds and seas for long enough to help a captain win. The most powerful magic of all is that embodied in the bones of ancestors who were master sailors in their own time. Their bodies are often buried in ‘Banana Holes’ – deep natural pits in the island bedrock. As race day nears, the bones are resurrected and used in spell casting – then placed aboard the boats. The power of Scratch was not limited to the fortunetellers and spell makers – in the veins of some of the sailors runs the blood of ancient Yoruba priests. They and their ancestor sailors were men who had ‘Scratch’.
Sharkey & The Thunderjack tells the story of Eustace Whaley, leader of the community at Mangrove Cay at Andros Island in the Bahamas. He is acknowledged as the best of the Bahamian sailors, always a sure bet to win the August races, until, that is, the day he falls overboard and is savaged by a shark. His ‘Scratch’ is suddenly gone. Missing and arm and a leg, he is written off by the community. He retreats to a small island and for twenty years curses the Gods, the ocean, the community that shunned him.
And then…he decides to return.