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48 Hours on Shifting Sand

The collision of real estate conglomerates and sand-point perfection on Barbuda.

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THE ISLAND

There are a few things to know about Barbuda. 

It sits out on the northeast corner of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean—62 square miles of flat, raised limestone reef bracketed on two sides by coral-edged windward shores. Much of the interior is a wild mangrove lagoon. Its two leeward shores are pink-white beaches stretching for miles—one called 11 Mile Beach—backed by sand dunes, salt ponds, and dry, scrubby bush forest.

Codrington, the island’s only town, is named after the British family that held sway there for 200 years. By “held sway,” I mean they enslaved people, they traded enslaved people, they owned sugar estates on Antigua and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and they made a ton of money over generations, which they used to build castles on giant enclaves of peasant-free land back home in Britain. The Codringtons’ royal lease of Barbuda continued until slavery was abolished in 1834, at which point they handed the island over to those they had formerly enslaved, who then shared communal ownership of the whole island, as have their descendants ever since.

Today, Barbuda has a population of 1,100 souls, most living in Codrington, which sits inland from the coast but edges onto the vast lagoon. Much of the island is a national park, and a large portion of that is protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat. It has one of the largest nesting colonies of magnificent frigate birds in the world, and is also home to rare tortoises, historic Amerindian cave dwellings, and endangered leatherback turtles. 

A vision from above: Aerial views of Barbuda’s Palmetto Point and its cyanic wrap have tantalized surfers, fueled fever dreams, and quietly launched expeditions—like the author’s—for some 20 years. Photo by Al Mackinnon.

For a tiny island, it is a mighty wilderness. It’s also a hot, hostile space. Survival has never been easy. Traditionally, people lived off livestock and ground provisions grown in poor soil, relying on water from underground aquifers that run through tunnels and caves in the limestone. There are wild deer and pigs to hunt, and, of course, there is fishing. Barbuda has a reputation for the best conch and lobster in the region, and in recent decades locals scratched out a living by selling them in the small-time tourism market that took shape in the 1970s, as well as exporting them to other islands like its chic neighbor, St. Barts.

When the British gave both Antigua and Barbuda independence in 1981, they bundled them together as a twin-island nation, like Trinidad and Tobago. Antigua is the big twin, Barbuda smaller and reluctant. Barbudan MPs are elected to the parliament in Antigua, but islanders are supposed to control local activity through an elected group of residents, known as the Barbuda Council, who have to approve anything big that affects Barbuda or its people. 

On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma blasted Barbuda to bits. At the time, it was the strongest recorded Atlantic hurricane ever to make landfall. Winds topped 200 miles per hour, seas were immeasurably large, and the storm surge pushed 12 to 15 feet above normal sea level. Two-thirds of the island was flooded. Ninety-five percent of the buildings were destroyed. One person died. The livestock was killed or scattered. The groundwater was largely contaminated by salt. All the survival mechanisms that had been developed in Barbuda over centuries took a hit.

These were the traitors
who, in elected office, saw the 
land as views
for hotels and elevated into waiters
the sons of others, while their own learnt something else.

Now, in their real estate, 
they lunged at my shoes
to pull me down with them as 
we walked along shelves
bubbling with secrets, with melting fingers of mud
and sucking faces that argued Necessity
in rapid zeroes which no one 
else understood
for the island’s profit.

—From Omeros by Derek Walcott

Immediately afterward, Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, evacuated the entire population. Barbudans were told to board boats and military planes to Antigua “for their own safety.” Hurricane Jose was bearing down, though in the end it turned away. Some wanted to stay and begin clearing the rubble, but were rounded up by the military. Others hid in caves, only to be tracked down by the army and removed. It was more than three months before the full population was able to return.

Only days after the evacuation, heavy equipment and construction workers began streaming over on barges and commenced building a new airport for private jets on virgin hunting land. While they were at it, Browne’s government abolished the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, which had formalized communal ownership and the role of the

Barbuda Council. Browne claimed it was to give Barbudans a chance to buy their homes to use as collateral for bank loans to speed their recovery. Antigua was relatively unscathed by Irma, and Browne made it clear he didn’t want the government to foot the bill for “those squatters” and “welfare scroungers,” as he called Barbudans. Henceforth, all big decisions would go through his government ministries, not the Barbuda Council.

Helping had never been the government’s focus anyway. Since before he was elected in 2014, Browne had been vocal about repealing the Barbuda Land Act. In 2015 and 2016, he tried but failed. Nonetheless, he succeeded in passing the Paradise Found Act in 2015, which opened the door, specifically, for a $250 million resort led by Robert de Niro and James Packer’s Paradise Found, part of their Nobu empire of resorts and restaurants.

Photo by Al Mackinnon.

Later it also allowed for the establishment of Peace, Love, and Happiness (PLH), also known as the Barbuda Ocean Club, a luxury “legacy property” complete with a spectacular Tom Fazio golf course overlooking a pair of vast Caribbean beaches, with guaranteed privacy for the owners—no locals allowed, except for staff.

So when Irma hit, Browne jumped on the opportunity, presenting much of the government’s plan as urgent “disaster recovery” work for Barbudans. According to the island’s only elected member of parliament, Trevor Walker, the Antigua government has now leased for 100 years more than 700 acres of the island “for about 5 or 6 million dollars.” It may represent a small fraction of the 39,000 total acres on Barbuda, but it is still 700 hundred acres of no-go zone for Barbudans, unless they’re servicing the resorts being constructed for wealthy outsiders. 

“An artificial paradise,” said Barbuda Research Complex’s Professor Sophia Perdikaris, “meant for people with no local cultural connections to the island.”

“Set along the finest beaches in the West Indies, Barbuda Ocean Club’s exclusive seaside residences will employ fresh, modern Caribbean style. Families can explore ownership within two distinct neighborhoods, Coco Point and Palmetto Point—each offering unique real estate opportunities and a  distinctive collection of amenities.”

[ALL EXCERPTS: barbudaoceanclub.com]

THE CALLING

I arrived by the Barbuda Express on a full ferry: people heading home for the weekend, a bevy of Antiguan women chattering about attending a party at a club, a cargo of baby chicks in double-decker boxes, and a few tourists.

“We carry two types of tourists to and from Barbuda,” said Greg, the ferry’s owner. “One says, ‘It’s wild and empty. We love it!’ The other says, ‘It’s wild and empty. We hate it!’”

My trip was a 48-hour, two-part mission. The first phase entailed surf. I’d been nursing an obsession with Palmetto Point for 30 years, ever since a Leeward Islands Air Transport propeller plane I was traveling on made a swerve over the island to avoid a rain squall. As it did, a vision appeared between the clouds: fat, roping lines spoking down an endless beach and bending around a sandy corner. The swell seemed to charge down the whole side of the island, each wave clear from 16,000 feet until the clouds blocked them again. I pressed the call button and asked for a parachute, but that wasn’t a service the carrier offered. 

Fellow Caribbean progeny Dylan Graves occupies the most exclusive space of interest in the area of contention. Photo by Jimmy Wilson.

Since then, I’ve been haunted by the vision. And lately it had been bugging me. I was in my early twenties then. Now I’m in my fifties. Ticktock, ticktock. Over the years, the wave came up with some frequency. We ran photo spreads and even a cover story about Barbuda in the surf magazine I edited. The island and the spot went unnamed, of course, because until now they have been a secret of sorts. There are no surfing Barbudans. A handful of pros knew about it, and some of their stories ran in American and European surf mags. All also unnamed, of course. Some of the cognoscenti became obsessives, developing long-term relationships with this tubular belle, returning low-key and on the regular. 

Nearby Antigua, St. Martin, and Guadeloupe all have locals with boat access and the occasional perfect timing. I’m a neighbor from the Virgin Islands, another tiny territory a little downwind of Barbuda, and most years our crew would solemnly agree that we’d definitely head over that season on so-and-so’s boat, or charter a plane, or some other wishful vagueness. Years passed. It just never happened.

The other reason for my journey was to learn more about the behemoth development. Word of it had been wafting in from the east for some time, making me sick to my stomach. I spend my days in micro-wildernesses strikingly similar to Barbuda’s, mainly in a lagoon where I paddle, exposing visitors to the wonder of both its small things and the larger scale of the intricate webs holding these coastal ecosystems together. 

Twenty years ago, after 14 years of courtroom wrestling, the mangroves we explore on my island and the wild country we hike were saved from another billionaire’s golf course development. In the end, the battle was won by people and the power their voices brought to bear, as well as the inarguable fact that golf courses and luxury developments willfully destroy habitats essential to our survival as a species.

Many Barbudans reportedly feel similarly concerned. They have been leveraged into a position of being reliant upon the development and losing their ancient rights in the process—or remaining outside its economic upside and still losing their ancient rights. Barbudans who oppose the development point out that surfers are fellow stakeholders, an interested party, and because they need all the help they can get, they’ve teamed with a group of veteran surf visitors to spread the word via surfing’s social-media network. Now they co-manage savebarbuda.com and #savebarbuda to fight on their behalf.

Shoreline Remains. Photo by Jimmy Wilson.

I’d heard about our neighbor’s much bigger fight and been linked online to a man named John Mussington, the head teacher of the island’s secondary school, a marine biologist, and one of many Barbudans trying to stop the project. I wanted to meet him and them, and learn more. 

COVID-19 had kept me grounded for two years, so when a different job came up that took me halfway to Barbuda, I rolled the dice and added a leg. At the time of booking, the long-range forecast showed a faint possibility of swell.

“With 164 acres and fewer than 100 residences, Coco Point is an intimate island village community tucked along a graceful, two-mile arc considered perhaps the best beach in the Caribbean.”

NO SUNBLOCK AT COCO POINT

On the ferry, I identified a problem: I’d left my sunblock at home. It sounds minor, but the three things I know about an island like Barbuda are that the beating sun rules the day, sand flies rule the evenings, and mosquitoes rule the night. Fuck. This was actually kind of urgent.

I soon discovered there are only two shops in Codrington, and neither of them sold sun protection. My next option was to head toward Coco Point, one of the developments. 

Coco Point is one half of the giant Peace, Love, and Happiness development, called the Barbuda Ocean Club, or BOC. Next door is Nobu, De Niro and Packer’s aforementioned global sushi and hotel business. Its 251 acres includes the site of an abandoned hotel, the K Club, which was Princess Diana’s favorite escape.

I drove right into Nobu with no problem. It’s mostly a construction site, but they’ve already opened a small, fancy beach restaurant. Its maître d’ didn’t know what to make of me, so he opted for the white-privilege approach: “Welcome back, sir. So nice to see you again. Will you be having lunch today?” 

“No.” 

I eventually determined there would be no help from the Nobu staff, who knew without even looking that there was no sunscreen anywhere on the premises. Next, at the outer defenses of PLH’s Coco Point development, I was convincingly assured I wouldn’t be allowed in, not even for sunblock. The interior was accessible only to staff, construction workers, and prospective buyers.

Graves, benefiting from a flourishing yet fleeting combination of swell and sediment. Photo by Jimmy Wilson.

Here’s something to chew on: According to unverified sales information I’ve seen, plots at Coco Point have been sold to the heads of multinational conglomerates, global banking institutions, investment firms, and other private citizens whose names carry billion-dollar associations, for prices all in the millions.

Meanwhile, the developers themselves are a blizzard of glitz. John Paul DeJoria is the principal investor behind PLH. He’s by most accounts a wonderful man who came from poverty, made billions, and gives a ton of it away. Owner of nightclubs and Harley-Davidson dealerships, his biggest haul has come from co-founding Paul Mitchell hair products and then Patrón tequila, the latter of which he sold to Bacardi for $5.1 billion in 2018. His Twitter bio reads, “Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Environmentalist.” He’s not joking. Not only is his PLH Foundation big in global human uplift and eco protection, but he also bought a sailboat for Sea Shepherd Conservation, which named another vessel in their fleet, a former US Coast Guard cutter, after him.

His partner is Michael Meldman, co-founder of Casamigos tequila along with George Clooney and Rande Gerber, and the founder of Discovery Land Company (DLC), which has around 25 of these enclave properties, mainly in the US. It seems DLC’s modus operandi is to buy large tracts of wilderness and “protect it” by excluding all but the richest of the rich, who can hang there in total privacy. There’s always a golf course “to anchor the community,” and the talk is always of “legacy” ownership.

It is, they appear to want to insist, all about buying these special slices of the planet with the intention of passing them on to their children and generations to come. It implies a deep commitment to the land over the very long term—kind of like the relationship Barbudans have already established.

Sometimes, though, the properties are flipped. One source in an effusive article in the New York Post titled “This Blue Chip Caribbean Island Hopes to Dethrone St. Barts,” written by Christopher Cameron and published in April 2021, had this to say about Meldman and his business: “‘So many real estate junkies follow Mike,’ a fan of the Discovery brand, who requested anonymity, said. ‘When they buy at the beginning of the development, which means they have to wait a couple years to actually see it, they make a significant amount of money.’”

The same article describes BOC’s elitist ethos: “This is a place where masters of the universe let down their hair, where wild horses drink straight from the pool, where sea turtles flap their flippers right along the shore and where Thursday nights can rage until 2 a.m. at the bar. Why gamble with the uninitiated?”

Elements along the point—both natural and man-made—seem locked in a cycle of creation, revision, or decay. The erstwhile Palmetto Point Resort Hotel. Photo by Al Mackinnon.

Here’s another telling paragraph from the piece, which is trying to explain why the tiny island where billionaires and celebs famously go to play isn’t cool enough for masters of the universe: It has too many mortals. “‘[Barbuda Ocean Club] will be like St. Barts,’ said Mike Meldman…the project’s developer. ‘Like if you made St. Barts private and really limited to the people who go there.’”

All that aside, I still needed sunscreen. While firmly entrenched on the outside of the Coco Point gate, the security guards barring me from entry actually saved my skin. Once the two Barbudan women got a handle on my quest, they went all out to help. One radioed inside and asked someone to bring sunblock to the gate. When that failed, they directed me to Barbuda Cottages way back down the road, saying, “Tell them we sent you.”

Barbuda Cottages was busy. In fact, it seemed like a thriving example of the low-key, local-owned tourism that was once the only kind of development this island knew, before Hurricane Irma and PLH and Paradise Found. Neat cottages on stilts close to but set back from the beach, reasonably priced, informal.

“You are very welcome,” said the lady handing me a can of spray-on factor 50. And no, she wouldn’t take any money for it. “Guests are always leaving them!” she explained. 

I went upstairs to their restaurant, Uncle Roddy’s, and splashed out on the last square meal I would have for a while.

“This 600-acre slice of tropical paradise comprises Barbuda Ocean Club’s heart and soul with seven miles of stunning white and pink sand beaches. Ultimately, it will be home to over 350 residences; however, wherever you call home, you will never tire of Palmetto Point’s charms.”

CAMP DUNE

The PLH Palmetto Point gate is about a mile from where the wave breaks. According to Mussington, that gate blocks a public road built by the Council for the original small hotel located on the coast. In the past, people could access the area to fish and gather coco plums and sea grapes from the dunes. It was also passable for someone like me to camp and surf the point.

On my first attempt at entry, the Barbudan security guard smiled and listened, but was quickly overshadowed by a mighty Antiguan. “None shall pass,” he said. And so it was.

Later on, as the swell was arriving, I tried harder, driving from PLH’s Palmetto Point gate—23 minutes of dusty, potholed road made hazardous by furious 20-ton tipper trucks flying past—back to the Coco Point gate. The fine ladies there helped me find Craig, head of security.

“I’ve come here to surf, and the swell’s arriving,” I said. “Could I get a pass to Palmetto for this afternoon and tomorrow morning, please?” 

Craig, a friendly man from St. Lucia, was sympathetic—regretful, even—but resolute in his denial of access. That forced me to set up camp as close as I could get my car to the point, a half-mile farther from the gate, where the dune meets the beach. 

I drove down a sand track that ended by a wooden tower perhaps 30 feet high, just steep steps up to a platform with railings. I thought it was for tourists, some type of Instagram sunset tower. 

The sale of more than 700 acres of land has already begun to redistribute not only sand on the island, but also access for visiting surfers, opportunities for foreign and local hoteliers, and income for Barbudans and local business-owners. Photo by Al Mackinnon.

“No,” Mussington later told me. “Those are for prospective buyers. They go up there to choose their plots.”

I climbed it hoping to see the point, but it was too far off. With darkness falling, I hustled into the dunes, found a dip just wide enough for a tent, and made camp. Sand flies feasted on my flesh until I covered myself up, head to toe. I also learned that, in my tent, at least, sand was the true enemy—fine white dune sand, blowing in, sticking to everything, impossible to expel.

I built a fire. Cooking was deliberately smoky, and once I’d eaten, I took a walk to check the beach through wind-blown inkberry bushes, beach morning glory vines, and grass covered in wicked burrs. In the dunes, there were wood-and-wire dune fences stabilizing the sand and, scattered widely, a series of 10-foot-long white plastic poles, clearly part of some survey and land division.

Turns out they were as out of line as they looked. “In December 2019,” Mussington later told me, “[PLH] had been cutting subdivisions all the way back up to Martello Tower,” an old stone windmill several miles back at the main road. “Based on the maps we’ve seen on their leases, they don’t have all those places on there, but they’ve just taken up what they want. They backed off when we started to kick up a fuss.” 

Mussington is one of several Barbudans who’ve lodged court cases to halt illegal work and, along with some members of the Council, has faced charges for obstructing the project.

From my fire, it took ten minutes to reach the end of the vegetation and find clear sand, and another 12 to walk across the beach to the water. The beach was wide and, weirdly, flat back toward the dune. Artificially so, with tire tracks suggesting both quad bikes and trucks having been on it.

It turns out PLH has spent millions of dollars moving tons of sand to literally shore up the beach, reportedly with sand-filled geotextile bags, similar to those used in artificial reefs, in some areas. It’s more than impressive. It’s a rebuilding of an entire beach, almost 2 miles long, up to Palmetto Point itself. This is PLH “repairing” the beach and dune zone after the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma and decades of sand mining by the Barbuda Council out on the dune. It also serves as a protection of its investment. 

In fact, I’d earlier driven past the sand-mining pits while getting stuck in dead-end tracks trying to reach the point. They were a good way inland, and are discernable by their broad rectangular shape created by sand having been clearly dug and loaded onto lorries. Google Earth images show how the mined areas have shifted: New holes opened up, while old ones disappeared back into the bush.

Barbuda has long been a sand exporter. For as long as I can remember, whenever heavily loaded sand barges appeared in our islands, people referred to their cargo as Barbuda sand. Mussington and other Barbudans point out that sand mining was the Council’s first and almost only outside income-earner. Walker pointed out that it was an Antiguan initiative pushed on them before independence, one deeply controversial from the start. Was it a threat to the integrity of the whole Palmetto dune and beach system? Or, rather, was it more of a threat to the Palmetto dune system than PLH’s grand scheme to alter it in a different way?

We have a smaller version of Barbuda in the Virgin Islands called Anegada, similar in geology and ecology. On that island’s western tip, swells have begun taking out the beach more than ever before. Swells do this regularly, and beaches are normally replenished naturally with migrating sands from offshore and from the dunes. 

In Anegada, they buried geotextile bags. But when Irma hit eight hours after it finished with Barbuda, bringing the mother of all swells, the western point was gutted—the sand stripped out and shredded geotextile bags exposed, dislodged and scattered like trash. 

While arguments still rage over what to do about it, most agree that the issue originated because a developer built houses on the point, causing the sand to stop moving the way it always had. The sea took the houses, and for years they were an eyesore in the wilderness, half submerged and tilted at 45 degrees, the currents scouring sand around their foundations. 

Essentially, if humans hadn’t fucked with the sand cycle in the first place, there’d be no need for bad solutions that cause even worse problems. PLH should take note, as a sprawling golf course and 350 billionaire-owned mansions stretching from the point to the mangrove edge of the lagoon are surely going to shift the way all that sand moves. 

Surfers should take note too.

“The signature Tom Fazio golf course, multiple beach clubs, island village, organic farm and garden, kid’s club, sport park, and the Frigate Bar comfort station are just a few of the choices to occupy your days and nights—all just a sandy stroll from home.”

THE WALK

One trip to the shoreline and back would have been fine. But by the third in 36 hours, when the point was finally firing, my skin was three-times fried, my ankles three-times less springy, and my legs three-times cramped up. The broader sensations were of vast space, human smallness, imperceptible progress, inefficiency of movement, dehydration, ultraviolet radiation, load-carrying discomfort, and heat.

I carried a board, a wetsuit top, a camera, wax, fruit, my phone, water, and sunblock. It was a small pack, with everything but the board wrapped in a beach towel. The first ten minutes of the journey were on the dunes, dodging burr grass and other vegetation. Then I hit the edge of the beach and began walking west along the high berm. 

I couldn’t see the point for a while, so I tried to find “the zone,” the mental frequency that would help the trek pass in meditative comfort. To my right was the dune that overlooks the broad beach. Half an hour after setting off, I came level with PLH’s fence as it emerged from the bush. From there I could finally see the tip of Palmetto Point. 

From the fence, I could also see another wooden viewing tower in the distance. By the time I reached it, I could see another, with signs of human activity on the dune farther on. Sprinklers. Golf course. 

On the first morning, I climbed the dune and lay down at the top, peeking over like a soldier in a trench. At 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, there were workmen tending to hoses. Beyond them, a grassy fairway, sandy dips, some as-yet-un-turfed dune, and heavy machinery. Not wanting to alert them, I slid back down and walked on. 

Photo by Al Mackinnon.

In the distance was a small knot of palm trees across from the tip of the point. By then, I was looking around the point. At the palms there was a hidden building, a sunset overlook with driftwood-style furniture and fake thatch roofing. At its entrance there were two SUPs, standing like pillars, faux Hawaiian tiki carvings, and a sign that said, “SURF BAR.” It looked like an abandoned film set.

As the walk continued, gradually around toward the north, the southeast wind came offshore, smoothing everything off. On the dune side, there were more signs of golf construction, another tower, and, in the distance, yet another. 

My walk ended just past the fourth tower at a place where the beach and the golf course met. On this side of the point, the dunes were lower and the fairway ran off into the sand. Looking back up the fairway gave me a glimpse into the forbidden zone—groomed grass, fake lakes, and construction evidence of every sort. It was a mess, but I could see the fantasy world it will one day become.

I never went farther than that. Two out of three times, I wandered and bodysurfed and marveled at the sheer overkill of the whole landscape—big, bright, hot, beautiful. 

The third time was something else.

“Upon completion, Barbuda Ocean Club will be comprised [sic] of up to 495 residences—from quaint village casitas to fairway-facing golf villas to expansive beachfront estates—thoughtfully designed to provide something for every family’s preferred lifestyle.”

THE WAVE

There was no Cape St. Francis moment. On my second morning, when the swell finally arrived, the ocean looked enraged as I reached the tip of the point. The wind came up quickly after dawn, 20 knots from the southeast, tearing at the swell. The whole beach up the west side had flooded. Waves smashed on the shore, then rolled uphill over the beach’s highest point, where they sloshed into mini lakes that went all the way back to the dunes. I weaved around them and through the shallows.

It looked cleaner and more makeable up the beach. Walking along the berm, occasionally nearly being swept off my feet in the whitewater, things became suddenly intimidating. Size was tough to judge. Double overhead? It was hard to be sure. From where I surveyed them on the sand, the waves were breaking below sea level. It was like a shorebreak—that ran forever. And some stayed open, some not. If you made the drop. Which was unlikely, because it was a shorebreak. That ran forever. Et cetera.

The mental games began. Struggling to find an enticing section, I kept walking all the way to where the golf course meets the beach. From there, I could see actual closeouts in the distance. I had passed the best section.

But that wasn’t my only anxiety. There was also the simple fact that I was way out here with no one else for miles aside from a few PLH workers, who probably hadn’t seen me and wouldn’t notice if I randomly broke my neck on the sand, and who more than likely wouldn’t be able to save me or retrieve my body before it got washed down the point and into the insane currents.

And even if I wasn’t badly injured, even if I just broke my board or my leash snapped, I questioned if I could get myself out of those situations. My legs had been cramping on the walk to get there. What if I got caught inside, became fully cramped, and got washed down the point? What if I just didn’t have enough juice to fight the current to get back to shore, because I was already exhausted from all the fucking walking? What if, what if, what if…  And what a stupid way to die.

Alex Botelho, experiencing the “straight-up freefall to sand smash” component described by the author. Photo by Al Mackinnon.

Mind-wrestling, I headed across the inner lake toward the golf course. The sprinklers weren’t on. As I approached, I realized it was hard to define where the fairway ended and the beach began. High tide a few hours before had peaked well onto the course. The sprinklers, which the day before were some way back from the sharp, green edge of the fairway, stood out from sand on what now looked like beach. 

I realized that the beach was on the fairway. Or the fairway was on the beach. Had the ocean trespassed? Or had PLH? Someone’s done something wrong, and my guess is that it isn’t nature.

I, too, had to trespass on PLH property, because there was no way along the inner edge of the beach without either swimming or walking on the dune. I made my way back down the point, convincing myself I may have seen a section that looked almost makeable—somewhere back there. But by then I was pretty sure I wasn’t going out anyway. I stopped and watched for a bit. A set walled up, threw and ran, and ran and ran, and spat and ran and spat. It was a spectacular sight in the morning sunlight—crazy, crystalline turquoise tunnels just running. 

I also noticed that, farther up, the tubes were darker. Out back, a cloud of brown and green water stretched into the distance toward the north, thus toward the lagoon, which had been breached by Irma and was now being flushed out by the new swell. The leading edge of this nutrient-rich, fish- and flavor-filled water was drifting down toward the point. Where the shades of turquoise met the shades of brown, magnificent frigate birds wheeled high above the surface and boobies bombed into the water. Great. Every tiger, bull, and hammerhead on two sides of this island had just received the memo.

Longtime Palmetto aficionado Ben Bourgeois, with positioning befitting his experience. Photo by Jimmy Wilson.

As I worked this out, I was applying sunscreen, even though I was then certain that I definitely, absolutely was not going in. I found myself waxing my board anyhow, simultaneously thinking about a man I’d met by the lagoon in Codrington, who was introduced to me as the master shark fisherman. He’d told me about it: “Mostly tigers, lemon, and hammerheads. But some bulls.” 

Mussington later told me that people didn’t really swim here: “We would come out there and fish. And when we clean the fish, and put some guts out in the water, you’d be shocked by the amount of sharks that just appear out of nowhere.”

I put on my wetsuit top, stashed my gear, removed my hat and shades, picked up my board, and realized, as I waded across the inner lake toward the overtopping berm, that I was lying to myself. There was no way in hell I wasn’t going out. I gave up looking for a perfect section and looked instead for a gap in the sets. Then, without thinking, I dove into the water that was rushing back down the beach. There was a sand-grinding duck dive and I was out the back. For a moment, it felt like any other surf. What’s the big deal?

The first wave was a straight-up freefall to sand smash. The board and I both made it. I paddled up toward what looked like a zone with a half-decent entry, then realized it was right where the turquoise water ended and the brown water began. So I turned and burned on a wave, made the sketchy drop, pulled up under the hood for a view I’d long wanted to see, and was back on the sand in no time. 

I carried on, getting mostly thrashed and moving down the point away from the brown water until I met a sweep of sideshore wind and decided that being alive and unhurt was good. I walked back up the beach to my gear, weak but swimming in endorphins of delight. Back at the bushes, on the inner side of what used to be the beach, I snapped a selfie and called it a wrap. 

Botelho, caught in a more enviable moment. Photo by Al Mackinnon.

I’d surfed Palmetto. I wish I’d been there with my crew and a bunch of boards and a tent set back in the bush. Not that day. That day I ticked a box, and I lived.

The walk back was slow. I stayed on the inner side of the beach, which forced me up through the surf-tiki-bar construction. There was a group of workers nearby, and we chatted briefly about the waves.

Afterward, I headed back down to the beach and stepped into the rushing waters of a mini Grand Canyon being scoured in the sand below the bar. 

I waded onward until I saw more workers on the top of the dune, placing tiny potted plants into the sand on the edge of a green. We hailed each other, and I asked if they realized that just below them, where

I was standing, seawater was scraping away the dune they were planting. 

One young worker just laughed and carried on. An older, more senior hand looked over with some concern, then went back to his business. 

“Don’t worry,” he said. “These plants will hold the dune together.”

[Feature Photo by Al Mackinnon]