Note: I wrote the following piece for ISLANDS magazine a few years ago, just before Jeremiah Gumbs died, at age 91. Last weekend, while visiting Boca Grande, I started each morning with a sea bath. And I found myself thinking of the man who first introduced me to the pleasure of starting each day immersed in the sea...
The absolute best way to start an island day? I discovered it a couple of years ago on Anguilla after I telephoned Jeremiah Gumbs, the island’s most famous citizen, to ask if I could drop by to meet him. Gumbs said bright and early the next morning would be fine. Just show up on the beach in front of the small hotel he owns along Rendezvous Bay.
“You can join me for my sea bath,” he told me.
We said our goodbyes, I hung up the phone, and only then did I begin to question exactly what I had agreed to do. Join him for his sea bath? Why would anyone invite a stranger to participate in such a personal morning ritual? And what was the etiquette? Did I bring my own soap? What about towels? And what exactly, if anything, did one wear while sea-bathing?
Gumbs, who will turn 90 in February, is a founding father of modern Anguilla, the low-slung, eel-shaped spit of Caribbean sand and scrub best known these days for its gemlike beaches and boutique hotels. Like our own founding fathers, Gumbs is a revolutionary—an altogether benign revolutionary, but a revolutionary nonetheless.
Back in 1969, the good citizens of Anguilla, fed up with being the stepchildren in a British territory that also included St. Kitts/Nevis, seceded from the unfriendly union. In faraway London, bureaucrats totally misread the situation, dispatched a warship and launched a farcical invasion of the island. British troops landed expecting a skirmish with Anguillan freedom fighters, but instead found themselves applauded and cheered by the adoring islanders. Meanwhile, Jeremiah Gumbs was in New York City, pleading his island’s case before the United Nations, desperately trying to explain that Anguilla’s only beef was a long-simmering one with St. Kitts/Nevis. Anguilla didn’t want independence from Great Britain. If anything, it wanted to forge even closer bonds with Mother England, to be forever a part of the beloved empire.
Lots of diplomats scratched their heads. The warship pulled anchor. The British bureaucrats wiped egg off their faces. Anguilla got what it wanted. And Jeremiah Gumbs returned to his quiet home on Rendezvous Bay.
When I arrived at the beach that morning, Gumbs was already in the water just a few yards offshore. So were a half-dozen or so other people—men and women. All I could see of them were their heads, bobbing above the wavelets, the hills of St. Martin/Maarten forming a dusky backdrop across the nine-mile wide channel separating the two islands. Jeremiah Gumbs was easy to spot. He was the one who looked like Jerry Garcia as Santa Claus gone tropo—a head full of white hair, a curly white beard that tickled his chest and skin the color of burnished teak.
I flipped off my shoes, pulled off my shirt and waded out to join him in the waist-deep water. We shook hands. I stood in the water, not sure exactly what to do next. Gumbs finally said:
“Don’t just be standing there, man. Ease yahself down.”
I lowered myself into the water, up to my neck. It was warm and comforting, like being under an old blanket on a cool night. My “ahhhhh” was automatic.
I have since learned that while conversation is not taboo during sea baths—indeed, they can often evolve into all-out gossipfests—one does not simply arrive and start jabbering as if one has nothing better to do. Which is what I did. I talked about myself, I talked about the weather, I talked about how much I liked the island of Anguilla. I talked just to talk. Gumbs nodded politely. So did the other people. But no one said much.
“This your first sea bath?” Gumbs asked.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Just supposed to let it be, man.”
I shut up and got with the program, which as far as I could tell mostly involved just sitting in the water and doing nothing. No one had soap or shampoo or a washcloth. No one was scrubbing. A few people appeared to be stretching, getting the kinks out, but there was nothing that even remotely approached exercise.
So I let it be. And be. And be…
There was a gentle current, just the slightest tidal surge. At first I fought it, treading water against its pull. But that seemed contrary to the concept—no one else was fighting it—and so I yielded. The sea rolled in, and I rolled with it. The sea rolled out, and I let it pull me along. In and out, warm, so warm…
And something happened, something subtle, something I didn’t even realize was happening until it had so fully consumed me that I wasn’t about to let it stop happening, something that clued me into the essence of a sea bath: It is not so much about bathing as it is connecting with the sea.
Far be it from me to wax too New Agey about that moment, but yeah, it was transforming. I didn’t come to the beach at Rendezvous Bay that morning looking for revelation, but the best revelations are the ones you don’t grab for and this one, as it turned out, grabbed me. It left me rocking, like in a cradle, like snuggling up with Momma Ocean. I came, I sat, I touched the sea.
When the conversation did come, it rolled just as gently, just as easy, as water lapping upon a shore. I don’t remember what we talked about, doesn’t matter. A few people left, a few more arrived. About half an hour after getting in, I got out, all the mellower for my immersion.
“How’d you like your sea bath?” Jeremiah Gumbs asked.
I told him I liked it just fine.
“Take a sea bath and it makes you a real islander,” said Gumbs. “All your days will be better days if you start them just that way.”
Since that morning on Anguilla I have sought out sea baths wherever I can find them. While I have enjoyed sunrise dips with the locals in French Polynesia—on Moorea’s Faimano Beach and along Auea Bay in Huahine—the sea-bath tradition seems strongest in the Caribbean, on those islands blessed with gentle lees and sandy shoals. Of course, if one wants a sea bath, then I suppose all one really has to do is plop oneself down in the water and take it from there. But true sea baths are communal affairs, their locations long established and as well known in island towns as the post office, the bank or the grocery store. Travelers who partake in sea baths gain quick entry to an island’s soul.
On tiny Marie-Galante, in the French West Indies, I took my sea baths at Anse de Mays, joined by the island’s retired postmaster and the manager of a small rum distillery who brought samples of his work. On Bequia, in the Grenadines, my fellow sea bathers included a fifth-generation boat builder and whaler whose grandfather, at age 70, had harpooned a humpback the previous spring. On Harbour Island, in the Bahamas, the Brilanders, as they call themselves, take their sea baths in the late afternoon near a dock looking west to Eleuthera, often enjoying a bowl of conch salad with sunset. Grenada’s sea bath central sits along Grande Anse, at the end of a narrow dirt road that feeds off the main drag into St. George’s. It’s a favorite meeting place for the island’s taxi drivers, one of whom told me had to ration his weekly allotment of sea baths.
“If I took a sea bath every morning, I wouldn’t get any work done the rest of the day. I’d be too relaxed, I wouldn’t care about anything,” he said. “But I have to get down here at least once or twice a week just to make sure I don’t get behind on the gossip.”
During a week in Barbados, I set out walking my first morning and found a large group of sea bathers on a stretch of beach along Six Men’s Bay. Bicycles were propped against a fallen casuarina tree. Towels and clothes hung from its branches. I edged into the water and kept to the perimeter of the group, reminding myself that Bajans fancy themselves the most sophisticated and civilized of all the Caribbean islanders and that’s why they seemed to ignore me. The second day, the same crew was in the water and this time they offered a couple of nods and a “good morning” or two. By the third day we were chatting it up, and by the end of the week I’d been invited to join some of the men for their regular Friday lunch at Mustor’s in downtown Bridgetown, a place justly renowned for its cou-cou, a thick corn meal gumbo with okra and pigeon peas. It is one of the most comforting of comfort foods, and it was a sea bath that led me to it.
When I last spoke with Jeremiah Gumbs he was planning his 90th birthday party. It was shaping up to be quite a shindig with folks from all over coming to pay their respects. I asked him if he planned to start the day the way he typically did, with a sea bath. Gumbs took a moment to answer, then told me he’d been having some trouble with his arthritis and needed help to get around.
“But I think these old legs might have one more walk to the beach left in them,” he said. “Yes, a sea bath that morning, why that would be just fine.”