The Pelican Bar—Jamaica

It was Jamaica in July. My friends and I were waiting for a boat to take us to the Pelican Bar, which stood half-a-mile offshore. We had been in and out of sun and ocean all day, and I felt the group lagging as we waited for our Captain to pick us up at a small tiki bar. Some of the group started a game of Chinese checkers with the proprietor’s children. Some dozed in the shade, hat pulled over their faces with Red Stripe beers sweating nearby. The owner of the bar was singing Karaoke to a fifties crooner song, then beginning the same song again when it ended, gaining more confidence and swagger with each run through. I walked to the water’s edge and watched pelicans crash-landing between the boats that rose and fell in the choppy tide, and small-talked with some young sailors that were tying up their boat in the harbor.

An hour later, our Captain had still not come, and the group had turned lethargic, and voted to give it up and go back (to my protests), when the boat we had been waiting for sailed in—a beautiful turquoise craft with “The Word is Love” painted inside its prow. Spirits rallied as Captain Dennis jumped out, and shook hands with Eric, apologizing for being late, and the group clambered on board. It was forty-five minutes to the Pelican, three hours till the sunset, and the conditions could not have been more perfect. We skimmed along the jade water about a half-mile off the coast of the island, near enough to see gorgeous resorts and houses, and white stretching beaches.

The boat flew across the waves, and silver spray shot into the air on either side of the rail. I was at the very front of the ship on the left side and the view was endless—The Word is Love before us, and the vastness of the ocean, swelling and dipping beneath us. I leaned and extended my arm as far as it would go, catch the spray in my hand, feeling its warmth against my skin. My heart skipped as the boat leapt into the air, and I heard myself laughing harder than I’d laughed in a long time.

After curving round the island, a speck appeared and grew and we turned out towards it. As it neared, I had some instant doubts about how sturdy it might be, but the water around it was shallow (at the moment) and the bar appeared to be built on a raised rock bed. It was small and open, roofed on one-side, with an open pier in the middle and a little series of shelters with tourist goods and a lookout at the other end. We climbed out of the boat and up the ladder, stepping into the low-roofed section. Music blared from a speaker, and the other bar-goers lounged on the benches around the perimeter, looking out on the ocean. Four bartenders crowded into a little space behind the counter, chopping a large block of ice into cups for rum punch. I could see the ocean below the gaps in the planks, as I walked.

We ordered coral-colored rum punches and ducked under the low-roof to the open pier, enjoying the tempered breeze whipping through our hair and the novelty of being so far away from everything. A few more boats came and deposited their riders at the bar. There was a man known as Pelican Floyd who could often be found sitting in lotus position at the edge of the pier. He was said to be as much a fixture of this place as the rum punch and the journey it took to get here. I smiled at him, and he nodded at me with a friendly grin.

Our drinks ran low and were replenished. Reggae beats vibrated through the warm planks into our feet. People were present and unhurried, with no screens between us. Some set down their drinks to swim, some danced beneath the roof. The sun grew heavy as we drank and shared stories about life. When the colors began to change, the Captain pulled us away and told us the ocean would be too rough for sailing if we waiting much longer, so we settled up and climbed back into the boat. Pelican Floyd raised his arms in salute as we pulled away, and I waved back.

The ocean churned and slapped at the sides of the boat as we flew back to Treasure Beach. The journey back was less relaxing, as the Captain had promised. The ocean would fling us off a high crest into the air and we would soar and hit the water again, like cement—it was so jarring I was afraid the boat might snap in two. When the Captain finally pulled into our little cove, we were not a little shaken, and stepped onto the wet sand with relief. I turned to look at the path behind us to see the sky swept in Neapolitan colors, with the palm trees waving lightly before.

Like many things in Jamaica, going to the Pelican Bar was as much about the journey as the destination. There are countless places on the island to have rum punch, after all, but, when you’re feeling adventurous, find yourself some friends and a Captain, and sail around the island, towards a structure that doesn’t look like much until you get close enough to hear the Reggae beats and laughter, and can see Pelican Floyd grinning from the edge of the pier.

The Word is Love.