Photos by Marc Montocchio
The rocket-ship-like Pursuit S 428 takes off for Bimini with the intention of exploring its amazing worlds above—and below—the water.
If you were to board a rocket ship in Ft. Lauderdale and shoot 62 miles into the air, you would cross what’s known as the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. You’d be untethered from mortal coils in a real sense, with gravities both physical and emotional no longer in play. And your existence would simultaneously become alien and intensely familiar. Such is the transcendental power of world-exiting travel.
But if you boarded another kind of rocket ship, the 51-knot
Pursuit S 428, and headed almost exactly 62 miles southeast of Lauderdale, you’d arrive in Bimini—a place that can feel like a separate planet unto itself. For over a century, the twin islands have produced a gravitational pull all their own, attracting generationally talented writers and artists, as well as political leaders and gangsters (sometimes one and the same).
We boarded the S 428 at the Bahia Mar Marina in Ft. Lauderdale in the quiet hour just before sunrise. After a long preparation period involving Pursuit’s marketing team and photographer Marc Montocchio—including a last-minute, anxiety-inducing scramble to make sure we all had Covid test results within a brief window of travel—I felt a palpable sense of relief when we finally untied the lines and puttered through a grove of towering megayachts on our way out to sea.
My relief was soon tempered. We were contending with a passing front, and the waves in the inlet sneered at us with curled and frothing lips. Above them, the hazy early-morning sky appeared both living and dead at once, like the soft-white underbelly of a freshly caught fish. And beyond that, an endless army of white caps goose-stepped across the horizon. If we really were going to forget about our earthly troubles for a little while, we were going to have to work for it.
The S 428 was up to the task. She pushed through the 4- and 5-foot waves with assuredness and kept her crew mostly dry—no small task considering the conditions. Though we couldn’t go too fast. At a 17-knot clip it took just over three hours of negotiating the dark, blue-violet waters of the Gulf Stream before we slid safely into the warm, mint-mouthwash-colored waters that encase Bimini.
But an all-too-familiar mainland angst was about to greet us. As we shored up our lines at the docks near the Bimini Big Game Club, an enormous local strode purposefully toward us, his face shrouded by a black balaclava. “Masks on please!” he bellowed. “Anyone getting off the boat must wear a mask.”
Pursuit S 428
Our first mission was to head south to tiny Gun Cay and its Honeymoon Harbor, famous for the docile stingrays that call it home. Once there, we dropped anchor and opened up the boat’s hullside terraces for easy access to the water. As I put on my fins and readied my mask, I noticed three silent wraiths bob up from the darker water aft of the boat. A triumvirate of friendly nurse sharks had come to greet us. I plopped into the water, which had also become thick with rays, and was instantly surrounded by a writhing biomass, bumping and prodding my body, searching for food. We brought squid, so I hand-fed some to the stingrays, leading them in whirling circles with my closed fist like a matador. While I was doing this, the hungry nurse sharks would nudge the back of my head, their barbels trailing through my hair. It was slightly unnerving. Nurse sharks are harmless. They have no teeth save for coarse, sandpapery gums. But they’re big animals, perhaps 8 feet long and 200 pounds, and they have the word “shark” in their name, which conjures up primal and irrational fears. If they were called nurse “fish” I don’t think I would have given them a second thought. But “sharks” they are. And so, as a lifelong lover of words, I couldn’t help but muse upon the power of language as I held my breath underwater and fed the gentle beasts their lunch.
Ask the nurse sharks: there are few things like swimming to build up an appetite. Even just bobbing around in 80-degree water, the human body still has to burn calories to keep its core temperature near 98 degrees. And thus after time spent indulging the wildlife, I had become famished myself. I hauled my body back into the Pursuit and we zipped over to Sharky’s Bar & Grill on North Bimini. The place is parked on the end of a weather-worn strip of land by the Big Game Club. What Sharky’s lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for with flavors. I knew I was in for a treat when I ordered the special and shortly after saw a man walking up to the backdoor of the place holding a massive red snapper by the tail. When it comes to seafood, nothing beats fresh, and this was as fresh as it gets. The dish that came out, a snapper filet dusted with jerk seasoning and grilled in tin foil with peppers and onions, served alongside a thick cube of mac and cheese, was literally something to write home about. I texted my wife about the meal that night and have been chasing that same flavor profile at my local seafood market ever since.
The next morning broke hot and breezy, as they often do in the islands, and I hopped aboard the boat while the palm fronds above whispered out a raspy harmony. We were planning to troll the continental shelf just off Bimini’s western side, where the steep bathymetry draws in the large and hungry pelagics that helped earn Bimini the title of “Sport Fishing Capitol of the World” nearly a century ago. But to catch big fish, you need to catch little fish. So first we headed to the shallows to net some bait.
Just off a white-sand beach dotted with empty, multi-million-dollar homes, we anchored yet again. And while one of the mates scrambled atop the Pursuit’s foredeck to throw a cast net at a school of pilchards seeking refuge in the shallows, I hopped back in the milky-blue water to better watch the hunt unfold. I soon realized we were not the only ones after these crunchy little delicacies.
The silver pilchards were moving in mesmerizing unison, the school so dense and wide-eyed with panic that the water occasionally roiled. Football-sized jacks flashed through the bulky block of life like torpedoes, and seabirds came crashing through the watery ceiling with heightening frequency. Their feathers dripping with small air bubbles, they’d smoothly snag a pilchard and then kick toward the surface with the spasmodic efforts of a man escaping a sinking car. At one point, the school of bait bolted to either side, fully bifurcating the group. I found out why a moment later as two massive barracudas cruised slowly in between them with the cool assurance of bullies on the avenue. As they passed me, I locked eyes with the larger of the two, and the mathematics in its eyes was cold and naked as the big fish decided whether or not I was food. It was a piercing reminder of why the pilchards were panicked and the seabirds and jacks moved with such urgency. That is to say, dying of old age is a luxury reserved almost wholly for the top of the food chain.
After an hour or so, we had collected enough bait for the afternoon, so I got back on board and we blasted off at 35 knots headed toward the fishing grounds. It’s impossible to fish Bimini’s waters as a writer, nature lover or red-blooded American without thinking of Ernest Hemingway. Papa docked Pilar here in 1935 and never looked back, writing, fishing and drinking as if there was no tomorrow. He racked up many titles in his years there—perhaps some apocryphal—including Bimini boxing champ, inventor of the Bimini ring swing and the first man in the Bahamas to boat an intact bluefin tuna. (Sharks are so prevalent here that it was long thought impossible to reel in a big fish without it getting “apple cored.” Hemingway remedied this problem by keeping a loaded tommy gun in the cockpit and peppering the sharks with hot lead as they impinged upon his catch.)
If you listen closely enough as you troll the steep bank that separates the reef from the Gulf Stream’s endless fathoms, you can almost hear Pilar chugging along, her monotonous drone intermittently perforated by the staccato blast of a machine gun. What I didn’t hear much, however, was the whizz of a rapidly unspooling reel. So, I lay down on the Pursuit’s aft-facing cockpit seating and took a snooze. There are few simple joys in life like being lulled to sleep by a boat’s engine, or in the case of the S 428, four Yamaha 425s.
Our third and final day in Bimini was to be spent snorkeling and spearfishing. We found a spot just off a no-name cay in a few feet of water that was as clear as a dry martini. Stingrays fluttered lazily by, and the odd sea turtle would sometimes pop its head up to admire the S 428 before skittering back to deeper water. From behind his camera, Montocchio popped his head up too. “I hear dolphins,” he said. A pod was clicking and squealing excitedly around our perimeter, though we couldn’t for the life of us tell from exactly where.
When the photography session was done we motored around the bend of the cay to the ocean side and readied our gear. With the depth finder reading 40 feet, I jumped into the water, spear in hand, and began breathing in deeply through my snorkel, readying my lungs for the hunt as I scoured the reef below for anything worth chasing. But the reef was suspiciously empty. It seemed like every living thing that called that underwater metropolis home had either buried itself in a hole or high-tailed it altogether.
I puzzled over this for a bit before I heard a familiar sound, this time up close and personal. The dolphin had followed us. A pod of a dozen or so bottlenoses, complete with two small calves, suddenly powered into view about 20 yards away, heading straight for me. I tossed my spear back into the boat so as not to appear a threat. What happened next was magical. The highly intelligent animals swam to within an arm’s length, but stayed just shy of my outstretched hand, keeping their babies protected in the center of the pod. I swam along behind them, and felt like a kid at prom who didn’t know how to dance—they all moved with a grace that I, despite a lifetime spent in the water, couldn’t even remotely approach.
In unison, they turned and flitted upright, cocking their heads like dogs as they looked at me. From this angle I could get a better look at their faces, and noticed that most of the males had scars all over their heads, while the females did not. At first I thought the scars were from fighting, but learned later that they were mostly from curiosity-driven misadventures—poking one’s nose into a hole inhabited by a moray eel, perhaps. These small risks help the males learn more about their surroundings and also find more food in the never-ending quest to prolong their bloodline. It seems even in the deep blue sea, the old axiom holds true: bones heal and chicks dig scars.
Soon the pod grew weary of the human in its midst and increased their speed so I could no longer keep up, then disappeared into the deep, their dolphin sounds growing weaker as they did. I was sad to see them go, but had no recourse, so I kicked back to the Pursuit. On board I dried myself off and grabbed a bottle of water, trying to integrate an otherworldly experience back into my dry-land reality. From the wheel, the captain turned back to me. “Did you see that bull shark that was swimming behind you while you were down there?” he asked. I informed him that I indeed had not.
He chuckled and pushed his hat back on his head. “Well … it was a big one!”
Any thoughts of continuing to spearfish on that reef immediately became less than sexy. And anyway, it was getting close to dinnertime, wasn’t it?
I took the wheel and we skipped over some light chop on the way back to the hotel. With all four 425-hp Yamahas kicking behind me, the wind plastering my hair back, and thoughts of the day we just had rambling in my mind, it would have been a felony not to smile.
The next morning we packed all of our gear back onto the Pursuit and pointed our bow westward for the trip home. With the wind lying down, the Gulf Stream was as flat and glassy as an oil slick, and I made my way to the bow to sit with Montocchio—an old friend—and shout over the wind. After what had seemed like a short lifetime’s worth of isolation during the pandemic, it felt indescribably excellent to be back on an open boat, with no land in sight in any direction, talking about whatever we wanted to talk about, in person. To steal a particular line from Montocchio during that conversation, it felt as though I had given my soul a shower.
As we got closer to land, an airshow over Ft. Lauderdale—The Blue Angels, to be exact—welcomed us home with curly-cued chemtrails bright white against an ice-blue sky. A fighter jet screamed towards our boat for an intense moment before the pilot changed course and the plane shot directly up, aiming for the heavens.
Pursuit S 428 Layout Diagram
Pursuit S 428 Test Report
Pursuit S 428 Specifications:
Displ.: 23,600 lbs. (dry)
Fuel: 547 gal.
Water: 70 gal.
Power: 4/425-hp Yamahas
Price: $1 million