SEVERAL DAYS before I was to be married, my wedding seemed headed for disaster. My fiancee, Julie, and my family and I were hunkered down in the Bahamas waiting for Hurricane Bertha to hit. My mother had already come down with a migraine. And nearly a dozen guests -- including one of the ministers and the matron of honor -- were stranded in Miami with no way in until after the ceremony.
Six months earlier, a tropical wedding had seemed like such a good idea. We were visiting Exuma, a quiet, undeveloped island, where my family has spent Christmas for many years. Over drinks with my parents, we decided that instead of the big, formal affair we had planned at their home outside Philadelphia, we could rent some houses on the island and turn the wedding into a more intimate, weekend-long event.
The setting would be memorable. The homes lie on a narrow peninsula overlooking a shallow bay where the water is so clear you can see the coral reefs at night by the light of a full moon. The church, a white stone building with blue shutters, sits atop a hill with water on both sides.
There would be snorkeling trips and a regatta in which people would sail around buoys while trying to pick up scores of $H coconuts dumped in the water along the way. The race is a tradition around the bay and the winner is determined by the number of coconuts collected and the place of finish.
While some pointed out that getting 60 people on and off an island with limited air service would be a logistical nightmare, the idea didn't seem entirely ludicrous at the time. Exuma is 90 minutes southeast of Miami by plane and some of our friends had held successful weddings there before. We chose a Saturday in mid-July for the ceremony to avoid the late-summer hurricane season and flew down early to prepare.
The trouble began on Tuesday (July 9) when -- hurricane season notwithstanding -- Bertha headed toward the Bahamas with 115 mph winds. Tension quickly grew. The caretaker of one of the houses where we were staying suggested we move to a hotel. We watched the Weather Channel anxiously, squinting at the TV screen and trying to pick out our tiny island on the radar map.
At one point, the weatherman said the hurricane was heading toward George Town, Exuma's capital, just a few miles away. With darkness falling and the wind picking up, we grabbed rubber mallets and banged dozens of aluminum shutters into place over the windows.
In the end, we were spared: Bertha skirted the island with winds of about 50 mph. But before we could relax, another problem arose. The hurricane had shut down Exuma's airport for a day, stranding 11 guests, most of whom had never met.
With the help of our travel agent, Avery, and the Miami Airport paging system, we corralled the scattered travelers into a hotel lobby and began searching for another flight. We tried to find seats, but Bahamasair, the national airline, claimed to be full and British West Indian Airways was flying to Georgetown, Guyana, not George Town, Exuma.
With all other options exhausted, Avery found a charter company vTC and I did the right thing. I rented a pair of Cessnas -- that's right, two small airplanes -- with my VISA card.
The refugees arrived the next morning, looking a bit bedraggled and disoriented. The charter service inexplicably lost a suitcase carrying confectioner's sugar for the wedding cake, but later located and retrieved it in time from (I'm not making this up) Bogota.
What had seemed up until now like an exercise in Murphy's Law finally started going our way. Having overcome the hurricane, everyone relaxed and the weekend fell into place.
Friday was a perfect day for sailing. The clouds parted, the blue water turned translucent and a stiff breeze kicked up out of the southeast. The race proved to be all we had hoped: pure chaos and great fun. Boats tipped over and people scrambled for coconuts as though they were coins tossed from an ocean liner.
Lying on the bow of our Sunfish with her hands dangling over the water, Julie scooped up over 30 coconuts as we weaved around the bay. When all the points were tallied, we had narrowly won the six-boat contest.
On the morning of the wedding, the flowers still hadn't arrived from Nassau. So a taxi driver broke some branches off a bright red-flowered bush outside of the church and Julie and her bridesmaids carried them in as bouquets.
That night, we danced to a Bahamian band on the terrace of one of the houses overlooking the bay. As the night drew on, the three generations of friends and family engaged in one dance cliche after another, snaking through the house in a conga line and shimmying beneath a limbo stick. After the reception, a group of us went swimming by candlelight beneath the stars. People who had met only three days earlier in Miami now seemed like old friends.
We shuttled people to the airport the next morning and everyone still seemed a bit dumbfounded by how well things had turned out. Instead of flying off for a honeymoon, Julie and I stayed on for a few days and spent most of our time sleeping and reading.
The adventure concluded for us much as it had begun for some of our guests. On the way home, our flight was delayed, we missed our connection and spent the night in Miami. Bahamasair put us up in a Best Western, the same hotel where our stranded friends had stayed. It seemed a fitting end to the entire affair.
L Frank Langfitt is a reporter in The Sun's Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 8/11/96