THE WHITE FILE
As Regatta nears, memories of the Shark Lady abound
by P. Anthony White
As the 60thrunning of the National Family Island Regatta nears, we recall in this space some interesting vignettes of former regattas in George Town, Exuma which today lend expansion to the merriment and the mystique of sloop racing which is today truly the national sport of The Bahamas.
In particular, much of that mystique surrounding the regatta has been the assortment of characters, visiting and local Exumians, who have played little and major roles in the growing popularity of the regatta.
We recall some time ago – perhaps in the late 1960s – when the late prime minister Sir Lynden Pindling attended what was then the Out Island Regatta in George Town, and ran into the late Gloria Patience, who was competing in one of the races, along with her traditional “crew” ex extremely attractive, scantily-clad ladies.
Sir Lynden greeted her warmly, asking, “how are you doing”, since Gloria was at the time well past the 60-year mark.
In response, Gloria stooped slightly, picked up the prime minister, and grinned in his face. “That’s how well I’m doing.” She said.
That was vintage Gloria Patience, “The Shark Lady”of The Ferry, Little Exuma who over the years led a charmed and matchless life, daring to do what others shunned, challenging most of the restrictions and limitations of orderly society, and, quite frankly, consistently doing her own thinglong, long before than expression became chic.
Gloria died in 1986, when she was 85 years old, and had she been yet been alive for this year’s regatta, Gloria Patience would have been 95. However, in terms of years of what over the years she brought to the Exuma table, she was unforgettable and irreplaceable.
Ah, it was truly a festive occasion when she turned 80 back in October of 1997, and the cream and the simple folk of Exuma came together in rambunctious co-minglement to celebrate the occasion.
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At that time, reminiscences abounded as person after person spoke of Gloria’s various escapades which often tentacled far beyond the borders of her home in The Ferry, and indeed far beyond Exuma and The Bahamas.
A few years before that, for example, when the United States took the position to remove the special detection balloon near the old airport ((which has been used to help in the interdiction of illegal drug smugglers) Gloria decided she had to do something.
She telephone the American ambassador in Nassau to complain about the impending removal, but apparently got little satisfaction, so she politely kissed him off, saying she would call Washington instead.
Gloria then proceeded to telephone the White House in Washington, saying that The Shark Lady wanted to speak with President Bill Clinton.
The President came on the line and she complained about the balloon removal, saying that it was of great assistance in keeping the druggies out of the area. The U.S. Chief apparently started gong into some winding explanations.
“That’s beside the point, Buckie Boy,” she was heard to say, then reminded the President that instead of spending billions in an elaborate space programme, the United States should spend the funds on solving problems right at home.
That was the daring, devil-may-care style of the feisty barefoot lady from The Ferry who in her diversified lifetime bore nine children, all of whom dutifully attended that celebration of her 80thbirthday, along with 23 grandchildren and 25 great grands.
Up to that time Gloria Patience hadn’t worn shoes on a regular basis for many, many years, and although elegantly bedecked in a long white dress with a high sequined waistline, he feet were still decorated simply with coloured beads which sparkled against the light as she danced with her son, Joey, who, understandably, thought the world of his most extraordinary mama.
She was born of Long Island parentage in The Ferry back in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I and the year Tsar Nicholas abdicated the Russian throne.
She migrated to Nassau and upon marriage became Gloria Lewless, giving birth to the proud nine. Her husband passed on, and she eventually met and married George Patience.
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Gloria moved back to The Ferry, and took a special interest in the sea. She used to fish for sharks, and sold the jaws and teeth to Americans who used them for chains, or to mount on mantleplaces.
That was how she came to be known as The Shark Lady.
But Gloria Patience was also known as The Barefoot Lady, and that’s quite a different story.
She began entering her boat, “The Barefoot Gal”, in the Out Island Regatta, mostly for the fun of it. Then in the early 1970s she would take on an all-girl crew of four or five Americans who came just for regatta.
The difficulty was that once the race in which she entered got underway, a number of the other entered boats inevitably seemed to lose direction and turned to follow the “Barefoot Gal”, which often seemed to be going in the opposite direction.
Apparently in the heat of the afternoon and way out yonder on the sea in Elizabeth Harbour, Gloria’s crew would divest themselves of the top half of their swimsuits.
Whilst the sailors tried to catch up with the “Barefoot Gal” for a closer look, dozens of spectators on the shore peered at the scintillating scene through binoculars quickly passed from hand to hand.
To Gloria, fully suited at the helm, it was sailing business as usual, and if some guys wanted to run off the course just to ogle, well . . .
At the birthday party, old timer Reggie Rolle, who had survived two wives and was not earnestly seeking a “youngish” bride, spoke of Gloria with a special kind of delicate warmth and tenderness reserved for people proud to be octogenarians.
With small bright eyes set deeply into his jet black face, he recounted occasions when he would be at sea “fishening” and would spot Gloria fighting with the sharks.
Back then the young Father Peter Scott, only recently installed in Exuma, spoke with traditional eloquence of Gloria, a member of his flock, and the retired Catholic priest, Father George, himself past 80 eulogised the Shark Lady in knowing terms.
Yet perhaps it was Elliot Lockhart, at the time the Member of Parliament for Exuma and who had known Gloria Patience all his life, summed her up most appropriately:
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“You are a woman of depth, a woman of character. We shall continue to honour you, to revere and respect you as an example to young women and men of Exuma. The family will never be the same without Gloria Patience.”
The late Howland Bottomley, “Mister Regatta”, who had at that time lived in Exuma for 41 years, spoke thus of Gloria:
“There is a hunger for where you come from,” meaning poetically that the woman in bare feet who was so excited by the sea, who spoke her mind with a lusty determination, and who really didn’t give a tinker’s damn if somebody disagreed with her, personified what real Bahamian womanhood should be all about.
Many years before that in El Toro Restaurant in Nassau after work, Pam Smith sat in a corner of the bar smoking and sipping rum and coke.
Those were times of hectic political intrigue, when the beautiful people of the world were in their hey-dey, and when The White Boy was fresh out of Manhattan with hefty afro, Lord & Taylor continentals, and filtered cigarette holder.
Gene Toote was there, as well as Napoleon McPhee and Box Weeks as Pam stressed her particular point.
“I appreciate a woman of strong convictions,” The White Boy said.
Pam laughed. “You should meet my mother,” she responded.
Pam was there at the birthday party as more than 300 people from five different countries sang Happy Birthday to her mother, the thoroughly delightful and unforgettable Gloria Patience.