Position: 25°44’05″N 79°17’30″W

Poking around outside a low, green, weather-beaten garage on Bimini with my wife Carol and our dock neighbours Shane, Victoria and Lisa, we waited for the world’s greatest bonefishing guide. As a keen fisherman, Shane knew Ansil Saunders by reputation and was looking forward to meeting him. On the other hand, my fishing experience is limited to throwing a line over the stern of our boat and crossing my fingers. About 15 minutes passed before Ansil walked up with his bicycle and asked if we wanted to come inside and have a look around. Maybe hear about the time that Martin Luther King spent on Bimini? We said we would love to.

Standing about 5’ 7”, and like the sportsman he is, he doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him. And never did. His dark skin is drawn tightly across his high cheekbones and back from his flashing smile. Even at 85 his stride is confident. His balance honed by years of standing on boats while powering through Bimini’s salt marshes in search of gamefish for his clients. He has the same gravity defying way of walking that dancers have. While he’s not a big man, I suspect anyone would have a hard time pushing him over. According to his photographs he is Dorian Grey: his appearance hasn’t changed in the last 70 years.

But his physicality has more than an advanced sense of balance, it telegraphs confidence and humility. Confidence that comes with a lifetime of achievement, with testimonials to prove it all actually happened. His humility may come from his faith, which runs deep, or it may come from his chosen sport, fishing. After all, there is a lot of pressure on the world’s champion bonefish guide, and even he comes up dry every now and then.

Pulling open wide the workshop’s two doors revealed a classic, working, man-cave. Pieces of wood were stacked everywhere. In the rafters, on the floor, and amongst the electric woodworking tools. Boxes of papers containing framed photos of previous boat projects sat on tables and benches. Empty plastic buckets were stacked together and shoved onto metal shelves waiting to be filled with paint again. Torn sheets of white plastic hung from the ceiling revealing more storage and layers of insulation against the heat. Scattered about the room on the posts were photos and drawings that themselves told stories from Ansil’s life.

One, a faded black and white photo of him with the 1971 world champion bonefish, caught Carol’s eye. Bonefish aren’t large, the record holder weighed just over 16lbs, and they hate humans, Ansil said. They are very skittish and very tricky to hook. But when caught they fight like fiends on the line. That’s what makes them so prized, and why fishermen from all over the world come to Bimini to hang out on the marshes with him.

That bonefish ran out that first 250’ of line, but what she didn’t know was that I already had another 250’ loaded on the reel. We reeled her in and then she ran the line all the way out again before we landed her.,” he recalled. Crossing towards the centre of the workshop, Carol asked if his was still the world record? He half turned and said, “Yeah,” as if there wasn’t really a question there.

Sandwiched between an old white wooden door leaning up against a set of cabinets and a couple of sheets of marine plywood, lay the keel for a new boat. Long C clamps held the horizontal and vertical parts in place as the glue dried. Ansil’s specially designed fishing boats are about 16’ long and draw mere inches of water. Highly manoeuvrable, the boats get in and out of the mangroves quickly and with great stability for the captain and passengers. Frame built of imported white oak and locally sourced horseflesh wood, once planked each boat gets a fiberglass and epoxy finish painted to your liking and will last for years. Revered by those lucky enough to own one, one of Ansil’s boats even wound up in the Smithsonian.

The workshop tour over, he invited us to hear his stories of Martin Luther King and moved everyone to the back where there was more space. This despite one of his boats, damaged by Hurricane Irma, hogging a good portion of the room. Perched on the side of the boat, he began to tell his well-rehearsed tale.

Dr. King visited Bimini twice. Once in 1964 and again four years later, shortly before his assassination. On his first visit he came for some peace and quiet to work on his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He asked Ansil to take him ‘somewhere tranquil,’ and they headed out to the flats where Dr. King could gather his thoughts.

His second visit in 1968, was King’s chance to write his Sanitation Workers speech. He was also in Bimini meeting with Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman from New York and sometime resident of the islands. At the time, Powell was one of the most productive men in Congress, passing more legislation than almost anyone else before or since. Powell was a keen fisherman and sponsor of the local Wahoo championships that bore his name. A practical man, he invented scotch and milk to allay his doctor’s concerns about drinking with a stomach ulcer.

King needed Powell’s help passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968. When they met, King addressed Powell as the ‘most powerful black man in the United States.’ Powell replied, with no hint of modesty, “Yes, Martin, you started right. I am the most powerful black man in the United States. And don’t you ever forget it.”

So it was that week, on his hand-built boat named for his daughter, Jewel, Ansil took Dr. King out to the flats beyond Eastpoint. There they saw scores of birds take flight and snappers swimming under the mangrove roots. “There’s so much life all around us, so much life! How can people see all this life and not believe in the existence of God?,” King exclaimed. Ansil’s answer to agnostics or doubters is to recite his ‘creation’ Psalm, number 151 (because at the time he wrote it there were only 150 psalms in the Bible).

He told this part of the story with the same gravitas and intonation that the Doctor himself might have used. The psalm ends with, “Boats and psalms and computers are made by fools like me, but only God can blossom a cherry tree!” Even if you’re not a believer, being in the presence of one who is, is inspiring. Our spirits were raised. Amen!

Back in 1968, he shared his psalm with Dr. King, who, after hearing it, looked up and said, “I believe now more than ever in the existence of God. Over my head there is freedom in the air. I know that there is a God somewhere. Ansil, you made me feel so close to heaven I feel I could reach up and touch the face of God!” He then sat down in the boat and started writing. After a spell, he paused and raised his head from his words. Looking out over the flats with a distant expression, he confided to Ansil that, “Before I came down here, I was run out of Memphis with a warning that if I went back, they’d kill me. I’ve heard that many times before, but something about this time got to me. You know, Ansil, I don’t think I’ll make 40 years old.” As phlegmatic as ever, Ansil looked back at his passenger without judgment.

King thought for a moment and then took the next few minutes to write his own eulogy. As Ansil recalled, it went like this: “If any of you, all around, want to have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to tell it too long. Tell them not to mention I have two or three hundred awards, that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to be able to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I did try to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. I visited the sick. I tried to love somebody. That’s all I want you to say. I will not define things of life to leave behind, but I just want to leave a committed life behind. So tonight, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

King returned to Memphis and addressed the striking workers on the night of April 3rd. His speech, better known as “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” is full of foreboding. The next day he was shot dead outside his motel room. He was 39 years old. Carol was, at this point, in tears.

Pause a beat or two. Take a breath.

Ansil Saunders - Bonefish LegendAnsil has two children, met the Queen (EIIR) twice, and was confided to by Margaret Thatcher that she would one day return to the Bahamas for the swim a leering press corps wouldn’t permit while she was Prime Minister. He invited us back to his house for a signed copy of his brother’s history of Bimini, and shared some of his favourite curios. Among which included a ratty looking football given to him by Pete Rozelle and signed by both teams of the first-ever Super Bowl.

Institutions live long and vicariously through the people they touch. Through his deep love of nature, his skills as a carpenter, fisherman, raconteur, ambassador, and willingness to share his passion with others, Ansil has become an institution on Bimini and a treasured part of many, many people’s lives. Long may his institution reign.

 


Update: February 05, 2022

A short documentary about Ansil was released recently on YouTube. Enjoy.

Share

4 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.