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The Man Who Swam to St. John to Celebrate Emancipation of Every Kind

Victor Antonius “Tutsie” Edwards, who on Emancipation Day in 1985 swam across the treacherous Pillsbury Sound from St. Thomas to St. John to celebrate his freedom from drugs and alcohol and to raise funds for the Shaky Acres recovery program he helped found. (Submitted photo)

Victor Edwards and Scott Fagan have been friends for more years than either one can count. Upon learning of Fagan’s submission of the story of Edwards’ daring Emancipation Day feat in 1985, he laughed, “Oh, Scott does that every year.” Fagan, who has teetered on the edge of world fame for much of his life, spent many years on St. Thomas. A recent release of “Surrender to the Sun” speaks volumes of his love for the Virgin Islands. Since that fateful day in 1985, Edwards has been a leader in teaching Virgin Islands children to swim.

In 1985 Shaky Acres — the recovery program that Tuts and I had started in 1981 — was going along fairly well but was in need of a fundraiser or two. Tuts heard, along with everyone else, of a proposed St. John swim.

Everybody heard of it because it was considered impossible by most folks, and suicidally dangerous by local folks who knew that there were sharks — starvin’ hungry sharks — out there the size of the battleship “Bismarck.”

The UDT (the Frogmen, the Navy Seals, the toughest hombres on or under the sea), while training for many years on St. Thomas, had given up on swimming to St. John because it was simply too crazy and dangerous a deed.

The well-intentioned local legislator who had proposed “the swim” was unaware of the deep and dark difficulties inherent in the “big fun fundraiser.”

When Tutsie was a young boy, riding back across Sir Francis Drake’s Passage coming home with his mother from a harvest festival in Cane Garden Bay in Tortola, he looked out from the deck of “The Joan Of Arc” or “The Bomba Charger” at Pillsbury Sound, the five-mile stretch of wild water that separates St. Thomas and St. John, and said to her, “I cou’ swim ‘crass dat yu kno.”

His usually gentle and loving mother, scared to death by what she was hearing, tried to discourage this crazy idea once and for all by replying, “Man hush up yu schupid mout, why yu like tu talk such schupid craziness?” Tuts didn’t see any reason to discuss it any further, but, he says, the conviction that he could do it was locked in his mind forever after.

It was July 3, 1985, Emancipation Day in the U.S. Virgin Islands — the day in 1848 on which it became official that enslaved people in the Danish West Indies had won their freedom and were now and forevermore free. Freedom was a long time coming for the children of Africa in the Danish West Indies, and very hard-won, as was Tut’s own personal freedom from drugs and alcohol.

There were 48 entrants altogether, most of them young white kids from the hot-shot St. Croix Dolphins Swim Team. They came prepared and ready to succeed, with sleek buoyant body suits, well-fitted goggles, and the best fins that money could buy.

A number of the St. Thomas swimmers were runners down from the states, budding triathletes; an elderly white gent determined to show his wife he still “had it”; and half a handful of locals with a mismatched assortment of masks and fins.

Tuts, on the other hand, was wearing one pair of big and baggy boxer trunks, y nada mas.

As the other swimmers did warmups and calisthenics on the sand at Vessup Bay in Red Hook, a tough old Tortola sailor pulled Tuts aside and said, “Buaayyy yu, yu crazy buaay? Yuh following de damn schupid white people dem? Yuh don kno de real name fo Red Hook is Shak Waff? Buaayy!! Shak ow de biggah den uh submarine! Yu is a Black man gon follow dem schupidy white people? Buaayy wha rang wid yuh, yuh crazy o something?”

Tuts concedes that the strongly delivered warning did cause him much concern, but that he had already told everybody over and again that he was going to do it, told them in the strongest terms, in the face of the harshest ridicule. It was common knowledge that no (sane) Black person from the islands could ever, should ever and would ever attempt to make that swim. Therefore, as his sanity was in question, it was also a crucial moment for recovery in the islands.

At this moment he was demonstrating clearly (to local folks) that local people who went to fellowship meetings “wid de crazy white people dem” were demonstrably nuts (just like they thought) and for him to chicken out before he even hit the water would have sealed it once and for all. Tuts has since confessed that on that particular morning he had decided that he would rather be eaten alive than quit.

Victor “Tutsie” Edwards, right, with the author Scott Fagan and children Ielia and Archie, on Easter Sunday. (Submitted photo)

Once the old Tortola man realized that he was not talking to a sensible gentleman, he began to encourage him with information about what to expect in terms of currents and where to find what he called “soft spots” in the sea. He stated flatly that “yuh can’t swim directly east ta St. John, yuh have tu swim for Lovango (a small cay west-northwest of St. John) and as yuh hold Lovango as your goal, the current will be sweepin’ yuh south, look sharp! Buaay, dat is de onliest way to get dare.”

As the swim began, the fast and the fancy took off due east for Cruz Bay and before you knew it, half of them had been swept away and were heading backwards around Cabrita Point toward Big and Little St. James, then out over the Anegada Trough — part of the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean — on the bottom of which the scariest bug-eyed things on Earth, with jumping, wiggling electro “bait worms” dangling in front of foot-long razor teeth, swim around four miles down, snapping steel-trap jaws, and saying fish prayers, to get their dribbly lips around something, anything, soaked and slathered in coconut oil, or greasy mango-scented suntan lotion. From there, it’s south and west for St Croix, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Haiti, The Caymans, the Isle of Pines, Cuba, and New Orleans. Of course, by the time they got to New Orleans there would be nothing left of them but a Speedo tag and whatever plastics they’d swallowed along the way.

Needless to say, an armada of rescue boats started pulling people in over the gunnels, like langustas on parade on a fish pot Saturday night.

Tuts was heading for Lovango.

Shortly after the fast and the fancy fiasco, the old white gent’s wife, standing in his rescue boat, started screaming hysterically, “A shark! A shark! Oh my God, I see a shark! Pull my husband out, pull my husband out, pull him out right now! Oh my GOD! Pull my husband out right now!”

Tuts says the poor old gent was utterly dejected as they pulled him up, his bathing suit drooping below his pale old, pink old, shiny old hiney.

Next went the dapper, sharply outfitted “high color” attorney from the states, who had looked most disdainfully upon our man’s baggy boxers and bony bare feet but was now being dragged, thoroughly defeated, flat on his back from the sea to flat on his back on the bottom of the heaving boat.

The boats were heaving now because the seas were heaving now they were coming into “The Big Blue” — a section of the sound a mile or more wide, in which, or perhaps I ought to say through which, big serioso, fast-moving, megalo mountains of big blue heavy water waves — waves of the sort that make you say “good lord,” or “mama mia,” or “holy freakin’ Toledo,” when you first see them even though you, if you have good sense, are looking at them from your perch on the deck of a big passenger ferry, 10 or 15 feet above the water line.

If you are in the water “down in the hollow” splashing along on your belly and craning your neck up trying to see the top of the wave, you will probably say a lot more than “good lord,” and if you are Tutsie and your rescue boat is manned by one “Fisherman John,” a continental dipso juicehead that you recently helped to drag off the junk heap of life, but now haven’t seen for over half an hour, most of it will not be printable in a general audience “memwah” such as this one. But you can believe me when I say, you have probably never heard anything like it.

Eventually, Tuts discovered that if he swam like crazy, faster and faster, as he got closer and closer to the top and he could then flip over to his back at just the last second, the wave would crest and the curl would break over his shoulders. He could “hang there” for seconds, perhaps one or two of the longest this side of eternity, and contemplate his mounting misery and helplessness before having to roll over and slide headfirst down, down, down, ah down, down, down, ah down, down, down, down, knowing that something is surely waiting in the “trough” to open its porky yaw and scrape the heck out of your back, belly and sides as it swallows you whole.

As I may have mentioned casually a short while ago, this section of the sound was just a splash over a mile or more wide. Can you guess how many times your whole life can flash before your eyes before you get completely bored with it?

What you don’t get bored with is the fact that you cannot see either island or, for that matter, anything at all when you are down in the valley, nothing but deep, dark blue. So, the desperate hope that you might be able to see something, anything, hinting at where you are (is it Puerto Rico? Is it Berlin?) at the top of the next wave is a powerful draw and can keep you going for many a repetition.

One time he did see something recognizable back on St. Thomas. It was the two super poles that mark the spot where the undersea cable goes down beneath the sea. Way down to the bottom that is the bottom way, way down in the pitch-black darkness beneath his own bottom. Better to see nothing, he thought, than things as scary as that.

Pretty soon his primary concern had shifted from monstroso seas to waves slapping him in the face — slap, slap, slap, slap — and he realized that he was in a different kind of swim now. The big blue was behind him, and he was battling offshore currents, lucky he had gone for Lovango because now, in spite of his forward motion, he was being swept sideways, southward toward Steven Cay, a small flat island outside of the bay of Cruz Bay.

Tuts knew that if he allowed himself to be swept southward beyond Steven Cay, he would be out in the Anegada Trough, and then as likely as not his rescuers would be the Venezuelan navy. He determined that he had to get to and make it through the spiffy currents around Steven Cay.

Victor Edwards demonstrates boating skills at John Brewer’s Bay in 2006 or thereabouts. Since his swim in 1985, Edwards has been a leader in teaching Virgin Islands children to swim. (Photo provided by V. Edwards)

If the current was running in his favor, it could be a breeze. He was exhausted, but just on the inside of Steven Cay was the outer entrance to Cruz Bay. He was almost, almost there.

Alas, the current was not in his favor (unless he wanted to turn around and “go with the flow” back to the “Cabrita express” and the aforementioned many points beyond), and this part of the swim took everything but the very best of him. The very best of him was all that kept him kicking; the current was so strong that the surface water was rippling backwards in protest. That’s when the “water under water” is moving too fast for the water “on the water” to keep up, so the surface ripples backwards in tiny little cascades of confusion, all of which seemed to be going right up his nose, and down his throat.

They say that the children of Africa can’t swim. My friend Tutsie has proved time and again that that is a racist lie, or put another way, demonstrably untrue. Although it is true that Tutsie’s mother, Miss Meu, born in Dominica, was one-half Carib. And although the present effort of the Carib/Arawak Federation is to dispel the myth that they say King Charles of Spain used to promulgate and excuse the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, specifically, that the Caribs were so wild and savage that they ate people, there is no question that the Caribs were and are among the toughest of the toughest human beings that have ever lived. So, our man, three-quarters African, one-quarter Carib (with a smitter-smatter of French and British, both in the African part of the pie) is lying all but dead in the water, having just burst through the impassable current hole at Steven’s Rock.

Tuts, aka “El Toro,” aka “Peperino,” aka “Skarpy,” aka “The Rabbi” (that’s another story), aka a hundred other desperado descriptors, was ready to give it up. If only he had the strength to raise his arm to signal surrender or the voice to beg to be dragged out of the sea, he would have done so. But just then the cheerful voice of Fisherman John came sing-songing across the water: “Make it look pretty Tuts! Make it look pretty! We’re almost there, man! Make it look pretty!”

Some day I’ll build a statue at Cabrita Point to Victor Antonius “Tutsie” “El Toro” Edwards, one portraying a skinny little mahogany- or brass-hued dude in baggy boxers, tilting forward on one leg, the other angled up and out behind, with hands clasped (as in prayer) just above his head, poised to dive into history.

Tuts became that day the first native Virgin Islander to EVER, in all time, swim from St. Thomas to St. John.

It wasn’t pretty as he crawled and dragged himself ashore (water streaming from every orifice), and it wasn’t pretty as he collapsed on the sand, unable to stand for a full three minutes. But in his defense, he was 40 freakin’ years old and working with a body that had been ravaged by drugs and alcohol.

The kids on the Dolphin Swim Team have much to be proud of. They did in their wetsuits, fins and organized swim formations what the rough and tough UDT had given up on: they made the swim.

I know that wherever these kids are in the world, and wherever they will go, they will always remember that “once upon a time, when we were kids in the islands, my friends and me did the impossible together.” They will also remember with awe and admiration “that skinny little fellow in the baggy boxer trunks” that did it alone and barefooted, and then passed on the champagne and praise, because “that’s not why he was there.”

Tutsie made the swim because it was Emancipation Day, and he wanted to demonstrate and celebrate freedom. He wanted to demonstrate freedom from fear of the sea and the ignorant idea that “Black people can’t swim.” He wanted to demonstrate that “recovery is macho” and that Black people now need to be emancipated from the chemical slavery that is alcoholism and addiction, and because even though she was long gone, he wanted his mother to know that he could do what he said he could do, and now it was time to go home.

And oh yeah, let’s not forget, he did it for Shaky Acres.

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