Your attention please for an important island pronunciation public service announcement. If your future plans include visiting sun-soaked islands surrounded by clear blue water, listen up: No matter how much it doesn’t make sense, if you see the word “cay” after an island name mentally replace it with “key” then say that.

“But why?” you ask. “You don’t pronounce cake like keek or bay like bee”. I know this, ok? I am trying to do you a favor, so in my best parenting voice the answer is “because I said so”.

That’s all I’ve got.  There is no rhyme or reason to it. You’ll find this confusing assembly of three letters pretty much everywhere there are low islands and reefs except in the United States where we went ahead and substituted a more phonetically sensible word when naming the Florida Keys because, even with the English language being a complete mish-mash of confusion at times, there just isn’t a rule for this one.

I first encountered this oddity when we went to Belize a few years back. We visited the small islands of Wippari Cay, Hatchet Cay, Coco Plum Cay. You get the idea. On Pelican Cay we learned that the island’s wonderful owners had even named their dog “Cay”. The entire trip we pronounced it wrong, like the name of an aunt or elderly neighbor lady. Rhyming with say, hay, tray, may. Like you’d think it would be.

Only later did I learn that it is actually pronounced like see, she, we, tree. Or, more specifically, exactly like key.

Even knowing this information, I still only get it right about 42% of the time.  When we recently visited the Bahamas I was once again struck with how challenging it is to say something the right way when it is seemingly spelled the wrong way.

Making it even harder is that the islands often have regular English names.  I am writing a blog about Allen Cay now and realizing how lopsided this is. Allen is a perfectly easy-to-sort-out English word. Cay is not. If the entire island name was foreign-sounding, say Kliquishinero Cay, or something like that, I could better understand the curve-ball.

To overcome the nearly insurmountable challenge of getting it right, I like to envision tossing the actual word cay off the boat as a punitive measure for phonetic insubordination and then welcoming the right word, key, aboard. I have a penchant for personification. Sometimes I think about drawing keys around the little flat islands or even the word itself. None of this helps much.

So, I’ll just leave you with this helpful yet difficult to execute information and wish you good luck. If you get it wrong, and you will, don’t worry too much. The local folks are always understanding and I am sure used to hearing it wrong more often than not. Just enjoy yourself. You can always practice getting it right as you sail to your next destination cay.

Lea Maxwell

Lea Maxwell is the sailor and scribe behind Escape Under Sail, a web|blog project that connects new and future charter sailors with the resources, information, and motivation they need to competently and confidently sail beautiful destinations around the world.

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