I’m certain I got the fishing gene from Mom. She was, like her father and her brother, a fishing fanatic. I recall being a wee thing, maybe in Kindergarten, being hauled off to the Indian River or the Banana River or the Jetties at Port Canaveral to sit in the hot shade and swat at mosquitoes while Mom would stand for hours on the shore or the breakwater or the jetty or the dock and cast and cast or maybe just watch a bobber. Fishing. Blech. Those fish stank, and when Mom would clean them it was icky and I didn’t think fish was very tasty- I much preferred macaroni and cheese or a hot dog. Or better yet, a brownie!
Considering we three kids grew up in and around the Indian River estuarine system on the east coast of Florida, and because we were allowed the full freedom to be outdoors from dawn to dusk (when we weren’t in school or doing chores or practicing for Band), I guess we were destined to become river rats. Although we resided in several homes in the area throughout the 1960s, we lived for the most part within a short bike ride of the western shore of the Indian River in north Cocoa, FL.
While hardly patient enough to spend the hours that Mom would spend stalking her fishy prey, my brothers and I were perfectly delighted to tramp up and down miles of shoreline and docks marked “Private! Stay Out!”, seeking to poke anything that moved in the brackish shallows, using our home-made fish gigs crafted from old broom handles, a couple of nails and some clothesline. To us, fishing with a rod and reel was a boring adult thing (and besides, we didn’t own any rods or reels). However, we did enjoy creeping along the stinky, slimy edges of the river exposed by the low tide, stalking the unwary Stingray or Blow Fish. Now THAT was pure adventure.
When we actually managed to successfully gig a Stingray or a fish that didn’t dart away quickly like say, a Blow Fish, we would stand around the poor creature as it flopped on the ground or the dock, gasping, while we would debate its fate. Now that we got it, what were we gonna do with it? You can’t eat a Blow Fish. And the good eating fish like Red fish and Trout and Red Snapper and Flounder weren’t here in the skinny shallows where we could see and gig them. So what to do? Leave them to die on the shore? That seemed a waste. Well then, throw it back in. So we did that a couple of times, but the critter died anyway.
I can’t claim any realization of Earth First or the onset of incipient enviro-consciousness. I do remember that, not long after we left that poor Blow Fish to desiccate in the sun, all three of us decided to turn our gigs into make-believe “spears”, which we used to terrorize tree trunks and palmetto bushes in the woods that lined the waterfront.
Years went by before I began my serious education in fishing. Mom’s second marriage (to a man who loved the water and saltwater fishing as much as she did) served as the flash point for my almost-ground-zero start in the fine art of in-shore , salt water fishing.
I think I was around 17 years old. I’d become a certified Open Water SCUBA diver that summer of my high school graduation, which only served to whet my appetite for anything having to do with the ocean. Oddly enough, as I learned more about the marine environment and the critters that lived in it, the more I appreciated, um, well, eating them!
Pretty much everything I ate was fresh caught, whether we hauled it in ourselves or purchased it from other fisher-folk. So, the more I ate and delighted in fresh seafood, the better I got at catching the fish. Made sense. However, I never was much for cleaning and filleting, so I was always stuck washing the dirty dishes. I saw it as a small price to pay for consuming such delicious fare!
I guess the point of this ramble is, once I was bit by the fishing bug, I was hooked. <heh>. The period I spent away from Florida and fishing was truly, a string of “dry” years. By the time I was able to move back to my home state and live near the coast again, I was in my 40s and able to indulge my passion. I couldn’t afford a boat with a motor, but I did manage to buy a sweet, super-lightweight fishing canoe, and for several years that canoe trekked the inland waterways, intra-coastal waters, and estuaries of the Florida Gulf Coast from the panhandle to the 10,000 islands. But mostly the eastern side of Tampa Bay, around Ruskin, near my house on Timberlee Rd.
I would have a lot more photos of fishing expeditions but I made up my mind years ago that trying to capture my fishing experiences in photos and a visceral enjoyment of the sport of fishing were incompatible. Mostly I have memories. And a few good stories – only one of which is about “the one that got away”!
Lisa and I were out in the canoe in a no-motor zone in the shallows of the eastern shore of Tampa Bay. It was a hot, late spring day. The bay water temp was chilly but warming up enough that the recent fishing report for the area indicated the trout bite was on, so there we were at mid-day during an incoming tide, paddling north along the mangroves in about 4 feet of clear water. I recall paddling quietly and idly watching how the bright sunlight lit up the eelgrass and the sandy bottom of the bay. I was startled when Lisa suddenly cried out “Ohmygod!” and pointed down at the water to starboard.
“What?” I shouted, snatching my paddle out of the water, expecting an imminent attack by a shark or something equally horrible.
“Money!” she stabbed her finger repeatedly at a spot somewhere further off the starboard side.
I looked, but just then the breeze riffled the water and blocked my view of the bottom. So we started paddling up and across the wind, trying to get back to the approximate spot where, Lisa swore, she’d seen bills, dollar bills and at least a fiver, lying absolutely flat on the sand bottom.
“There!” she yelled and, sure enough, I could see bills- greenbacks!- passing under the boat.
I quickly and gently dropped our little mushroom anchor overboard, letting the wind blow us back down a bit, just enough to put a bit of scope on the line but not enough to come off our spot. We waited for the cloud of sand the anchor kicked up to disperse and then, ever so gently, paddled the boat so that we pivoted on the anchor. Amazing! There, in about 4-5 feet of slightly greenish bay water, were a handful of greenbacks of different denominations scattered over the bottom. Some floated a couple of inches above the sand, entangled in the eelgrass, and some bills appeared as if they had been laid out on the hard sand bottom of the bay.
By now we were determined to grab those greenbacks, but how to manage that without stirring up the bottom and possibly losing them in the now-rising tidal current? We had to work fast.
Wouldn’t you know it, we didn’t have a fish net aboard, as we’d stopped carrying one because using them for catch-and-release often harmed fish. We discussed one of us going overboard in our fishing clothes (typically quick-dry shorts and a shirt anyway). Having volunteered to take the dip, Lisa slid overboard down current from the center of the area where the greenbacks were waiting. As she floated on the surface, careful to swim just enough to move slowly up-current but not disturb the sand, I paddled ahead of her, directing her to where I could see the bills.
Soon, she was dropping perfectly intact, if soaked, one and five dollar bills into the middle of the canoe. A handful! She hung onto the side of the canoe, keeping her feet still and floating above the bottom, while I paddled to keep us roughly in place. The technique worked, but before long she was cold and blue-lipped, so she clambered aboard and as she dried herself with the small hand-towels we kept in the tackle box, I scoured the bottom for more signs of greenbacks, but didn’t see any.
We rinsed the mud and sand off the bills and squeezed them out against the canoe bottom. Our haul was $42.00. Not bad for a morning’s fishing expedition, but I admit we were disappointed. We both had visions of a drug-runner’s stash of at least a thousand dollars being blown overboard and into our eager hands, but apparently someone had merely lost their wallet.
At any rate, our little adventure more than paid for the truck gas we’d used driving to the boat ramp, and also made for a lively phone discussion with Lisa’s parents, rabid salt-water fisher-folk, that evening.
“Went fishing today, out in the bay…”
“Yeah! Caught some greenbacks”.
A moment of silence on the other end. Then Lisa’s dad, in his Wise Old Fisherman Dad voice, offered the observation that one doesn’t CATCH greenbacks, ones uses greenbacks for BAIT.
“No Dad, I mean we got greenbacks. Money. Like forty-two dollars!”
Definitely a story that got passed around that fishing family for years.
Someone Else’s Fish
On another occasion, we were back-country canoe fishing among the mangroves on the east side of Tampa Bay and spotted a red and white bobber some 100 feet or so in front of the canoe. Ever mindful of the environment (and picking up free fishing tackle), we headed to the bobber to fetch it.
We approached the bobber and as Lisa stretched her hand out to lift it off the surface of the water, it suddenly darted away! We sat flabbergasted for a second, and then both laughed at the same time, when we figured out the dang thing must be attached to some poor fish.
The bobber came to a stop and floated quietly a few canoe lengths away. We decided to try a slow and cautious paddle through the shallow, clear water so as to avoid spooking the fish.
Once again, we approached the bobber, and once again as Lisa reached out, the thing darted away, coming to a stop 50 feet away. This time we scratched our heads, trying to figure out how we could be smarter than a fish and manage to sneak up on the thing so we could set it free! Obviously it was tired or it would take off and keep going. Ergo, we figured we could just try to run it down, and either it or we would tire first. We figured it was 2 to 1 so the fish should give up before we did.
Determined, we paddled around that little lagoon tucked between clumps of mangrove islets until we were sweating and cursing. Lisa finally snagged the line attached to the bobber with her paddle. As she drew the line toward her hand, the tension on the line was just enough to snap the line below the bobber. The fish swam away and she was left with the bobber and a foot or so of old fishing line in her hand.
“What was it? Did you see what kind of fish that was” I asked hopefully.
“Nope. It took off too quick.”
That was the one that got away, even if neither of us actually caught it in the first place!
This story may rightfully be deemed a SCUBA tale but I think it’s a much better fish story.
I was diving on a reef off of Harbor Island, in the Bahamas. It was a lovely morning, the bright sunshine spearing down through more than 30 feet of water to light up the colorful and fishy reef below. I had a cheap plastic underwater camera and was floating upright just off the sandy bottom, positioned to record the dive master hand feeding a few of the “tame” Nassau groupers. A small cluster of divers hovered nearby, eagerly watching the dive master as she pulled some goody from the front pocket of her BC (buoyancy compensator) and approached the reef.
Pretty soon, three or four large groupers swam out of their holes in the reef and slowly, almost hesitatingly, approached the dive master. I took a quick “establishing” shot, careful to capture the dive master, most of the fish and the group of tourists. I tried to crank the roll of film manually to the next frame, but the gloves I had on to protect from sharp coral (I stopped wearing gloves the same year, for all you SCUBA purists) made operating the film advance wheel quite impossible.
I used both hands to part the tough-to-rip-open Velcro pocket on the front of my BC, and removing my gloves, tucked them safely into the pocket. I remember pausing long enough to look toward the reef to check on the action and plan my next shot. While my eyes scanned the reef, my right hand fumbled to secure the Velcro pocket, while my left hand floated freely away from my body, buoyed by the light camera.
Suddenly my left hand felt like it was hit by a pile driver. In reaction to the shock, my whole body jerked convulsively. That is, all but my left hand, which strangely seemed to be locked in place, floating just above my left shoulder.
My peripheral view was blocked by the opaque skirt of my mask, so I had to pivot my head to see what the hell was causing that pain in my left hand. It took me a second to process what I was seeing: a big-ass Nassau grouper, its head mere inches from my face, a (really large) fish mouth partially open and completely engulfing my entire left hand- camera and all.
I think I just floated there, frozen, while I tried to figure out what the hell had happened and what I was gonna do about this situation. My first instinct was to grab the fish or otherwise use my right hand, but some instinct told me to just be still and think. So I did, and apparently so did the fish. It just hung there, impaled.
While one part of my brain prepared to crank up the panic, another part was amazed that I could see straight through the fish’s wide-open gills to my hand, which was formed in a fist, clutching the camera body. I could see the bright yellow of the plastic camera case, the black lanyard around my wrist and some, oh yeah, little drops of blood seeping out of the critter’s gills and floating lazily toward the surface.
My blood? Fish blood? Is fish blood red underwater?
I tried not to think about sharks. Instead, I tried waving my arm gently; to see if the fish would just spit me out. But no, all I did was drag the fish through a short arc. The grouper gave a twitch, and appeared to try to open its mouth. I waited. Nothing. It just hung there.
By now I had remembered all those marine biology books I’d read, and how those fish with teeth (especially predators) typically have teeth that angle into their mouth, to keep prey from easily swimming back out. So I tried hard to not pull back against this big guy (or gal’s) grip.
I tried a quick flick, to see if she (not sure when I decided this was a She) would take the hint and just let go. Her eyes rolled and suddenly her mouth gaped wide open and her gills seemed to strain to their furthest point, and just like that, she spat my hand out.
I quickly brought my hand close to my face, to assess what damage I could see through my fogged mask. My knuckles, all five of them, were cut, rather deep, and more cuts decorated the back of my hand. Fingers were intact, probably because I had instinctively formed a fist when the hand was swallowed.
Droplets of blood were floating toward the surface, and even as I watched, the droplets were starting to run together into a stream. Back to the Velcro pocket I went, fishing for my left glove. As I was trying to get the angle to see into my pocket, the grouper swam into my field of vision, right next to my pocket! She obviously wanted food and thought I had some in there. Didn’t she learn her lesson a minute before?
While I fished for my left glove and struggled to pull it over my torn hand, I kicked at the dang pest, which only served to send me into a half flip but which didn’t dissuade her in the least. She nosed into the pocket. I flicked her nose with my right hand. Go away!
More worried about blood trails than the grouper, I thought to use the camera lanyard to twist the glove closed around my wrist so that I might continue the dive. I looked at the camera. The body was cracked, all photos ruined. Damn! Fleetingly I hoped the fish had taken a picture of the inside of her mouth, but I could see water in the viewfinder. That camera was toast.
By now I had drifted some distance away from the reef, lost my neutral buoyancy and floated toward the surface. I was torn between swimming back down to the reef and joining the group for the rest of the dive, but the grouper was hovering just below my feet, and as I dithered, too distracted to correct my buoyancy, I continued to float upward.
Oh hell. My knuckles were starting to throb and blood was seeping from the glove. I decided to just go back to the boat, doctor the knuckles and get ready for the second dive of the day- on a different reef, hopefully away from any activity that featured “tame” fish or anything else that could swallow a body part with one gulp.
Nobody on the dive had witnessed my incident with the confused grouper, but when I showed my (more severely lacerated than I first thought) left hand, eyebrows went up. Followed by tittering, then outright laughter. Oh yeah. Ha-ha.
The dive master interrupted the hilarity, suggesting that people might want to buy cheap cameras that were a different color than yellow and showed us why, by reaching into her BC pocket and producing the enticing goodie that the local fish had been trained to love- a bright YELLOW can of Cheez Whiz!
PS: For the uninitiated, “grouper fingers” are thin strips of filleted grouper, battered and fried. The lightest batter, the freshest oil and of course the freshest fish make for a lip-smacking treat- without the need for Cheez Whiz.
Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.
We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.
We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.
The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.
It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.
Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.
Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.
I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!
My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain.
Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.
Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Chub Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!
My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land!
After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard.
Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!
Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.
From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.
I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.
It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, so the boat was driven from the steering station in the shade below, in the main salon, which was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!
I soon appreciated there was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.
Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.
My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.
Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.
I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!
Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.
One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.
The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”
I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, Miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!
It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.
Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise.
It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.
As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.
This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through my fogged mask and the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.
One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.
About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.
A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!
The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking in temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!
The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.
So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in.
We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.
Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.
I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.
The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.
A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.
So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.
As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.
As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.
Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.
The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.
Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.
I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.
Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.
I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.
Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.
We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.
I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.
I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.
But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.
I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!
When I was in my late ‘teens, my mom Betty got re-married. Her second husband Harry was a guy who shared her passion for salt water fishing and before long they owned two boats and a little condo on King’s Bay at Crystal River, on the Gulf of Mexico. Weekends would find them either out on the tidal flats in “the big boat”, fishing for red fish or trout or else they’d venture 20 or more miles offshore to drift-fish for grouper. My younger brother, John, and I would often drive the 40 miles from Ocala to join our folks for a day of fishing or, in the summer, go snorkeling for scallops.
We kids were allowed to take the 16-foot Boston Whaler out on Crystal River. We’d seldom fish because we preferred to snorkel or SCUBA dive the main spring or explore the Three Sisters springs. Generally, we were extremely safety conscious, having been trained by Harry to transport and handle the boat under all sorts of conditions and to even effect repairs on the water for critical things like replacing the shear pin to the prop, a common issue that cropped up when the boat ran over any wayward oyster bar back in a muddy river inlet.
One of The Rules for taking the boat out on the river was Stay In The River. No running the boat out into the Gulf. I followed the rules scrupulously but still managed to lose the boat one day. I was the “skipper” on an “introduction to Crystal River” expedition with my step-sister, Cathy. She wanted to go beach-combing, so I ran the boat downriver the 7-odd miles to Shell Island, situated at the mouth of the river. After I lifted the engine clear, we carefully pulled the lightweight boat up onto the beach on the river side of the island and dug the little mushroom anchor deeply into the dense sand well above the high water mark. We soon made our way around the point to the Gulf side of the island, to where lovely seashells awaited.
As soon as we lost sight of the Whaler around the point, I started to fret. Had we dug the anchor in deep enough? What if someone came along and discovered the engine key that I had tucked inside one of my tennis shoes and left in a locker aboard? If that boat disappeared, I’d be in a world of hurt, especially since the boat was brand-spanking new and had less than 30 hours on the engine!
The more I fretted, the more impatient Cathy became. After awhile she told me I should just go back to the boat and wait for her, she’d be along shortly. I didn’t hesitate, just headed back down the beach and around the apparently endless curve of the point. I watched as large party boats came roaring into the river from the Gulf, throwing up big wakes that swept along the curve of the beach.
By the time I could see the Whaler, or where it was supposed to be, I realized it wasn’t– where it was supposed to be. I was a good quarter of a mile away from where we’d pulled the boat up, and the dang thing was nowhere in sight! My sandaled feet took a beating on rocks and shells as I ran pell-mell along the beach.
As I got closer to the where the boat had been, I could see the trench where the anchor had dug in on its way down the beach and into the river. Looking up-river, I spotted the Whaler some 75 yards or so away, floating out in the middle of the channel, the anchor line dangling off the bow, taut and straight down into the water. Clearly, the boat was being pulled steadily up-river with the incoming tide.
I flew the remaining distance to the water, yanking off the T-shirt over my bikini top, spilling items from my shorts and dancing out of my sandals.
I dove into the murky water and started swimming for all I was worth toward the boat. I remember a welter of thoughts, primarily centered on those big boats barreling up the river. Would they even see me, frantically kicking up a rooster tail as I free-styled my way toward the Whaler?
I stopped to tread water for a second, looking and listening for boats and judging the drift of the Whaler, and then tucked in again, concentrating on a more efficient stroke. Those hours spent in the pool practicing for high school swim meets came into play, as I trimmed my body and got into a less-frantic breathing pattern.
As I closed the distance to the Whaler, I ignored my burning muscles and aching lungs and instead thought about sharks – they come in on the tide but maybe they wouldn’t bother me, I was splashing too much, right? Nope, they’re attracted to splashing! Well, then I’d worry about Mom and Harry spotting me as they came in from a day on the Gulf. Oh-My-God what was I gonna say if they picked me up? Maybe I’d just get lucky and get run over by one of those party boats.
When I reached the Whaler, I could only cling onto the transom and pant. My arms felt too tired to lift my body over the transom and besides, the dang engine was up and I couldn’t use the narrow flange over the prop as a step. I was inspired to haul my carcass over the transom anyway when I glanced downriver and saw the massive bow wave being thrown up from a 60 foot party boat, aimed right at me and slowing down not a whisker.
My hands shook like crazy as I fished inside my tennis shoe for the key and popped it into the ignition. Hours of boat operation took over as I remembered to engage the ignition to lower the engine and, with the prop safely in the water, crank the engine proper. What a sweet sound, the thing cranked on the first turn of the key!
I throttled forward and scooted out of the channel, just as a huge blast from the boat’s horn sounded in my left ear. I nearly jumped back into the river, I was so rattled. The boat roared by, passengers gaping at me, some shaking their heads and others shaking their fists, clearly baffled over someone stupid enough to go swimming or boating or whatever the hell I was doing in the middle of a busy channel!
Once clear of the channel, I maneuvered back down-river, went forward to pull in the anchor and made my way back to the beach, where Cathy was standing, hands on hips and shaking her head, clearly signaling her amazement. Or, more likely, disgust.
Luckily, Mom and Harry didn’t come in from the grouper grounds until a couple of hours after we had returned to the condo. I managed to convince Cathy to keep our little secret, or we’d be beached for the rest of the weekend. She hadn’t come all the way from Colorado to sit inside and watch TV, so she agreed, if reluctantly.
Well, it was One Of Those Things, I guess. I figured out a large wake had been enough to lift the Whaler off the beach and send it astray. That was one lesson in boating “safety” I learned the hard way. It wasn’t until years later that the story came out, and we all had a good laugh. Still. Harry told me that if he’d known of the incident at the time, my boating days in the Whaler, or any other boat my folks owned, would likely have been suspended. Not so much over the potential loss of the boat (there was little chance of that, someone would have found it and likely turned it over to Harry, he was quite well known in the area and of course the boat was registered.) It was about the foolish risk I took swimming for the boat in a dangerously busy channel.
Luckily, over the years brother John and I managed to avoid any further major mishaps as we and friends along for the ride managed to buzz around various rivers in north central Florida, diving, snorkeling, fishing and simply messing about in boats. Sometimes it takes a close call to remind you just how dangerous boating, or swimming, or life in general, can be.