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.
It was a hot August Sunday. Mom and Harry were out on the Gulf of Mexico, grouper fishing in their new Bayliner. Brother John was off with friends in the nearby Ocala National Forest, water skiing on one of the larger lakes in the area. I was slated to SCUBA dive the Silver River with S____, my dive buddy and best friend’s hubby.
Fast-forward to early evening, everyone’s arriving at the house simultaneously. Mom and Harry are acting strange. The station wagon doors and rear gate are propped open, a carload of fishing and boating gear abandoned. I enter the kitchen and there they are chattering loudly and a bit frantically as they mix cocktails with shaking hands.
I tried to get a word in edgewise to tell them of my near-death SCUBA experience (see earlier blog entry) and I’m floored into silence as I catch something to the effect of a Great White shark menacing the Bayliner. “What?” Amazed, I stood transfixed, my chopped off hair standing almost straight out, as I listened to their tale.
There they were, 20 or so miles out in the Gulf, a glassy, hot day and no fish biting when Mom idly glanced over the side and spotted what she thought was a whale shark swimming slowly alongside the boat.
Harry had just set the anchor and settled down to fish from the bow when Mom said something to him about a whale shark sniffing around, and he laughingly asked her how many gill slits it had. The water was clear and she had no problem counting five, and reported the same. “Right number of gills, does it have spots?” Harry asked, still concentrating on his fishing.
“Honey, um, I don’t see any spots and this thing is really big”, Mom reported. Harry said he could tell she was no longer fascinated. In fact, she was nervous.
“You need to come back here and see this thing,” she called out and as Harry made his way aft he spotted the dorsal and upper caudal and tail fins of what he immediately recognized as a shark– a really big shark.
Turns out the dang critter was indeed a Great White, painstakingly identified by both fisher folk, as they had plenty of time to study the fish while it described figure eights just off the transom.
“It’s the live well,” Harry said. “It smells the bait.” No reply from Mom. She watched, transfixed, as the fish swam close by the side of the boat. Mom reported that when it rolled slightly and “glared” at her through that black eye, her bones went cold. When she computed that the shark was a bit longer than their 24 foot boat, that’s when she hit the panic button.
The finer points of their stories diverged at that point, but they agreed that a sudden urge to leave the area hit them both simultaneously. They burst into action, Mom taking the helm while Harry scrambled onto the bow to fetch the anchor. The damned engine refused to turn over and Harry decided to snatch the anchor line aboard rather than drive up to it, the more reasonable and efficient approach.
Mom said Harry must have snatched a good 50 or more feet of line aboard in one pull. Then he cussed a blue streak at the engine refusing to turn over, while Mom stood exactly amidships, behind her co-pilot’s seat, keeping as much distance between her and the shark as possible.
When the engine caught, Mom said Harry snatched the thing into forward and she fell backward, luckily into the rear bench seat rather than overboard. They both said they didn’t slow down until they hit the mouth of Crystal River, over 20 miles to the east.
I was still trying to take it all in when Mom cried “What happened to your HAIR?” I launched into a soft-pedaled version of my getting-stuck-in-a-tree-underwater story when my brother John tumbled through the garage door and said “Holy Cow, wait until I tell you what happened to me today!”
Another round of babble ensued as we all talked at once, until Mom held up her hands and said something like “Let’s take turns so we can all hear”. We laughed and in the lull, John told a brief but harrowing tale of getting caught in a waterspout on the lake in the Ocala National Forest.
Now, my brother has been given to slight exaggeration in his story-telling but I was immediately convinced of his veracity by the lacerations on his face, neck and the exposed skin of his chest, back, arms, legs and feet. He’d been wearing only a pair of shorts while skiing and you could clearly see the line at the shorts where the sand-scrubbing left off and protected skin began. He was still digging sand out of his eyes, nose and ears and, apparently, other orifices we didn’t press him about.
Turns out that twister rammed the boat into the dock, destroying the dock and totaling the boat. Only the engine was salvageable. Apparently, the boys and their parents watched from the screen porch as John disappeared behind a “brown, muddy” wall of water before the family ran inside the house. Several huge old water oaks on the property were toppled by the water spout, leaving deep holes and massive root systems exposed.
At some point we all calmed down, unpacked the car, took our showers, shared a meal and decided that nobody’s story was the “best”. It was another One Of Those Days, with a weird kind of synergistic coincidence, resulting in tales too strange to concoct!