Disaster at sea


You don’t grow up in Florida and not spend a good amount of time in a boat.

Okay, I guess you could grow up and not do that, but you would miss a big part of the fun of living on a peninsula.

I have had many adventures on the water and a fair share of misadventures, which will be the subject of today’s entry into “Fish Week”.

Row, row, row your boat

One of Florida’s most engaging natural wonders is the Everglades, a large wetlands area that extends over a significant area of the southwest of the state.  Filled with wildlife, tall grass, trees and snaking canals, the Everglades provides fascinating entertainment merely from observing the action of all the living creatures.  It also is a terrific place for fish; for eating and for fresh water tanks.

Boat rentals are available at various locations throughout the ‘Glades.   There was a period of time my Dad had a small jon boat (a flat bottomed, usually aluminum boat perfect for canal navigating) which we would pop on the car and drive to a boat ramp, but all of today’s stories revolve around rented boats.

My sister was along with us this time; as we were going to mix a little fishing in with hunting up some good fresh water fish for her aquarium (she had both marine and fresh water tanks).  We headed out in a slightly larger boat to accommodate an extra person and some extra supplies.

A common axiom that is used in many places and has great application for Florida is “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change”.  We left on a particularly pretty summer morning.  Hot and expected to get hotter.  Not a cloud in the sky.

While it was more like three hours and not five minutes, it was still surprising how quickly the thunderclouds formed.  The Everglades wetlands provide a perfect saucepan to cook up tremendous summer afternoon thunderstorms.   And this one was of the infamous “toad strangler” variety (so- named due to water coming down so hard and fast that often toads would get caught in the rocks and drown).

Totally unexpected and unprepared, Dad moved to steer us for whatever protection we could find in the middle of the ‘Glades.  In this case, it was a small wooden bridge we spotted up the canal a ways.  The first drops started hitting us and they were c-c-cold!  You can always tell a mighty storm by the temperature of those droplets.  But as cold as the drops were, Dad must have felt a different chill when he couldn’t get the outboard engine started.

Thankfully, at least for us kids, the Everglades boats all had oars.  So Dad rowed.  And rowed.  The rain was now pouring down and we were screaming for him to hurry.  Like he needed the encouragement (or was it hysteria?).   Finally he made it to the bridge and we all huddled, shivering under the bridge as the rain and wind howled.  Ten minutes later, the storm passed.  Ten minutes after that, the sun was out and we were hot again.  Ah, Florida.

Dad had a set of blisters on both hands from his frantic rowing, so it was fortunate the engine finally decided to cooperate on our way back.

Hoist the sail, matey!

Another rental boat extravaganza occurred one time when Dad and I were down in the Keys, near Islamorada.  We would generally rent a 16 foot outboard that we would have from 8 am in the morning until 4 pm in the afternoon.  The whole process required getting up at 4:30 am or so, to make sure everything was packed, stop for breakfast and make the trip down so we didn’t waste a single minute.  At 8 am precisely, the boat was already fully loaded and we were waiting to cast off.

This boat rental place was a different one than usual.  Dad had found one that offered bimini tops on their boats for about the same price at the others.  For those of you who don’t know, those are canvas tops on an aluminum frame that usually covers the pilot area and some of the boat deck.  Trust me, Florida sun is tough, but uncovered and surrounded by a giant liquid mirror, it could be murder.

Well, we ran our usual run.  Did a little trolling for dolphin first, then some drift fishing for snapper and some anchoring for grouper and live bait fishing.  We had a mixed day, but a good one, although any day out on the water is a good one.

After our final fishing stop, we knew it was time to head in.  The engine coughed, spun and stopped.   This was the old “pull cord” outboard engine (think old lawnmowers).  Dad tried several times with no success.  With a sinking look on his face, he opened the gas tank top.  Empty.  Yes, we filled up before we left.  Yes, we knew how far the engine was supposed to allow us to fish.  Whether it was our error or the engine, we’ll never know.

What we did know, though, was that the tide was heading out to sea and our boat seemed interested in following it.  Neither of us was excited about a vacation in Cuba that weekend, but these boats, unlike the shallow, flat fresh water boats, were not designed for paddling and had no oars.  Oh, and in those days, radios were not as cheap as they are now, so they were rarely included in the low-end rentals (yes, this was even before cell phones).

This was also many years before MacGyver, but Dad hit on the idea of unscrewing and reversing the bimini top to create a “pseudo” sail.  Just like you would think on the TV show, it shouldn’t work, but it did somehow, at least enough to keep us reasonably in place.  After a while, we were able to flag down a passing boat and siphon over enough gas to get us in to shore.

A bolt in the blue

Our final brush with disaster combines our past two stories into one exciting tale, complete with a shocking ending.

Dad and I are out in the Keys once more.  This time, our rental boat is the standard, no top variety.  A fine fishing boat, big enough to hold four people, so quite spacious for just two.

As usual, it was a gorgeous day on the water and we were having a good day with the poles as well.  Back then, the waters were not as over-fished and you could come back with a nice selection of snapper, grouper and an occasional surprise or two.

It was a little past midday and I looked north up the coast to see some dark clouds in the sky.  They were far away, but I pointed them out to Dad and he frowned, thinking we might have to call the day short.  When you’re “in the zone” on a fishing day, you kind of want to keep going (think the Priest in Caddyshack during the rainstorm).

We didn’t leave immediately and hit a lively fishing hole.  We may have lost track of time or it may just have been my beloved Florida and its quirky weather, but the next time we noticed the clouds they were maybe only a couple miles away!

Now that they were close, we could see it was a mean storm.  Lightning fingers ran across the underside of the clouds and you could hear the accompanying thunder, muted only by the distance of the front.

We were a couple miles out from land and these rental boats came with adequate, but by no means powerful, outboard motors.  Looking around, we noticed one other disconcerting fact:  we appeared to be the only boat in the vicinity.

Dad and I discussed whether we should leave or not.  The storm was still far enough away that it could pass out to sea or inland and not bother us.  And it’s not like we got to get out to the Keys every weekend.  Ah, the stubborn rationalization of the fisherman.

Of course, we kept fishing.  But we spent more time watching the storm.  It showed no interest going out or in.  It looked more like it was coming to pay us a visit instead.  More lightning flashed in the sky and then a bolt flew down and struck the water in an area that looked perilously close to us.  There was an explosion of water and then an explosion of sound.

And then an explosion of motion as I was furiously pulling up the anchor as Dad started the engine.  He didn’t even wait for me to get the anchor fully in the boat before he gunned us away from the storm and into shore (fortunately, a 16 foot boat had a small enough anchor that even a scrawny kid like me could pull up while the boat was moving).

We didn’t see another bolt hit the water, but we were both quite familiar with the warning that lightning tends to hit the highest object.  In an otherwise flat ocean of water, that object was us.

Obviously, we evaded both storm and lightning and made it back into shore.  We regretted losing a couple hours off our rental, but the trade-off seemed reasonable.

There are plenty more misadventures, but in fairness, we had dozens of great, safe and successful trips as well.  All of it just adds flavor to a rich experience with Florida and its waters.

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