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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Postcards From Home
By Mitch Traphagen
Apr 1, 2004 - 7:00:00 AM

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Photo Illustration by Mitch Traphagen
- I sat in my office in downtown Tampa and looked at my two computer screens. One computer was logged into, a website that collected news stories about what some people were seeing as a coming disaster. It was October 1999. Little did I know then that our greatest fears would be in the form of lunatics highjacking airliners rather than a little change in number of the year.

I had just completed a computer program that organized and assigned tasks to employees. I found out later that it won an award from the state. Cool - now I won't have to feel so bad about basically blowing my last week at work.

But I did blow it and it was hard not to. I was getting ready to untie the lines and head out to sea and adventure.

Ship's Log: 11/23/99 13:45

Currently passing Anna Maria. What a start! First we run hard aground getting out of Desoto Point, then Michelle cut her foot while I was having a rant. Not a good start! But now we're headed south and a small black and white bird is snoozing on the dodger. He seems pretty happy to catch a ride south.

It seemed like such a long time ago that we had first come across the little town of Ruskin, Florida. In reality it was only five years prior, November of 1994, that we sailed into a quiet little marina on Tampa Bay. There were plenty of available slips in the marina and only a few people living on their boats.

Back then we were just escaping the seemingly endless winter of Minnesota. Cruising to the Bahamas and beyond seemed so incredibly exotic that it might as well have been sailing to the Moon.

After making our escape from the north, we first landed at a funky little marina in Ft. Myers Beach. The people were friendly and weird and life seemed idyllic. Well, everything except for the marina bathrooms were idyllic, those were just plain scary.

Few, if any people, live on boats in Minnesota. As a result, this was an adventure of a lifetime, or so we thought at the time. Unfortunately reality quickly caught up with us and we faced the prospect of needing an income.

A photograph of our sailboat taken from the men's restroom at Marina Hemingway in Cuba. (Mitch Traphagen Photo)
Ft. Myers Beach, in 1994 at least, was not the place to continue a corporate career. Unless, of course, your idea of a career involves wearing a paper hat and dipping french fries out of a grease vat. Since neither of those things appealed to us we made our way up to the next big city.

At first, our drive up to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area did little to help our situation. We knew no one, had no idea where to bring our boats and had no idea how to find jobs. As a result, we did what all good sailors would do: We went to the St. Petersburg Boat Show.

There we met cruising author Claiborne Young. He told us to go to Ruskin. He said it was a nice place and really, really quiet. We took his advice and ended up sailing into Bahia Del Sol Marina. It would be our home, on and off, for the next eight years.

By the calendar, 1994 doesn't seem that long ago. But in our minds it was a lifetime ago. The Coffee Cup restaurant was still serving up their famous pie, the Food Lion competed with Kash N Karry and both of them competed with Publix. No one had ever heard of the words MiraBay or Southshore.

The people at the post office knew my name and the best breakfast in town was the 2 for $2 at the Ruskin Cafe. It was a good time, a great time, actually, but it was really, really quiet.

Over the next few years we made lifelong friends and we learned a bit of how to live simple lives aboard a small sailboat. We traveled down the coast and we traveled to Cuba. Everyday, whether in Havana or tied up at our slip in Ruskin, every single day was an adventure.

People in the marina would come and go - more than a few of them would head off to go cruising in Mexico or the Bahamas. We heard the same call, a soft sound from somewhere just over the horizon that beckoned to us. We made plans to quit our jobs, tie up loose ends and take off in search of that sound and for a peek over the horizon.

In 1999 we untied the lines and headed south. We counted on having enough money to go for six months. We had no idea where six months on a sailboat would take us. It was an adventure and an adventure is in the journey - not in the destination.

Ship's Log 11/25/99 15:00

Arrived Mantanzas Pass anchorage, Ft. Myers Beach. We are anchored just a few hundred yards from Bob, a very nice gentleman who lets cruisers use his dock for dinghies and also lets us fill up with water. He says he's too old to travel the world so he travels by meeting all of the cruisers. His dock is a very popular place.

We traveled to Minnesota to see our families and to drop off our dog and cat. They didn't sign up for blue water sailing so we decided they would be happier with Grandma. They were.

In a week's time we had traveled more than 3,000 miles in the car.  In the end, that was nearly a thousand miles more than we would travel in six months on our boat.

Michelle shouts good-bye to a friend as we leave our slip in Ruskin for six months of adventure beginning in Nov. 1999. (Photo by Grant MacDonald)
We said good-bye to our friends in the marina and looked toward the southern horizon. We landed in Ft. Myers Beach, a small island off Naples, a nasty place off Cape Sable and finally in Marathon in the Florida Keys.

Marathon is an interesting place. Cruisers from everywhere converge on the town's harbor - it is one of the few fully protected harbors in the Keys. Boating supplies, a hardware store and a grocery store are all easily reached by a population that no longer owns a car. There is, of course, also a marina with a bar just a short dinghy ride away. As a result, more than a few cruisers get their anchors caught in the muck on the bottom of the harbor and never quite manage to pick it up again. Back then, it was an easy life - almost too easy.

There had to be more over the horizon than Marathon. When the winds and waves cooperated, we left our last port in the United States on a course for the Bahamas.

It was a passage that proved the adventure is indeed in the journey. Other than statistics on weather on location, the only log entry for Dec. 6, 1999 was "WHAT A DAY!!!" in really large capital letters.

Shortly after leaving Marathon, we almost lost one of our sail halyards in the wind generator. The sail gods were smiling on us when the heavy metal shackle at the end of the line cleared the delicate blades of the generator by millimeters.

That was to be our only bit of good luck, however. First our engine throttle came loose and we ended up sticking in a seemingly endless supply of pennies and other miscellaneous junk to keep it in place. Then, our fuel pump died. Normally this would not be a big deal but we had just entered the Gulf Stream -it was not a place that we wanted to have problems. The engine had been running for a few hours so it was really hot and the seas in the Stream were more than a little bumpy. A rolling, hot, cramped engine compartment reeking of diesel fuel is not something most people long for. I certainly didn't. As an encore, I somehow managed to break a toe while on deck.

The fuel pump was replaced and we were on our way again. Ten minutes later the engine suddenly slowed and then, once again, died altogether. Fortunately it wasn't another fuel pump problem. Unfortunately it was an old, rotted, massive fishing net that had somehow gotten caught in our propeller.

I was exhausted so Michelle volunteered to dive in and cut it free. I agreed to that but it turned out to be the worst mistake of my life. Over the next several months stories would begin to circulate throughout the islands about how Michelle valiantly saved our boat while I cowered on deck. It wasn't pretty.

Between the two of us (yes, I did help from the safety of the deck) we managed to free the prop. So as not to endanger other boats in our wake we loaded the evil net up on deck to dispose of at our next stop.

Ship's Log 12/7/99 13:00

Arrived Cat Cay, Bahamas approx. 10:30, Customs cleared by 12:30. We are enjoying a $72 slip with no water or electricity. Met a couple of other cruisers.

It was a windless but beautiful night in the Gulf Stream as we made our way to Cat Cay. After the problems of the previous day we decided to break out the cash for a marina. It was nice but expensive and our budget wasn't built for that. Nor did we think that our adventure would be found in marinas.

Cat Cay would be our first postcard from home. We were in another country but were still at home in our little boat. There can be no better way go.

My first impression of the Bahamas was that it smelled like dead fish. I couldn't believe it. We had worked for years and we finally had arrived in a beautiful paradise and it SMELLED LIKE DEAD FISH!

I then looked towards our stern deck and noticed the old, rotted fishing net from the previous day. I scooted it off the boat and into a dumpster. Suddenly it smelled a lot better in the Bahamas.

We spent New Year's Eve, 1999, on a little island called Staniel Cay in the Exuma Islands. It was Michelle's birthday so there was double the reason to celebrate. We went to a church service on the island but as midnight approached with no indication that the service would end, we snuck out and made our way to a quiet little beach. Cruisers were lighting fireworks and there were more stars than even Carl Sagan could imagine filling the night sky. From the nearby yacht club we heard people shouting and knew that we had just entered the year 2000. A few seconds later, the lights in the small town went out. There was complete silence. A few seconds later they came back on. That is just how things are in the Bahamas.

The adventure, of course, continued through the Bahamas, to the Turks and Caicos Islands and down to the Dominican Republic. And it was an adventure - every single day. We dreaded the thought of pointing our bow north but time and money were running out.

In late May, 2000, we returned to Ruskin and tied up just a few slips away from the one we had left six months prior. It was all very strange to be back home again. We had changed and it was clear that our quiet little Ruskin was changing.

But for us, home was where our boat was. Our home was in Ruskin.

Cruising is a big part of South Hillsborough County. There are now numerous marine stores and hundreds of boats in this area. Boats from all over come here to haul out for hurricane season. At any given time, there are people getting ready to head out over the horizon from one of the area's many marinas. There is so much to the adventure and, as is often the case, money is at the core.

Do you have questions? Would you like to read more about our adventure? If so, I would like to hear from you. My email address is and my telephone number is 645-3111 ext. 214.

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