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Déjà Vu: A sea story

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image Two boating trips fourteen years apart from the Okeechobee Waterway and up the Gulf of Mexico show how age and wisdom does have advantages. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Adventure can be overrated.


In the late 1990s, my friend Brad needed help bringing a small sailboat to Ruskin from Stuart on the East Coast. The voyage took us through the Okeechobee Waterway and up the Gulf of Mexico. Brad also asked another friend, Jerry, to come along.

Things didn’t start out well; we ran aground just a few hundred yards out of the marina in Stuart. It was also around that time that we discovered the binoculars had been left in the car and that, save for some salami, a hunk of cheese and a can of soup, we didn’t have food aboard for the expected three-day trip.

The late 1990s were a simpler time; and all three of us were younger and much more stupid. The first night out, we just tied up to a dock along the waterway. No one seemed to mind. Today, of course, we could be shot, arrested, taken to court, or sent to Guantanamo for doing that.

The next day, now deep into the Everglades, we ran aground again. The three of us stood on deck discussing our options, which included, in our minds, jumping overboard and simply pushing the boat into deeper water. Had it not been for the eyes and alligator snouts appearing from the surface of the muddy water, that option may have been a good one. Eventually, we got the boat unstuck and continued on our way across the vast expanse of Lake Okeechobee where we discovered a plug had dislodged from the engine cooling system, allowing the lake to come into the boat. Fortunately, we managed to make up a new plug before we sank. Lake Okeechobee being quite shallow, we weren’t in danger of drowning but it would have been a long walking swim back to shore, alongside the alligators.

That night we tied up to some pilings along the canal. It was hot and sticky and the three of us watched the sun set from the deck of the boat. Just as darkness settled in, we heard what sounded like a four-cylinder freight train on steroids approaching. It was a swarm of mosquitoes unlike anything conceivable, even in our worst nightmares. We dove into the companionway to the supposed safety of the cabin. It was then we discovered that the boat had no screens. By the time we managed to get the ports closed and the towels stuffed into the cracks of the hatch boards, we had killed so many mosquitoes that the walls of the interior were streaked with blood—our blood. It was straight out of a horror movie, except the blood was real, as was the sweat the three of us were pouring out of our pores in the stifling heat of the closed up cabin.

Along the way, the starter for the engine had been giving us problems. We resorted to elaborate measures, hooking up large batteries to feed a large number of volts into the beast to get it started. It turned out that the starter wasn’t the only mechanical demon. As we approached Ft. Myers, the transmission gave up the ghost.

Lacking the means and the inclination to repair the boat properly, we instead strapped a 10-horsepower outboard to the back of it. The outboard was technically too small for the 30-foot fiberglass boat, and the shaft was too short to adequately sink into the water. As we hit waves in the Gulf of Mexico, with each rise, the propeller would emerge from the water and the little outboard would rev up and howl in protest. To alleviate the problem, we resorted to sitting packed together on the small stern of the boat, using our weight to help keep the prop in the water.

In those days, none of us had cell phones so our wives knew nothing of our adventures. Nor did we have much in the way of other technology. We had paper charts and an early GPS unit that did nothing more than spit out a string of numbers representing our latitude and longitude. Somehow, miraculously, we reached Tampa Bay and called our wives via the VHF radio to let them know we were approaching Ruskin. They were waiting for us on the end of the pier at what is now known as Little Harbor Resort. They waved to us and wondered why on earth three grown men, unshaven and un-showered, were sitting scrunched closely together at the back of the boat. We happily waved back.

As we shared the story of our multi-day adventure, someone tagged us with a nickname. It was something like “The Three Amigos” except it included a term not normally associated with heterosexual men.

Fast-forward 14 years. Jerry, one of the Amigos, bought a beautiful vintage Grand Banks trawler up north. He rapidly made his way into the Okeechobee Waterway before his wife ran out of time and needed to return to her job. He called Brad and me to see if we could help finish the journey to Ruskin. We weren’t going to make the same mistakes twice. A pair of binoculars was already on board and, on our way down to the boat; we stopped to pick up $100 worth of groceries feeling confident that would cover us for the expected 20-hour voyage. Arriving at the boat, we hoped the gleaming engines below would propel us to Tampa Bay because it was clear there was no way a 10-horsepower, short-shaft outboard was going to push that 50,000-pound boat.

Inside the comfortable pilothouse, computers surrounded us. We each brought our own and each of them was feeding GPS data to highly detailed and accurate digital charts. Although we never lost sight of the coast, we weren’t about to get lost on this journey. Nor would we run aground. While we munched on a huge stock of chips and cookies, Brad worked his cell phone and computer for much of the day. As far as the world (and his clients) knew, he was hard at work in an office — no one knew we were six miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. There really wasn’t much for us to do because the boat’s autopilot did most of the steering.

Seventeen hours later, we arrived at the Little Harbor Resort pier and our wives were there waving to us. In the early morning darkness and from the comfort of the pilothouse, we didn’t see them as we focused on not smashing into a marker or a wayward shoal. But the computer charts were spot on and we arrived at the marina unscathed. It was sort of like déjà vu all over again — The Three Amigos, now older and grayer, had ridden again and survived to tell the tale. There is something to be said for youth and daring, but age and wisdom are certainly more comfortable. And adventure, well that can be overrated.

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