Salted smiles and tears

Published on: June 3, 2010




A magical sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. Will it ever be the same?
Mitch Traphagen Photo


mitch01I ambled through the powdery white sand to the edge of my world. I looked out at the Florida green water of the Gulf of Mexico and wondered if I would ever see it — or this beach — the same way again. A hundred miles or so off the coast there is a menace to these waters and to this beach. As of right now, no one seems to know how to stop it. Despite the incredible beauty all around me, it was what I could not see that was most alluring. Over the horizon, underway in my sailboat, was the world. Exotic landfalls and beautiful nights filled with stars almost close enough to touch. But now I know what is out there: oil. Millions of gallons of oil. No one knows if it will reach this or any other Florida beach. The companies involved and government officials are still arguing over how much oil there is.

Much of the life I know is centered in the Gulf of Mexico. I was 32 years old when Michelle and I moved here and placed our most cherished possessions — our small sailboats — in the water near Fort Myers Beach. I found my life’s dream on this water. I threw my first Florida rant in these waters as we anchored and re-anchored near Egmont Key during our move to Tampa Bay. I proposed to my wife while floating on the Gulf in our boat and we married as the Gulf waves rolled in just feet away during the ceremony on Captiva Island. A dolphin appeared just off the beach as we promised our love and commitment before God. I spent my first few days as Michelle’s husband swimming and holding her in these warm green waters.

“A pod of dolphins keep me company this morning, swimming right next to the cockpit. They are so cool! Doing up to 7 knots under reefed jib and triple reefed main.”
— Sailing Vessel Hetty Brace, Ship’s Log, May 23, 1998, 6 a.m.

A few years later another major life dream was realized as we sailed into the Gulf for adventure to unknown landfalls in Cuba, the Bahamas and beyond.

Over the years I’ve sought refuge from personal trauma by staring out at the Gulf for hours from the quiet of a remote Sanibel Island beach. There is something magical about being alone on a Gulf beach at night. Its nature is a quiet calmness as opposed to the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf may be described as an uncaring, cruel mistress; but in times of need I have always felt its willingness to accept my sadness and problems, taking them away in its unrelenting waves. On the water’s edge, peace and tranquility are offered for those willing to surrender a bit of themselves.

At her worst she can make for an unpleasant experience to sail in a small boat, but in every memory — both good and bad — the Gulf was there for me. It had led me to my dreams, it had voicelessly answered my questions of why me? Why should I continue? My life and the Gulf of Mexico are forever and permanently intertwined.

“When we were 40 miles out we got to see real blue water. It is incredible. The most beautiful blue possible. We saw big waves with foam blowing off the tops of the crests. We now have a healthy dose of respect for what the Gulf is capable of.”
— Sailing Vessel Hetty Brace, Ship’s Log, December 9, 1996

And now it is possible that the Gulf that has salted my smiles and run through my tears is about to disappear as I know it. The silent, powerful, uncaring and almost omnipotent presence that I have known for the past 16 years is in jeopardy. The Gulf as I have always known it may be gone.

Will this beach be the same next week or next month? I hope so; but no one knows for sure.

I need the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone along the coast needs it. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Dreams are at stake. The Gulf Coast of Florida is unique with islands and inlets carved out through the millennia. The beauty is incomparable. Right now, tens of millions of gallons of oil are threatening those lives, their dreams and its beauty. Nature didn’t cause this disaster. We did.

 “Beautiful evening. The breeze is cool and refreshing. I’m watching a southbound sailboat probably out of Tampa Bay and I realize that I’m no longer in a hurry to get home. Home is here and it is nice here.”
— Sailing Vessel Hetty Brace, Ship’s Log, May 31, 1998, 11:30 p.m.

I hope and I pray that my home will come through this. Oh, I know for certain the Gulf of Mexico will eventually shrug this off but in my lifetime? That I don’t know. How many lives will be changed? How many jobs lost and dreams shattered will there be before this is over? My life is here. I both love and fear the Gulf.

And now I’m afraid for it.