The view from the haul-out well at the St. Petersburg marina offered a near-perfect dichotomy. Looking down the water were Palm trees and restaurants with tiki bars. It was the very picture of paradise that so many people dream of, particularly those whose dreams include boats.
But turning back toward land, I could see two guys decked out in Tyvek suits, wearing protective face masks, slinging electric sanders overhead as they ground off old bottom paint on a 40-foot sailboat, to prepare for new bottom paint.
Been there, done that. I’m too old to even wear that T-shirt. Just seeing it made my body (and the rotator cuff I had damaged at a boatyard on Cape Cod) hurt like hell.
When Michelle and I attended a boat show in Miami and met Claiborne Young, the author of several Florida cruising guides, we asked him for his advice on a good place to live aboard and, hopefully, to find jobs. At the time, we were living in a quirky marina in Fort Myers Beach.
He told us to go to Ruskin.
That was 1994, and neither of us had ever heard of Ruskin. We drove up, found the marina and decided we’d give it a shot. We sailed out of Fort Myers Beach on the day after Thanksgiving that year and found a home in a backwater marina in a backwater town that, like us, few had ever heard of.
But it suited us. At first we were taken aback by being the youngest people (by far) in the marina and in the grocery stores (both the Food Lion and Kmart were still in town — in fact, Ruskin had three large grocery stores in those days, including a Publix). We settled in for a happy life that we had no reason to believe would ever change. There was no crime; we never locked the hatches on our boat. And soon enough, more people came, including people our age.
Including our longest Florida friends, Steph and Jerry. They were the reason I was in the St. Petersburg marina recently. They are selling their boat and moving on in life. Boats, however, have been a centerpiece to our friendship for more than 20 years, although as we’ve gotten older, they’ve diminished in importance. But still, it was how we met.
Life rafts are very expensive. Back in 1995, while we were living aboard — but Michelle’s and my dreams of cruising blue water and distant islands were still a few years off — we decided to purchase a cheap life raft we found at a garage sale in Apollo Beach. Yeah, that’s right — we still hadn’t figured out that “cheap” and anything that could potentially save your life are generally mutually exclusive terms.
Regardless, we took the cheap life raft into a service company in Tampa to have it re-certified. They laughed at us and told us to make sure that we shred the thing before throwing it away so that someone else doesn’t become a sucker for it as well.
So we had a life raft that no one would service. Out $75, we decided to at least see what it looked like and play with the stupid thing. I put it on the ground at the marina and pulled the cord. The cover flew off, just as it was supposed to, but so did two giant metal plugs, not as they were supposed to, leaving giant open holes in the raft. Had we been at sea, that would have been a bit of a problem as those heavy plugs would have sunk to the depths within seconds, leaving us in a rapidly deflating raft.
On land, we just walked the 100 yards or so they flew, pumped the raft back up and stuck the plugs back in.
Stephanie and Jerry had just moved from Colorado to Ruskin to live aboard their sailboat. Stephanie was across the marina doing laundry and, while Michelle and I floated around the marina in our worthless life raft, we saw Jerry and offered him a ride across the water to the boater’s lounge.
Ironically, we kind-of, sort-of saved a life that night. As we neared the lounge side of the marina, one fellow live-aboard, riding his bike down the dock with one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding his takeout dinner, managed to ride straight off the dock. How convenient that we were RIGHT THERE with a life raft.
After docking, we met Steph, who, it turns out, attended the University of Northern Colorado the same time as I did — I was a senior when she was a freshman. Yet we met in a small town in Florida that no one had heard of back then. Small world.
And now, more than 20 years later, so much has changed. None of us live aboard anymore. Steph and Jerry are selling their latest beautiful boat, and I continually think about selling our boat. I’m just not sure I’m ready to give up that life yet.
Back then, in the ’90s, the live-aboard community at that marina grew to nearly 40 people and we were a fairly close-knit group. Back then, you could buy a real house (not a mobile home) in Ruskin for less than $25,000. There were two tack stores in town. The Coffee Shop still served up its famous pies and the Two for Two breakfast at the Ruskin Cafe always drew a crowd on Sunday mornings — with most people in the place nodding greetings at each other because we recognized one another.
For the most part, our Florida dreams came true. The only mistake we had made was in thinking that things would last forever.
Now, more than two decades later, people are still coming in search of their own Florida dreams. And while so much has changed, they don’t know that; everything is new to them. Florida is an adventure. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. And someday everything will change again.
Yet the Florida of my dreams is still there, as I saw in that St. Petersburg marina. For a Minnesota boy, palm trees and tiki huts still spell paradise. And as much as things here have indeed changed, I’ve changed just as much, if not more. And now I look at the boat and wonder … before deciding to think about it another day.