May Madness: That’s a Wrap!

Kim and I got back to Key West, having completed our Havana sojourn. Now came time to get the boat home. For that mission, I’d chosen Allen Ladd and his son, Hunter, and Hunter’s Birmingham buddy, Michael Stockard (a.k.a. Stock), since my usual suspects were engaged elsewhere. I say I chose them–they were the only fools I could find who were willing to do three days’ driving up the eastern Gulf of Mexico, conditions unknown. I’d promised some fishing and fun along the way–I guess that was all it took. (I know somebody like that.)

So Kim flew home Wednesday at noon, and the new crew arrived at Key West International at 5:00 that evening, giving me enough time to buy groceries, ice, bait, and just a little beer. When they arrived, they wanted to fish. Knowing time would be tight, I’d prepped a dozen ballyhoo. 

I took ’em south to a weed line, and we dragged baits through broken grass, but it was for naught. We caught no fish–just another gorgeous Key West sunset. 

We showered up and headed downtown to the wonderfully weird world of Duval Street. 

At Sparky World, a long-haired guitarist solos against pre-recorded Zeppelin classics. Allen insisted on a photo of the captain. 

.     .     .

Thursday morning, we headed off for Dry Tortugas. Though it was a repeat for me, it was a whole new world for the crew. They loved it. 



They explored, fished, and snorkeled–it’s what you do. That evening, I put on a feast–El Dorado standard. 


In the morning, we caught the requisite dolphin before beginning our journey north. Not a big ‘un, but enough to make a couple grilled mahi sandwiches later, for everyone. 

Weather was gonna be a factor. 

Hoping to make Sarasota, we picked our way through it. It closed in behind us at one point, producing a waterspout. 


In the end, weather wouldn’t allow Sarasota. We settled for Sanibel Island by sunset. 

The next morning, clouds lingered as we passed Sanibel Light. 

But the skies cleared up as we headed for Apalachicola, our last stop before home. 

On the way there, Stock noticed a “fish haven” on the chart. Hmmm. It had been a day and a half since we’d slowed down to fish. It was time to explore this haven

We caught a few hardtails for live bait, and sent them down on tackle that wasn’t quite stout enough–we had one broken rod and several broken lines to prove it. So, I rigged up something a little heavier, and with our last bait, as time had run out, Hunter hooked up. We cleaned up the cockpit as he brought up this beast. 


A nice AJ. Biggest fish the young man had ever caught. And he did it without a fighting belt (I still don’t know where I’ve hidden them). 

.     .     .

Once safely docked at Scipio Creek Marina, we walked into Apalachicola for a late dinner. The hockey game was on: Preds win! Stock celebrated with the local lovelies, as is his wont. 


.     .     .

And then it was upon us–the final leg into Mobile. Clear skies and light breezes were again the order of the day. We watched thunderstorms develop over Cape San Blas, as we enjoyed blue overhead. 


.    .    .

Evening approached as we passed Orange Beach on the Intracoastal Waterway. 


Night fell as we came into the Dog River Channel. My heartbeat picked up pace. 

And then we were there, backing down on our slip at the Landing. 



A hearty farewell to my transit crew. 


And tearful reunion (not pictured) with Mom and pup. 

.     .     .

I sure hope you’ve enjoyed these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed sending them. What a trip. And so, until we meet again, I remain,

One Happy if Tired Captain,

Sparky

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La Habana 

As I struggle to say something meaningful yet brief about the time we just spent in Cuba, what we observed, our anticipation and reasons for going, the myriad aspects of this island nation–cultural, political, historical, economic, sociological–I can only say it’s more than I can hammer out with my thumbs on an iPhone in a travel blog. Forgive me for even trying, as there’s just too much to cover. Music of subtle varieties, people of so many colors and origins, contrasts of simplicity and sophistication, of grandeur and decay. Books can be, and have been written about this and other places, sure. But at nearly every turn, Havana and Cuba give an American so much to think about, more than any other place that readily comes to mind. Kim and I spent less than 48 hours there. I’ll reflect on the experience for another 480. Expect no conclusions here–too much to chew on. 

This leg was the one the entire trip had been built around. I’d thought about it from the moment Barack Obama visited Havana, promising to reopen relations with Cuba. I knew I wanted to take a boat there–my own boat–right away, before everyone could or did. Because if I waited til then, I thought, some of the magic would be gone. Now I know I was right. Kim and I got all we bargained for. 

.     .     .

We’d allowed a five-day weather window, planning to take at least the best three for our trip. As luck would have it, Saturday (the day the kids flew out) would be our best day to depart. We’d have to return midday Monday, before the wind and seas got up. Any later and we’d be stuck there for a while. 

And so, we pushed off at 0945, the best start we could get, after dropping folks off at Key West International. 

Out of the harbor and into the Straits of Florida, the weather was perfect. Leaving Stock Island on a 210-degree heading, we carved a wake through slick-calm blue water, parting patchy sargassum and kicking up flying fish. Autopilot engaged, we left the fleet of pleasure craft around the Keys behind, and began what would be a mere 4-hour crossing, thanks to prime conditions. Lonely, though–and a little too quiet. Only the occasional freighter on the horizon. Not even a bird to break up the blue-on-blue. What awaited us?

As we came within ten miles or so of the Cuban coast, a surprisingly vertical topography revealed itself east of Havana. More hills than we’d imagined somehow. Then the city itself, obscured by smoke from a refinery flare also east of town. 

If you look waaaay in the background, past my inflated head, you might see it. Then, finally, the red-and-white bouy marking the entry to the channel at Marina Hemingway came into view.

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And once inside the harbor, the Aduana, or customs office, in blue. 

Time slowed to a crawl. A process that involved inspections, interviews, directives, and documents from military, medical, agricultural, and harbor personnel was conducted over the next 90 minutes. Always convivial, involving a soda, beer, or other gift. Finally we were assigned a slip. On arrival there, we were welcomed by an army of helpers, wanting to dock, tie, wash, and otherwise care for the newly arrived craft.

 

Thank God I’d thought to bring a pocket full of small bills, as many hands were out. In this socialist peoples’ republic, there was no shortage of capitalists!

One entrepreneur, Jorge, changed some dollars to Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, for a rate better than the bank’s. He then offered to take us into town in his Russian-built Lada. It resembled the Spanish Seat Kim and I used to drive, so we couldn’t resist a pic. 

.     .     . 

Jorge drove us down the embassy row of Fifth Avenue at a rate faster than Kim could truly enjoy. We passed the decidedly strange-looking Russian embassy, designed to look like a sword buried in the ground, according to our driver.

Fifth Avenue merged onto the Malecon, Havana’s oceanfront drive, which took us into town. There we met Maikel, our guide for a walking tour of Habana Vieja, the old city. 


His boss, Mabel (next to Kim) made sure all was good, and off we went. 

From the moment our feet met the cobblestone streets that dated back to 15th century Spanish colonial rule, music was in the air. It was our introduction to Cuba, where music is everywhere, and it’s gooood. 

Over the next day and a half, we’d hear a dozen street and stage performances. Not one was less than first-class. Nimble, apparently relaxed hands played varied instruments, clear voices rang out, feet gracefully moved in rhythms exotic and hypnotic. All seemingly without effort, as if genetic. 

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For the price of a dollar, a duet was procured. Other performances cost nothing, but were of considerable value. 
.     .     .

Highlights of our walk, courtesy of Kim:

This part of the ‘old city’ was largely renovated, showing off a spiffed-up past. No crumbling decay in Habana Vieja proper. 

Maikel was a great guide, but an even greater cheerleader for the Revolution and the Castro regime–heck, for the whole of Cuban history. He routinely credited Castro with so much. He beamed, for example, “Thanks to the Revolution, we have art for all the people!”, ignoring the possibility that public art might come into being in a variety of ways, or have existed before. Kim and I shared a glance: how different perspectives can be. So much depends on where you get your information. Whether he’d had the opportunity to have his ideas challenged, I’ll never know–I wasn’t going to be the challenger. And he’ll never know that he’d just opened in my mind a Pandora’s Box of competing political philosophies, arguments and counter-arguments and a whole history of capital versus labor, the U.S. role in Latin America, etc. that would keep me busy between the ears for days. Though I know where I come down on most of that, it never hurts to examine it. I wondered if I ever had the will to fight for what I take for granted, if called upon. Thank the founders for our Bill of Rights! The experience of walking around Havana awakened fresh examination of my beliefs on so many fronts, of the competing systems societies devise to advance civic prerogatives and allocate wealth, and appreciation for our system in the ideal. One of William’s professors came to mind. He likes to say (I paraphrase), “Democratic capitalism is the worst system on the planet. Except for all the others.” Here was a chance to consider it all fresh. Whew–who knew what a workout we were gonna get?!

Politics aside, we encountered a warm and welcoming Cuban people, apparently happy, generally smiling. We honestly didn’t encounter anyone who appeared cross or irritated, we never felt at risk in any way, and were told proudly by drivers and guides that there was no crime to worry about, no guns, no problems. None of that kind, anyhow. 


Above: Hotel Ambos Mundos, a Hemingway haunt. Below: Plaza Vieja

Our tour ended at the Plaza Vieja. We cut Maikel loose and found dinner. We’d packed a lot into one day. After a good meal, we headed back to Marina Hemingway where the El Dorado awaited, offering air-conditioned refuge. 

.     .     .

In the morning, Maikel and our driver, Estevan, met us at the marina for a 2-hour driving tour of the greater Havana we’d not seen on foot–we’d be riding in the back seat of a 1948 Chevrolet convertible. My favorite color! Super cool. 

Cut off from trade with the U.S. since the Revolution, Cubans preserved the cars they had. The roads were filled with American classics from the 40s and 50s, and with Russian Ladas brought over in the 60s and 70s. The streets were like an odd movie set. 

We drove back down Fifth Avenue towards Havana, but stopped in the Jaimanitas neighborhood, where the spectacle that is the home and workplace of Fuster, a local artist, can be found. Fuster has redone his home and the entire neighborhood in tile mosaic. 

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Maikel explained that Fuster’s project has gone on for decades, transforming the area, venerating his heroes, promoting his ideas. 

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I didn’t care to debate the topic of Hugo Chavez with my Castro-loyalist. Fuster’s pad was indisputably awesome, and now that he’s world-famous, he sells his paintings and tiles for big bucks. Good for Fuster. 

.     .     .

We continued on to the Bosque de La Habana (the Havana Forest, a Central Park kind of place). Many classic convertibles carry their clientele to see it. 

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Kim couldn’t resist. 

From there, it was on to John Lennon Park. 

We found what was across the street more camera-worthy. 

The other side of the Castro Revolution, illustrated in a single frame.  And these:

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And that was the scene that rolled by: classic cars, homes once-grand-now-mouldering, and communist icons. 

Like the University (“free for everyone,” we were told). 

And, la Plaza de la Revolucion. 


Above: Che Guevara. Below: Jerry Garcia?

.     .     .

Estevan graciously dropped us at the market, where Kim found a handbag, I found a hat, and Maikel ordered up a round of coconuts for us. 

We sipped and then parted. Maikel had given me a memento to carry to his brother in Sarasota, when I’d be there the following week. We bid our guide a warm farewell. 

That’s when the cigars found me. 

 

A nice young fellow offered us a bicycle-buggy ride.

“No, Gracias,” I replied. 

“Cigarros?” He tried.

“Posiblemente,” I waffled. I’d committed to some pals that I’d bring a few back home with me, but I hadn’t really planned how I was gonna get ’em, how many, etc. 

“Cohiba, Robusto,” I finally came up with. “Una caja.” I knew I’d pay $100 for a box, in a store, if I wanted to walk around and find one. Now the store had found me. He assured me he had a friend whose dad worked at the Cohiba cigar factory. $60 for a box. I was in his hands. He took us to the friend’s apartment across the street.

The merchandise came out. 

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Choices offered. Robustos selected. Authenticity confirmed. Cash exchanged. Goods wrapped and bagged. 

The things I do for my friends back home, and for Havana’s underground economy!

.     .     . 

We wandered back to Habana Vieja for lunch. Now it was getting good, the scenery more Habana autentica. 




We found a table under an umbrella in a breezy alley cafe, and sipped a limonada while the band played, then took a break. 

Now spoiled on convertibles, we took a pink one back to the marina for a siesta. 

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.     .     .

After siesta, it was time to think about heading downtown one last time, for dinner and a show: Legendarios–Proyecto Musical del Guajirito. Jorge picked us up at 7:00 that evening. We were excited–who were these Legendarios?

The room was grand, if slightly hokey. But the music was over the top. And it was big: horns, piano, drums, congas, rhythm instruments of every description, back-up singers, sharkskin suits, fedoras, gowns, heels, microphones. Latin ballads and Cuban classics a la Buena Vista Social Club. Every headliner knew how to connect with an audience. 


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The three-hour show was too much to photograph. You couldn’t get it into the frame. The above will have to do. 

.     .     .

Jorge brought us back to the boat one last time. What a day, what a night. 

.    .      .    


In the morning, it was customs again, this time on our way out. Then back out the channel and past the entry bouy. Into the Straits and the Gulf Stream. 

I got out past the channel a little bit before cleaning up lines and fenders. 

And though the ride home got a little bumpy, Kim and I enjoyed every moment, reminiscing over the two short but action-packed days we’d just spent. We’d crossed a distance just over half of that between Mobile and Montgomery, but in so many ways, we’d left the world we knew for a different one entirely. 

We came back with a handbag and a hat, a boxful of cigars, and a head full of Havana daydreams. 

Having gone on way too long, we wish you Hasta Luego, Buena Suerte, and Adios!

Key West


Not that I publish on a schedule, but I feel like this post is overdue. A lot has happened since the last one, and it’s been tough to find a minute–we’ve literally been having too much fun. 

When we left off, Paul and I had delivered the El Dorado to Key West. Now, finally, it was time for our family to reunite! Sunday meant several trips to the airport–to drop Paul off, and, one by one, pick up the Kellys. We jumped in the rental and took the town by storm. My photographer was back!


Key West is a funky little place with great scenes and people watching. Its a magnet for free spirits and eccentrics fleeing ‘reality’ all the way to the end of the road.

 A place where one will frequently encounter chickens. 

We loved the old houses with their pressed-tin roof tiles. It’s a cool place.  



After sleeping in Monday, we decided to try a little snorkeling. We loaded the boat with drinks and snacks and headed off to West Sambos, a reef in 15′ of water, 15 minutes from the dock. 



So great to be together again–so great for Avery and Kate to have a chance to relax. Below: resting off the tension of first-year law finals. 

We snorkeled at Sambos. Clear waters, and sea life abundant. 


Once back on the boat, William couldn’t resist wetting a line. On the first cast, something bit the tail off his plastic lure. So he threw out a bare hook (I swear) and on the next cast, hooked up. I grabbed the fish for him: a nice mutton snapper. Dinner tomorrow. 


I threw out a plastic swim bait, and after a couple casts, hooked up. William grabbed the fish for me: a nice gag grouper. Dinner tonight!




Straight from ocean to grill. I borrowed Alec Bailey’s recipe. Wow. 

We goofed around on the boat as the grouper smoked itself to perfection. 



And so went the next few days: fishing, snorkeling, hanging out by the marina hotel’s luxurious new pool. 



.     .     .

In town we found terrific restaurants, including a dessert-only place recommended by a friend of Kate’s, called ‘Better Than Sex’. The menu selections had racy names, like the Missionary Crisp (an apple concoction), or Tongue Bath Truffles. I know. And those are the tame-sounding ones. Just the kind of place you wanna take Mom and Dad. It was hilar. And so delicious!


(True confessions–Mom and Dad went back again later, after the kids flew home…)

.     .     .

We sat out a bad weather Wednesday, sleeping in, multiple naps, and Netflix. So exhausting. 

Actually, we were saving our energy for Thursday’s overnight to the Dry Tortugas, a group of little islands 70 miles west of Key West–an outpost beyond the end of the road, accessible only by boat or floatplane. We’d explore 19th century Fort Jefferson, cook and spend the night on the boat, and snorkel the wreck of the steel-hulled sailing vessel Avanti, off Loggerhead Key. What a plan.  The weather was clearing up, and the wind was gonna lay!

Leaving the harbor at Stock Island, things were alright, a chop out of the southwest, and a few isolated showers way down range, none producing lightning. We committed. 

The wind did not in fact lay. To the contrary: by about halfway, it had picked up and now it was downright rough. Forecast creep. Though William and I had seen similar before, the rest of our crew had not, and for them, the 4-5 footers were more than just not fun. We picked our way through a dry gap in a line of showers  and closed the distance to safe harbor. Upon arrival, the captain was debriefed in no uncertain terms. Whew. Thankfully for all, that would be the last sloppy sea we’d have to drive through. And the anchorage at the Tortugas was well protected. 


After securing the anchor, the younger folk  took out the Bandito while Mother and Daddy worked on a dinner plan. 


Avery took her snorkeling gear, and came back with treasures. 

While dinner cooked in the sunset, Kate serenaded. 

The sky went dark, and the moon never rose. This made the unfamiliar southern constellations and shooting stars that much more visible, as we lay on our blanket on the bow and sang songs and told stories. Laughing together. You can’t tell me what could be better. 

.     .     .

In the morning, we moved the boat to Loggerhead Key, home to lush palms either side of a majestic lighthouse. I wonder if the photo below conveys in some way the otherworldly sense of the place. 

We tied up to a mooring ball conveniently placed upcurrent of the wreck.

 

Kim was first in the water with mask and fins, leading the way armed with a flounder gig for protection from what might await. The rest of us followed in awestruck wonder at the clarity of the water and the abundance of life around the structure. The crowning moment of the dive was seeing an enormous lone Goliath grouper lazing in the cavity of the old ship’s bow. It weighed 400 lbs. if it weighed an ounce. Sorry no pic. 

.     .     .

The ride home was smooth. Our last night together too short; bittersweet. Alas, Saturday came, and time for Avery, Kate, and William to return to their respective realities. Leaving Kim and I to continued adventures. 

.     .     .

Next stop: Havana!

Elbow Cay, Bahamas 

We got up Friday morning at Sailfish with enough time to do a couple things before our new crew arrived. The one thing we’d looked forward to for days was a tour of Michael Rybovich & Sons in Palm Beach, a builder of custom fishing yachts whose performance and craftsmanship have few rivals. Their yard is a beehive of activity, and a nexus of traditional and cutting edge methods. 

Their hulls begin life like this…




…and grow up to be this:


Above, the 86′ Sportfisher Cynthia, capable of 47 knots, with a cruising speed in the mid-30s. Getting there will be quick and comfortable, wherever there might be.  

You can’t fit the whole boat into the frame. I won’t take you through every detail, but this look at the engine room will give you an idea. 

.      .     .

Our new crew (Paul Clarke, Max Hopkins, and Alec Bailey) touched down after lunch, and we immediately pushed off to troll Palm Beach for whatever would bite. Spirits ran high as William and I fed off our new arrivals’ excitement at just being there. Cobalt blue water came nearly up to the beach–back home we might have run 70 miles and not seen better. Alec and I shot the breeze on the bridge while the boys ran the cockpit. It wasn’t long before line peeled off a reel, and we were on: a nice little mahi to get us started. 

Then a double hook-up resulting in a zero boat-up. Blame was assigned to the throttle man. Couldn’t have been the anglers. 

But who cared? It was time for another first-class dinner back at Sailfish, and then, in the morning, on to Elbow Cay at first light!

.     .     .

We would clear customs at the harbor at West End, Grand Bahama. The 55-mile Atlantic crossing gave us a quartering sea, not overly forbidding, just a little spray now and then. In a couple hours, we were there. As we approached the dock to tie off, the distance between boat and pier closing quickly to just a few feet, William lost his footing and fell overboard. I feared the worst–did he hit his head or break a limb on the way down? Why wasn’t he calling out that he was okay? 

Miraculously, he was indeed okay.  Scrambling onto the swim platform, he grinned up at Alec and me on the bridge. “What?” he asked, as if to say, “haven’t you seen somebody fall overboard before?”

Shaking my head, I walked into the customs house and emerged minutes later with our entry papers. Now we could take down the yellow quarantine flag, and fly the Bahamian courtesy flag instead. 

Heading east again, now on the ‘inside route’ through the islands, (rather than around them), we motored past the clear waters’ color changes, and over coral and grass like nothing any of us had ever seen. Did I mention spirits were high? 


The bright hues of these protected waters were reflected against the boat’s white hull, in each other’s sunglasses, even on the bottoms of the puffy clouds overhead. We’d not thought to imagine such as that. 

.     .     .

Finally we reached our destination: Elbow Cay, and Sea Spray Marina, the El Dorado’s home for the next week or so. Alec and I would be at the Abaco Inn, while the boys would sleep on the boat. The view from the Inn was spectacular, even if the Atlantic might be a little rough, upon closer inspection. 


Word at the marina was that the bite had been slow lately, owing to high winds out of the south and west–not the moderate easterlies that can lead to great fishing. We’d try our luck in the morning. 

We also learned that we would not be able to buy ice until 8:00 a.m. This struck us Bama boys a little funny: “Y’all don’t leave the dock at first light?,” we wondered. We loaded the fish box with ice while we had the opportunity. Neighbors from the gleaming sportfishermen in adjacent slips looked puzzled, too. They’d never seen a boat with a smoker in the cockpit where a fighting chair belonged. One by one, they stopped to express their curiosity. “Where’s Dog River, Alabama?” they’d ask. Their elegant yachts dwarfed the El Dorado. Maybe we looked to them a little like the Beverly Hillbillies, I pondered. Maybe so, but we’d show ’em we could fish, anyway!

.     .     .

Sunday’s forecast called for plenty more wind, and that out of the south. No matter, we were going. There’d be no running–after all, deep blue water was within a few miles of the beach. 

Well, it was rough. Rough enough to provoke a little seasickness down below, and to break the captain’s chair-back up on the bridge. And the bite was slow. We trolled from dawn til three, and were able to put only one fish in the boat: a diminutive skipjack tuna. What remnant of the fleet tried with us in the day’s sloppy conditions was largely unsuccessful, too, we learned on the radio. 

.     .     .

Happily, were greeted back at the dock by a fellow Alabaman, Captain Justin Lee, of the Incognito out of Orange Beach. He’d been in Elbow Cay for months and had knowledge of local hot spots and techniques. He let on he’d be fishing alone Monday. Spotting opportunity, I invited him to come with us instead. He immediately accepted. Score one for ole’ Sparky! Coming aboard, he noticed a line that needed a new Bimini. He showed us an elegant alternative–an Australian Braid. Five anglers looked on in rapt attention, as the Zen master weaved and hypnotized. 


On the basis of just that knot, and a forecast of calm seas and easterly breezes, how could Monday not be our day? All were  intoxicated with anticipation. Marlin Fever, as it’s known in medical literature. 

Our good fortune called for cocktails, sashimi, and mahi grilled on the Egg!


.    .    .

But alas, Monday would not be our day. We trolled from seven to four, and though the cobalt waters were calm and promising, they did not produce. The fleet also struggled, though we did see one fish hooked on a nearby boat: a tail-dancing Blue, object of our obsession. Our unspoken envy was deafening.

We established our need for a lucky break over a humble dinner of conch, lobster, and steak at the Abaco Inn. Something had to give. We’d come too far, paid requisite dues. Tuesday’s forecast was another pretty one, but Wednesday’s was not. With resolve rivaling General George S. Patton’s, we agreed: we’d get the job done Tuesday, whatever it took. 

.     .     .

We blasted off at dawn, and headed due east, looking for a tide line, or ‘rip’ as we say. We found a good one eight miles out–bunched up sargassum and a change in water temperature. We put out a spread. 

Not minutes later, three reels screamed. A teaser was being demolished by something–a billfish? Mayhem ensued. We got idle lines cleaned up, and two remained engaged. One turned out to be a big mahi. The other, a respectable companion. 


Adrenaline flowed. Our illness gained strength. Lines were deployed. Spirits–well, you know. 

Hours went by without a bite. The fleet reported another slow day. But the water remained promising. And then IT happened–a blue marlin exploded out of the water 200 yards behind the boat. That’s funny–one of our rods was bent over. What? Somebody’d left the clicker off! And just like that, it was on. William grabbed the rod. Paul put a belt on him. Alec and Max cleaned up idle lines. I did captain stuff. What a team. We were hooked up to the El Dorado’s first marlin! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. 

Bringing the fish in close, we would learn whether we really were the team we thought. 


Boy, were we!  



Paul grabbed the leader and pulled the fish close. Alec cut the line at the hook, as Paul grabbed the bill. We pulled the fish alongside the boat, to ensure water passed through its mouth and gills, reviving it from the exhausting fight. Releasing the imposing creature back into the deep, we saw its tail kick and then kick again–we’d done it! We’d finally landed the fish that had long eluded us! For the five of us afflicted with Marlin Fever, it was not the same world we’d woken up in that morning. Some of you understand. 

.     .     .

We immediately reported our success on the radio, and received congratulations from what sounded like a frustrated fleet. Making our success that much sweeter, of course. “Where’s Dog River,” they’d asked. Now they knew!

.     .     .

Our desperate mission now complete, our fever miraculously subsided. We drove on to Sandy Cay, a prime snorkeling spot, and tied up to an anchor ball. What a day!


.     .     .

Back at the dock, our neighbors on the Desire’ lent us a flag to run up an outrigger–bragging rights–so we could signal our success to others so afflicted. 


Flying it upside-down signals a successful live release. We beamed. 

Mahi on the grill tonight, and an unceasing debrief of the moments of the afternoon.  

.    .    .

Wednesday the weather turned rough again. We opted for sleeping in, then to Hopetown for lunch and a tee shirt. The lighthouse provided a point of interest. 


Who’s the short guy?

.     .     .

Thursday was supposed to be departure day–the day we’d planned to cross the Atlantic to Miami, and put Alec, Max, and William on flights back to Alabama the next day. William and Max had a Sigma Nu rush party in Auburn Friday night. God forbid weather intervene! Yet it was trying to: forecasts called for 20-knot winds and 4′-6′ seas for the crossing. Discretion required that we fly those three from Marsh Harbor to Miami, while Paul and I evaluated options for getting the boat across. 

We got them to Marsh Harbor, and made a plan to run in protected waters back to West End, and wait for a window to make the shorter run back to Palm Beach. As we drove west, the wind began to lay. By the time we made West End, it was ESE @ 10-15. Observed seas were 3-4 feet. A following sea for a 55-mile run. Forecast much worse for the coming days. I decided we’d try the first 5 miles. If too much, we’d tuck back into the West End harbor. 

The 35 Cabo settled into a comfortable pace, 18 knots, softly laying the bow up on the back side of each successive swell. Five miles became 55, and we made Lake Worth Inlet by 6:00 p.m., in a light drizzle. 

.      .      .

Over the next day and a half, Paul and I would drive the El Dorado south and west, through the massive Port of Miami, Biscayne Bay, and then into Hawk Channel for our final run to Key West. Kim, Avery, Kate, and William will join me there, and Paul’s adventure will come to an end. 

On the way, we stopped in Islamorada to refuel and wash up, cook a fine meal of smoked mahi, and relax after a long day of running. 

Paul tried to find a fly-biter in Snake Creek. 

We left Islamorada at daybreak and headed west for our last leg. Our early start would give us enough day to try and fish, or if the winds wouldn’t lay, walk Duval Street. 

    And so, now well past Marathon, I close this marathon post, hoping you’ve enjoyed. God knows you’ve endured. 

    Gratefully,

    OCS

    (Ole’ Cap’n. Sparky)

    Okeechobee Waterway 

    Wednesday morning, we got what I thought was a decent start. 0730. We made a right turn to south out of Miller’s, to get around Pine Island, then Northeast past Ft. Myers and into the Okeechobee Waterway. 

    More and more, I asked William to take the helm. 

    As we made our way, he seemed to be mastering the systems–navigation, throttles, autopilot, monitoring engines. We’d talked about it a fair amount prior, but today, I was able to pick up on subtle cues that things were beginning to really click for him, without my saying. His seamanship and judgment had always been good; now pilotage skills were showing themselves. I gave him a compliment we used sparingly back in my flying days. I told him he might be almost a real ‘operator’–possessed of SA (situational awareness), able to handle the unexpected as it came, understand the implications, react calmly, make sound decisions. My man!


    .     .     .

    After a one-day, 250-mile crossing, you’d think the 134-mile Okeechobee Waterway across central Florida would be a cinch to make, and in less time. Not so much. The locks, bridges, and slow-speed passing situations make for a very long day. No worries–we’d budgeted a little extra time for just such a thing. We enjoyed watching the scenery and wildlife change: alligators, herons, bald eagles, manatees, tarpon–wow! But the locks. Ugh. 


    We’d hoped we’d make it through the last lock–St. Lucie–before the operator quit at 4:30. If we could, we’d try and wade the inland waters at Stuart and throw topwater at twighlight. Once past the big lake, we ran like a scalded dog. But to no avail. As we rounded a corner, we encountered a train bridge. The operator told us we would have to wait for a couple of Amtraks. Oh well. 


    We rolled with the unexpected. After trading fishing tips by VHF with Rob, the bridge man, and two trains indeed did pass, he let us on through. We camped out just west of the St. Lucie lock, and fired up the smoker. We showered, and set the table for a feast: pork tenderloin, Boursin on toast points, petit pois simmered in butter, and sliced fresh strawberries. A fine meal for two happy campers!


    As the sun set, a bold visitor seemed to be looking for table scraps.


    We did not oblige him. 

    In the morning, we pushed off to be first in line when St. Lucie opened, and locked through with a manatee. Once clear, my co-captain pushed up the power for a final run to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. 

    .     .     .

    We docked in at Palm Beach’s tony Sailfish Marina, dropped off the Bandito, and headed out the Lake Worth Inlet, to troll the Atlantic with the remaining daylight. 


    William ran the cockpit like the master hand he is, and yet, despite offering a tasty spread, he got no takers. 

    So we settled for dinner at the marina restaurant, and a fine one it is. William ordered the prime rib, and a glass of the house Pinot to wash it down. He made me a proud father by demonstrating his ability to grasp the stem with three fingers, while extending a pinky….

    .     .     .

    And so, as we await our crew (flying in as we speak), we end this father-son leg, and file the above report. 

    Thanking you for your loyal readership, I remain,

    Your Barefoot Correspondent,

    Sparky

    Boca Grande 

    Monday was a big day, indeed. Our mission: cover the 250 nautical miles between Apalachicola and Boca Grande during daylight hours, and arrive safely. Outside would be the only way–there was no protcted option. To tell the truth, I’d lost a little sleep thinking about this leg, a long crossing over open water, far from shore for the most part, to traverse Florida’s Big Bend in one bite. Knowing to where I could divert in event of a problem, fuel planning, navigation, equipment–there was a little bit to think about. Thankfully, weather wouldn’t be a factor, at least according to NOAA, whose marine forecast called for winds NNW@10. I couldn’t have ordered better. Especially considering that only a few days prior, a major front had blown up 6- to 8-footers. 

    So, already full on internal fuel, and a 100-gallon bladder full on deck as insurance, we blasted off at first light. The sun rose on our left not long after we broke out into the Gulf from Apalachicola Bay, illuminating another calm, following sea. 


    Though it was a Monday, everything performed to standard, and we were able to kick back, blast tunes, and let the autopilot drive us to the pass south of Gasparilla Island, where we’d find the locally famous Boca Grande (formerly Miller’s) Marina. 

    Along the way, the water changed colors a dozen times, frosty blue to aquamarine, in hues each plainly different from the last, but often hard to describe, or to see where the change occurred   Abeam Tampa, a frigate bird almost rust-red against the bright green Gulf, swooped over hardtails, as the glassy surface broke. A photo, again, would’ve been great here. Alas, Kim wouldn’t be with us until Key West. 

    .     .     . 

    Tying up at Miller’s, a first class marina by any standard, we deployed the Bandito, dropped the outboard onto the transom, and headed off for some wade fishing. 


    William picked up a small gag grouper on a Mirrolure. All in a day’s work. 

    .     .     .

    I checked in with Eric Obeck, a friend of friends, who would graciously drop his Tuesday plans to take us snook fishing. This took some arm-twisting, but we were able to prevail. He would be driving down from Tampa, giving us a gentleman’s start time of 8:00 or so, in the morning. This was a welcome respite from the 0-dark-30 wake-ups of previous days. 

    Eric showed up at the appointed hour, and we boarded his customized classic vintage Aquasport, optimized for the kind of sight-fishing he does. We headed out to catch live bait in the corner of a bay. Eric chummed up our target–sardines/pilchers/white bait–and waited for just the right moment to cast his formidable 10’net. 


    The time was close. 


    Throwing a perfect umbrella, he netted only a few. We’d need a few hundred, he told us. And so, it would take a while at a pace of 2 here, 4 there. Our captain was getting his workout. 



    (The silver flash at the bottom of the net’s purse is a white bait).

    William and I tried to make ourselves useful as Eric cheerfully labored. At last, we had a fishable quantity.

    .     .     .

    Off again, through narrows of mangrove and grassy bottom, over sandy patches and under deep blue skies dotted with puffies. Into shallow bays where fish cruised the banks. A setting we’d not seen before in our travels, but one we’d not soon forget. 

    We pulled up to a spot against a little islet, and baited up. William cast as directed, a beautiful long arc to a point of grassy bottom. 

    Your spastic correspondent haplessly flipped a bait half the distance. William’s cast brought in a nice speckled trout. 

    I got better, and soon it was a double hook-up on the target species: a couple nice little snook!


    Over the course of an awesome day of fishing interrupted only by an equally awesome lunch break in the air conditioning back on the El Dorado, we enjoyed Eric’s captaining and company, first-class on both counts. 

    After lunch, Eric quietly put us on a spot that had produced tournament-winning snook over the years. I connected with a whopper, and, after my demonstration of undeniable angling finesse, we boated what will probably be the biggest snook this boy ever catches. 


    Eric reminded me the trick we all use to make a fish look even bigger. 


    All good things must come to an end, and alas, this great trip was no exception. Eric took us back to clean our keepers: 5 trout and a puppy redfish. 


    We cleaned up the boat, and Eric gave us a driving tour of the banyan-and-palm-lined town of Boca Grande, manicured yet relaxed. Beautiful. He dropped us back at the marina where we’d shower and put fish on the grill. Captain Eric had impressed two new friends. 

    .     .     .   

    As the sun set over Miller’s, we walked around the dock and marveled at the day and the place. Our trip was exceeding even our lofty expectations. 



    (My sister snuck in a guest appearance!)

    Moon rising over Miller’s will serve as our so-long for now. Until next time…


    Cap’n Sparky, out!