Islamorada, Florida Keys, U.S.A.

Scuba Diving

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Florida Keys, U.S.A.

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My Aquarium

The week of Memorial Day in 2003 afforded me the opportunity to sneak away and visit the Florida Keys. I ended up staying with very good friends that lived bay side. Their waterfront property only encouraged me to tow my boat down with me and dock it for the week in their front yard. Man was that nice! I had the opportunity to get some great diving and photography in. Be sure to check that out at this link. Unfortunately it was cut short by near-record rainfalls, but I made good use of the opportunities I received.

This little restaurant was adorable. We were able to pull up to it by boat after a morning of diving and tie up for lunch. The owner would go down to the boat docks where the fisherman were coming in with the days catch and snag two groupers for us and then cook us up some of the best grouper sandwiches I've ever had. We returned frequently to this little joint. Another view of the Big Conch.

The bay where we kept our boat docked at had a resident population of a Manatee mother and her baby calf. At first this was neat as it gave us the opportunity to see, and even pet a Manatee, otherwise known as Sea Cows because they move so slow and are slow large, but by the end of the week it became annoying because we always had to be on the look-out for it so we didn't run it over with our boat.

Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to take many photos. I made the mistake of waiting until the last day to do my photo taking, and a disaster happened on the last afternoon to take photography far from my concerns. So, if you are looking for the scuba diving photos please follow this link. To see the rest of the album from the trip, which includes additional Manatee pics, check out this link. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy my disaster turned into short story format with a spice of sarcastic humor thrown in. And I assure you, this is 100% factual.

Disaster in Paradise

It was the last day of our trip and Kim and I needed to begin packing up our belongings and prepare for our long 28 hour drive home. A large part of this process was to take the boat out of the water, get it cleaned up and wiped down to remove as much of the saltwater as possible,flush the engine for the same purpose, and generally begin packing it up then. First, however, I wanted to sneak in one last dive of the trip with my buddy Greg.

All went well on the dive and both Greg and I captured many great images. We returned to Jerel's dock to drop off Greg and all of our scuba gear, as well as pick up Kim for one final cruise through the Florida Keys on Mental Floss.

Now as an Illinois boater I'm not used to perfectly clear water. Water up around these parts generally has a lot of farm run-off in them, and hence have nearly zero visibility. In turn, the sun reflects off the waves, but not nearly like it does in the tropics with clear water.

So it's a bright sunny day with only a slight chop of waves on the ocean, just really perfect conditions for that final cruise through the Keys. This is where everything goes bad. The bright sun mixed with slight chop yielded an ocean that sparkled like a field of diamonds, thereby hindering any view of what lies beneath the surface. As Captain of the boat I inexcusably lost myself in the moment and failed to watch my depth gauge. I'm sure you can already see this coming.

The slight vibration that begin in the rear and immediately hastened my attention quickly became worse. A quick check of the gauges yielded horrifying results upon viewing the depth gauge. When your boat requires no less than 3.5 feet of water to operate proficiently, a gauge that reads 0.2 feet is not your friend. I immediately shut down the engine, but before I could do so the boat had already glided to a quick stop and perched itself upon a sand bar.

"What happened?," immediately Kim questioned (she never was too quick on the draw upstairs).

I thought it was pretty obvious myself. As much as I felt compelled to retort in my normal smart-assed fashion, I think I immediately understood the gravity of the situation and did my best to keep a level head. I did my best to explain to Kim that we were in deep shit, and yet keep it low-key enough to not panic her. I failed. Tears began to flow.

Okay, so it is obvious to me that if we were to get out of this situation it'll have to me that thinks of something. I look around the bay to see what I see. In front of the boat I'm guessing maybe 150 - 200 feet to the deep channel. To either side nothing but bay, and behind me a trail of clouded water and floating sea grass. If we are to get out, the boat will have to keep going forward I surmise. But how?

The first obvious answer is we get out and push. Seems simple enough, right? Well, the boat weighs in around 4000 pounds, and I haven't been able to push this thing while it sits on wheels, lord knows what made me think I could do it while it sits on sand. But we try anyway.

Each of us slip on our sandals on and I'm first to jump overboard. Having never walked through a sea grass field before I wasn't prepared for what happened. I sank. Quickly. Like quicksand. I lunge for my boat and grab on and pull myself free. Somewhere down in the Florida Keys my sandals still remain a part of the sea gras bed. A small price to pay to be removed from the quicksand. Before I can warn Kim she is airborne and then knee deep in sand. She gets to keep one of her sandals, but the other foot is rewarded with a nice little gash - presumably from a snail shell, coral fragment, or the like.

Kim's foot now freshly bandaged in my shirt (hey even in a crisis situation I'm not getting blood in my boat), I have to devise a new plan of attack. But first, a brief recap for those reading along at home: I have beached my boat on a sand flat that is a sea grass bed. A sea grass bed, for those not familiar, is a Marine Park Reserve aka a National Park. See the sea grass is a protected area because within it lives all the baby fish, some possibly endangered species, that get spawned out in the ocean, hiding from bigger fish until they, too, are grown up big fish. Translation: beaching your boat in a sea grass bed is bad juju. Liken it to walking into Yellowstone National Park and allowing your campfire to spread and start a forest fire. This is simply not good.

I have a cell phone, but ironically enough I do not have any phone numbers to Greg or Jerel.

"Call the police," Kim vocalized.

"Riiiight," I said, "so they can come down here and arrest me. I think I'll try to get this off of here by myself, thanks."

"They'll arrest you?," Kim asked.

Right then I realized Kim, despite crying, had no idea to the gravity of this situation, yet. Do I explain this to her now, or let her find out from her escort to the holding cell? I figured I better explain it. For those at home who wouldn't normally have these concerns, I'll explain it for you as well.

Once the Coast Guard arrives they'll send help to get us off the boat without us having to wade through the sea grass beds. Hopefully this would be by floatation device. From there we leave the boat. We are fined every day our boat sits on the sand flat. The Coast Guard would then measure from behind our boat until where we initially ran aground, calculate and assess a fine multiplied by the number of feet damaged. Then, we have to pay a wrecking crew to come out at high-tide to drag our boat off the sand flat, and again receive damage fines for the drag multiplied by the number of feet of damage created. Besides the 6 digits in fines, you are also discussing federal prison for destruction of federal park land. Something to the tune of 10 - 15 years give or take. Yeah... This was no typical day of beaching your boat at the lake.

So, back to the story... The next magical idea came to mind. We were only 200 feet or so from the channel where boats pass by on a regular basis. We'll simply flag one of them down and ask for assistance. Sounds simple and foolproof enough to us. What we didn't realize is that anyone assisting us get off the reef would be subject to the same fines and violations as us. For some reason I think the everyday boaters of the Keys understood this rule.

After 10 minutes or so doing our jumping-jack routine maybe a dozen boats have gone past. Now I'm not saying that Illinois boaters are more friendly than Florida Keys boaters, but at least if we don't want to help that stranded boater we have the courtesy to act as if we don't see you. Or maybe glance over and toss up a half-assed wave and turn away acting as if we didn't realize they needed help. The Keys boaters do not share this unwritten rule of ignoring stranded boaters. Keys boaters, every one of them in fact, pointed and laughed at us. Most were slapping their knees and grabbing their stomachs. Yes, we heard the laughter. And quite honestly I wish I was aboard their boats at the time because it appeared as if they were having much more fun than I.

Never the less, a new solution must be thought of. Kim frantically searches the boat. Inexplicably, she finds Greg's cell phone, which he accidentally left aboard out boat. A gift from the heavens! An immediate phone call placed to Jerel and some basic coordinates of where we are and he and Greg are off to our rescue. Jerel understands the grave situation we are currently facing.

Maybe 15 minutes later Jerel comes from the bay side. We aren't out yet, but I'm suddenly feeling a lot better about this. We agree that our best route to freedom is to get a rope to Jerel and tie it off to his boat and hope he can tug us out. Thankfully we had all our Illinois lake gear on board, so I inflated one of our tubes which for so many years has brought me great loads of fun. This time it was gonna take me across the 6 inches of water to Jerel and the deep channel of water. I remove the anchors from their ropes and tie the two 150 feet ropes together. Surely 300 feet will be enough (remember I guessed it to be 150 - 200 feet). I tie one end of the rope around the tow-strap eyelet of the boat, and the opposite end around my foot, explain to Kim what I'm doing, and begin to paddle off.

Kim panics. She doesn't want to be alone in the boat.

"Well, darling," I begin to explain, "it's either alone in the boat or alone on the raft. One of us has to get this rope to Jerel. Which will it be?"

Don't ask me why, but she chose the raft. I have no clue why that was more comfortable than sitting in the boat waiting, but if she was happier doing that, I was gonna let her make her own choice. No point in arguing about it now. I swapped the rope from my foot to hers, handed her our one paddle, and she was off. This was probably better anyway because at half my body weight she probably drafted half the amount of water I did and easily skimmed the surface.

Once she was underway I was terribly thankful she chose to go. You see, not only was there a very nice, comfortable breeze all day which suddenly took on new meaning as Kim tried to paddle into the wind, but the tide was also coming in, which would be good to help float the boat, but again was going against Kim's direction making for a very exhaustive paddle. After several breaks where she literally stood up in the sea grass bed to stop the wind and tide from pushing her backwards, she had made the entire length of the 300 feet of rope we had and wasn't into the clear just yet. I guess my estimate was off. Whoops. So off the ski handles come from our two ski ropes and I splice them in. Between the two of them we add an additional 150 feet to the existing lines. Once again Kim is off, so tired of paddling against the wind and tide that she is practically trying to walk through quicksand now. And then it happens.

Kim screams bloody murder and hops back onto the raft. I couldn't make this shit up unless I was writing a bad B-rated movie. Kim paddled/walked right through a school of baby lemon sharks that were resting in the shallows. Key words here are "were resting." They were now schooling, and in the shallow water I must say it was a rather wicked sight. I mean, total Hollywood crap here - a pack of 10 or 15 sharks swimming in circles with shark fins sticking up out of the water. I was in awe. What a wondrous sight! Oh wait,... that's my wife on that small inflatable raft right in the middle of them. I shouldn't be enjoying this as much as I am (or should I? LOL). If she lives through this horrifying experience it'll be a heck of a story to tell. To bad I don't have a camera for this, I think, as I'm partially laughing, partially in awe, and partially deathly scared for Kim. But then I remembered - and perhaps you already thought of this - what about Kim's bloodied foot? Yeah, about that...

Once we gain Kim's attention amongst the panic and screaming, we instruct her to take the paddle and repeatedly slap the water's surface. She does, with enough vigor and muscle I though she was going to snap the paddle in half I might add. The blood-thirsty sharks, sensing the wrath of this women that I would soon come to know a few years later, quickly head for deeper water. I guess they felt safer running from the big fish of the ocean than from my (ex) wife.

Kim is back underway paddling towards Jerel, this time with every limb as far from the water surface as possible, and eating up the additional 150 feet of rope in record time. Impressive what a little motivation will do for you. It's not long before kim eats up the full additional 150 feet and *still* hasn't reached Jerel yet. I splice another 120 feet of rope in from my two tube ropes. Once again Kim looks like an Olympic paddler as she burns against the wind and tide. Before long the 120 feet are gone. Damn, talk about being off on my guesses. That's 570 feet of rope used when I guessed 150 - 200. This, remembering it is coming from the same Captain that beached the boat in the first place, begins to make more sense. Jerel and Greg are able to position their boat close enough to toss Kim a rope from their boat. Kim makes the connection, paddles to Jerel's boat, and leaps into his boat without ever getting wet since the shark incident.

Well, that was part of it. A large chunk, but I hesitate to say the typical "half-way there" because we still gotta tow this thing off the sand bar, hoping the ropes or knots don't break during the process, and that's even if the boat will budge. Naturally this doesn't take into account that my engine will run after all this, either.

Between Jerel's boat pulling, and me going back and forth between rocking the boat from side to side and hopping out to push and dig out the engine, we were making progress. I have no idea how long it took, and the Gods were smiling upon us because the ropes and knots didn't snap one time (moral of the story: buy only high quality ropes), but eventually we were able to drag Mental Floss (whom I might as well add wasn't living up to her name today!) off the reef. The engine started and coughed out sand for a few minutes, but quickly was operating as normal. Kim leaps back into our boat, and we are back on our way to the boat launch.

You'd think that would be the end, a happy ending, to this story, right? Nope, not in my life at least. The boat launch I have to get to requires us to navigate the shallow bay side of the Keys. For those that haven't experienced this, allow me to explain. It is nearly entirely sea grass beds merely a foot deep or so. However, the constant changing of the tide, which causes the daily flooding then draining of the grass beds, carves out thin channels often only 3 - 5 feet deep. These channels are mostly permanent, with very little variation over the course of days or months, and are marked by the locals with painted floating milk jugs, and any other sort of floating device. The boats that typically roam these waters are shallow bottom boats that need merely 12 inches of water to operate. For me to draft minimal water, I have to have a good rate of speed going. Idle speed causes me to sit to deep in the water. So now I get to look forward to navigating these channels after having just run aground. Needless to say I'm not looking forward to this one bit as I approach the Interstate bridge which I must pass under as it takes me from Oceanside to Bay Side. As luck would have it, perched dead center of the bridge, binoculars in hand (and a box of popcorn depending on who you talk to), is none other than Mr. Florida State Highway Patrol.

I look up, make eye contact, and he initiates the wave. I return in kind.

"Do you think we are in trouble?," Kim asks.

She always had a knack for asking stupid questions with perfect timing. I think my dead stare and silence answered her question.

"Maybe he won't find us," Kim said. Gotta love the optimism if nothing else.

I try to explain to Kim that we stick out like Shaq walking through Hong Kong. See, unlike how Hollywood portrays it, unless you are exceptionally rich boats found around saltwater are mostly plain white fiberglass. The saltwater is so corrosive that it bleaches paint quickly. Additionally the trailers for these boats are galvanized steel and unpainted, once again to protect against the saltwater environment. Boats from freshwater areas often have all sorts of colors, plenty of stainless steel for an attractive addition, and custom color matched trailers - ours was no exception. So yeah, our pretty gloss black trailer featuring the chrome 18" wheels are probably going to gain us undesired attention. Surely the Illinois license plate won't help, either.

This time, with full attention, I navigated the bay side perfectly. I actually impressed myself. I had visions of Miami Vice running through my head. I was Crockett deftly handling the ship as I chase down the bad guys. Thankfully Kim looked much better in the bikini than Tubbs would have as we rounded the corner into the marina. You see, Mr. Florida State Highway Patrol was kind enough to park himself square on the boat launch and seemed to be enjoying his afternoon as he sat with his feet dangling off the dock. I acted like I appreciated his help tying us up to the dock, pretty much expecting this to be the last time I ever hold the keys to Mental Floss in my hands.

This is where Kim paid off in dividends. As we are getting read the riot act by this officer, Kim is just letting the tears fly. She becomes completely inconsolable and now the officer feels like a jerk. I can't blame him either as it worked on me, too, years ago. After he finishes telling us all about the fines he has the authority to write us he lets us off with nothing more than an illegal operation charge, something like $100. However, he makes me promise to never again start my boat in Florida waters, including getting the boat back onto the trailer. I'm liable to "take out the marina if I start the engine again," he says. Getting the boat back onto my trailer without starting the engine was no easy task, but I was happy to do it myself versus watching someone else do it from the back of the squad car.

We were suppose to leave that night and begin our journey home. We were so on edge that driving was near impossible. After driving ourselves out of the Keys and eating dinner we stopped and got a hotel overnight. Upon waking the next morning everything was back to normal, and I'm happy to say we got home without incident.

The End

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Vacations

Utila, Honduras

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