Last Monday, which was to be my final day anchored in the Manatee River, I was down in the cabin typing and clicking away my time with BookLocker work. I was the only boat in the anchorage that afternoon, having started my day with a fantastic morning walk on the beach and nature trails of the DeSoto National Memorial.
At around 5:00 p.m., the wind had picked up again to a respectable 12 to 14 mph. I was stirred by the sound of voices nearby, and went up on deck to find that two other sailboats had anchored behind me, and another one was coming in to anchor. Wow! Things were getting busy! Kind of odd, considering that it was a workday for most folks.
The latest boat arriving was a brand spanking new Marlow/Hunter and it looked to be about 45 feet. That’s not a small boat – and the amount of hollering back and forth between the guy at the helm and the TWO people up at the bow fumbling with the anchor told me that the owner/captain was likely about as new as the boat.
They first tried to anchor only about 40 feet away from my boat on my port side. This would have had me swinging over their anchor when the wind changed later in the night. The captain hollered out to the couple at the bow to let the anchor loose. And boy they did … full weight until it hit the bottom. Despite what they do in cartoons and movies, an anchor is NOT supposed to be dropped or thrown. It’s supposed to be lowered in a controlled manner to let it set right when it reaches the seabed. This move told me that this boat was full of novices.
Now, normally there are few things funnier than watching a boat full of people who know nothing about either anchoring, or disembarking from an anchored position. Boat ramps on weekends can be pretty funny, too. It’s easy to pick out the boaters who have invested more time on polishing their boats than they have on learning how to operate them. And, watching these “mariners” yell, scream and curse at their even less experienced crew can provide priceless entertainment and drama that will be regaled time and again at dinners and social gatherings.
I still remember years ago when I had my little 22-foot trailer sailboat, and had launched very late on a Friday night at a boat ramp on Florida’s East coast. It was too late and I was too tired to get underway in the dark so I decided to anchor about a hundred yards from the ramp to get some sleep, and would start off the next morning. The sun was barely lighting the eastern sky when I was awakened by sounds of shouting, cursing, and engines revving. A guy who clearly didn’t know how to back up with a trailer was trying to back a boat down the ramp with two guys IN the boat who were giving really bad directions. And, apparently someone forgot to put the drain plug back in the boat before launching. I watched incredulously as the truck pulled forward and back, forward and back, while the boat and trailer turned and twisted defiantly like a cat trying to avoid being put in a bath. The whole time, Gilligan and the Skipper were standing in the boat bellowing out conflicting directions that changed every few seconds. “Back! Back! Back! Back! No, pull up! Turn left! NO!!! The OTHER WAY!!”
The scene only became more hilarious when the guys in the boat started getting their feet wet from the water coming in through the drain. And, then the real fun began when another truck full of boaters started trying to launch right next to these guys and they began getting in each others’ way. At first, I had had been really agitated that my peaceful slumber in the V-berth had been cut short by these morons. But, I began to realize the rare opportunity I had been afforded to watch a free comedy show. So I put a pot of coffee on the stove as the sun started to show itself while more trucks, trailers and boats started to show up at the ramp. In half an hour, I was kicked back in my cockpit watching a scene unfold that was better than the Three Stooges. I giggled and had my breakfast as people hurled insults and curses at each other while a few almost came to fisticuffs. I actually delayed my departure another hour just to watch the mayhem, anchored in the safety of the deep water some distance from the ramp. It was good times.
Funny as these clowns may be at a distance, it becomes a very serious matter when one of these types tries to anchor a large boat that weighs somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 tons in the same anchorage you are hoping to sleep in that night under high winds. It tends to raise one’s blood pressure a bit.
As the behemoth vessel kept sliding back, sliding back, sliding back – the captain yelled out to the bow crew that the anchor wasn’t catching, and to pull it up. He motored the boat forward and they tried again. No sooner had the anchor hit the floor than the skipper threw the engine into reverse, and began backing up – another rookie mistake. Back, back, back the boat slid because the anchor had too much speed and not enough scope to catch the bottom. Captain Ahab hollered out for the crew to bring it back up again and he maneuvered the boat over to my starboard side (because the ground MUST be better over there). They repeated all the wrong steps over again, and were again stunned and dismayed when the hook didn’t set. The crew was ordered to raise the anchor off the bottom once more. Lucky for the folks at the bow, this boat had an electric windlass (winch for the anchor). Otherwise their backs would have already given out. I don’t have a windlass so I have to get my anchor to set right the first time, because, at 47, I can only heave-ho my 45-pound Danforth and its 30 feet of chain back up once or twice in one sitting.
Popeye tried once again behind me, to starboard, and met with the same results. So, he began motoring forward to attempt to anchor UPWIND from me! This is where I decided he needed to find another part of the anchorage to practice his skills. Once you start yelling across an anchorage at an idiot, other people can’t tell who is who. So, I decided to try a more subtle communication tactic first. I crawled out of my cockpit, stood out on the middle of my deck, lit a cigarette, and stared at that captain and crew with my best peed-off, backwoods Florida-boy look that said, “I’m about to SWIM over there just to slap you around a bit.”
The girl on the bow crew, who had been looking back to get their orders from the captain, noticed my intensified presence first. As the boat was sliding back from yet another failure to grab the bottom, she hustled back to the cockpit for a brief pow-wow. Two other boats had come in, and anchored successfully on the first try by this time. After a few words from the girl, the skipper looked back, saw me and – after getting the anchor pulled up for the umpteenth time – turned the boat and motored back about 150 yards downwind in the outskirts of the anchorage.
In all fairness, I realize that everyone has a learning curve. But it’s just common courtesy not to put other people’s vessels and safety at risk while you’re trying to figure it all out.
Right after this episode (literally, 5 minutes after Popeye turned tail and headed downwind),in came “The Honeymooners.” They were in an old 42-foot Morgan and came in about 75 yards upwind of me. They were a couple in their late 50s, maybe early 60s, with their dog. The woman was on the bow and the guy was at the helm. He seemed to be having a bit of trouble getting the boat to nose into the wind long enough for her to get the anchor dropped, and was delivering a tirade of loud, angry commands and corrections. She was screaming right back at him, across all 42-feet of that sailboat for everyone in the anchorage to hear. They failed twice to get the anchor set and I began to worry. They were much farther up than Popeye had tried to park, but they were still on a direct collision course for my boat if, for any reason, they dragged anchor.
On their third attempt, the woman had had enough of the captain’s barking, and yelled back “Then, dammit, YOU get up here and do it!!” The two changed positions and the woman was now at the helm. However, the change in responsibilities did not adjust the guy’s demeanor as he now simply screamed back orders and directions from the bow about where to steer the boat – to which she would fire back with “I’M TRYING!!!” Thankfully, this time they successfully got the anchor set and the boat began swinging lazily on its anchor line. I guess he was better at lowering the anchor … or she was better at steering.
I settled back into the cockpit for a beer.
The next morning I awoke with the sun and rowed my dinghy to shore one final time to deposit my trash in one of the park receptacles. I rowed back and, after stowing gear, and checking the engine, I raised anchor. (Which I had set successfully the first time…and it had never come loose the entire time I was there, I might add.)
My next stop was Cortez, a small fishing town on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. I motored through the mouth of the Manatee river, and followed the markers to the ICW. I prefer sailing over motoring but, on either side of the channel, the water depth goes to only 2 or 3 feet in a hurry. I need 4 1/2 feet of water under my boat or I’m stuck. And, unless you have a good wind from somewhere behind you, there is not enough room to maneuver effectively. Also, I’d never been in this stretch of the ICW. So, I always like to play it safe in unfamiliar waters, and simply rely on my little Yanmar diesel engine to get me to where I need to go.
Being on the inland waterways never fails to re-set my perspective. Like many other adventurous souls, I have dreams of far-off lands, like the Caribbean, Polynesia, and little unheard-of islands that few westerners have ever seen. And, like many other westerners, I’m afraid of not having enough money in the bank and “investments” to ensure a comfortable retirement. So, I stay tethered to western civilization and continue to work to build my “nest-egg.” Meanwhile, those people on all those little islands I dream about visiting someday don’t know what a bank, a nest-egg, OR retirement is. They just live life one day at a time. And I can’t help but get a twinge of guilt like I’m letting myself down because I’m not able to just “let go,” and leave everything to fate – sailing off to my faraway dream lands.
However, when I’m cruising through the ICW, whether it’s the East coast or the Gulf side, I’m reminded that there is a whole world right here in my backyard to explore. Watching the little flats boats and the crab boats skirting the shallows, and winding through the mangroves, I realize that there is so much wildlife right here in Florida that one person could never understand it all in a lifetime. I could spend all day watching dolphins working together to corral schools of fish to eat, watching pelicans and ospreys dive-bomb into the water to catch their dinners, or the tree climbing crabs that crawl through the mangroves at certain times of the year here on the Gulf side. I never get tired off it. In the shallows, great blue herons and snowy egrets stab their fish prey with lightning-quick thrusts of their long necks. Spoon-bills wander around, sifting their oddly shaped beaks back and forth through the water and silt. There is even a kind of seagull called a Black Skimmer that feeds by flying just an inch or two above the water’s surface, and opening its beak to drag its lower beak through the water … while it’s flying!
Coming out here reminds me that I don’t have to travel thousands of miles across oceans to see amazing things. I just have to get out on the water, and open my eyes.
I made impressive time, getting to Cortez in only 2 1/2 hours – including having to wait for two bridge openings. There is a very popular anchoring spot just on the southwest side of the Cortez bridge. However, I chose to anchor among a small cluster of local live-aboards across the ICW on the southeast side.
I settled down to start knocking out some BookLocker business.
I’d been at it for a couple of hours when I heard a monster of a diesel engine passing by. I hopped up in time to see a commercial fishing boat motoring by, only yards away from me. On the back of the 60-foot vessel were piles and piles of netting. On top of the netting was a gang of pelicans hitching a ride. It was a hilarious sight and I dashed below to get my camera. However, by the time I got the camera out of its case, turned it on, and got back up into the cockpit, the boat was too far away and all the pelicans had decided to fly off anyhow.
Sometime later, another went by, then another, and another. Interestingly, no other fishing boat had the gang of pelicans on it. But, I stopped to watch each and every one. I love watching the working boats. They are rugged, powerful, and laid out simply with very little or no luxury accommodations. (For these guys, luxury is the coffeemaker up in the wheelhouse.) Those boats just radiate with raw, rough, no-nonsense power. And, I know that these guys work a very difficult job that barely pays anything. But, one cannot help but feel a romantic draw to such a life. They are out there on the water all day – dropping nets, hauling nets, sorting the catches. What amazing creatures they must get to see! Yeah, I know … I’m a romantic sap.
Fishing boats from Cortez, FL
Anyway, I promised myself that, the next day, I’d get a picture of the pelican gang – cute as they were and I went back to working on my computer.
The next morning, I was up at sunrise and got some photos of the fishing boats leaving so I could share them here. Then, I spent some more time on BookLocker stuff. When the tide was slack, I took my dinghy ashore to get some ice. I docked at a little place called “Annie’s.” What a cool little joint! It was a bait/tackle shop, bar, and small restaurant all in one place! The live bait was outside in tanks. The main building (where there was hardly enough room for two people to pass by each other) was built around a full bar, with locals and some fishermen all sitting and drinking. There were three or four tables taking up about a quarter of the place in one corner. Then, half of the building space was filled with fishing gear, engine oil, fillet knives, bait buckets…the works! I’ll go back someday to sit and partake of their atmosphere.
I got back to the boat and continued working. The day passed on and, before I knew it, I heard the loud rumbling of a diesel engine crossing my bow. I poked my head up from the companionway just in time to see the pelican gang going by again. I quickly scrambled below to grab the camera, and just about did a face-plant as the wake from the ragged old vessel smacked my boat broadside, and rocked her around like a baby’s cradle. By the time I got back up into the cockpit, the pelican gang was too far away to get a good shot. I swear I could hear them laughing …
Later, I rowed over and bought some shiners from an old guy operating a floating bait shop from a big pontoon boat. He was anchored about 200 feet from my boat so it was a short row. He had hatches in the floor that opened into big nets that hung below the boat in the water where he kept the bait. Pretty clever. I did some fishing while I kept plugging away at my computer. I caught an embarrassingly small snapper and, later a big, ugly catfish. Nothing worth writing home about.
The next day, it was time to raise anchor and get moving again. I’d plotted a course down the ICW that was 16 miles long, and would put me just at the south end of Sarasota. There are lots of marinas shown in the electronic charts in that area. I figured when I got there, I could call around, and get a place to tie up the boat for a night.
The ICW gets really, really narrow in several of these areas. Even with the autopilot turned on to keep a straight course, I had to be constantly vigilant to watch for markers and shoal areas. Some of the mansions along the waterway are very, very large while others are just garish. When I hit the more open waters of Sarasota Bay, there was s good wind so I decided to unfurl my stay-sail, and see if it would move me along any quicker than the engine alone. It was okay for awhile. Then I saw it….a rip about halfway up the sail! If you keep flying a ripped sail, the rip just gets bigger and bigger. I rolled the sail back up, and continued motoring. Since I wouldn’t be worrying about handling sail lines, I decided to drop a line with a lure in the water, and see if anything would try to grab it. After about 30 minutes, I saw my rod bend violently, and the reel screamed as it began spewing out line! I throttled the boat down, and took the rod to begin what turned out to be an impressive fight, and landed this nice gag grouper.
Now, I love a good grouper sandwich as much as the next guy. Unfortunately, it is not currently grouper sandwich season here in Florida. In addition, I didn’t measure this fella but I’m betting he’s just barely legal – if legal at all. So, he got to go back in with his friends and maybe he’ll wind up in the frying pan another day.
When I was in Little Sarasota Bay (different from Sarasota Bay), I started making calls to the marinas whose phone numbers I had dutifully written down. The first one was closed down. The second didn’t answer the phone and I left a message. The third had no slips that were deep enough. Grrrrrrr!! There was a big marina back about two miles in Sarasota but I really didn’t want to backtrack. And, although I could find places (although not the best places) to drop my anchor for the night, I really wanted to dock the boat, and go do some provision shopping, as well as get my holding tank pumped out, and reload on fresh water.
I had motored the 16 miles in just 4 hours so it was only lunch time. I decided to press on to Venice, and see what I could find there. Approaching Venice, I got to go through a turntable bridge for the first time in my boating career. I’ve been through a hundred draw bridges, but seeing a bridge that opened by turning was pretty cool.
I called the first marina in Venice that I’d looked up on Google, and gave my boat size and draft. The girl on the line hemmed and hawed, and stammered and stuttered. I got the feeling that they did have transient docking, but preferred bigger boats than mine. Marinas aren’t like hotels where they charge by the room. Marinas charge by the FOOT. Why dock a 36-foot sailboat for a night when they can give that slip to a 60-foot luxury yacht that will likely also top off on fuel and beer? It all boils down to $$$. So, I asked if she could recommend any other marinas. She referred me to the Crow’s Nest right at the mouth of the Venice Inlet, and said I could call back if they couldn’t take me. She’d see what she could do. I think I may have sneezed in a manner that sounded something like “bull-chips” before hanging up
I called The Crow’s Nest just as I was pulling into view, but on the other side of a big sand bar. The phone was answered by a very confident sounding guy who said he saw me across the way, to give him my number, and he would call back in a few minutes. He was going to find a way to get me in there. I hung up the phone, and suddenly I’d somehow lost my favorite sailing hat while I was on the phone!!! I had no recollection of taking it off. I never felt it blow off. I simply found myself hatless! The mystery still boggles me. I continued up the channel and, sure enough, my phone rang and the guy from Crow’s Nest told me to bring it on in, and call them on Channel 16 when I was close.
Not only did they direct me to the dock on which I was to tie up, but they also sent guys running out there to help! The winds were strong, as was the current, but these guys were pros, and got me pulled in and secured in no time. Crow’s Nest is small and gets packed like a sardine can in the afternoon. But, I couldn’t ask for better service. The employees were constantly running, and helping boaters and fishers who came in to buy bait. I had spoken to Angela earlier and she had told me BookLocker work was piling up because we’d had so many new sign-ups this week. So, I decided to stay three days to help them catch up.
The area is beautiful! There is a little island just a 5-minute row from the marina. And, just up the street is the inlet and a fishing jetty. Crow’s Nest also has a 5-star restaurant with an award winning wine selection. I called Angela and Richard to see if they wanted to come spend a day with me and they jumped at the opportunity. We planned for Sunday, before I was to depart for Cayo Costa.
After a week’s worth of “at anchor” showers from a garden sprayer on my boat, my first evening’s hot, 10-minute shower felt absolutely heavenly. The next morning, I got prepped to walk the two miles to the nearest grocery store. But, the guys in the office pointed out that they had loaner bicycles! I’m SO glad they had loaner bicycles because a mile has somehow gotten a LOT longer since back when I was in the Army. (It was actually 2.6 miles away so I biked more than 5 miles round trip.) That bicycle ride left my legs hurting. After my return, I pounded away at BookLocker work and, in the afternoon, I repaired the rip in my sail. Later that evening, I rowed over to the island and joined some local folks in watching the sunset.
Sunday came and the Hoy family showed up bright and early with their dog, Coco. We drove to Publix, and picked up some more things I’d added to my provision list. Then, we headed out to fish on the jetty. There were dolphins a-plenty frolicking just off the jetty. I kept trying to get pictures or video with my phone. I swear those dolphins knew what I was doing because every time I had the camera ready, they stopped surfacing. Once the phone was back on my belt, they started again!
We caught nothing but had fun watching the hundreds of boats coming and going through the inlet. After a few hours, we went back to the boat, and hung out for a while until dinner time.
Dinner was awesome! We sat outside on an upstairs patio with a magnificent view of the Intracoastal Waterway and the island. The food was fabulous. We ordered three desserts, and all shared. By the time we were done, the sun was down and the Hoys still had to drive an hour on the freeway to get home. They said their goodbyes and I spent the next few hours prepping the boat for my departure the next day.
I finally got to bed around 11:30. I was very tired.
PART I: An emergency U-turn just in time to avoid running aground!
PART III: “Four Miles Out,” Cayo Costa, and DOLPHINS, DOLPHINS, DOLPHINS!!
PART IV: “Depth-Defying” Pelican Bay, Hiking in Cayo, Dolphin Chasing Dinghy…
We Just Hired An Ex-cop And Veteran…Who Lives On A Boat – By Angela Hoy
Nautical Notes: Boating Magazines That Welcome Freelancers Aboard By Cyndi Perkins
When Your Child Gets Caught in an Ocean Current…
Treacherous Seas Force Us to Turn Around!Brian Whiddon is the Managing Editor of WritersWeekly.com and the Operations Manager at BookLocker.com. An Army vet and former police officer, Brian is the author of Blue Lives Matter: The Heart behind the Badge. He's an avid sailor, having lived and worked aboard his 36-foot sailboat, the “Floggin’ Molly” for 9 years after finding her abandoned in a boat yard and re-building her himself. Now, in northern Georgia, when not working on WritersWeekly and BookLocker, he divides his off-time between hiking, hunting, and farming.
I’m loving your travelogue. Be careful out there and enjoy!!!
Wow. Thanks for letting us land lubbers live vicariously through you. I hung on every word of your expedition, and even laughed out loud a couple of times. Keep up the great work.