I wasn’t out on the fuel dock when Frank climbed down onto the boat. He didn’t want to be seen with anyone and, after what he had told me last night, there was no problem on my part. It was probably 30-foot, semi-catamaran hulled, and painted a camouflage like pattern of black, grey, and dark green. I had only ever seen pictures of ocean racing super-powerboats but this had to be one. A dock attendant had rushed out to take a look at the craft and see if he could peddle some gas but the Captain, I assume named Carlos, waved him off and only nudged up to the ladder long enough for his passenger to jump aboard. With a muffled roar the Cuban wheeled the boat around, headed back out the channel and disappeared behind a mangrove point. Frank was standing next to him and never looked back.
Standing at the foot of the dock as the attendant walked back towards the office, I ask him if he had “ever seen a boat like that before?”
“One time, in Nassau last year at the Bacardi Ocean Races – saw three just like it! It’s a Cougar Cat Off Shore. Sucker’s got four engines and can’t slow down! I don’t know how he got it back up in here but what’s really strange about her are the davit points. Racers don’t stay in the water, even overnight. They’re forked and racked, either dockside or in storage, at all times. That boat is rigged to be strap hauled and stowed; probably on another boat – some dingy, Huh.”
Frank and I had spent the morning laughing and bringing back old times. He bailed out on lighting the burner and had, pretty much, turned tourist by stealing a few extra winks and waiting for me to make coffee, break down his berth, and put everything away. After breakfast we decided to try to do a little sailing so, leaving the Avon tied on aft, I pulled up the anchor and let the morning off-shore ease us away from the Caribbean Club. The plan was to just leave Frank’s car parked at the Club. He would give me the keys so I could use it to pick up the rest of the things I needed that afternoon after we split up. He had decided, in his words, to not “talk anymore about what I do because I’ve already said too much and I don’t want to get you involved!”
All Frank had told me was that he was “supposed to wait for some guy on the fuel dock at the South Sound Marina.” The South Sound was on the Atlantic side of the island but my charts showed it was only a half-mile, or so, walk from another marina on Tarpon Basin on the Bay side. I had decided to tie up somewhere along this stretch anyway, so why not there? Besides putting on groceries and more ice, I needed to top off my fresh water and replace the mainsail wench. The use of Frank’s car would let me see if I could find one. We could spend the morning sailing and poking around Blackwater, then just dock Le Esperance and walk across the highway. If everything went right, we might even be able grab some lunch at a restaurant along the way.
Things went better than right! Frank had shucked his street clothes for a pair of my old cut-offs and I had convinced him that a brew in the morning was an old sailing tradition. The air was only 10-15 but it would let us sail lazy reaches back and forth on the Sound.
Blackwater is a unique body of water. It’s almost a perfect square, three miles on a side and, before they cut the Inter-Coastal channel through to the south, there was only one way in or out. The water, as the name implies, is always dark because of the black bottom. It may result from eons of muck run-off – I don’t know?
Manning the tiller on the port side, Frank had the chart book on the seat by his left thigh and didn’t care what color the water was. Glancing down at it, he asked me……….“Hey Jose, is this the map we’re using this morning?”
“Yeah, that’s the one, but it’s a chart Frank – not a map.”
“What’s the difference Jose? On land you’d call it a map so why does the name have to change just because you take it on a boat?”
“Big difference man. A map tells you where you can go. A chart tells you where you can’t!
Frank came back: “Maybe you better explain that a little, I’m confused.”
“It’s kind of like life in general and growing up Frank. When we were kids, most days all you and your little tree-climbing girlfriends needed was a mental map showing you how to go to school and get home again. The older we got, the more maps we needed. New schools, dating girls, learning to drive, away games, even going off to college – we accumulated a lot of maps and they got more complicated but they were still just maps. The big change came the day we truly ‘cut the cord’ and went out on our own. It made no difference if you quit school on your 16th birthday, got discharged from the Service, or went on to graduate from Harvard; when that day came, you had the whole World spread out in front of you like the open sea. You could see every wish you ever had on the horizon: the Island of Success, the Island of Wealth, the Island of Happiness, they were all there! You had a visual map because you could see all of them and you could just take your pick and sail on over any time you wanted to. But there was a problem – when we picked out the first island we wanted to visit and headed towards it – we ran aground! The expanse of open sea that we needed to sail life’s course over turned out to be filled with reefs and shallows. The obstacles all had different names but many started with “Lack of” and all of them were hidden beneath the surface. There was the Lack of Education flat, the Lack of Experience bank, the Lack of Start-up Funds shoal and, worst of all, the Bad Marriage reef. All of the Islands were still visible and, over time, we might be destined to find our way to some of them and walk ashore. If we only knew where the hidden obstacles were located and could steer a course around them; we could reach all the islands and achieve everything we set out to do in life! We could do it but. in life as at sea, all the maps in the World are useless. What we needed was one good chart!”
Approaching the mangroves on the far side of the Sound, Frank brought the tiller over to head up-wind and I released the starboard jib sheet. No need to adjust the footed stay or main because we were headed right back to where we had come from. Swinging 180 degrees and cleating the jib on the port side, the boom came across and we headed back towards the Caribbean Club.
“That was quite a dissertation Jose, but I got a better idea. If those islands are as great as we think they are, other people will find out about them and some big developer from Miami will tie ’em all together with a causeway over from the mainland. After that happens, I’ll just pick up a map at the filling station and go check ’em out.”
Shaking my head, I thought to myself………so much for that philosophical interlude?
After a couple more beers and another pass across Blackwater, we veered off towards the south and made for the cut into Tarpon Basin. Lowering the sails and cranking up the diesel, I intended to head in and tie up right away but, as we turned towards land and the sun got higher, something caught my eye as it slid by under the keel. You don’t have many coral heads on the Bay side in the Keys but we had just passed over one and I wasn’t going to let an opportunity slip by! The water was clear in the Basin and, after heading up wind, I killed the engine and dropped the anchor. As I watched, we drifted back to almost on top of a big chunk of yellow nestled in the sea grass at about 8 feet. The dingy was still in the water and I had an extra set of mask, snorkel, and fins.
As teenagers, Frank and I used to dive for ’em off the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We’d ride our bikes over, hide them in the hedges and walk right past, as Jimmy Buffett would say, “all those tourist covered in oil”. We weren’t much on conservation………swim out, dive down, gig ’em, break off and discard their front halves, then stuff the smooth rolled-up tails down the front of our bathing suits. By the time we’d caught as many as we wanted and got back to the beach, those sun-bathing little old ladies from New York must have looked twice as two, apparently well endowed, young men emerged from the deep!
We were raised calling them crawfish, Yankees refer to them as spinney lobsters, Florida restaurants insult Bostonians by labeling them Native Lobstas, and to Bahamians and local Conchs they’re just “bugs”. No matter what you call them – they like to hide out under coral outcroppings and they taste good with melted butter and a cold beer!
“Hey Jose, why have you got red sails on this boat?”
We were sitting in the cockpit and had just finished off about a dozen undersized, totally illegal, sautéed tails and the last of my beers.
“They call the sail color ‘tan-bark’ and it was traditional on cutters that operated as pilot boats in the English Channel hundreds of years ago. Ocean going sailing vessels needed to be guided into port, usually by going up a river or over a bar of some kind. There weren’t any radios, so the pilots would have to hang out at sea, for days at a time, outside the harbor entrances waiting for returning ships to come along. It was probably a pretty competitive business and you had to heave-to and wait for customers to see you and head in your direction. That’s where the sail color came in. I think it started with soaking the canvas in some tannin solution, made from tree bark, that gave them a reddish tint. I’m not sure about the details but the net result was that; the pilot boats with the tan-bark stained sails could be seen sooner than the ones with white sails……. I just like them, that’s all!”
Frank grinned and I could tell he was about to impart some Campus Shop wisdom on the situation: “Yeah Jose, those sails were sort of like the red lights you and I spent half the night trying to find in front of cheap hotels down on the river front in Jacksonville that night after our basketball game with Landon High. We needed a pilot that night but we couldn’t find one because pimps didn’t hang out on boats and didn’t have sails!”
Lunch on the boat meant that we barely had time to do our thing finding a slip at, what turned out to be, Benny’s Bayside Marina. Frank kept emphasizing that he couldn’t be late so, after tying up, we literally ran across US # 1 and down the side street towards a cluster of sailboat mast tops that had to be the South Sound Marina.
It was and we had a few minutes to spare. Before walking out on the dock, Frank turned and handed me the keys to his Chevy:………“Jose, I’ll probably be back later on tonight and I’ll try to meet up with you at the Caribbean Club or back at your boat. If I don’t see you again, I want you to leave the car in the Club parking lot. Just lock it up and put the keys on top of the left front tire. Oh, and if those things still have a key hole on the button, lock the glove compartment. There’s a letter inside for my son that I decided I didn’t want to mail until I get back to Miami. The Club never closes so, even if I’m out overnight, nobody will notice an extra car. You better check-out now, I’m supposed to be down here alone so if anybody asks you any questions – just tell them…..you know, something? See you later!”