Apr/May 2006   Travel

Lost At Sea

by Amy Hoff-MacKay-Jones

Oh, something to sell
Something that smells good
Something that NOBODY NEEDS

The radio wailed the impassioned welcome of BizBaz, or Bizarre Bazaar, the morning show of the Florida Keys. Two deejays preside over people calling in, up and down the islands, telling everyone what they have for sale or looking for something to buy. It's an on-the-air yard sale, interspersed with advertisements where the shop owners just call in like everyone else, with something to sell. It's the best thing I've ever heard of as a marketplace.

I sat in the car outside Paradise Petroleum, the "weird" gas station as Luke and I call it, waiting for him to finish paying for gas. A woman on BizBaz is listing everything she has for sale in her yard, and mentions a boat. I pay closer attention; after all, what are the Florida Keys without one? Besides, you wouldn't believe the kind of deals you can get on that radio show.

Luke opens the car door and I tell him there's a boat for sale on the other end of our island, Big Pine. We decide to check it out. It's Saturday, our beach-day, but we came down here to build a sailboat, which we never quite got around to doing.

When we arrived, we found out it was just a 16-foot aluminum Minnesota-style fishing boat, but it was only $150 (no motor, missing the plug). We paid $75 for it, and decided that today was a day for adventure--we were going to row our new boat (affectionately named Samwise after the sturdy companion of Frodo in Lord of the Rings) around the island to get it home.

We paddled into the canal and the rotten oar broke in two, leaving Luke to paddle with only one oar. I had recently sprained my wrist, so I was no help, either. We glided past the jellyfish pulsating in the canal and floated out to sea.

In the Keys, out to sea generally means "three feet of water." We live in sponging territory, shallow water where the sponges like to grow. Luke was overjoyed at being outdoors, using his muscles again; he is far more suited to this type of work than his current job of bank teller. I felt that I should be helping, and against his protestations, I took a few turns at the paddle myself until my wrist was screaming in pain. We saw lovely birds: the heavy pelicans and the horror-movie cormorants that sit on the phone lines with their wings spread out. Those birds remind me of loons when they try to take off. They are not well-equipped for flight. We saw huge white jellyfish and the little houseboats and sailboats moored in water just deep enough to hold them. However, the hour was growing late, and we had seen no sign of home.

Trailed by the fiery dramatic explosion of another Keys sunset, the sky painted hot-pink and blaze orange, we came up on shore, exhausted. There was a little boat launch there, and I asked a man where Doctor's Arm was. Doctor's Arm is next to our house, and would be the final point we would have to round to get home. The man started giving me road directions, but I interrupted him and said, "We're in a boat." That was one of the strangest things I've ever done, asking for directions that way. The man said it was the next point, so we were relieved.

In order to give Luke a rest, I started hauling the boat through the waist-deep water. The mangrove muck was terrible; I sank with every footstep, and kept darting glances at the water. I did not want to walk into one of those huge white jellyfish! The muck became so deep and sticky I could walk no further. Paddling and poling seemed to be our only options.

Poling was better, but the pole got stuck too, and of course there was no direction to the boat. The stars came out and twinkled at us, our nerves frayed thin enough to start a major argument, if we were so disposed. Luckily, we get along well enough to not feel the presence of each other as an annoyance. Luke started swearing every other word, however; we had been on the water for something like nine hours by this time, and the next point had not been Doctor's Arm after all.

In the distance, approaching the low keys in the manner all thunderstorms do, pink lightning flashed against towering gray clouds. The clouds come so close to the land and water here it seems you might be able to stab them with the mast of a sailboat. An incredible and beautiful feature of these islands; as long as you're not lost at sea in a motorless fishing boat!

Iridescent glow-in-the-dark jellyfish floated by like dreams. Both of us paused in our fear and frustration to see these amazing creatures, content there on the surface of the water. The entire ocean was spotted with them, we noticed; it was like seeing the vague lights of an underwater ball. Perhaps these were the sea's will-o-the-wisps.

We decided to bring the boat ashore then; we could not outrun a thunderstorm, and both of us were overtired. We tied Samwise up to a random dock in a canal, and walked onto land grateful that we weren't lost at sea. Now, however, we were lost on land!

We walked through the night on unfamiliar roads, stopping at one house to ask directions. The man who spoke to us thought we weren't in our right minds, or perhaps he wasn't, as Luke thought. Either way, we stumbled upon a joyous drunken party of men playing pool under their stilt-house. They selected their nephew to drive us home, and waved us off in a boisterous manner. These people pretty much define the Keys; an entire drunken, happy family!

We collapsed into bed, and the next day Luke paid the fourteen-year-old kid at the Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp, our next-door neighbors, to tow Samwise here. Apparently we were still far away from home where we ditched the boat. If we had been less tired, it would have taken us about five or six hours to paddle the rest of the way.

The man who had sold us the boat met Luke on his bike, and had been on the phone that very moment notifying the Coast Guard that we hadn't returned for our car. He was glad to see that we were safe, and we had trundled our little boat back home.

Today, Samwise sits along the dock, bobbing in our own smelly mangrove swamp, while the cormorants and pelicans do their best to whitewash the dock in our absence. They had tried this on Samwise, but we decided to move him because we did not want to have to clean up after the birds. We have not taken him out since that day, and he still does not have a motor. We'll probably sell him when we leave the Keys, without using him again. After all, we had our own epic quest with our own Samwise, and we don't want to press our luck since we returned from our adventure intact.


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