It was mid-December, I hadn't started my Christmas
shopping and I'm not known for my spontaneity. But
when asked if I wanted to take a five-day charter
cruise of Southwest Florida, I surprised myself
by exclaiming, "Yes."
My Travel companions, Ken Quant and Melissa Suring,
who were cruising veterans, wrote out their Christmas
cards on the plane while I, a first-time charter
cruiser, frantically flipped through Claiborne Young's
Cruising Guide to Western Florida.
Apprehension took a backset to anticipation when
we stepped off the place in balmy Florida and drove
past palm trees, pink and turquoise houses decorated
with Christmas lights, and old oak trees covered
with Spanish moss. At the Marinatown Marina in North
Fort Myers, Vic and Barbara Hansen of Southwest
Florida Yachts welcomed us warmly.
A primrose path led us past the Spanish-style buildings
the surrounded the Burnt Stone Marina. I carefully
stepped out of the sidewinding path of a crab to
climb aboard Ocean Cabin, the Catalina 42 that would
be our home for the next few days.
Ken Quant and the author enjoy
a sunny cruise in the playpen, a
protected, consistently deep area in Pine Island
It was getting late in the afternoon. We quickly
stowed our groceries and slapped together peanut
butter sandwiches before preparing to sail the 10½
miles across Charlotte Harbor on our way to Gasparilla
Gray storm clouds loomed large behind us and then
mercifully headed north, spitting rain as we unfurled
the genoa in the 18-knot breeze.
Cormorants and pelicans glided evenly above the
water and then dropped from the sky like bombs.
I watched them from the deck as Ocean Cabin reached
across the bay.
"Dolphins," Ken shouted from the wheel. Melissa
and I rushed to the bow in time to witness three
dolphins, maybe four, leaping alongside us. They
were so close I could see the blow holes on their
smooth, gray bodies as they emerged, then disappeared
into the murky depths.
The wind calmed and we reached along at a lackadaisical
5 knots, navigating the marked path of the Intracoastal
Waterway to Gasparilla Island.
George, a blurry guy with a hearty laugh, guided
us into a small slip at Miller's Marina.
We were followed by a weathered looking man in
a weathered old aluminum cruiser, with the name,
something like Merriweather, faded on the transom.
His boat's engine had a bad smoker's cough and there
were clothespins hanging on its lifelines. "This
guy looks pretty salty," said George as he moved
to the other side of their pier to take his lines.
It was getting dark. At George's suggestion, we
followed candlelit brick pathways through downtown
Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island's only village. It
was mid-December, not yet tourist season, and the
locals were holding their Christmas festival. After
visiting the art galleries and shops, we bypassed
the much talked about Pink Elephant to have dinner
at the less conspicuous Mango Tree.
The sign said "Open" but it took three raps on
the screen door to rouse the restaurant staff, who
seemed to be savoring the last slow weeks before
the tourists would arrive. In the outdoor garden,
we ate fresh grouper with lime ginger sauce and
drank cold Heineken in the company of a gecko that
watched us sedately from the wall.
Returning to our cozy berths in the dark, I remembered
something my husband said to me before I left: "Don't
forget to look up." Sure enough, the big Florida
sky was pierced with starts.
When I awoke the next morning just before sunrise,
our salty neighbor was already sitting in his cockpit.
His name was John, and he was about to head back
on the Intracoastal to his Tallahassee home. Schools
of mullet slapped their tails on the water as we
shared his pot of coffee.
Motors puttered in the marina and men spoke in
one-word sentences, maneuvering the fishing boats
back in. Miller's Marina is famous for its tarpon
tournaments when the season peaks between April
and June, but the catches of the day were kingfish,
redfish, grouper and snook.
Grapefruit hung ripe and heavy in the trees as
we walked past old tin-roofed clapboard houses,
freshly painted in white, peach and yellow. Simple
and rustic, they somehow blended in to the newer
and larger homes with two cars and one cart in every
garage. These little carts or ballooned-tired bicycles
were the preferred way to travel, but we crossed
the island on foot, strolling slowly on Banyan Street.
Planted on either side of the street in 1914, the
great banyan trees had gregariously outstretched
their branches to create a shady canopy over the
We passed Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. With
its wrought iron fence and stucco walls, it was
reminiscent of the Spanish explorers who established
a Catholic mission on the island in the 1500s.
Service was in session down the block at a white,
clapboard Baptist church, where organ music piped
out open windows.
As we walked singlefile along the concrete breakwater
to the beach, a line of sunbathing lizards disappeared,
one by one, behind the rocks. A freckled woman with
a pony-tail stood on the beach holding a fish pole.
Her companion, his pants rolled up to his knees,
was baiting his hook. The gray-haired couple cast
continuously into the white-green water at high
tide, "for anything that bites."
past exotic and native plants, Ken Quant and
follow Useppa Island's botanical trail.
Slowly, the blue horizon became an ominous dark
gray. Ken broke the news that we wouldn't be anchoring
out that night.
Melissa and I rented a golf cart to sneak in a
visit to the island's two lighthouses. We visited
the tall, white skeletal structure that was built
in 1927 as a range marker for its predecessor, a
recently renovated 1890s cottage-style lighthouse
and its out buildings.
On the way back, the wind picked up and it started
to rain. We sat in the cockpit eating cheese and
crackers, listening to Billy Holiday until the bimini
began to leak. Under the marina's awning, we stood
with the marina crew and a man from Dusseldorf whose
shiny black-hulled ketch was docked two slips away
and watched it pour. I asked when it might let up.
George laughed, retrieving his cigar from the windowsill.
"This is Florida rain," he said.
So, we ate just-caught-this-morning stone crab
claws at the upstairs bar and grill, while George
and the bartender told tales of giant tarpon, aloof
bobcats and alligators that took up residence in
backyard swamps. But nobody knew the story of the
alligator that was stuffed and mounted on the opposite
wall. In the spirit of the moment, Ken invited George
to come sailing with us and I half-expected to find
him in the morning with his bag packed waiting on
the end of our pier.
It was a gray day with a big wind. We sailed,
on a broad reach, for the Tween Waters Marina. Almost
every channel marker along the way was residence
of an osprey and its young family.
Ken studied the chart and expressed his concern
about Ocean Cabin's five foot draft. We decided
not to risk going aground near the tight shoal Brian
Mowat of Miller's Marina had warned us about. Reluctantly,
we changed our course for South Seas Plantation
on North Captiva Island, a place that has been described
to us as Disneyland.
Sure enough, a triple-decker powerboat that could
have passed for a carnival ride was the first thing
I saw when we pulled into the slip. And when the
harbor master told Ken, "Your money's no good here"
we knew that he wasn't extending us a downhome Florida
welcome. The place had its own special credit card.
Walking past a manicured golf course, trolley cars
and boutiques, we slowly shed South Seas Plantation
to find North Captiva Island.
The gulf-side beach was a wide curvature of sand
bordered by sea grass that waved in the wind like
a horse's mane. A dark-haired woman sat on her ankles,
placing shells in a large wooden bowl.
It wasn't long before we joined her treasure hunt.
Walter, with his photographer's eye, found the most
interesting shells- a turkey food, a perfect conch
- which he passed to us as gifts. He dug a trench
in the sand to uncover coquina, tiny mussels that
look like agates. We watched as they opened their
shells, each kicking out a pale, pink foot to bury
itself back into the sand.
After dinner at the Mucky Duck, a friendly British
pub outside "the plantation," Melissa and I returned
to the beach by flashlight. The green waves broke,
hurling themselves evenly to shore where they foamed
and sizzled at our feet. They sounded like a chorus
of voices followed by an audience softly clapping.
Shivering in long pants, we sat on the expanse of
sand listening to the performance under the dark,
bright sky. Two stars fell and I made two wishes.
The next morning, I walked out to the farthest
point on the longest pier to wait for sunrise. A
fisherman rowed by in a wooden skiff, dangling a
net and a cigarette, which glowed softly in the
dark. Suddenly, a pelican flew at me. I stepped
back as he swooped up to take a seat on top of the
post I was leaning on. Together we watched pink
light climb the layered clouds into the sky.
It was beautiful, sunny day, perfect for cruising.
Melissa hoisted the main and I, a novice sailor,
fumbled with the jib. Ocean Cabin reached along
freely in the relatively deep water of Pine Island
Sound. We later learned that the locals call this
area the playpen.
The wind pushed us swiftly past Cayo Costa, a nature
preserve speckled with a white pelicans asleep in
the mangrove branches. A northwest wind pounded
and the tide was going out, taking with it my last
chance to experience gunkholing. It had only taken
a few days of cruising to accept that plans are
formed, dissolved and changed according to the weather
and the tide.
By special arrangement from Southwest Florida Yachts,
we were permitted to visit Useppa Island, a private
island known for its role as a training base during
the Bay of Pigs, for visits by presidents and for
its old money. According to the man at the main
lobby, there is nothing to do at Useppa, "unless
you like croquet." Instead, we followed the marked
botanical trail past eucalyptus plants, bamboo trees
and ficus trees. Melissa brushed her sleeve against
a branch, sending a flurry of zebra swallowtails
into the air.
We passed the Collier Inn, established by New York
entrepreneur Barron Collier, where a player piano
soullessly plinked out a Gershwin tune to an empty
The old inn clearly wasn't open so we debated between
peanut butter sandwiches and a wet trip in the dinghy
to the famous restaurant across the Intacoastal.
Dollar bills cover the walls of Cabbage Key's
only restaurant, which is built on a Calusa Indian
shell mound. We pulled up to the dock just as the
sun was going down, tying our dinghy to the slip
marked 50-feet and over, and stretching our legs
as we admired the shaggy forest of cabbage palms.
I couldn't find the cheeseburger Jimmy Buffett
raved about on the dinner menu, so we sat at the
bar and ate fresh shrimp and blackened mahi-mahi
in paradise. The bartender, Mike Watts, told us
that the place is bustling at lunch when cruising
boats, the likes of which we'd seen at South Seas
Plantation, unloaded for lunch. It was late in the
day, two weeks before the tourist season, and we
were once again the only diners.
When we told them we had come from Useppa, there
was a long pause. "Is it true that they have a five-foot
chess board?" asked Mike. We told them all about
the boat with the United Nations flag Ken had seen,
the croquet course and the marked nature trail.
"We're not as sculpted here," said Jordan Smith,
a J/29 racer, who, at least until Key West Race
Week started, was Cabbage Key's official captain.
The night was overgrown with sailor chatter. Mike
was working 80-hours a week as a manager of a discount
clothing store. After his divorce 11 years ago,
he taught himself to sail. "It's a cheap way to
travel," he said. Recently, he married Donna, who
was our waitress. They live aboard a Catalina 13
at Cabbage Key for six months of the year. During
the other six months of the year, they cruise. Mike
wore a bracelet that said "live the dream," in block
letters. Ken wrote SAILING Magazine on a dollar
in black magic marker and Mike hung it in an honored
spot---next to the race car driver Dale Earnhardt's.
Entranced by their hospitality, we lost track of
time. It would have been a long, dark dinghy ride
back if Jordan hadn't been kind enough to offer
us a tow. He bought us to the channel marker outside
of Useppa. They sky was black, richer than old money,
and spangled with stars. A halo of phosphorescence
surrounded us as we motored back to Ocean Cabin.
On our last morning, the sunrise set the sky on
fire, but the temperature had dropped to a chilly
38 degrees. Cold crept inside the layers of fleece
we had piled on for the brisk ride back to the Burnt
Store Marina. Melissa found a patch of sun and stretched
out on the deck to soak it up. Walter curled up
in a blanket below. And I sat shivering in the cockpit
scanning the water. In my mind I summoned dolphins
to escort us on the journey home. rooms on a high-tech
Day is done for this elegant
little cat boat