Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Fish Fry for Eight Hungry Sailors

Boot Key Harbor, halfway between Key Largo and Key West, is possibly the most comfortable. friendly place you would ever want to spend some time.

The one and only thing that would cause us to leave the comfort and safety of Boot Key Harbor and travel the unfamiliar territory of Southwest Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is a chance to meet up with our son, his wife, and our grandchildren, whom we haven’t seen since we left Greenwood in early January.

Fortune again smiled on these inexperienced cruisers. At a Wednesday night “meet and greet” at the Boot Key Harbor Marina, we were introduced to Lloyd and Carolyn from Minnesota on the sailboat “Amelia Rose” who were planning a trip to Charlotte Harbor, north of Naples. They had made this trip many times and invited us to join them.

A third boat, owned by Ken and Joanne, also from Minnesota, which we all christened “Bubba Boat” because none of us could pronounce her Spanish name, would also be joining our caravan.

We said goodbye to Boot Key Harbor at 8:30 Saturday morning and headed north, on our journey up the wild, mostly uninhabited Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida.

The sun was shining, the temperature was climbing into the 80’s, the winds were calm, and the sea was smooth.

We motored through the Moser Channel just outside of Boot Key, under a fixed bridge with 65’ clearance, and north into the Florida Bay. As we cleared the bridge, we all raised our sails, trying to catch a little wind to add to the speed produced by the engines.

This day would be another first: our first sail out of sight of land. I watched as the Seven Mile Bridge disappeared from view behind us. A few small keys laid to the west, but after an hour of sailing, all land disappeared and the horizon was only turquoise water for 360 degrees.

Phil and I took turns at the helm, one hour on and one hour off. Porpoises came and went, diving under the boat and playing in the wake. The chart plotter told us we were about 10 miles off shore, but we could see no land. The sun was shining brightly, but a steady breeze kept us cool.

I had been apprehensive about our first voyage out of sight of land, but like so many other aspects of this adventure, my fears gave way to wonder and exhilaration. Motor-sailing along at six knots with the boat gently rocking and no land in sight gave me a feeling of peace and comfort.

A full day of traveling brought us to the Little Shark River, part of the Everglades National Park. We traveled in to shore on a well-marked route and soon were anchored in a wide river that could easily have been the setting for a horror movie. Hurricane Wilma had left it’s mark on this beautiful river, decimating the mangrove and hardwood forest that lined the river. Even after several years of new growth, the devastation was still evident. Ichabod Crane would have felt at home here.

We anchored with the other two boats about 6:00 p.m., had dinner and settled in for an early bedtime, closing up the boat before the hordes of mosquitoes attacked at dusk. Before we went to sleep, Amelia Rose hailed us on the VHF and asked if we could be ready to leave at 7:30 the next morning, because we had 65 miles ahead of us to get to Marco Island.

Like clockwork at 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning, all three boats headed out of Shark River. We traveled about ten miles offshore and then turned to the north.

As soon as we reached deeper water, Phil prepared a fishing line with an artificial lure that looked like a small minnow, and let out the line behind the boat. Within the first hour, we had hooked a fish. I took over the helm while Captain Phil worked the line. I could see a good-sized fish bouncing along the water as he reeled it in.

We identified the catch as a Spanish Mackerel. It was about two feet long and was pretty upset at being dragged onto the boat. I put the boat on auto-pilot, and using a tip from a fellow boater, rinsed a small towel in sea water and covered the fish. He immediately stopped flopping around.

Another boater had recommended subduing a catch with a squirt of alcohol in the gills. We had no gin or vodka on board, but I did have some rubbing alcohol. A quick squirt in the gills dispatched our fish quickly, with a smile on his face.

We stored the mackerel in a cooler and covered him with ice. We hailed the other boats and bragged about our catch. Bubba Boat wanted to know exactly what kind of lure we were using, so Phil described it in detail.

Phil let out the line again and within an hour, we had hooked a second Spanish Mackerel. Again, he managed to adroitly bring the fish on board and, again, it was at least two feet long. We applied our tried and true subduing methods and the second fish soon joined the first fish in the cooler.

The line went out again and before long we had snagged a third Spanish Mackerel. After depositing fish number three in the cooler, Phil took over the piloting of the boat and I proceeded to filet the catch. Although I didn’t have scales to weigh the filets, it looked like enough to feed an army.

We arrived at Marco Island about 6:00 p.m. and all three boats were anchored in Factory Bay by 7:00. We invited the other two boats over for a fish fry. As soon as we anchored, we put potatoes on the grill to bake and prepare two frying pans with enough oil to fry the catch.

Our fellow boaters arrived around 8:30 p.m., bringing salads and dressing to round out the meal. I dredged the fillets in bread crumbs and corn meal and dropped them into the hot oil. Our feast was complemented by lots of wine and soft drinks. The party lasted until nearly midnight.

We spent the next two days resting, doing odd jobs on the boat, reading, and enjoying the beautiful scenery and weather in Marco Island.

On Wednesday, we said goodbye to our buddy boats and traveled a few miles north, anchoring on a pristine river near a large lake called Rookery Bay, a protected nesting area for water fowl. Although we were within a few miles of both Marco Island and Naples, it seemed as if we were in the middle of a wilderness.

We tried our hands at fishing in the river using the same artificial lure that had caught the mackerels, but had no luck. On a whim, I attached a small piece of leftover pork roast to a hook on a line and soon felt a tug. On my line was a 12” catfish, which Phil carefully de-hooked and released. We did take a picture (see above) to prove that I had actually caught a fish.

Today, (Thursday) we have moved a few more miles to the southern outskirts of Naples. This time, our anchorage is in a small bay, surrounded by multi-million dollar homes. We’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, but our internet, cell phone and television reception are all exceptional.

We’ll probably hang out here in the land of the rich and famous for a couple of nights, then move to the Naples City Docks to await the arrival of our son, daughter in law and grandchildren on Sunday.

Life is good.

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