December 15, 2004
The Last Ditch
By Douglas Bernon
Bernadette says I’m too quick and critical in my judgments. Bernadette says I’m too intemperate in sharing my opinions. Bernadette says it’s one thing to rant on and on to her about this and that, but that I ought to watch what I say in print about the Intracoastal Waterway. Bernadette says a lot of things.
I say, “pish tosh.”
Only once have I felt obliged to apologize—to a reader in Delaware who thought I slipped a smidge over the line in describing the undeniable hideousness of Delaware Bay as the closest thing to a sewage sluice that physics and the US government would permit a boat to pass through. As for the Florida ICW, which has saved us some considerable hassle this week—and before which I bow in gratitude—it’s about as weird a scene as man’s contrived, and we got to see a bunch more of it than I’d hoped for.
We’d wanted to run south down the Atlantic from St. Augustine, but there was a giant high-pressure system controlling the winds along the East Coast. The breeze was a manageable—and advantageously directed—20 knots from the northeast, but it was predicted to increase to 25-30 for several days, with seas building to 15 feet, and all that was crammed into the several miles between Florida’s east coast and the Gulf Stream, so we opted for the inside route on the ICW. I admit I don’t much cotton to putt-putt-putting along 10 and 12 hours a day, unable to use the self-steering systems and having to pay exquisite attention to our fathometer, which frequently showed us having less than a foot beneath us. I truly hate driving in these circumstances, and I’m grateful to My Personal Commodore, who does the vast majority of the wheel time while I busy myself as the local steward, making tea, coffee, sandwiches, handing up snacks, and finding seductive goodies—doing ANYTHING to keep the woman happy—so I can escape the experience altogether. If I’d wanted to amble through Florida at five miles an hour, I’d have bicycled.
With so much wind, even the ICW was choppy—sometimes very choppy—but at least we could roll out some genoa and increase our speed. We left St. Augustine’s anchorage before sunrise, rode the ebb tide and made great time, turning into a well-protected but shallow and bumpy anchorage behind a large bridge at New Smyrna Beach an hour before dark. Just south of Daytona Beach, a TowBoatUS launch driver who was pulling a vessel in the other direction saw our name on the stern and radioed to tell us about some new shoaling in the area we were headed toward. Then he asked if we were the same Ithaka who was writing on the BoatUS web site. We felt generously welcomed. Then, 10 miles further south we talked with another TowBoatUS launch driver who’d stationed himself at the bend near the Ponce de Leon inlet; he was hovering there, directing all boats away from another recently created and yet-to-be buoyed shoal created by the hurricanes that have ransacked the area. These fellows made us proud to be part of the BoatUS family.
Our anchorage at New Smyrna was safe but uncomfortable. Even in 30 knots of blow we were laying more to current than wind, disconcerted that every six hours we had the anchor astern with a near gale all around us. There was only one other cruising boat there when we pulled in, but just after 8:30, with the wind climbing, another sailboat approached and struggled to get their hook set. They dragged a bit, and then when they hooked they were way too close to us for safe swinging. In those instances Bernadette and I are never sure what’s the best way to say “Shoo. Shoo. Get your booty outta our space!” Sometimes I stand on the bow, plant my hands on my hips and scowl. Other times I holler over that we’ve put out 300 feet of chain and when we turn, they’ll get mushed. Actually, we too had quite the go finding a good spot, twice bumping along as we attempted to crawl closer to shore and narrow the fetch. As their anchor dragged, Bernadette hailed the new arrival on the radio, and suggested a safer spot just to the northeast of us. There, they found good holding, better protection, and greater distance from us.
When the winds picked up to 30 the next day, neither boat weighed anchor, but Crux had a dog aboard and took him ashore. When they dinghied by, we invited them over for a drink. They told us this was only their fourth day of cruising, and they were overwhelmed. Over drinks, as the wind whirled around us, we got to know Carol and Kim, and howled with them as they described their first few stressful days. They sounded exactly like our first few days – four years ago. We told them all about our experiences, and close scrapes. Same story: great hopes, outlandish expectations, and the rude crush of reality. They’ll be fine, though. Pluck and necessity are great tutors.
Heading south, we were rocked mercilessly by large motor vessels driven by appalling beasts who deserve to be dangled, then lowered inch by inch into tanks of ravenous sharks. While most power boaters are polite to a fault, slowing down as they pass so their wakes won’t roll us, once in awhile we encounter a cottage-cheese brain who knocks the daylights out of us, zooming close by at high speed and nearly dipping our spreaders in the drink. And it’s not just the red-nosed 20- and 30-somethings with their baseball caps on backwards, it’s middle-aged grown-ups who ought to know better. (Bernadette says, “enough already, give it a rest.”)
My disdain for overgrown, testosterone-leaking nincompoops is partially mollified by my affection for bridge tenders, many of whose droll comments and small kindnesses make dull passages more human. The ICW is bridged in scores of places with highway and railway bridges that open for water traffic to pass beneath them. Some raise only on pre-determined schedules (the hour and half hour or every 20 minutes) while others open upon requests called in over the VHF radio. As we approached the Jensen Highway Bridge, Bernadette hailed the tender on the channel 9, the frequency used by all Florida bridges.
“Jensen Bridge, Jensen Bridge; this is the southbound sailboat Ithaka requesting an opening.”
“Hang on a minute there Cap,” came a woman’s voice. “I’ve been having trouble raising this thing. The hurricanes messed with my hydraulics.”
We hovered and circled, until she hailed us again. “Ithaka, this is Jensen Bridge. Better anchor for a bit. I have to call a technician, and it’ll take awhile. She won’t go up.”
We wiggled out of the channel and prepared to anchor, already calculating how an hour’s delay would ruin our chances of making our anchorage before nightfall. But just then, the tender called us once more.
“Don’t anchor yet, Cap. Let me try her a couple more times for ya, just in case.” Suddenly, we heard the bells ring, the traffic arms went down to halt the cars, and our bridge tender was back on channel 9. “Bring her on, Cap. The juice is flowing and she’s goin’ up!”
Later in the day, we missed an opening by two minutes, and had to wait half an hour for the next one. The tender called us and apologized for the inconvenience. Then she called again. “Y’all ought to just settle in and look behind you. There’s a double rainbow there for ya to enjoy for a few minutes.” She was right. Behind us was a spectacular show.
Our favorite bridge on this trip, though, was the Haulover Canal Bridge, just north of Titusville. We scooted underneath and Bernadette called back to the tender to thank him for the opening. A minute later he hailed us.
“Ithaka, Ithaka. This is the Haulover Canal Bridge. Please switch to channel 6.”
We switched, wondering what we’d done wrong, and the tender said: “Bernadette, is that you?”
“Yes,” she said. “Who’s this?”
“This is Earl from My Bonnie. How are you and Douglas doing?”
“Earl!” Bernadette gasped. “I don’t
believe it!” We’d last seen Earl and Sue three years earlier,
anchored in the Colson Cays, in Belize. Now they’d returned from
cruising to replenish the kitty before setting out for another round,
and Earl had taken up his previous job as a bridge tender. We chatted
and got caught up, recalling our several days together, and especially
remembering the sour-dough cinnamon rolls Sue had made for us the morning
we all separated in Belize. “We still talk about those rolls,”
“I’ll do that,” said Earl. “Y’all take care now. We’ll see you out there again some day I hope.”
“We hope so too,” she answered.
Ithaka puttered onward, the Haulover Bridge disappearing astern. We switched back to channel 16, and got ourselves organized for some heavy weather as the wind picked up again to 25 knots. Ahead were more bridges, Titusville, and more bridges. As we approached Lake Worth we entered the realm of the mini-mansions, then the mega-mansions, and then the gargantuan-mansions. Some perverse power in the cosmos, some sick-humored spirit must have grabbed North America somewhere around Puget Sound, yanked it up by its ears and shook it about a couple of times; then, a whole lot of loose change, doubloons, krugerands, gold nuggets, bad architects, and very rich people with very strange tastes broke loose, and skittered into the narrow crevice of the ICW just north of Lake Worth. When the earth settled, these folks grabbed their gold, the architects hung out their shingles, the bull dozers arrived, the builders got to work, and mankind created one of the most extraordinary cheek-to-jowl chorus lines of bloated homes to be found on any planet. With nary a palm tree separating one multi-gazillion dollar McMansion from another, homes modeled after Howard Johnson Motels are slapped next to Spanish haciendas that nuzzle Italianate villas that nearly kiss a—YIKES—split level 1955 ranch house, a throwback-eyesore that will be demolished moments after the 98-year-old widow who’s lived there since the day the foundation was laid moves on to Valhalla.
In a nation that’s bewildered about where all that money went when it disappeared from the stock market, I can tell you. It’s in the Last Ditch of South Florida’s ICW, where competition is keen for the most bulbous home, the glitziest façade, the most flamboyant garden, and the most preposterous statuary. We’ve seen more ersatz, classical Athenian statues than ever stood in the Parthenon, some of them perched high atop pedestals, where, jointly locked in colorful concrete, they share space with oddly-posed animals. In this leap toward grandeur, folks with more dollars than sense have cemented together a public eternity for Socrates and a pelican.
Bernadette says, “NOW, you really ought to give it a rest.” She’s right, as usual. But before I do, as we pull into the Lake Worth anchorage at sunset, I ask her, “What do you think that old Greek and the bird talk about?”