Where The Boys Are

By Tom Dixon

Each winter, they take a break from their everyday lives and head to the Everglades — to chill, to laugh, to reconnect.

Photo of Gullivan Bay in the EvergladesGullivan Bay in the Everglades. (Photo: John Brady)

Every year, we have a ritual. Two friends and I take five days off, pack my 38-foot sloop with food, drinks, and fishing gear, kiss our wives goodbye, and set out on a little boating adventure to the Everglades. It's not high drama. We don't cross the oceans or break records. We just get out of Dodge, breathe some fresh air, eat too much, do a little fishing and a lot of laughing. So this is a story about our most recent trip last winter. Nothing much happened, but to us, that was probably the best thing about it.

We got a late start one breezy afternoon and enjoyed a sunset sail from our homeport in Miami on Biscayne Bay, heading south. It had been a long hot summer of work, and we'd broken free, beginning our annual pilgrimage to Cape Sable in the Everglades, on the southern tip of Florida. Aboard Full Moon, my 1970 Morgan 38-foot sloop, were my office mate Steve — we work in real estate together — Gary, who's an old sailing friend from the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, and I.

Thumbnail photo of Tom Dixon and the boys"The boys" head out. (Photo: Tom Dixon)

We planned to sail the first night until we were past the Featherbeds, a series of sandbars separating the north and south ends of Biscayne Bay. As Full Moon soared along, we started telling stories and fishing. I reminded Steve and Gary that we had to be careful not to do a "Nick." Once, in the Bahamas, another friend, Nick, was trolling a large fishing lure with double treble hooks. This lure has a lip in the front to help keep it deep. When Nick reeled in that lure against the pressure of the boat moving along, it put a wicked pull on the line. When the lure broke the surface, it came flying toward his face. He put up his hand and ended up with two hooks buried in his arm. We didn't know what to do. So we taped the lure to his arm.

Photo of Nick's makeshift surgeryNick's makeshift surgery became the stuff of legend. (Photo: Tom Dixon)

"Did he keep it like that for the whole trip?" asked Steve, who clearly couldn't imagine any reason good enough to cut a trip like this short. Luckily we'd only been four hours from Marsh Harbor, a doctor, and a lot of painkillers. We shook our heads, vowing not to pull a "Nick" on this trip.

The next morning, after an early start, Full Moon passed Cutter Bank, under the Card Sound Bridge, and entered Barnes Sound. The southern side of the sound empties into Jewfish Creek at the beginning of the Florida Keys. Moon draws only five feet, so we could travel the entire length of the Intracoastal Waterway on the inside. We were blessed with typical tropical weather, a moderate breeze from the southeast, sunny days, and cool evenings. With Gary at the wheel, I took an afternoon nap, and Steve sat back enjoying some music. Although the channel is well-marked and the controlling depth is five feet, Gary managed to run us aground just outside a narrow channel. He claimed it was because of the current, but we thought he wasn't paying attention to the channel markers, and we immediately began to give him no end of grief about it. Luckily, this part of Florida is flat, covered with light sand and limestone, so there's little concern about damage to the hull, only damage to the ego. We raised the main, sheeted it in tight, and with the full jib and the wind from the rear quarter, sailed her off. We anchored in a favorite spot for the night, the small bay between Fiesta and Long Key, just south of Channel Five, a 65-foot clearance bridge where deep-draft boats can cross from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo of 1970 Morgan 38-foot sloop Full MoonFull Moon. (Photo: Tom Dixon)

We dinghied ashore to buy shrimp for Everglades fishing bait, then headed back to Moon for a swim, freshwater showers on deck, and sundowners in the cockpit. The conversation centered on spectacular groundings we'd all experienced in the past. One of my own all-star performances had been a few years before, on this same trip to the Everglades. The boat I had then was small, with a two-foot draft, and so could take the direct route to Flamingo. With me was a banker I worked with and a wealthy real-estate client I was trying to impress. We went aground within sight of Flamingo Park Marina and called for a tow, but even that boat got stuck. By nightfall we were hard aground and leaning to one side. After they drank two bottles of wine, the banker and my client were able to sleep — one in the V-berth, one on a bunk, and yours truly curled up on the floor feeling like a dope.

The next morning we hear, "You all right in there?" We peered out to see my boat was stranded with only mud between us and a ranger, who said if we could get to him, he'd take us ashore so my guests could get home. I'd already tossed the anchor into the muck, so I closed the hatches, we climbed over the side, and literally crawled through the mud — my client muttering that if he'd ever dreamed something like this could happen, he'd never have come with me. Good times.

After a night of boating stories — each more humiliating and hilarious than the one before — and a great sleep, the next morning at first light, Steve, Gary, and I wolfed down a hearty breakfast, raised anchor, and made the six-hour, well-marked sail to the Everglades, successfully threading the needle through the sandbars at Yacht Channel and entering the Gulf of Mexico's converging tides and currents. Around two in the afternoon we spotted Cape Sable, the southernmost tip of the U.S. mainland, within the Everglades National Park.

Map of the Florida Everglades

In past years we've continued north to anchor in the mouth of the deep Shark River that runs 15 miles into the heart of the Everglades — an area so well protected that, in a hurricane, if there's time, boats from Key West seek shelter there. But this year, we continued north for another five miles and anchored for the night at the entrance to Lake Ingram at Middle Cape Canal. We fished until sunset, made a driftwood bonfire on the powdery beach, and watched tarpon jumping out of the water chasing baitfish — that is, until the no-see-ums sent us tearing for the dinghy. We'd learned about these little flying teeth the hard way, on past trips, and knew to put Moon's mosquito nets on over all vents and hatches earlier in the afternoon, and even to plug the small opening where the anchor passes belowdecks. Otherwise, buddy, we'd have been way too late by now.

Photo of a campfire on the beachCampfire on the beach. (Photo: Tom Dixon)

After a cold-water shower using a water bottle hung from the mast, we sat down for a feast, made by yours truly — apple and raisin salad, pasta with meat sauce, and banana nut bread for dessert. Within an hour after dinner, our happy, sunburned crew was snoring. What a great routine. Sunrise. Hot coffee. Check the tides. Watch snowy-white egrets and great blue herons fishing for breakfast on the sandbars. Fiddle with a few boat chores. Talk about raising the anchor. We were in the groove.

We spent the afternoon fishing from the beach, shuffling our feet in the water to scare away sleeping stingrays, watching dolphin and tarpon chase baitfish in the entrance to Lake Ingram, hanging out together and solving the problems of the world. Before sunset we rendezvoused with our friends Bob and Steve, who roared up in their 19-footer. They'd caught two large Spanish mackerel. A feast to share! The evening was calm and cool. Gary and Steve spent the night in sleeping bags in Moon's cockpit.

On our last day, we fished our hearts out ... until Steve tried to remove a hook from a saltwater catfish. It twisted and stuck a spine in his hand. When I was growing up, a saltwater catfish was considered so dangerous that my dad would simply cut the line rather than take a chance on getting hurt. With Steve's hand in an ice pack, we started the four-hour run to Flamingo, the main boating area in the Everglades National Park and, for us, the end of the road. There, we'd hand Moon over to two friends to sail for a week, and return to Miami.

See? I told you. Nothing much happened over the week. We didn't have any rough seas. Didn't get into any trouble we couldn't get out of. It was just good times with friends, hearty eating, great fishing, and deep sleeping. It was a couple of close calls that would make for good stories later. And it was getting to check in on the spectacular Everglades, to find with relief that not much changed since the last time we were here. It won't always be like that. Lives change. Precious places change. For now, we're just three guys looking forward to next year, our spirits rejuvenated. 

Tom Dixon and his wife have lived on a houseboat in Miami for more than 40 years, and sailed the waters of Biscayne Bay in sailboats from 12 feet to their latest, a 45-foot sloop.

— Published: February/March 2014

Everglades National Park, A World Heritage Site

For most of its history, the Everglades' massive rain-fed wetlands, lakes, and rivers flowed from just below Orlando, Florida, through Lake Okeechobee, south to the tip of the Florida peninsula, as well as east and west toward the coasts, covering almost 3 million acres. Today, the Everglades ecosystem is less than half its original size; 1,800 miles of canals and dams break it up, with water-control points and pump stations built in the last century diverting the natural flow of water to coastal towns and cities in order to develop agriculture and create residential development.

Photo of flamingos in Everglades National ParkPhoto: Pat Ford

The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and home to numerous rare and endangered species, such as the American crocodile, the West Indian manatee, and Florida panther, as well as thousands of unique plants. Everglades National Park was established in 1947 to conserve and protect the natural landscape. It includes the southern one-fifth of the Everglades ecosystem (www.nps.gov/ever). Currently the National Park Service is considering changes to how boating in back country waters of the park is managed. One proposal would expand the zones where only propulsion by push poll, paddle or electric trolling motor would be permitted to cover 33% of park waters. Another is a special permit that requires boaters to take an education course beyond what the state already requires. While the period for public input is now closed, you can read formal comments from BoatU.S. regarding the draft general management plan for Everglades National Park at: www.BoatUS.com/gov


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