We met at the Hertz counter at the Tampa airport. None of us had ever been into the heart of darkest Florida before and, as a consequence, nobody had the urge to say anything wry that would be regretted later. There was my fragile wife Carol, my friend Pat M——, who brought his wife Georgie and his new camera with the zoom lens, although not necessarily in that order. For the record, let it be noted that the three of my associates were no more experienced around boats than I was.
We brought along food and suntan lotion. They were at the top of our list, along with gin, bourbon and beer. So we had, actually, five things at the top of our list; six, if you count tonic. For food, we leaned toward cheese crackers, peanuts and Hostess Twinkies.
We also brought reading material, hats, rubber-soled shoes and bug spray. Finally, in a very good deal, I was able to obtain 250 postcards at must-sell prices from an overstocked Apollo backup crew. These postcards were carried with us on every step of our historic journey, and would make ideal high-priced gifts for loved ones.
Oh, yes. There was one other thing we brought on board our boat that I feel it only fair to tell you about: Ken Gumtow. Ken had been piloting freighters on the Great Lakes for about 30 years, as well as navigating various other tricky waterways all over America. He is a skilled, experienced, able, resourceful captain. If you thought for a minute that I, or the beautiful mother of my children, or that either of the M——s was going to get near a boat without our very own captain, then you just don't understand. If God had wanted me to be daring, he would have named me Tenzing Norgay.
February 12, 1973
We cast off on a Sunday from Cape Coral, near Fort Myers on the southwest Florida coast. It was a beautiful sunshiny day in the Sunshine State. The boat we were aboard was half houseboat, half sport-fisherman, as unlikely as such a combination may sound, a model called the Cutter made by the Cargile company in Tennessee. It was 28 feet long and could do about 30 mph or 30 knots, one or the other. And that is good enough for me. Our Cutter, otherwise unnamed, was leased through a company called Hiawatha Valley/Hiawatha Hills, whose main property is a large year-round resort on the Mississippi River near Alma, Wis. If you are inspired enough by this saga to want to rent a Cutter (or some other comparable model), Hiawatha is P.O. Box 125, Alma, Wis. 54610.
Our journey was planned to take us from Cape Coral, out into the Gulf of Mexico, to Captiva Island; back inland on Monday, up the Caloosahatchee River-Canal to Clewiston; then around the rim of Lake Okeechobee to Stuart via the St. Lucie River-Canal, and down the inland waterway to Palm Beach for Tuesday night. The next day we would retrace most of the previous day's route back to Indiantown, then Thursday cut across the middle of Okeechobee and up the Kissimmee River to near Lake Wales. After a day's old-fashioned motorcar trip to Disney World and back, a last boat trek would carry us to Tohopekaliga Lake, near Orlando, our final destination. A busy and action-packed week.
I would not necessarily recommend this particular cruise, but we were consciously trying to do a little of everything. Thus, we saw both Florida coasts and the most varied inland waterways; we had to handle the boat under the most diverse conditions a novice should dare attempt; we saw Florida at its beautiful best and at its scruffiest; we fished, shelled, swam and—but for two uncharitable thunderstorms—would have gotten in some tennis as well. For sheer sightseeing we managed such extremes as Fantasyland and Worth Avenue, Palm Beach—and had we been absolutely determined to jam more in there was the opportunity for jai alai, the trotters and any number of marine worlds or snake farms, parrot lands and salad bars. But we did feed marshmallows and cheese crackers to a friendly wild alligator and we ran across John Glenn at a seafood buffet table.
I cannot guarantee that all of this will happen to you if you take a boat trip since the alligator may have moved and I have absolutely no assurance where John Glenn is going to dine in the months ahead. Nonetheless, I do suspect that if you undertake something as loony as this, equivalent experiences are virtually bound to occur. And you might have an even better time if you plan a trip around your specific interests: a fishing cruise, for example, working all the best spots, Gulf Coast to Atlantic; a nature cruise; or a luxury cruise down the ritzy East Coast; even a baseball cruise to look in on teams at spring-training time.
One never can really be sure what might appeal to boaters. I always thought of boats in the sense of glorious isolation, sailing away from it all. On the contrary, it seems that what the boat people like best is jamming together in close camaraderie at the marinas. Boats often seem merely to be things that were invented to get people from one marina to the next. Of course, there are some old salts who do want to get away from it all. I understand that people will hire houseboats and inquire where the reception is best. Then they will anchor a few miles from where they rented the boat and watch TV for a week or two.
Sooner or later one must face the matter of sleeping on boats. The Cutter is advertised as "sleeps 6-8." This is perfectly true; I also have no doubt that if there were PR men around a couple of hundred years ago they would have pushed the Black Hole of Calcutta with "sleeps 142-146." On the Cutter you got your eight this way: the seats up on the bridge or whatever it is (the place where you sit to steer the boat) fold down into two beds like an old Nash Rambler—if you are willing to take the time to put up a lot of canvas to keep out bugs and prying eyes. Under the maindeck up front there are two bunks, coming together at the bow. Accordingly, they are called the V-Berths and appear to feature about six inches of headroom. The V-Berths began to look more spacious the longer we stayed on board and the hotter it got, though, especially since the air-conditioning unit was what took up much of the headroom. Then, in the cabin, there is sort of a master double bed that folds out in the back, and a smaller one toward the front, opposite the stove. It was here, in these two beds, that we first prepared to spend the night.
Let me say this about going on a boat with some other couple: do not do it unless a) you know these other people well or b) are anxious to know them well. I have a hunch this applies universally on boats, as much to the Onassises and their boat as to the Defords and theirs.
The first night we set up the accommodations, at Captiva Island, it took us quite a while to prepare the beds, or even to figure them out. If there was a saving grace to taking so long, it was that we had to pause regularly to slake our thirst; this is how we lost the farm, heh-heh. This anesthetized us all for sleep, and we thus were able to get in four solid hours before the effects of the booze wore off and we all woke up hearing the waves lapping at the side of the boat and going "glub, glub, glub." Luckily, only some nights was it like this; other nights, for mysterious reasons, it would not go "glub, glub, glub," so all of us would stare at the ceiling, unable to sleep a wink for wondering when the boat would start going "glub, glub, glub."
After a few days Pat began to speak in this strange, far-off way about Holiday Inns. Since the boat had no name, Georgie christened it the Sleepless IV. And each night, it seemed, the old sun would go under the old yardarm a little earlier. This had nothing to do with seasonal solar changes or even, for that matter, with yardarms, inasmuch as I don't think our boat had one. It did have to do with the cocktail hour, or cocktail hours, as they came to be known in our very salty circle.
Luckily for our peace of mind, one night we met some terrific people named Abe and Virginia W—— at the Indiantown Marina. Abe and Virginia are from Baltimore but were sailing their houseboat out of Palm Beach, leaving it moored at Indiantown for a few weeks. They saw us pull in and waved us over to join them. They had this magnificent houseboat; it had real bedrooms and baths, wall-to-wall, bow-to-stern carpeting, beautiful appointments and was approximately the size of Toledo, Ohio.
We explained to the W——s what we were up to, and Virginia ooohed and ahhed and told our wives how much fun that sounded, and how she wished she could do that sort of thing. Virginia was long on tact but not real good at fibbing. Abe mixed some drinks and told us something we were all glad to hear. "One thing you find out very quickly about boats," he said, "is that you drink too much on them. You also eat too much—and all the wrong things."
The W——s once had a couple on board who went out to buy food for a trip and came back with $50 worth of hors d'oeuvre. Those people had been on a boat trip before. On another journey, from Fort Lauderdale to Annapolis, the whole case of booze was exhausted by North Carolina. And I want to emphasize, too, that the W——s are very temperate people. It is just that boats do funny things to you.
Marinas do help. You can play some catch-up ball in marinas. Whereas most boats have only toy showers and toy toilets aboard, marinas offer the real thing, plus television sets and playrooms for kids and "lounges," which can pass for whatever you want them to. Some marinas also have swimming pools, restaurants, courtesy cars, even Magic Fingers, I suppose. Indiantown featured a pet alligator. On the Sleepless IV we had a dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches, angelfood cake and chilled rosé wine. Pat went to sleep in the V-Berth.
But enough of the swish marina life. Let's get on to the adventure. And what kind of an adventure would it be if the boat didn't break down? Well, to level with you, the boat didn't break down altogether. It only appeared to; breakdown seemed imminent. We were on the St. Lucie Canal, about midway from Okeechobee to Stuart. It was about 120° in the shade.
How did the boat break, almost? Well, while I was driving it ran over some hyacinth. If you are not from the Deep South, you may not know what hyacinth is or at least where and how it grows. But I do have a speaking acquaintance with hyacinth, as well as hibiscus and bougainvillea because I am a horse-race fan, and Hialeah always names stakes after Florida flowers. This gave me some edge, and the natives looked at me with new respect whenever we encountered Florida flowers—or at least the ones Hialeah races are named after.
I also stood out in another way. Despite the fact that boats are totally foreign to me, I am very nautical-looking—I have a tattoo. Not only that, it is a tattoo of a swordfish. It doesn't mean anything; it just seemed like a good idea at the time. I was a teen then. The guy I was with chose lightning bolts. They don't mean anything, either, but they are much easier to explain to people than a swordfish. Of course, tattoos of any subject are not fashionable anymore. This is because, to quote various surveys from memory, it has been determined that men with tattoos are insecure, unbalanced, intimidated by women (so what else is new?) and also, I believe, homicidal. For years I have been burdened with my swordfish tattoo; at last I was in a position to use it to my advantage.
So after a day's cruise I would take my nautical body and hang around boat places, saying especially seaworthy things right off the top of my head like: "Red, right, returning," "Ahoy mates" and "Avast ye swabbies." Captain Ken taught me another real inside boat expression. The accelerator on boats of this type is a little lever at knee level on the right side. If you want to pick up speed, you push the lever down and away; thus, you "put it in the corner." I took to saying "put it in the corner" quite a bit, and I am sure, what with the tattoo, impressed many boat people very favorably.
Captain Ken had just finished telling me to "put it in the corner," as a matter of fact, when I plowed over the hyacinth. One of these plants, which float free in the water, got tangled up in the propeller and the boat started laboring. It was apparent that we would have to ditch the boat as soon as we could float near civilization, or, preferably, Hertz. We all cursed our bad luck while, secretly, we thought of motels and sheets and water glasses in crinkly paper—all the things that soft, sissy people have come to depend on.
As the boat struggled gamely I remembered a little story about a kid whose pet turtle died. To assuage his son's massive grief the father planned a burial party, complete with ice cream and cake, games and toys. Just before all the kids came over to lay the turtle to rest, the turtle stirred and proved to be alive. "Let's kill it," said the grief-stricken kid.
Our poor struggling Sleepless IV limped about 20 miles until we reached a drawbridge. Pat, at the wheel now, honked and whistled for the attendant, but to no avail—and Pat is one of those people who can really whistle. Pat also was not capable of stopping the boat and making it stay in one place. Neither was I, but Pat had figured out this maneuver where—instead of trying to stop the boat—he would just take it around in circles. Finally, after many little circles, the bridgekeeper, a lady in a huge period bonnet, came out of her house and hollered: "Ah declare Ah'm sorry. The next time, y'all send me a telegram by water, and Ah'll bake you a cake." I promise you, that is exactly what she said, word for word for word.
Pat was so rattled that he forgot himself, and one of his little circles almost took us right into the bridge. When Captain Ken hollered at him, Pat put it in the corner. There was a crash and a lurch and, apparently, the hyacinth was expelled.
When we got through the bridge Pat noted, cautiously, that it seemed to him that the boat was going just fine again. Ken took the wheel and made various tests and came to the same conclusion. "Hey," he called gaily to the girls down below, "it's working just fine again." Crestfallen, they smiled.
"Let's kill it," I said under my breath.
One thing I couldn't stand about boats is that you must wave at all the other boats and all their other people as you pass. It is obligatory, it seems, and therefore a meaningless gesture, rather like years ago when all the people who drove Volkswagens waved at other Volkswagens. Still, most boat people are extremely nice. They manage to be polite even when they are thrown lines that are not attached to anything. Boat people seem genuinely interested by nature, and of a generous disposition. Maybe waving all the time is really good for the soul.
Boating also is worthwhile if only because it forces one to get off Interstate highways. Let's face it: as long as there are Interstate highways, people in motorcars are not going to leave them. They will talk all about getting off the beaten track, but they won't. Even people camping out now do not get out of shouting distance from the median strip. I have been to Florida many times, but I saw things from the boat I never imagined. I don't suppose I ever saw a cow in Florida before, but did you know that there are two million cattle in Florida? You can look it up. We saw lush jungle foliage too, and miles of huge stately pines that seemed to have come straight out of the Canadian Northwest. We saw gorgeous flowers, we saw birds dive and battle for prey, fish jump and we saw two alligators, which does not sound like much, but it is still two more alligators than you see on Interstate highways.
At the River Ranch, a complete first-class resort up near Lake Wales, we witnessed a real live rodeo with real live cowboys (what with all the real live cows), and on the southern rim of Okeechobee, at Clewiston, "the sweetest little town in America" (there is, I am sorry to have to tell you, a large sugar refinery there), we went to the Clewiston Inn where the manager, Al Bridges, personally baked sweet bread for the guests' breakfast. So maybe it is good experience enough, boat or no boat, merely to stay away from the Interstates and the interchanges. Maybe we should be content just to leave with that lesson.
This kind of escape does not come cheap, however. The Sleepless IV costs $395 to rent for a week, and gasoline and marina fees will add up to another $125. That's $260 minimum base apiece for two couples. Then there are food and drink costs, which could vary tremendously depending on how often you eat off the boat, plus such miscellaneous expenses as taxis or rental cars for side trips, and general entertainment expenditures—fishing licenses, bait, greens fees, pari-mutuel tickets, whatever is your fancy. Binoculars and a captain are optional, although I would strongly recommend both—ideally, the latter brings the former. A good man at the helm means peace of mind without an invasion of privacy; the captain will leave the boat and stay in a motel at night. A captain's fee and expenses are $200 or so for the week, but unless you are especially adventuresome it is the best vacation money you will spend.
To be very blunt I do not understand why anybody wants to drive a boat. This utterly confounds me, although I should have seen it coming. Everybody kept saying what fun it would be when I could drive the boat. I should have said right out: look, I do not want to drive the boat; it is bad enough I have to drive a car; I don't want to drive motorcycles, airplanes, dune buggies, Sherman tanks or any other vehicles you can name. Most especially, I don't want to drive boat vehicles. My idea of a boat trip was to sit down, soak up the sun, read and sight-see, and have the captain drive the boat. Isn't that what captains are for?
Hardly had we pulled out of the harbor near the Cape Coral Golf and Country Club that first morning aboard than Captain Ken asked who wanted the privilege of first driving the boat. Since none of my cohorts had the least interest in forced labor, I felt obligated, as the group leader, to go up and feign polite interest in the endeavor.
Captain Ken was a wonderful teacher, patient and understanding, as each of us botched the job of boat driving. Unfortunately, as we soon found out to our desperate, unbelieving surprise, learning how to drive the boat was not quite optional. There was a kicker: Captain Ken was being called back to the Great Lakes, where he was first mate on a freighter that was suddenly being returned to duty. The boat was to be turned over to us. We were completely on our own.
I do not understand why boat people would even consider letting an incompetent like me drive a boat around. If I was someone else and had known I was driving a boat, I would have got off the water. Captain Ken tried to make a boat driver out of me and the others, he really did, but with little success. When he left us at the West Palm Beach Marina he backed the Sleepless IV in so that all we had to do was take her straight out in the morning. Then he taught the girls how to tie knots—in the unlikely event that Pat or I could ever park the thing. Then he picked up his gear, waved and walked off down the dock, sticking me with this 28-foot, 225-horsepower monster.
The dockmaster said we were real lucky. Palm Beach had just been rocked by an electrical storm, and the hurricane wasn't due for another day. We explained we were taking the boat out next day, and he nodded, dubiously. "Well, of course, if you're going back up around the Kissimmee," he said, "the lightning storms are not near so much to worry about as the tornadoes. They can come down the river and lift the boat right up."
Bolstered by this sort of comforting inside information, we soon were ready to take off up the waterway. We were to head for Stuart, past a tricky inlet right at the ocean, across a blustery bay and down a river-canal to Indiantown. We had no binoculars on board and were unable to obtain a chart—not that we had learned to read one very well, anyway. "I'm sorry," the clerk at the marine store had said, "we don't have that chart. It's our bestseller." I said maybe that was a good reason for keeping a lot of them in stock, and he looked at me like I was a wise guy. Another problem we had was that, generally speaking, Pat and I had no real idea which side of the markers to steer the boat on. I took solace in the hope that mistakes might be to our advantage, though, for Captain Ken had told me one day: "Sometimes I think most markers are put in by marine repair."
Pat took the helm at the start and everyone moved to the cast-off positions. I untied one of the lines and was just about to throw it and jump aboard when down the dock a man came running, lickety-split, waving his arms and screaming at us. "Wait, wait, don't go," he cried. He seemed frantic. Naturally, all of us prayed that he was some kind of official who was not going to let us leave—but make us spend several days in a Palm Beach hotel.
It turned out he was not. It turned out that he was a television cameraman from the local Channel 5. He was shooting a commercial for a hometown bank—I guess it was one of those things about what a great life you can achieve by borrowing from banks—and when he spotted our magnificent boat and crew he decided that we were perfect for his commercial. "Can I shoot you leaving the marina?" he asked.
"Well, listen," I said. "This may not be exactly what you're after. You see, we never drove a boat before, and we can't stop at all except by going in little circles, and there's no room for that here. There's just no telling what might happen. You know, we could smash other boats or knock the dock down. We could even sink."
"Oh, gee, well that's O.K.," the cameraman said, without breaking stride. "I shoot for the Channel 5 six o'clock news, too, and if there's any kind of disaster, I can just switch the footage from the commercial to the news."
"Oh, well, that's just fine," I replied, getting into the spirit of things. I was feeling like a public service. I helped pass out the releases we all had to sign while the cameraman went for his equipment and his sound man. Pat was getting very fidgety. He had the engine started and his course out of the marina plotted; this was like a moon-rocket countdown that had been stopped at "four."
When the cameraman came back, he was more like a director. Here we just wanted to get out of the place alive and undamaged and this guy had all but put puttees on, and was shouting orders like it was The Wake of the Red Witch. First, he got us to push our hats back, so that happy faces showed. Then he located our wives in various photographable but unfunctional places on the boat, and had them take those poses that reminded me of the way girls in sailor outfits pose for playing cards—the ones with snappy nautical expressions written underneath like "Full Speed Ahead" or "Oh Buoy" or "Shipshape," things like that. The guy had Georgie and Carol in such provocative poses that they were not worth a tinker's damn in getting the boat off. It is extremely hard to work fenders with one hand behind your head and the other on a tilted hip.
Finally, under more orders, we turned around and waved back fondly toward the bank commercial cameraman as Pat took us out of the harbor—magnificently. We didn't have any real crises, as a matter of fact, until up past Jupiter when I almost ran into the drawbridge. On the other hand, our luck matched our skill. By the time we reached Stuart and the open water there were whitecaps and a grim black sky. It began pouring rain, thunder and lightning as we headed down the St. Lucie River. This was when we found out there didn't seem to be any windshield wipers, which helps explain why I almost managed to run a whole Spanish Armada of fishing boats right up onto the bank as we rounded a bend in the river.
Pat took over to steer the boat into the lock and since they were no longer being photographed, the girls returned to their accustomed level of competence with fenders and lines. The sun even came out a few miles past the lock and in salute the girls mixed gins and tonics and came up and sat in the seats directly behind Pat and me and rubbed the backs of our necks. "My man," Carol said. "Now I feel just like those baby dolls who ride behind their guys on the backs of the motorcycles."
The next morning I called up the Hiawatha public-relations people and told them we really needed another captain. This day we were supposed, among other obstacles, to negotiate Lake Okeechobee, to cross the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S., without binoculars, just using a compass, dead reckoning and dumb luck. Assuming we had enough of the latter, we then had to make it through five locks and a tricky channel about three feet wide. There also were predictions of electrical storms, which were justified. The winds and lightning had killed one man and damaged much of the area we were supposed to trip blithely through. Hiawatha said we could do it. I expressed the view, after Groucho Marx, that I no longer wanted to ride on any boat that permitted me to drive it.
And then help came: for the final day's travel Hiawatha presented us with a gentleman named Frenchie as our captain. Frenchie was the jack-of-all-trades for Hiawatha Hills. He was born in Scollay Square in Boston and still carried that accent, but he has smoked his cigars all over. He worked for the phone company once, for example, in Mexico, where he learned to make delicious tacos, and for a time he ran a pizza shop in Wisconsin.
On the final leg of the trip, up a chain of lakes toward Orlando, Frenchie took us fishing. I once asked an old country boy named Abe Lemons, who coaches basketball at Oklahoma City University, if he ever fished. "Nope," Abe said. "Can't stand myself enough." And that is pretty much how I feel about the exercise. On this occasion, though, with the good company of Frenchie, fishing seemed like a good idea. And at this point, I think I should say something about the ones that got away. The one that didn't, I caught. It was a bass, the size of a run-of-the-mill jelly bean.
So instead of fish we ate Frenchie's Scollay Square tacos. The sun beat down mercilessly on the Sleepless IV, but on the horizon there were dark storm clouds gathering for a blitz, and in the other direction, not far away, there was a motel awaiting us, with air conditioning, bathtubs and Magic Fingers. "Is everybody ready to go?" the captain asked after we had polished off the last of his tacos.
"Frenchie, put it in the corner," I said.