CHAPTER 10  

 

FLORIDA CHARTER

 

NEXT CHARTER PLANNING

            Our charter group wasn't ready to plan a trip for the coming season, but interested in doing so the following year. While in Mexico, we had discussed Tahiti as the next destination, so I started gathering information. Moorings' recommendation for Tahiti was to book as far in advance as possible to insure getting our desired time slot. At the same time, Marsha and I started talking about going to Florida on our own this year. Since we hadn't visited her mother for some time, our idea was to visit then charter a boat out of Port Charlotte for a few days. I called several charter companies listed in the back of Charter magazine. There was nothing as organized and classy as the Moorings available, the companies were all much smaller. None of the companies offered provisioning services, but there were some interesting boat options. We narrowed our decision to either a Valiant 32 or an Island Packet 31, and then ended up choosing the Island Packet. Both were cutter rigs, but the Island Packet had more appointments. We made the necessary arrangements with Carter Swartz of Yachting Vacations, reserving the boat for a week near the end of April.

            Regarding chartering in Tahiti, we developed a pattern of having dinners every few weeks, rotating between the Alberts, Callans, Knapps, and our house to discuss the idea. We still wanted to go to Tahiti to experience the South Pacific. We were initially trying to get more people involved, enough for 2 boats. Having a cook on board was a priority after the convenience we had experienced in Mexico. David had asked Charley Michael who was very interested in joining after hearing about how much fun we had on the past charters. Before that happened, the rest of the group had settled on the notion that just the 8 of us and a cook on a 50 foot yacht was plenty. So David was given the task of trying to disinterest Charley because we only had one skipper and first mate team. By the third planning dinner, it became clear that Charley and his wife Jenny really wanted to go. Moorings had just introduced their new model 500 advertised to sleep 10, so we sacrificed the notion of having a cook. Since it was over a year away still, it was possible someone may have to drop out, and then we could have a cook.

            The fourth dinner at the Albert's house was an over night party. We were going to try to establish the dates so I could make reservations. After much discussion, we finally agreed on a 10-day period in February. There were some mixed feelings about Tahiti as the destination though, because everything there is much more expensive. It also took twice as many frequent flyer miles to get across the Pacific as other possible destinations. I moved forward and made reservations for a boat and asked people for their share of the deposit. I had collected money from the Callans and Michaels. Lewis was still having a problem with the cost, he didn't think he or Barbara would have enough frequent flyer miles by then and they would have to pay for the expensive airfare. He brought up the idea of an alternative destination in the Caribbean. We didn't want to go back to a place we had been, so we circulated the idea of the Windward Islands. Nobody really cared that much and it would be much less expensive for everyone. Since it would be two less travel days commuting back and forth, we extended the trip to 12 days. Then Moorings said if we extended the time to two weeks, we would be entitled to a 15% discount. Also, the rates were much cheaper after April 15th. It took many more phone calls until I finalized the plan for two weeks, April 21 - May 5, still well over one year in the future. I collected the rest of the deposit from Lewis and Marcy. There wasn't much else to do in the way of decision making or communicating with the Moorings for another 9 months. Ten people would be crowded.

            The dinners were taking on a distinct format. The hosting couple would plan the meal assigning various courses for the other couples to bring. They were great fun in themselves, though not necessarily the best forum for getting anything accomplished. They did average about 30 - 45 minutes of cruise planning. They also served to start building the bond between the crew. Having set the stake in the ground, we would need to come up with a name for a newsletter to communicate details as they arose. We also put our thinking caps on for some kind of shakedown cruise over the summer.

 

GETTING TO THE BOAT

            A vacation is more than just the time spent on vacation. There is the time before anticipating it, preparing and buying things you wouldn't otherwise purchase. Marsha had charts of the area pinned up on our bedroom wall for months, periodically poking at possible itineraries with pins. We decided to buy our own snorkel gear because Yachting Vacations didn't supply it. Marsha had been contemplating owning a swim mask with prescription lenses for a long time. She hadn't bothered to do so in the past because of her fish phobia. Maybe the lenses would help her past that. I purchased a set of lightweight wet gear in case of rain, a spare pair of contact lenses, and more clothing from Target. I also picked up a copy of Jimmy Buffet's book, "Tales from Margaritaville" since we were going to be in some of his native cruising grounds. I purchased a Tilley hat at the spring boat show in Alameda the weekend before leaving. The Island Packet 35 and 38 were on display there, so we decided to climb aboard to have another look. The representative from Island Packet said we would enjoy the 31, but the cutter sail was a bolt on after thought that didn't work very well. He stated they are no longer making that model, they've moved up to a 32' and that had fixed the problem. We had half a notion to upgrade to the 38' model if it was available, but the cost would have been a lot more so we decided to stay with the 31. Our bags were packed early and we were ready to go.

            There are two ways to look at a trip like this. Visiting relatives while on a cruise vacation really cuts the vacation short, or charting a boat while visiting relatives really makes visiting relatives more enjoyable. In any event, we took a Thursday night red eye flight out of SFO arriving in Ft. Myers around 11:00 AM on Friday and spent the first two days visiting Marsha's mother, brother and sister-in-law in Punta Gorda. Marsha's mother didn't enjoy the thought of being on a boat, but John and Carol were looking forward to spending a day with us later in the week. Sunday afternoon, we left Punta Gorda to get to our boat, stopping to shop for provisions on the way. Unlike with the larger charter companies, we were permitted to load our stuff and stay on board that night, even though the charter didn't begin until Monday. Carter met us and showed us to the Tam O'Shanter III, stating he would see us the next morning for the chart and vessel briefing.

            The Tam O'Shanter III was in excellent shape. It had a large double berth in the main salon. The V-berth cabin had a door. There was a wide starboard quarter berth that served as the chair for the forward facing chart table. The chart table / berth could be enclosed with a sliding door. The spacious galley was on the port side. We chose the double berth in the main salon to sleep in. Since it was just the two of us, it didn't matter where we slept. We chose that berth because of the ease of getting into it with the open headroom. While getting organized, we became aware of a new aspect of chartering. Because it was just the two of us, we had privacy. We had everything stowed in time for a swim in the marina's pool before dark. A person staying on a boat across from us pointed out there were manatees mating in the harbor near the swimming pool. They were fascinating to watch and listen to. There was enough to do just hanging out in the marina and getting used to the boat that it felt we were already on vacation, finally.

            The next morning, before Carter arrived, I jogged around the marina grounds. Running is a perfect exercise for a boat person, being so portable and a great way to tour. The run around the marina was exhilarating. Carter arrived at 9:00. He was eager to learn about our cruise plan. He was hoping we had no plans to do anything that might jeopardize the Tam O'Shanter III, like cruising the Gulf down to Key West or the Dry Tortugas. Those destinations were between 180 and 250 miles away. We assured him we were here to take it easy and would be hanging out near by. Carter stated everybody wanted to go out into the Gulf, but once you got there, that's all there is, the Gulf. The interesting stuff was on the inside, the inner coastal waterway.

            We had already gone over the entire boat, but there was one thing that we hadn't figured out yet, the stove. It was a non-pressurized Origo alcohol stove. We had seen them at West Marine, but didn't think they would product enough heat. I had tried to light it the night before but couldn't. As it turned out, the stove came with a rubber pad that covered the wick on each of the two burners to slow down the alcohol evaporation when not being used. I had managed to burn up one of them. Carter demonstrated how it worked. He confirmed the cutter rig was indeed a bolt on and sometimes when tacking, you had to walk the Genoa around the staysail. We asked him about the clubfoot staysail boom that was part of the sail configuration on the Island Packet 35 and 38. It appeared to be missing from the Tam O'Shanter III. He said it didn't help and was just something to trip over.

            For local knowledge, we had two reference books in addition to our charts, "A Gunkholer's Cruising Guide to Florida's West Coast", by Tom Lenfestey and "Cruising Guide to the Florida Keys with Florida West Coast Supplement", by Captain Frank Papy. The one must see spot was Cabbage Key, the place where they claimed Jimmy Buffet was inspired to write the song "Cheese Burger in Paradise".

 

BOCA GRANDE

            The only chance John and Carol would have to join us was Tuesday. We decided there was no reason to wait around, they could meet us anywhere as long as we inaccessible by car. We decided our first destination would be Miller's Marina at Boca Grande on the southern end of Gasparilla Island. This would give us the rest of the day to play with the boat in Charlotte Harbor. Carter was right, unless everything was handled just right, we did have to walk the Genoa around the staysail, but we had great fun sailing the yacht across the harbor. The weather was warm and humid which made it great to be on the water. These conditions reminded us of sailing on Lake St. Clair in Michigan during the middle of July. We couldn't see through the water, but it was fine for swimming.

            We raised Miller's Marina on the VHF to reserve a slip for the night. They had room so we eased the Tam O’Shanter III into our assigned slip. The dock master was a friendly old guy that lived aboard a boat nearby. He helped us in, told a few stories, admired our boat and gave us more local knowledge. He told us about a great restaurant in town within walking distance, advising us against the restaurant above the marina. We decided to eat on board that night but went to the bar for an afternoon margarita and some air conditioning. Before leaving the boat, we installed the bug screen in the companionway entrance. It was heavy duty with a zipper down the middle for getting in and out of the cabin. It snapped inside the entrance so we could lock the boat without taking it down. We hadn't seen a problem with bugs yet, but had been warned about the noseeums. We were armed with Hank's recommended 1/3 Avon SSS, 1/3 alcohol, 1/3 water solution so we felt we were in control of the situation.

            Miller's Marina was a fisherman's outpost. They had fishing charter boats and an extensive bait and tackle shop. They were out of licenses though, so we would have to walk down the street to another store in the morning. A prime Tarpon fishing spot was at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor from the Gulf off the southern tip of Boca Grande. The "FISH" mentality was everywhere. We thought about how much the Fish Killer would enjoy it here. We phoned Marsha's mother to pass on instructions to John and Carol on how to find us and when to meet the next day. If they d by 11:00, we could have a good day of sailing, swimming, lunch, and then cook dinner on the grill.

            The next morning, I woke up early and went for a running tour of the island. I made it through town and spotted the restaurant the dock master had mentioned. Jogging was indeed a great way to see a lot more while gunk holing. The Florida's West Coast Cruising Guide defines a gunk hole as a 4-anchor anchorage. They rate the anchorages through the book with 4 anchors being the best. Protected from the wind, surrounded by mangroves, great holding bottom, quiet, etc. I got back in time to smell the bacon frying on the Tam O'Shanter III. We spent the morning touring the T-shirt shop and getting visitor fishing licenses and bait. After John and Carol climbed on board, we sailed down the water way to the next island, Cayo Costa, anchoring off the beach to swim and relax. John and I tried fishing, but with no luck and eventually we sailed back to Boca Grande. We went into the same channel entrance as we had to get to Millers, but this time we turned in the opposite direction down the mangrove lined channel. The plan was to stern tie to the Banyon trees for the night. John and Carol would have to leave after dinner. I could take them by dinghy to a nearby dock. It was tricky getting in because of the wind, but eventually we made it. A passer by observing us offered to take our anchor out in his dinghy. That helped. Once in we and gradually got the grill fired for dinner.



Figure 72: The Tam O'Shanter in the mangroves

 

CABBAGE KEY

            We got an early start the next day, with a plan to go to Cabbage Key that afternoon. As we got away from Boca Grande, we realized how alone we were. It was a workday for most people. All we could see was a lone shrimp boat far away. We let the sails luff and went below. Again we were realizing the benefits of a boat with just 2 people aboard. We showered in the cockpit with the shower wand conveniently located next to the helm. It wasn't long before the wind started picking up so we decided to get put clothes on go sailing in the Gulf.

            As we approached the entrance, we could see the Tarpon fisherman. They didn't anchor their boats, but rather drifted. Being careful to stay out of their way, we managed to sail through the channel into the Gulf of Mexico. We stayed long enough to make a few observations. One was that Carter was right, once you get out there, there you are in the Gulf. Just miles of water that all looked the same. Another observation was this boat was made for heavier water like this. The Tam O'Shanter III just picked a course and stayed on it, plowing through the chop and waves steady as a rock. It felt good to be putting her through her paces. We weren't planning on going anywhere on the Gulf side that day so we went back in to Charlotte Harbor, then down the inner coastal waterway. We hailed the marine operator on the VHF and placed a call to Cabbage Key to reserve a dock space and let them know we were coming for a cheeseburger in paradise. You can only get to Cabbage Key by boat. There was a bar and restaurant on the island and housing for the employees. A variety of ferry and charter boats brought people from different places to the island for lunch or dinner.

            We passed Cayo Costa and Useppa, then saw the privately maintained Cabbage Key marker. As we pulled into the dockings, we were again greeted by an elderly, colorful dock master who waved us into our appointed slip. We were tied to the dock and in the bar in minutes, 2 margaritas please. Hanging above the center of the bar was an autographed photo of Jimmy Buffet playing his guitar. The rest of the walls in the bar and its ceiling were covered with money. They give us a black marker and masking tape and the opportunity to sign on whatever denomination bill and tape it anywhere. Marsha had been there ten years prior with her father. She was unable to locate the bill they had taped up. The bartender stated if your bill falls off, it gets donated to charity, adding they end up donating about $8,000 per year, while about $20,000 per year gets taped, layer after layer to the walls and ceiling.


Figure 73: Jimmy Buffet's photo in the Cabbage Key bar

            Other people in the small bar were ahead of us downing a shot of tequila now and then with their beers. I started talking to the guy next to me. He was a fisherman and stated he would be out on a boat for weeks at a time. His girlfriend next to him worked as a waitress in the restaurant. He was off work now so he had come out to the Key to visit her. He would have been gone by now, but his boat had an oil leak and there was no oil on the island to be found, so he decided to hang out until some showed up. Sounded like a plan to me. Two more margaritas please. It just seemed like the right thing to do here on a hot vacation afternoon sitting on a bar stool at the Cabbage Key bar

            Eventually we made dinner reservations and left to prepare. Before returning to the boat, we followed a path up a hill to an observation tower. From the top we could see the entire island and surrounding waters. I started talking to a guy walking along the same path back down. He was a Doctor visiting friends that owned a powerboat. He also had heard about this being one of Jimmy Buffet's hangouts, so I told him I had his Cheeseburger in Paradise song on tape. After we were on our boat for a while, he and his friends were leaving. He hollered down the dock for me to play the song, so I cranked up the tape deck. Untied from the dock, they backed their powerboat close to the Tam O'Shanter. Its entire crew started dancing, it was a hilarious sight.

            After relaxing for a while on the Tam O'Shanter III, we changed clothes and went back to the restaurant for dinner. Marsha was wearing her parrot outfit and was looking appropriate. We were seated by a window looking out behind the building into the woods. The dining room was also covered with money. Our waitress for the evening was the woman we had met at the bar with the fisherman. We started laughing with her because she had too many margaritas earlier and walking straight was a problem. I scanned the menu items but nowhere could I find a cheeseburger. I asked her what gives, this is supposed to be the paradise from which one orders cheese burgers. They're only on the lunch menu, we missed them for the day. We weren't about to budge until I got my cheeseburger, so we were going to have to stay at the island until lunch tomorrow. OK, that wasn't so bad. Dinner was great, especially with a drunk waitress. Somehow, she tuned into Marsha's wavelength to hand on so she could do her job. A side effect of this was that occasionally, from different locations in the restaurant, she would cry out “Marsha” then start laughing.

            The next morning after a leisurely cup of coffee and gearing up for the day, we strolled back to the restaurant. Before going in, we noticed a dog we had seen the night before through the window in the restaurant. He had been wandering around the yard playfully. Now he was running up to us, past us, and back sort of leading us around behind the building. Once he saw he was being successful in getting our attention, he sat waiting for us to reach him. He was at the beginning of a path into the woods, sitting next to an old dusty Speed Limit 30 MPH sign. As we started down the path, he would run ahead for about 100 yards, then come back, rounding behind us waiting for a while, then run ahead again. This went on until we had meandered around the entire island. When we popped out of the woods back at the restaurant, he gave us a satisfied look and left us to go about other business. He had done his job. We learned in the restaurant that's why they feed him, he's their tour guide.

 


Figure 74: No speeding zone

            The restaurant wouldn't start serving for another half hour. The people at the restaurant remembered us from the night before and made sure were seated and served before the party boat full of senior citizens were getting seated. I ordered a cheese burger. The waiter asked me if I wanted coleslaw, cottage cheese, or fruit with it. I looked at him as if he had hit me with a brick. What, no French-fried potatoes? No, sorry sir. The burger was great but as we were leaving, we signed in the guest book: “This is a great place, but you had better get your act together and start serving French fried potatoes with the cheeseburgers”. They needed to listen to the words to the song. It was time to move on, but not before purchasing shirts on the way out. Marsha's T-shirt had various icons of Cabbage Key, including the face of the dock master. We gave thanked him for helping us and were on our way further down the waterway.


Figure 75: The Tam O'Shanter docked at Cabbage Key

 

CAYO COSTA ISLAND

            For the rest of our time on the boat we planned to made our way to the southern tip of Sanibel Island by way of a coastal cruise in the Gulf, out through Red Fish Pass. That area was reported to be Florida's Shelling Mecca and offered good snorkeling. Carter's instructions were not to use Captiva Pass because of shoaling. When going through Red Fish Pass, call the South Seas Plantation on the radio. They will assist by giving the best heading to use getting out of the pass. They have a good view of the channel and provide the information freely. Our plan for the day was to make it to the anchorage on the northern end of Captiva Pass off Cayo Costa Island, take it easy and plan out the rest of the trip. It was a beautiful anchorage. We rowed the dinghy ashore for a stroll along the beach, which was white sand, mangroves, and intense wind blown foliage, especially around the end of the pass on the Gulf side. I fished for a while and caught a couple of catfish. They feed on shrimp and are very tasty, but hard to clean. I saw other people catching trout while surf fishing from shore. Just before sunset, a few porpoises began swimming through the anchorage. We had seen a few in the harbor following our boat. I believe one looked me straight in the eye.

            That evening after dinner, we charted the course to an anchorage off Sanibel Island. We established 9 waypoints and entered them into the Loran. Later in the evening, the wind started picking up. Marsha is great at worrying about the anchor dragging and this evening was no exception. In fact before the night was over, she would have the opportunity to worry about several boat's anchors dragging. What's the rule here, if the first boat to set anchor drags his, are all the other boats supposed to start dragging theirs? She didn't get much sleep that night and the wind kept building the next day. This caused us to abort our Sanibel Island plan. I had managed a good night's sleep but with the wind up, the snorkeling probably wouldn't have been very good anyway.

 

USEPPA ISLAND

            We ended up anchored with a few other boats off Useppa Island, across from Cabbage key. Since our trip to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula where I read the book Aztec, I've enjoyed reading something relevant while on vacation. Being where we were, it seemed like the perfect time to start reading Jimmy Buffet's, "Tales from Margaritaville". I kept a fishing pole in the water and threw back a few more catfish. It was fun reeling them in and comparing sizes with the two I had already cleaned. After a while I got tired of it and cast the line out to more shallow water, tied the pole to the boat with the jib sheet, then settled back to continue reading about Tully Mars, Aurora and Boring Alice Porter, and Freddy and the Fishsticks. Half an hour later, the fishing pole started whapping wildly up against the bimini cover rail. I jumped up to find out what was making all the noise and proceeded to reel in a catfish that was three times as big as any of the others. I felt bad because I already had cleaned all we intended to eat, he looked like nice fillets. I held him on the line long enough for Marsha to take a picture of my prize catch, and then carefully got him off my hook and back into the water. Marsha cooked my catfish for dinner and as the evening continued, we could hear the sounds of music and laughter pouring out of Cabbage Key and flowing across the waterway. We retired early continuing our restful theme for the day.

 


Figure 76: The big one I let go

 

MILLER'S MARINA

            We were the last ones to leave the anchorage the next morning. The firm winds had mellowed but now we didn't have enough time to venture to Sanibel Island so we needed a destination for Friday night. The excellent food the dock master told us about at the restaurant in Boca Grande came to mind. Boca Grande would also be another opportunity for a run on Saturday morning so we set a course back to Miller's Marina. That would give us some time on the way to enjoy sailing the Tam O'Shanter III, putting her through more paces in Charlotte Harbor. We got better at tacking so we didn't need to walk the Genoa around the staysail. Using just the two furling jibs made for good jib sailing on short hops. It sailed well wing-on-wing, especially in the smooth waters of Charlotte Harbor. We were back at Miller's in time to get a dock space for the night and kick back and enjoy the warm afternoon before walking into town for dinner. For the record, we made a list of things we did and didn't like about this Island Packet 31.


Things we liked:
            - Bug Screen
            - Wind Instruments
            - Cockpit Shower
            - Alcohol Stove and Oven
            - Hot Water System
            - Main Rigging System
            - Winch Handle Compartments
            - Quiet Engine
            - Cockpit Speaker Layout
            - Depth Alarm
            - Digital Instruments
            - Heavy Duty Winch Handles
            - Spot Light Outlets in the Cockpit
            - 2 Speed Winches
            - Deep Double Sinks
            - Stability
            - Forgiving Helm
            - Fuel Gauge

Things we didn't like:
            - Walking the Genoa around the Stay Sail
            - Helm Access
            - Throttle (it broke off, we had to use pliers)
            - Sytex Loran Interface
            - Chart Table Access
            - No Window Shades

Every boat is a compromise. All in all it was a great boat but it had me worrying about my list that was growing.

            The restaurant was a good tip. Everything tasted delicious. We noticed that most of the clientele were fishermen talking fish stories. There was a large Tarpon mounted on the wall, above the inactive fireplace. Even our waitress casually mentioned the Tarpon she had once caught. It seemed as though you were nothing in this town unless you had reeled in at least one and the bigger the fish, the greater your status.



Figure 77: Miller's Marina

 

SURRENDERING THE SHIP

            The next day, we purchased souvenirs, and then sailed back to the Burnt Store Marina. Marsh's mother met us with the rental car. We took her out to dinner, then home and said good-by. We went back to the marina to clean the boat, pack, and spend our last night on board the Tam O'Shanter III. I'm not sure we had been to Margaritaville, but I am sure we got a taste of what it was all about. Next stop, back to the Caribbean, but that would have to wait for a year. Therefore, next stop California and back to work.

            The vacation was too short, but it had been a great way to visit relatives. Port Charlotte and Marsha's mother's house seemed like a reasonable port to visit for a while if we ever were cruising towards the Caribbean from Mexico on our own boat. One week just wasn't enough time on the warm water, but fortunately the next cruise was booked for two. But 10 people, the thought brought on apprehension Possibly one of the couples would drop out for some reason. We would see as time went by.

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Keys to the Golden Gate, Copyright © 2002 by Steve Sears