September 2, 2014

Captain Jen's Great Adventures

The drone of the ecstacy’s twin diesel engines is broken by a loud smack, then a splash of white water. We turn down our Jimmy Buffett music and look toward our aft. Suddenly, a glistening silver body shoots from the waves like a torpedo, twists in the air and disappears beneath the surface again. Our dolphin friends have come to dance in our wake! We see members of this same pod nearly every time we pass between Pine and Picnic islands, and today nine dolphins have joined our cruise.

We slow the boat to the speed they seem to love, creating a huge wake that serves as a launching pad for their acrobatics. Our crew watches in awe at their speed, grace and beauty as they flip, dive, twist and slap their tails in perfect synchronization. The dolphins come so close to our platform that we’re continually splashed with salt water, something that seems to humor our finned friends. Their smiling, silver faces appear to mirror our reactions to their wonder.

Suddenly, the bigger dolphins part, and a baby with a rose-colored belly awkwardly leaps out of the water between them. The little one practices her jump several more times, and I find myself squeezing the hand of my own baby girl, Kamryn. I realize then, it is a moment I will never forget.

It’s these magical adventures that drew my entire family to the boating lifestyle, and here to Southwest Florida. When my parents, husband and I grew tired of winterizing our boats on Lake Erie in Ohio, we followed our compass south, trading gray skies and frigid temperatures for a place renowned for its beautiful islands, remote harbors and pristine beaches. Now, our boats are moored behind our homes in Cape Coral, and our cruising is limited by only expense and time. Last fall, Kamryn became the newest sailor in our crew, taking her first cruise at just two-and-a-half days old.

 

Anchor Aweigh

Captiva Island is our destination this weekend. It’s a tropical oasis a short boat ride from our house, but the journey there takes you a million miles from reality. It’s filled with hidden treasures and secret pleasure for boaters willing to look beyond the tourist guidebooks. When you take off your watch—and your pretension—you’re rewarded with an attitude adjustment and priceless memories. This trip on the boat is exactly what I need after a stressful week as WINK-TV’s noon anchor and morning reporter.

My husband, Scott, and I walk around Ecstacy’sgunnels, releasing the big black lines from her stainless steel cleats, the familiar smell of salt and diesel smoke a sensory indication of a new journey about to begin.

“We’re clear!” I yell over the rumble of the engines.

Seconds later, Ecstacy’s 21 tons lurch forward. We pass the last red and green channel markers, and push the throttles down. The big white hull lifts effortlessly out of the water, a monster wake curling behind her giant props. This classic 43-foot Hatteras Sport Fisherman holds many memories for my family: I grew up on board and first learned to captain at her wheel. Now, the sight of my daughter sitting on my dad’s lap at the helm, as I once did, puts a lump in my throat. 

The day is perfect in every way: A smattering of white puffy clouds dot the blue sky, and the sunlight dances on the water, flecks of gold and white scattering as the bow slices through the small waves. We slow again as we approach the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and the no-wake zone called the “Miserable Mile.” Off our port side, several boats are rafted off one another in the perfect anchorage boaters call “Cocktail Cove.” Its unspoiled shoreline, crowded with thick greenery and mangroves, forms several protected bays where the blue water churns to little more than a ripple in even the fiercest of wind. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon with friends, sitting on the back deck watching boats bob by on the Intracoastal Waterway. Every now and then, a floating hot dog stand anchors here. You can tie up, get a dog, ice cream, sometimes bait, and always a good laugh.

We approach marker 101 where the channel splits, one direction leading south under the Sanibel bridge to the open Gulf, the other leading north to Pine Island Sound. We opt for the latter and motor on to our next stop: Picnic Island. 

The uninhabited island boasts gorgeous white sand beaches and warm, shallow water. Mother Nature has created a beautiful lagoon on the northeast side, attracting boaters who come to cook out, swim, swap stories and explore. At night, many opt to pitch a tent on the beach, make a campfire and sit under the vast, star-lit sky. Scott and my dad pull out our little portable grill and cook hamburgers for an early lunch. 

“Ya’ll got enough for us?” a shrill voice bellows from the trawler anchored off our starboard. A woman with curly white hair, wrinkled cargo shorts and an infectious smile is standing on the boat’s bow. 

“Absolutely!” Scott and my mom respond. 

Within minutes, Debbie and her husband, Dave, a tan old salt with a gray beard and ponytail, are in their inflatable dinghy, making their way to our swim platform. They come bearing a pitcher with their favorite drink, an icy rum concoction they discovered while boating through the Keys. 

“Careful, it’s good, but it’ll sneak up on ya in the sun!” Debbie says, laughing.

This is a couple living their dream: two former high-powered executives from the Midwest who chucked it all for a better life after Dave had a heart attack. They sold their 3,000-square-foot house and most of their belongings, and now call a 48-footer with a single engine and two cozy staterooms home.

“Our kids thought we’d be gone six months or until we killed each other, whichever came first,” Dave says with a defiant grin. “That was a year and a half ago.” 

Dave and Debbie are traveling The Great Loop for the second time, circumnavigating the eastern United States by water. They started in the Great Lakes, headed down the Mississippi and haven’t looked back. After lots of stories and lots of laughs, we exchange e-mails and wave goodbye, hoping we share the same port in the future. Our philosophy: You may board the boat as a stranger, but you always leave as a friend.     

 

Paddling Furiously

The water is calm as we make our way through Pine Island Sound and pull into the narrow channel toward Captiva Island and our destination, ’Tween Waters Inn. I climb down the ladder from the fly bridge, and Scott pulls in the tow line for our dinghy, a 13-foot Whaler. We can’t dock with the dinghy dragging behind, so I will drive it in to the marina. I jump aboard, Scott unties the line, and the Ecstacy continues on her way.

I turn the key, and … nothing. The engine won’t turn over. I squeeze the ball on the fuel line, turn the key again, and … uh oh, I flooded it. I watch as the Ecstacy gets farther and farther away.  

Scott finally yells, “You OK?”

“It won’t start. Go ahead and dock. I can row it in,” I yell back, thinking, how hard can this really be? 

I soon realize it will be very hard. I have one paddle and a boat with a square nose weighing more than 1,000 pounds. It’s hardly a kayak, and my upper-body strength is akin to a 10-year-old girl’s. By the time I get near the dock, I am covered in sweat and look like a drowned rat. An older couple, dressed to the nines, is sitting nearby on the back of their large, shiny yacht. They’ve been watching my antics with amusement while eating their lunch. I look at them desperately, hoping they’ll throw me a line and pull me the rest of the way in. 

Instead, the gentleman stands up and says, “Do you need a cocktail?” 

 

A Good Laugh

’Tween Waters’ marina is an intimate facility full of character and charm, with worn wooden docks, splintered pilings and breathtaking views of Pine Island Sound. At its center is a bright pink office and store jam-packed with T-shirts, hats and beautiful resort wear, along with all the necessities a boater could need. It’s the kind of place where you have to kick the sand off your flip-flops before you climb back onto your boat.

Harry, the marina manager, swiftly makes his way down the dock to greet my family. His gray hair is slightly tousled, his smile easy and his laid-back demeanor infectious. His slight Northeastern accent is the only indication he’s not native to this island life. Harry and his staff are generous with their time, their willingness to help and their heartfelt appreciation for those who visit the island. From the moment you arrive, you feel as if you’re among friends.

Once we settle in, we decide it’s time to take a swim. We make our way down the sandy path to the large, sparkling pool. The Oasis pool bar is aptly named, situated among lush palms and brightly colored guest cabins. We decide to try one of their famous frozen Rum Runners and aren’t disappointed. We soon find ourselves chatting with the other people who’ve also come here seeking an escape from reality. 

A group of boisterous guys in brightly colored Columbia shirts are sitting at an umbrella-covered table and having some good laughs together.

“What brings you guys here?” I ask. 

“Well, we told our wives we were going fishing for the day, but somehow, we took a detour,” explains one of them, sporting a bucket hat and a bad sunburn. 

“How are you going to explain coming home with no fish?” my dad asks. 

“Simple,” he responds. “We’re going to stop at the seafood market on the way home.” 

 

Love Those Manatees

We finally get the Whaler started and decide to go exploring. We cruise past the ’Tween Waters marina and admire the stunning mansions and beautiful yachts dotting Captiva’s southeast shore. The channel meanders through tiny islands and sand bars, rundown docks and pristine boat houses. We soon realize we are being watched: A bald eagle soars above us, and a flock of roseate spoonbills glare down at us from weathered trees overhead. Eventually we reach Blind Pass, the channel that divides Sanibel from Captiva. We turn around there, even though we could have spent many more hours exploring the hidden coves and countless canals. We want to be back in time to see the sunset.

We have friends waiting when we return to the Ecstacy—three manatees hovering behind our swim platform. Their giant bodies bob clumsily as they breathe through their snouts. Their kind, gentle eyes stand in stark contrast to the gouges on their backs, likely from boat propellers and other water hazards. They seem to enjoy watching the activity on the docks, as boats tie up for the night and fishermen unload their catch.

As the afternoon gives way to evening, my family walks to the beach to watch the sunset. Scott and I take Kamryn’s hands and make our way to the water’s edge. Her little legs are unsteady in the sugary white sand at first, but then she laughs in delight as the cool water laps over her tiny toes. The sun appears to grow larger as it sinks toward the horizon, a giant orange ball seemingly so close, we could reach out and touch it. Finally, it slips out of sight, bringing the perfect day to a perfect end.

When the weekend is over, we’ll return to reality and anxiously await our next adventure. It is unclear what lies ahead as we explore the waterfront wonders of Southwest Florida. What is clear is that the boat is where our family’s dreams surface, our stress sinks and our memories are anchored. The boat is our home port, where we can navigate when the seas of everyday life get rough.

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