October 26, 2014

The Floating Life

Randy Eibler flips the silverpower switch on a 1970s vintage Pioneer radio, cranks the volume control almost as far as it will go, sits back in a wicker love seat on the front deck of a small houseboat anchored near Fort Myers Beach and sips a Natural Ice on a muggy Sunday morning.

At home at sea: Scot Janikula is part of the small community of people living on their boats off the coast of Fort Myers Beach.

One of the local classic rock stations has queued up an Elton John classic, Benny and the Jets.

“You can hear this (expletive) all the way to the mainland,” Randy says, a smirk showing through his bushy, ivory-colored beard.

Randy lives on the edge of civilization in a pocket of Estero Bay. His three boats and several neighbors anchor just out of sight of the pastel-colored swimsuit shops and fragrant restaurants lining the north end of the island.

It’s a distinctive lifestyle—fiercely independent, yet often difficult. Randy and his small group of neighbors have all the freedom in the world, but few of the creature comforts to which the rest of us are accustomed.

The wildlife experiences are sometimes National Geographic quality. Dolphins rocket into the air. Manatees drift by quietly. Birds are everywhere, from bald eagles perched in dead Australian pine trees to flocks of pink roseate spoonbills wading in the shallows on a low tide.

“I’ve got a couple thousand acres out here to myself, and I don't even have to mow the yard,” Randy says, looking out over an expanse of mangrove trees.

Sunrise and sunset are events. People talk daily about both, judging the day’s dawn and dusk hours by spectacular vistas they’ve seen in the past.

“The last week the sun’s been (expletive),” Randy says. “Too many clouds.”

Sometimes nature is not friendly. Bugs can be overwhelming during summer months. From love bugs blanketing entire boats to aggressive saltwater mosquitoes and no-see-ums, this area is packed with all sorts of pests.

The odor of low tide is pretty much a combination of nuclear strength sulfur and rotten shellfish. Ospreys screech loudly for 15 minutes or so every morning, acting the part of a coastal rooster.

One plus is that multiple vessels can be tethered together to make a floating village of sorts. A small skiff sans motor is tied to one houseboat. It has a Bimini top and acts as a lounging area and a house for a couple of chocolate Labs.

Living on an anchored boat detached from society may seem like an odd choice. Certainly, life can be harsh. Randy once rowed over to visit a friend’s boat and found the guy hanging from a rope below the deck.

It's always wet, rainy or windy. Getting to a doctor’s office or just the library can be an hours-long task.

Floating faces: Randy Eibler, left, and Gerry Raccuia, below, are two of a dozen or so folks who have given up life on land for the waters of Estero Bay.But for Randy and several others living out here, life is all about the experience. He’d never spend 40 hours a week in an office, regardless of the pay. To him, time is valued above everything. It's a pull-up-a-seat-and-have-a-chat mentality. Live for today and the hell with tomorrow.

He’s about 5-feet, 9-inches tall and weighs maybe 150 pounds with faded, sandy strawberry hair. He has no visible teeth, cobalt blue eyes and he belly-laughs like a good Santa Claus should. The skin on his back and forearms is withered from decades of sun. He has large mole-like specks and small open sores. He says it’s skin cancer, “but it won't kill me. I won't live long enough.” Typically, he wears shorts, no shirt and a pair of old Corona flip-flops. 

Now 55, he’s lived on a boat on these waters for three decades. No dock or boat lift to secure the boat. No constant source of electricity or water. No bills.

Randy’s quite proud of his independence, sees it as an uber-American type thing to do. Like pioneers of centuries ago, he relies almost entirely on his own knowledge and abilities to live. He doesn't have a boss, a steady paycheck, a permanent home or easy access to a grocery store.

His life is one of extreme freedoms and constant limitations, and his main goal in life seems to be defending the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, a federal law that basically says all coastal waterways are open to navigation. That act set the precedent for laws that also allow people to anchor their boats just about anywhere as long as they’re not in a boating channel or high-traffic area and are obeying local laws and safety regulations.

Randy wants to see younger families take advantage of his lifestyle as a way to save money in tough economic times.

“People just don’t understand they can live out here for free,” he continues. “If they did, there would be a lot more people out here. I mean there’s 8,000 people in town (Fort Myers Beach) and only 12 out here. I mean am I crazy or what?”

He’s never voted and says he doesn't really care about local politics. Didn’t really notice the recession of the past few years. He was poor during the height of the housing market and he’s poor now.

Randy’s been dating Laura Thompson for several years. Laura actually has a house in Cape Coral, but she and Randy prefer living on the water. She has a small houseboat, the nicest place around. Randy installed laminate wood flooring inside years ago.

He has a son too, Dillan, 15, who lives with his mother in Fort Myers.

“He lived out here his first two years,” Randy says. “He still comes out on weekends and stays with me. That’s why I had to get a bigger boat. He outgrew his bunk in the Last Chance. ”

Last Chance is one of three boats Randy owns. He lives on a 38-footer a Greek man gave him in January and has a sailboat for sale (on Craigslist, he thinks).

 

Nautical commute: Small skiffs serve as the chief mode of transportation to neighboring boats or the island for supplies. Some of the boat people have full-time jobs onland, but most just work odd jobs for cash.Facing Reality

Life can be a mess out here. Neighbors get drunk. Cops visit often, sometimes conducting full-boat searches on every vessel in the area. People lose jobs. Get hooked on drugs. Overdose, or just fade away.

State and local laws apply, especially when it comes to properly removing waste. For $15, someone from the city comes out and pumps waste out of the boat’s holding tank.

Fort Myers is home to a Coast Guard training station, and Randy says they sometimes use him as a test case to break in rookies.

“I bet they’ve pulled me over a hundred times,” he says. “They say, ‘hey, Randy’s home. Let’s go see if we can catch him doing something bad.’ They’ve never got me for anything but a ticket though. They actually like me now.”

A set of unwritten rules or codes are the top governing force. Using someone’s last name is practically forbidden, especially in the presence of a “landlubber.” Here, you’re known more for what you do or how you act than who your parents are. If a guy named George shows up and he fishes shrimp for a living, his name would likely be Shrimper George.

Randy is Last Chance Randy.

He was dubbed that years ago by a boss who grew tired of saying, “Randy, this is your last chance.” He’s like the scoutmaster of the group, the grizzled boating veteran and long-standing leader.

Randy first came to Fort Myers Beach as a teenager on a family vacation. He grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. At age 21 he packed some clothes and went on road trip to Florida.

“I had a girlfriend and a MG Midget, and we’d stop in every town along the east coast of Florida looking for a boat,” he says. “I didn't even know what kind of boat I was looking for. We ended up in Key West and then drove up to Naples. We made it to Fort Myers and I liked it. The whole trip took about a month.”

Then you've got people like Hillbilly Jim, who apparently likes to blast “hillbilly” music on weekend nights and display his electric guitar skills for everyone in the area.

“Jim's got money,” Randy says. “Now he's got one of those Sirius radios and he plays that hillbilly (expletive) until 3 in the morning.”

“Those things cost like $10 a month,” Gerry Raccuia, one of Randy’s nautical neighbors, chimes in.

Money is a constant concern, although Gerry says $1,000 can last him a year.

Out on the water, beer is practically legal tender, sometimes better. Once acquired, the real challenge is keeping the beer cold on super-hot days. The two choices are bagged ice from the store or find someone with a generator, a can of gas to power it and a working freezer.

Insulating koozies are highly prized. Randy has a giant, customized one he made by slicing three regular-sized koozies in half and taping them together. He prefers a 16-ounce tall-boy can, and that size of koozie at Topps supermarket runs $3. Way too much.

“I spend half my time trying to figure out how to make my life easier,” Randy says. “It took me a year to think (the koozie) out and about 10 seconds to make it.”

 

Below deck: Some of the contents of Randy Eibler’s houseboat include binoculars he uses for watching the wildlife and approaching police boats.Savvy Moves

A row boat is the least expensive and most reliable way to travel.

Gerry’s tiny dinghy is rigged with a pair of sticks that look like legs from an old kitchen table. They’re square-shaped, about four feet long. The blades on each end of the “oars” are made from broken five-gallon buckets. The curvy shapes are screwed to the table legs to make a semi-functional tool.

It works, but just barely.

“You get two sets of oars per bucket,” Randy says, laughing. “Cheapest oars in town.”

Gerry’s seat is a yellow plastic stepstool—his bottom on the first step and his back resting against the second. Several gallon-sized jugs that once held Arizona brand green tea rest near the bow. They're now filled with water, enough to keep Gerry relatively clean and hydrated for several days.

“I haven’t driven a car in six years,” Gerry says. “I didn't even mean to stop here. I got caught in a tropical storm back here and just never left. That was four years ago.”

He hears a buzz in the bottom of his boat.

“There goes my phone again,” he says. “I bet it’s Mary wanting us to move her boat.”

Mary owns a boat floating near the mangroves. She’s also one of the few literate boaters out here and the go-to person for help with computers or the library.

These backwater squatters, as they’ve been called in local newspapers, are also savvy recyclers. Almost everything that drifts by or otherwise finds its way into the bay has a use or value.

Sometimes people dump old boats in this area to avoid a disposal fee. These boats sometimes sit for years, slowly falling apart and sinking. 

But what is one man’s trash is truly another man's treasure here. Recently, someone tied a stripped-down, motorless boat to the mangroves.

Randy knows there are likely some parts, a gas can, a life jacket, oar, something, that can be sold in town or traded among the boaters.

“I’ll go over and check it out later. I bet I can get some stainless steel screws off that thing,” he says.

 

Boat sweet home: Gerry Raccuia hadn’t planned on staying off Fort Myers Beach, but a tropical storm four years ago brought him there, and he hasn’t left.Danger Lurks

While living this close to Mother Nature is often breathtakingly beautiful, it can also be a curse.

Take Hurricane Charley in 2004. The category 4 storm made landfall in Lee County, ripped a barrier island in half and pounded the coast with 90-mile-per-hour winds.

Laura, Randy and others pulled their boats inside a canal on Delmar Avenue on the east side of Fort Myers Beach, lashed them together and rode out the storm.

“It was exciting,” Randy says. “We had a big fire at a house on the island and we just watched it burn down. There wasn’t no firefighters or anyone around. You could walk right up and get as close to the fire as you wanted. You could do anything.”

Randy laughs, takes a sip of beer and continues.

“The cars underneath the house exploded. It got real exciting from there.”

Their preparations and knowledge of the water paid off. Minimalists accustomed to solar or no power, cooking fresh-caught fish over a charcoal grill and bailing water for hours on end, Randy and his friends found themselves in an odd spot once Charley passed: free to roam the island.

“We went to SOB (grocery store) and they gave us a ton of seafood,” Randy says. “They were giving away five-gallon bags of scallops. Everybody had beer. It was great.”

With no television or Internet, Randy and his friends tell stories to pass the time, another trait that links him more to the 1800s than the modern era.

Randy and Gerry can spin an anecdotal weave on just about any topic related to the bay or anything on, in or near it. 

Take water runners. They’re a constant in pretty much any coastal area of Florida. Tens of thousands of people own them, and jet skis are rented at many beaches in Southwest Florida. They can be a pest when riders don't abide by slow speed zones.

“They come by real fast and it makes waves and rocks my kitchen when I’m cooking,” Gerry says, sounding very much like a whining Jon Lovitz character from a Saturday Night Live skit.

It’s a minor annoyance that in a way mirrors how the rest of society seems to feel about Randy and Jerry.

Todd Walter, an official with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fort Myers Beach office, calls the men who live out in the “back bay” area off the island “just a step up from homeless.”

“Obviously they have a roof to sleep under, but they are going to the local churches looking for assistance just as someone who is homeless on land,” he says.

While he won’t go so far as to call the boat people a problem, Walter does say they require the Coast Guard to expend resources that could be saved for other uses. There are frequent distress calls because of infighting amongst the group and false alarm medical calls.

“These men are mostly in their 50s, but their bodies are a lot older if you know what I mean,” he says. “There is a lot of alcoholism.

“We always take things seriously,” he says. “But to an extent it is a nuisance.”

Even with ultimate independence, the realities of the world set in. Randy and his friends skip out on many of the problems of everyday life—overbearing bosses, endless waves of bills—but find things that we take for granted (grocery shopping, trips to the pharmacy) as constant inconveniences.

That’s just the way life is on the water. One day you’re struggling just to get by, the next you’re soaking up rays in paradise. For most of us the sacrifices wouldn’t be worth the freedom. But for a select few, living on land isn’t living at all.

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