Jumping Aboard a Yacht Armada to Useppa Island

Our writer joins the Pelican Isle Yacht Club for adventure on the Southwest Florida water.

BY July 2, 2019
Photography by Brian Tietz and Zach Stovall.

Bob Karll stands at the helm of the Ritz Karllton Too, his 41-foot Tiara, as the docks of Pelican Isle Yacht Club fade into the distance.

His wife, Pam, is below deck putting out breakfast while the couple’s guests, Frank and Diane Mascianica and Rob and Nancy Tozer, have spread across the boat. Ahead, the blue-green waters of the Gulf have a light mid-morning chop while, behind, the other crafts of the yacht club are readying for the day’s journey. All told, 23 boats carrying 85 people will make the trek from Pelican Isle to Useppa Island in the club’s annual armada. And though the weekend’s festivities are legendary, it’s the journey that inspires the grandest tales.

White-sand beaches line the narrow channel that runs between Pelican Isle and the Gulf, and on this clear and warm spring day beachgoers stop in the middle of spreading towels and staking umbrellas to gaze at the Ritz Karllton Too. As yachts go, Bob tells me, Tiaras are at the higher end, though they’re not outrageous.

“More of a Mercedes than a Maserati,” he says.

Bob Karll sits in the captain’s chair while Frank Mascianica stands behind him.

Still, the yacht draws its share of attention with its gleaming white hull and glinting brightwork. Its twin diesel 370-horsepower engines rumble with a steady thrum as Bob navigates out of the channel and into the open waters. He leans on the throttle and the boat surges forward, rising on a plane. Behind us, two boats fall into formation. The first is Famous, a blue-hulled 37-foot Back Cove captained by Jerry Ade with his wife, Marcella, and their Bouvier des Flandres, Missy. The second is a 41-foot Sundancer named Caelum, Latin for “Heaven,” captained by John Wohn with his wife, Caryn, and making its maiden voyage on the trip to Useppa. Other boats will come later in the day, and still others—notably Hobgoblin under outgoing commodore Dick Hobbs and Flying Eagle under Jack Bache—have already set out for Useppa with captains known for their speed.

Pelican Isle Yacht Club has 385 members, roughly split between boaters and non-boaters, and the boats at its docks vary from 22 to 55 feet. The club just completed a $5 million renovation on its clubhouse, a stunningly decorated and tastefully outfitted homage to the boating life. Membership is open to anyone in the community, not just Pelican Isle residents, and the yacht club offers a social and cruising itinerary unrivaled in Southwest Florida.

“I have not talked to anybody whose yacht club does as much as we do,” Bob says. “It’s a good way to really get to know people and cement friendships.”

He’s currently on the club’s cruising committee, and for the upcoming year Pelican Isle Yacht Club has close to 30 cruises on its schedule, ranging from lunch trips to weeklong itineraries. Their destinations include Boca Grande, Sarasota, Tampa, Marco Island, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Keys, the Bahamas and Cape Canaveral. Club members sign up for the cruises they’d like to join, and because more people register than available spots, a lottery is held to determine who gets to go. The extras are put on a waitlist. Most cruises involve four or five boats and around two dozen participants, but the annual Useppa trip, with more than 20 boats and upward of 80 people, is the yacht club’s biggest excursion.

Pam Karll, Diane Mascianica and Nancy Tozer lounge on the bow of the Ritz Karllton Too.

On the Ritz Karllton Too, we’re going at a nice clip of 22 knots, fast enough to sense the power of the boat but not so fast that the trip feels hurried. Nancy and Diane make themselves comfortable on a bench on the upper deck. Diane is in a sorbet-orange sleeveless top and capri pants with bright palm trees, while Nancy wears shades of pale gold and white. Her nails are long and French-tipped. Her husband, Rob, stands beside them wearing an aqua-blue outdoor shirt with the top two buttons unbuttoned. He has a charmingly roguish beard. For six years, Rob and Nancy lived on ESCape Key, Rob’s 50-foot Meridian.

“We were high school sweethearts who married other people,” Nancy says, laughing as she explains. “After 40 years, we finally got together.”

“I told her, ‘My ex-wife got the house, and I got the boat. How do you feel about that?’”

Nancy felt just fine about it, especially after Rob turned the third stateroom into a closet.

“We needed a place for all her shoes,” he says.

Nancy leans in and whispers, “I had fur coats onboard.” She smiles mischievously. “My one regret is that I never took a nude shot off the bow with the fur coat draped over my shoulders.”

The pair traveled throughout the Bahamas and the Caribbean, and together they completed the Great Loop, a route that circumnavigates the eastern United States. They sold ESCape Key in 2013 and moved into a house in Naples, but their boating days aren’t behind them.

“I wasn’t anxious to get off,” Nancy says, “but we’d done everything we wanted to do. Now we’re looking at canal boats in Europe or buying a boat in the Mediterranean. It would be wonderful to spend the summers doing that, but the jury’s still out.”

Across from their small group, Bob has taken a seat at the helm. Dressed in a white polo shirt and pale blue cotton shorts, he’s kicked off his deck shoes and rests one foot on the footrest beneath the wheel while the other dangles casually. He steers with the first two fingers of his right hand while Frank stands behind him, hands on his hips, watching the horizon.

“I used to tell stories about the time we’d taken on water,” Rob is telling the ladies, “until I ran into a charter boat captain who said, ‘You haven’t lived until you’ve gone 150 miles offshore and the boat catches fire.’ I’m thinking, I can deal with water. I’ve got a life raft, a dingy. We’ve got a dry bag ready to go—”

“My purse with my jewelry in it, ready to go,” Nancy says.

“I’m telling you, Nance, roughing it,” Diane says, laughing.

“It takes a certain confidence in life and your abilities to go 150 miles offshore and to think that if something goes wrong, you can get yourself back,” Rob says. “Boaters in general are a lot more confident people. That’s why we knew we wanted to join a boat club instead of a golf club. There’s more of an adventurous spirit, a confidence about life, a willingness to go with your gut that you won’t find at a golf club.”

Plus, he adds, boaters stay younger longer.

“There’s a guy with an Intrepid who shot by us earlier, Jack Bache. He’s 83 years old. You see what I mean about keeping younger?”

Boaters also tend to have a certain wit and intelligence, he says. Just look at boat names.

“We were walking on a dock in Ohio, and there’s a guy who was working on his boat. He looked very American, but the name of his boat was Fujimo. We figured, obviously, that it’s a Japanese name. But you always want to ask people when you see something different. We were talking to him, and he said, ‘Well, I’m a lawyer and I got divorced from my wife. It’s actually an acronym for ‘F U, Jane, I’m Moving Out.’”

Along the same lines, there’s a popular name he’s seen at marinas around the world: Dilligaf. It’s another acronym, this time for ‘Do I Look Like I Give a F–k?’

While Rob regales Diane and Nancy with tales of the yachting life, Pam sits in the aft of the boat, facing the wake. She’s wearing a tropical-print dress, and the sun shines down on her tan limbs and face. She, too, has kicked off her shoes. Bob is in his captain’s chair, and Frank stands behind him, one arm draped over the chair, watching the yacht’s progress. At a pause in his stories, Rob disappears below deck to use the head, and Diane and Nancy drift into silence, lulled by the waves and the hum of the engine. On our starboard side, an 80-foot Marlow Explorer, navy blue and white, approaches in the channel and passes.

“That’s a pretty boat,” Bob says.

Rob comes up from below just in time to see it.

“That’s a pretty boat,” he echoes.

Bob and Frank both nod.

“Isn’t it?” Frank says.

It’s nearing noon, and the Ritz Karllton Too cruises through Pine Island Sound between Captiva and Pine Island. The weather has held, and the sky is clear and blue with only a few tufts of clouds to the east. Bob picks up the radio and calls over to Famous.

“Are we going to Cabbage Key for lunch, Jerry?”

“Might call ahead and see if there’s dock space,” Jerry’s voice comes back. “Might be good that we’re late.”

“Yeah, might be,” Bob answers.

“Hey, John, what’s the length of your boat?” Bob radios over to Caelum.

“Forty-one feet,” John tells him.

“Jerry, how long are you?”

“Thirty-seven feet.”

Bob switches the radio to channel 16, the standard call channel.

“This is Ritz Karllton to Cabbage Key.”

“This is Cabbage Key. We’re on channel 11.”

Bob switches to channel 11.

“We’ve got three boats, two about 40 foot each, one 37 feet. Wondering if you have space for us.”

“What are the beams on the boats?” the dock master at Cabbage Key asks.

“Fourteen feet.”

“We’ll get you in the basin, sir. You’ll be fine. Right in a row.”

Bob radios to the other boats in the line.

“They’ve got plenty of room for us at Cabbage Key. The 37-foot is going to be closest to the island, and we’ll be backing in.”

“Good work. Thank you,” Jerry on Famous radios back.

Bob takes a hard left at mile marker 11, the approach to Cabbage Key, and he slows the boat so that it leaves an imperceptible wake. Famous and Caelum follow. The dock master is waiting on the dock with a handheld radio. He points to each of the three slips, and his voice comes over the Ritz Karllton Too.

“OK, folks. On the three boats. The first one goes here. The thirty-
seven goes right down here. The last one goes here.”

Except for Bob and Pam, no one on the boat speaks.

“Docking always gets quiet,” Nancy tells me later. “It’s kind of intense. Everybody gets serious.”

“We’ll get off on the stern,” Bob says to Pam. “I guess we’ll need two lines on the stern and a spring line.”

“Are you on port or starboard?” Pam asks.

“We’re gonna be on the port,” Bob says.

He maneuvers the boat with a joystick control, turning it with jets under the hull, deftly moving 360 degrees and then backing into the slip. At the stern, Pam holds the docking line. She knots it, drapes one end over a cleat and then tosses the other end to the dock master. He wraps it around a piling and tosses it back to her. She ties it off on the boat’s cleat.

“Pull it tight, dear,” Bob says.

While this is happening, Caelum has backed into the next slip and Famous into the third. All three yachts are lined up together, and they make a striking sight.

There’s a wait for a table at Cabbage Key, and the group comes together to talk shop. Five mallard ducks go quacking by. A scrappy gopher tortoise yanks up mouthfuls of green leaves at our feet.

“You got a reservation?” Frank says to the tortoise.

There’s an outside bar at Cabbage Key, and it gives off the familiar bar sounds of opening bottles and pouring ice as we wait.

“I hope the weather stays good,” Frank says, crossing his fingers.

Soon the table is ready, and everyone moves inside to take their seats. They order the restaurant’s famous cheeseburger or mahi sandwiches. Some sagely order salads. There’s talk of children and grandchildren. By the time lunch is over, it’s early afternoon and the fleet is anxious to reach Useppa. The journey won’t be long.

“You could swim it,” someone says.

On the way back to the dock, Pam and Marcella link arms.

“What a life this is,” Marcella says.

“We are lucky ladies,” Pam agrees.

The yacht pulls into a rented house with private dock on Useppa.

For the 20-minute jaunt to Useppa, Bob is back at the helm of the Ritz Karllton Too. He has his Sperrys off and his feet propped up on the footrest, both hands on the wheel. Nancy, Pam and Diane are grouped together on a bench, while Frank and Rob, standing, watch the approach.

“We have an amazing degree of togetherness,” Nancy tells me, speaking of the members of the Pelican Isle Yacht Club in general, but also meaning this boat’s crew in particular.

Diane nods. “It sounds corny, but we say it all the time. How does this happen?”

“It’s a blessing,” Pam says.

The coconut palms of Useppa Island sway in the afternoon breeze as we motor in. Houses in the old style—white clapboard, tin roofs—stand in orderly rows. A great egret wings down and settles on the front lawn of the three-story house the group has rented for the weekend. The crew ties the yacht to the dock. They pass an electric cable over to be plugged in and begin to offload the luggage. Though they’ve arrived, the day isn’t nearly done. There will be dinner later at Useppa’s Collier Inn, dancing to music from the Dazzling DelRays, an after-party at the party house (no surprise, it’s theirs). And more of the same tomorrow. But for now, the crew of the Ritz Karllton Too make their way inside their Useppa retreat, ready for the next fun thing. Pam leads the way.

“Honey, we’re home,” she says.

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