KEYS TO REEFS

 

Since mid-October 1997, sailing off the Florida Keys for a week in May 1998 shifted back and forth in my mind but never really left it. Promise and uncertainty conspired together, insuring that I was prepared in every way I could imagine. "You brought what?" my senior crewman said in disbelief when I pulled a wad of bungee cords out of my duffel bag as he was trying to lash mainsail around the boom. In minor ways, preparation paid off but the main reason the week was a success was because of a father-son crew. It was so good to see them combine in smooth, sure handling of the Beth Ann--Bill on the chart and Ben at the helm--that I kept out of the way, more and more absorbed in reefs and fishes. The turning point for me was Molasses Reef, a world famous diving site over which we stayed for many hours on Thursday, May 21st. I was well prepared for its impact by three bonefish I had met in a seagrass patch on my first full day in the Keys. The biggest bonefish deserved to be called "Butch" for the bully way he pushed me out of his seagrass and made me realize how totally the near shore belonged to him and his kind, which forms a fuller, more complete sea shelf kingdom than I had ever imagined existing. I had seen reefs before, spectacular reefs off Harbor Island in the Bahamas, but I did not know enough then to recognize what I was seeing. Butch gave me the keys; Molasses Reef admitted me on strictly limited terms to a marine kingdom.

A Bonefish named Butch?

Distinguishing characteristics: upper jaw overhangs the lower plus a large caudal or tail fin that is deeply forked and very powerful. Silvery overall with dusky side stripes and bars. Size: three feet; 20 pounds, though most are 24-30 inches and 10-14 pounds. Diet: claims, snails, shrimps, and small fishes. Feeding: masters of the seagrass bottoms which are methodically harvested by well-coordinated mudding in groups of 3-4. Eagerly sought by fisherman for the battle it puts up when hooked but flesh quality is poor and very bony.

On Friday, May 15th, my first full day in the Keys, I had finished my list of chores (collecting information and provisions) and in early evening I turned into the small, land-based, part of Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to try out our face masks. The parking lot was empty, since the academic year had not yet ended for vacationers with children in school. I thus drove right up to the small ledge of limestone rock which passed for a little beach, where there were only three vehicles and two of them were not interested in the beach. The third belonged to a scuba diver who was also testing his gear but in deeper water, a diving bay a hundred feet further out. The wind was blowing well, probably over ten knots, and I initially regretted not having gotten the Beth Ann early. Because of the wind, the water surface was fully rippled and it was impossible to see the bottom or even much beyond the surface. I waded in less than waist deep, donned a face mask and snorkel, and stuck my face into the eighty degree saltwater.

A big, sharp-faced fish was charging at me! And on my left and right nearby were two of his friends who looked like they could strike at any moment!! Like a horse about to step on a rattlesnake, I reared up and back peddled until I was in water well below my knees and within easy reach of dry land. Then I carefully put my face back in the water to discover what was going on here. Over the next 90 minutes and through trial and error, I discovered that going deeper put me near a small patch of seagrass along the edge of which one of the three fishes patrolled while the other two fed in the fading light of dusk. Any approach by me brought the three together in a wedge with Butch in the lead, and they would charge and veer until the ignorant intruder withdrew.

When a scuba diver came in the water to test equipment, I asked him about these charging fish. "I forget the name of them but they're harmless," he reassured me. "They're all bluff and bluster. Fish attacks, even shark attacks, are unknown in the Keys." Maybe so, I thought, but I'd never known fish with attitude either. My experience was the opposite; fish are shy and fickle, except for a pod of redfish off Ship Island Pass near Gulfport and even these were obviously after bait and not after me. With darkness spreading fast, I showered, shaved, dressed, and drove down past Treasure Harbor and turned into the World Wide Sportsman, where I spent an hour or more with "John," a slender, middle-aged man in the tackle department who, more than any other person there, recognized the value of my 40 year old, all-stainless steel, Shakespeare reel. "You take care of that reel," he said. "They don't make them like that any more. I wish I still had mine."

From John, I learned that Butch was a bonefish and that I had rudely interrupted him and his buddies from mudding for their dusky meal. They use their powerful tails to plow the seagrass bottom, stirring up silt and marl plus the creatures hiding in the rocky crevices there. Working in teams of three or four, each takes a turn at plowing while the others stalk and snap up the exposed prey. "Won't tolerate intruders," John said. "No kidding!" I replied.

I bought a discounted, two-piece rod to match my reel, had new line spun on it, and walked out with the minimal tackle necessary to catch both bonefish and tarpon in the shallows and a "schoolie" dolphinfish or dorado, if we ever trolled in the Gulf Stream. I also left with a strong impression forming of how fully and highly organized marine life was in the Keys.

The same must be true elsewhere as well, though less dramatically, because marine life is so intensely concentrated on the ocean side of the Keys, which is often compared to a vast, open, and largely empty desert. Only the reefs and closely related seagrass patches are alive, and to make up for so much emptiness, reef life is crammed and teeming with creatures and colors. At the most basic level, there is a logic at work here, the order required for survival, but on a crowded reef, as in an oasis, survival depends on space and lush nutrients in confined areas.

However ordered, surprises are still many and with them come questions. A few are internal. How can it be, for example, that the little rock beauty angelfish manages to remain so memorable, though displaying only two colors, yellow and black, in a crowd of outrageously multicolored reef fishes? It probably has something to do with our perception of shape, contrast, and frequency, but what exactly?

Reefs are hard on introspection, however; everything there seems to pull us outside of themselves. Why do a hundred or more silver dollar sized, striped sergeant majors cluster beneath the hull of a boat moored over a reef and how do so many manage to move in perfect unison?

Many reef fishes "hear" or feel pressure, caused by disturbance in water, all along a line that runs laterally the length of their bodies, enabling sergeant majors, among others, to identify the "pressure print" of its own kind and keep a constant distance and speed from each individual in a cluster. They probably cluster for the same reason bonefish charge, to define boundaries for dumb strangers like me. The hull of a boat does not belong on a reef and sergeant majors move in huge clusters around hulls to make clear to whom this precious bit of reef property belongs.

The outrageous colors of reef fishes serve a generally similar function. They are ways of avoiding conflict by defining ownership of space on a reef and the nutrients that go with it. The hull of the Beth Ann kept her distance from reefs and bottoms generally, but again and again, her crew found that doing so was no easy task, that failure plagues many, and that the tide and other local conditions govern safe passage, whatever the charts may say.

 

Captain Who?

It took me a decade or more before I stopped wincing inwardly whenever a student called me "Professor Sutherland." So when my full security and damage deposit for chartering the Beth Ann came back from Treasure Harbor Marine in an envelope like the one depicted above, I did a full stop and scratched at a spot on my head where hair used to be. Captain who? Surely there's a mistake! Yet the addresser of the envelope obviously went to some trouble to get my name right.

On days when I think it unlikely that I'll ever stand again at a helm with the ocean swelling around me, I dismiss the title as a delusion and a cheap delusion at that. Not for nothing have Pam and Pete Andersen, owners & still active operators of Treasure Harbor Marine, kept their charter and boat business prosperous for almost three decades. Such people would, of course, know that a little flattery on top of a previous customer discount goes a long way to attracting back those who selected THM initially for its good service reputation and low charter fees. To call me "Captain" costs the Andersens nothing and might eventually make me feel good enough to come back.

Yet, my skills were well and thoroughly tested and not found much wanting, so perhaps the low-minded, commercial account is not the whole story. In particular, I learned during the week what our instructional skipper, Captain Jurgen Messerman, meant when he concluded, "going aground is not the problem; it's going aground and not being able to sail away from it. That, above all, is what you want to avoid."

Many captains cannot, as the events of Thursday, May 21st made clear. We were off of Key Largo where the Hawk Channel, a protected passage running parallel to the Middle Keys, gives out and boats moving northward, toward Miami, are forced out to the open water of the Florida Straits or into picking a way through hundreds of banks and shoals near shore to the Upper Keys. We heard the first call for help from Greensleeves, a beautiful, 38-40 foot, cutter-rigged sail boat, as Ben and Bill were bringing us safely to our anchorage behind Rodriguez Key. None of us were surprised by the call for help from this classically styled and seemingly well-maintained boat. We encountered her disabled and drifting near Molasses Reef and moved out of the way as an outboard motor boat tried to help her avoid being wrecked on the shallows of the reef. We saw her again late in the day turning northward as we made for the safety of our anchorage. Ninety minutes later, we heard the call: "Coast Guard! Coast Guard! Coast Guard! This is sailing vessel Greensleeves. We are hard aground off of Angelfish Creek and need help." Nobody was hurt and damage to the boat not obvious, but the crew was so lost and demoralized that a salvage and towing service had to be called out and not for the only time that evening.

We heard Sundowner call for help at dusk. We first saw her well after we had secured the Beth Ann for the night. She was a big ketch, over fifty feet long, under full sail moving south less than a mile off of Rodriguez Key, which obscured our view of her when she struck rocks just beneath the surface on the ocean side of the Key. Salvagers responded quickly and stayed by her through the night. I saw her being towed to Key Largo just after dawn on Friday.

Part of what our instructional skipper had in mind was an obvious concern for harm to boaters and vessels. The grounding a boater cannot sail away from suggests broken bones and shattered boats, but the fact is that such accidents are quite rare in the Keys. The much more common case is grounded boats, which are otherwise perfectly sound, abandoned by their masters and left for salvagers and tow boats. All hands usually remain on board but the captain is crushed in spirit by the error and the crew has given up.

As a result, towing and salvage services are so prolific and lucrative in the Keys that a specific protocol has evolved for their deployment. Once the Coast Guard has responded with its usual questions about damage to vessel and injury to persons and it has determined to its own satisfaction that there is no dire and immediate threat to either, the USCG operator will say, "Are you now requesting towing and/or salvage service?" If only the word "yes" comes in reply, the operator insists that the boater state specifically, "I am requesting service by . . . ."

If the boater does not designate a specific towing company, a contest begins to determine which provider will get the business. Will it be a reputable, nation-wide one, like Seatow or Boat/US, the boating equivalents of AAA road service for cars? Probably not unless the distressed boater has subscribed previously or can otherwise show proof of an ability to pay lots immediately and in cash. Or will the stranded be left to some form of Bubba's "big, bad boat," a junky hull with two huge, growling engines bound fast to a very hefty u-shaped tow bar and driven by a broken-toothed, pony-tailed man in the devil's own cap and shades who talks soothingly about helping people in distress, not about payment? Who was it that said, "Huh! Piracy went the way of the plague!"

For these poor, broken folks, the prospect of bondage is very real and they shackled themselves the moment they accepted the commonplace view that running aground is a sure sign of gross negligence and incompetence. Those who do it should give their boat to those who won't. Sailing manuals are full of such well-meant fictions. A good sailor is, accordingly, one who: 1) always knows where the boat is in relation to the hazards around it and 2) keeps it out of harm's way.

Adamant insistence on these points has paralyzed many a potentially good sailor in the Keys and has led them rather to abandon their grounded boats than to find some way to sail them off the obstacle and resume their progress. As though to drive the difference home, Captain Jurgen grounded the Beth Ann while supposedly instructing me, Ben, and Bill how to handle her.

I initially reacted as expected, based on what the sailing books taught. I was even momentarily indignant, saying to myself: "What a fool! And we paid $15 an hour to watch this stupid move?" Circumstances seemed to make such a judgment plausible. After all, we couldn't help hearing Jurgen talking at dusk to his wife by radiotelephone: "Honey, it's Saturday night; how would you like to eat out tonight. I won't be in 'til after dark but if you can wait, I'll take you someplace nice."

Our patient instructor became then a man with a mission, though at first he refused to yield to it. He was going to wait for the tide to bring enough water through the shoals to float us freely into Treasure Harbor. But when the wind and the bottom conspired to make anchoring difficult, he drove the Beth Ann across a hundred yards of shallows in pitch black night with a notable wind astern. She bumped and scraped along until her overheating engine couldn't push her any further and died. After restarting the engine, our instructional skipper relented. He managed to bring her about but she couldn't fight free of both wind and bottom at once to retrace her path across the shoals.

"Send me your best helmsman," shouted Captain Jurgen. I made my way to the wheel where he issued commands about rpm speed and course bearing. Then, he proceeded to kedge us back across the shoals, pitching the heavy, cumbersome anchor a few feet ahead of the dragging keel and pulling the boat forward as Ben and Bill tugged on the anchor line.

After we were back in deeper water and had securely anchored, Ben and Bill fell into exhausted slumber in the cockpit while Jurgen reflected on the evening's work. He showed no trace of embarrassment and made no apology. He began his comments with an analogy and concluded them with the words quoted above on page four.

"Groundings in the waters of the Keys are like bumpy landings in a plane. The only ones to worry about are the ones you can't walk or sail away from." Looking back, these words seem exactly the ones suited to Captain Messerman. In addition to being the lead instructional skipper for THM, he is a commercial pilot who ferries airplanes around the country, including one recently to Iowa City. His main job, however, is paramedical emergency management and training in the Middle Keys, a position he got as a result of successfully responding to many boating emergencies over two decades after arriving here from the computer industry developing in the late seventies around Boston.

I came to accept the outlook represented by these words after my own grounding three days later, though it was a but a modest scrape across a few feet of bottom compared with Jurgen's hundred yard saga. Still, in essence, they are the same, especially when compared to the approach of those who think only in terms of the sailing books.

Getting stuck is what happens to almost everybody eventually in a place where the shallows are so vast and so poorly charted as they are in the Keys. The trick is to keep the probabilities of becoming unstuck as much as possible in favor of the boat, letting each one come into play, until the boat is free. Jurgen did it by approaching shoals on a rising tide. He had only to keep us busy with kedging and other anchor exercises and the boat would eventually be lifted free. I did it by approaching an uncertain bottom very, very slowly, feeling our way along and doing everything I could to be sure that little would be needed to bring us back into deeper water.

The Keys have other surprises to challenge a sailor but they are the ones likely to happen anywhere. One example will suffice. On Sunday, our first full day in complete charge of the Beth Ann, we got caught in a big car-boat jam at the drawbridge over Snake Creek. We had snorkeled on Hen and Chickens Reef, very near Treasure Harbor. The wind had been with us throughout the day and we wanted to be sure of protection should it really start to blow at night. Florida Bay was more protected than the ocean and Jurgen had showed us a well-protected anchorage in the Bay leeward of Pigeon Key. There was no alternative to a passage through Snake Creek and we hit it late on a busy Sunday afternoon as weekenders formed a continuous stream of northbound traffic across the drawbridge.

Bill was at the helm as I radioed the bridgemaster from the instrument panel in our cabin, alerting him to our approach from the ocean side and asking for his next available opening.

"Read you, Beth Ann. Bridge opening momentarily. Proceed on through." I relayed the message to Bill and we advanced to within 50 feet of the bridge pilings. Suddenly, plans changed.

"Beth Ann, Beth Ann, Beth Ann. This is Snake Creek Bridge. I opened only seven minutes ago. [Pause] Sunday traffic is heavy. [Pause] Hold your position until the two sportfishing boats come up behind you. It'll only be about three minutes or so."

"Roger that Snake Creek Bridge. This is the Beth Ann over and out." Despite the half apologetic reassurance at the end, I was irritated at the delay and the awkwardness of keeping a station in rapidly moving wind and water. Sail boats do not, however, argue well with bridges, so I gave Bill the bad news. One minute gave way to another and another. The first of the 35-40 foot sportfishing boats came charging up, positioning itself to the right and slightly behind our position as the wind pushed us into the left or oncoming lane of the channel.

Suddenly, from the other side of the bridge, came a low, fast ski-boat, whose bow pointed along an imaginary line between us and the boat next to us. The ski-boat blasted through the gap with a roar, leaving less than 10 feet on each side. A second ski-boat came right behind it, and Bill stepped aside, motioning me to the helm.

The wakes and wind were pushing us closer and closer to the left bank, further and further out of alignment for the right lane of the channel that went under the Bridge. Also, our position seemed to signal doubts about our intention. Were we going to come about and proceed back the way we had come, following the ski boats, or were we still in line, but out of position, to pass under the Bridge when it finally opened?

There were now two sportfishermen waiting in the narrow lane and the master of the first one decided that we had changed our mind, and he edged forward, closing our access to the position assigned to us. Without a clear, immediate response from us, the second boat would follow the first.

With as much display as possible, I turned the wheel hard to the right and throttled up in reverse. Our bow swung to point more directly at the bank, which settled nothing, but then, as reverse momentum built, we could clearly be seen to back across mid-channel and ever closer to the bow of the second sportfishing boat. The alarm began to sound for the Bridge to rise. The captain of the boat now leading our little procession slapped his throttle. The first boat leapt forward and into the ever larger opening of the Bridge. The second boat was ready to follow but hesitated just long enough for me to shift into forward and apply full throttle, bringing our bow around quickly and pointing it unmistakably at the gap made by the now fully raised Bridge. Our intention was finally clear, but would we get the chance to execute it? The second captain was left with a decision and in the time it took him to think about what to do, the Beth Ann advanced at her slow and stately pace, leaving those behind to throttle way back and mind her wake in picking a way through the chop left surging around the pilings.

Without much hyperbole, these might be called the moments of a captain, but they were few and insignificant compared to the grandeur of reefs and the intricate arrangement of poster colored fishes in a sea shelf domain. Bill and Ben will confirm how hard it was to pull me away from my small window on this spectacle and sail me reluctantly back to dry land.