When I was in my late ‘teens, my mom Betty got re-married. Her second husband Harry was a guy who shared her passion for salt water fishing and before long they owned two boats and a little condo on King’s Bay at Crystal River, on the Gulf of Mexico. Weekends would find them either out on the tidal flats in “the big boat”, fishing for red fish or trout or else they’d venture 20 or more miles offshore to drift-fish for grouper. My younger brother, John, and I would often drive the 40 miles from Ocala to join our folks for a day of fishing or, in the summer, go snorkeling for scallops.
We kids were allowed to take the 16-foot Boston Whaler out on Crystal River. We’d seldom fish because we preferred to snorkel or SCUBA dive the main spring or explore the Three Sisters springs. Generally, we were extremely safety conscious, having been trained by Harry to transport and handle the boat under all sorts of conditions and to even effect repairs on the water for critical things like replacing the shear pin to the prop, a common issue that cropped up when the boat ran over any wayward oyster bar back in a muddy river inlet.
One of The Rules for taking the boat out on the river was Stay In The River. No running the boat out into the Gulf. I followed the rules scrupulously but still managed to lose the boat one day. I was the “skipper” on an “introduction to Crystal River” expedition with my step-sister, Cathy. She wanted to go beach-combing, so I ran the boat downriver the 7-odd miles to Shell Island, situated at the mouth of the river. After I lifted the engine clear, we carefully pulled the lightweight boat up onto the beach on the river side of the island and dug the little mushroom anchor deeply into the dense sand well above the high water mark. We soon made our way around the point to the Gulf side of the island, to where lovely seashells awaited.
As soon as we lost sight of the Whaler around the point, I started to fret. Had we dug the anchor in deep enough? What if someone came along and discovered the engine key that I had tucked inside one of my tennis shoes and left in a locker aboard? If that boat disappeared, I’d be in a world of hurt, especially since the boat was brand-spanking new and had less than 30 hours on the engine!
The more I fretted, the more impatient Cathy became. After awhile she told me I should just go back to the boat and wait for her, she’d be along shortly. I didn’t hesitate, just headed back down the beach and around the apparently endless curve of the point. I watched as large party boats came roaring into the river from the Gulf, throwing up big wakes that swept along the curve of the beach.
By the time I could see the Whaler, or where it was supposed to be, I realized it wasn’t– where it was supposed to be. I was a good quarter of a mile away from where we’d pulled the boat up, and the dang thing was nowhere in sight! My sandaled feet took a beating on rocks and shells as I ran pell-mell along the beach.
As I got closer to the where the boat had been, I could see the trench where the anchor had dug in on its way down the beach and into the river. Looking up-river, I spotted the Whaler some 75 yards or so away, floating out in the middle of the channel, the anchor line dangling off the bow, taut and straight down into the water. Clearly, the boat was being pulled steadily up-river with the incoming tide.
I flew the remaining distance to the water, yanking off the T-shirt over my bikini top, spilling items from my shorts and dancing out of my sandals.
I dove into the murky water and started swimming for all I was worth toward the boat. I remember a welter of thoughts, primarily centered on those big boats barreling up the river. Would they even see me, frantically kicking up a rooster tail as I free-styled my way toward the Whaler?
I stopped to tread water for a second, looking and listening for boats and judging the drift of the Whaler, and then tucked in again, concentrating on a more efficient stroke. Those hours spent in the pool practicing for high school swim meets came into play, as I trimmed my body and got into a less-frantic breathing pattern.
As I closed the distance to the Whaler, I ignored my burning muscles and aching lungs and instead thought about sharks – they come in on the tide but maybe they wouldn’t bother me, I was splashing too much, right? Nope, they’re attracted to splashing! Well, then I’d worry about Mom and Harry spotting me as they came in from a day on the Gulf. Oh-My-God what was I gonna say if they picked me up? Maybe I’d just get lucky and get run over by one of those party boats.
When I reached the Whaler, I could only cling onto the transom and pant. My arms felt too tired to lift my body over the transom and besides, the dang engine was up and I couldn’t use the narrow flange over the prop as a step. I was inspired to haul my carcass over the transom anyway when I glanced downriver and saw the massive bow wave being thrown up from a 60 foot party boat, aimed right at me and slowing down not a whisker.
My hands shook like crazy as I fished inside my tennis shoe for the key and popped it into the ignition. Hours of boat operation took over as I remembered to engage the ignition to lower the engine and, with the prop safely in the water, crank the engine proper. What a sweet sound, the thing cranked on the first turn of the key!
I throttled forward and scooted out of the channel, just as a huge blast from the boat’s horn sounded in my left ear. I nearly jumped back into the river, I was so rattled. The boat roared by, passengers gaping at me, some shaking their heads and others shaking their fists, clearly baffled over someone stupid enough to go swimming or boating or whatever the hell I was doing in the middle of a busy channel!
Once clear of the channel, I maneuvered back down-river, went forward to pull in the anchor and made my way back to the beach, where Cathy was standing, hands on hips and shaking her head, clearly signaling her amazement. Or, more likely, disgust.
Luckily, Mom and Harry didn’t come in from the grouper grounds until a couple of hours after we had returned to the condo. I managed to convince Cathy to keep our little secret, or we’d be beached for the rest of the weekend. She hadn’t come all the way from Colorado to sit inside and watch TV, so she agreed, if reluctantly.
Well, it was One Of Those Things, I guess. I figured out a large wake had been enough to lift the Whaler off the beach and send it astray. That was one lesson in boating “safety” I learned the hard way. It wasn’t until years later that the story came out, and we all had a good laugh. Still. Harry told me that if he’d known of the incident at the time, my boating days in the Whaler, or any other boat my folks owned, would likely have been suspended. Not so much over the potential loss of the boat (there was little chance of that, someone would have found it and likely turned it over to Harry, he was quite well known in the area and of course the boat was registered.) It was about the foolish risk I took swimming for the boat in a dangerously busy channel.
Luckily, over the years brother John and I managed to avoid any further major mishaps as we and friends along for the ride managed to buzz around various rivers in north central Florida, diving, snorkeling, fishing and simply messing about in boats. Sometimes it takes a close call to remind you just how dangerous boating, or swimming, or life in general, can be.