My heart sank as my outboard motor pivoted up out of the dark, tannin colored water, the propeller my new 70 horsepower Yamaha cloaked in a mangled, dripping wet, wire mesh crab trap. Our German friends from Berlin stood up, looking over the stern railing of our equally new pontoon boat to see what the problem was. We were being blown about by the incessant wind as I raised the motor to see the damage, still in shock from the sudden, unexpected tooth-jarring stop. The outboard motor had died immediately, something that always gets a boater's attention.
We wallowed at the mercy of mother nature in the wide, shallow mangrove creek while I knelt on the transom, leaning over the motor to see how badly damaged the motor was. The prop was completely wrapped in black, chicken-wire mesh and thick, bent re-bar. Re-bar is the steel reinforcing rod used in cement construction. Commercial crabbers make the frames of their traps out of re-bar. It is cheap, strong, heavy, and takes a long time to rust out. You don't bend re-bar with your bare hands. The crab trap had a dead bait fish in it, but no crabs. It had probably been set just before I ran over its buoy, wrapping the line around my propeller and pulling the trap off the bottom. I had been watching my wife, Ilse, while she asked me a question and didn't see the white, Styrofoam marker and our new Bennington 20 foot pontoon boat came to an abrupt halt. Rather silently, I may add. The mangrove creek was empty except for a few crab traps haphazardly strung down the center.
How I got here in the first place would give most boaters gray hair. I had taken the weather forecast for granted earlier in the day and gotten into deep, deep trouble. No, not the TV forecast many recreational boaters rely on, but the official NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecast. In fact, I listened to it on my hand-held VHF marine radio just before I throttled up into Charlotte Harbor, headed south toward Cape Haze from our home port up-river just off the scenic Myakka River. Five to ten knots out of the south, decreasing to five knots by afternoon. Great! If I can handle the out-bound waves, we'll be in great shape for the return trip.
Trust me, a pontoon boat is not meant for open water and three-foot seas. Normal boats have a pointy end, called the bow, which usually goes through the water first, and some kind of front cover to keep water out of the boat. The end is pointy so water will flow smoothly around it. The back end of a boat, called the stern, is flat and rarely is called upon to go first. To the casual observer, a pontoon boat looks the same at each end. It really does have pointy ends that go first, but there is no fore-deck to divert water that may come over the bow. In that case, all your passengers get wet feet and soggy bags if they left them on the floor. Pontoon boats are not blue-water boats.
I had taken our guests up-stream two days earlier to show them the many alligators found sunning themselves in the fresh water along the river banks between Rambler's Rest campground and Snook Haven, just a few miles north. That trip was perfect for our pontoon boat, and now we wanted to fulfill our guest's wishes of seeing porpoises, or dolphins, in the wild. So, for this trip we headed south into the salt water of Charlotte Harbor. Our visitors from Berlin had a narrow window before heading back to winter in Germany, so if we didn't get out today, we probably wouldn't have the opportunity to show them Bull Bay or Turtle Bay, and quite possibly miss seeing the dolphins we are accustomed to in the area.
An hour and twenty minutes after we started out, we slowed and pulled into protected Cape Haze Bay, bumping the sandy bottom only once as I turned toward the protect anchorage twenty feet or so too early. The wind was a solid ten knots out of the south, but our little Bennington had fared well. We hadn't even come close to taking any waves over the front deck, so everything was perfect. According to the weather report, everything from here on was going to be a piece of cake.
We took photos of an obliging dolphin that circled the boat several times and gave us plenty of photo opportunities. It was as if I had scheduled its appearance just for our visitors. We slowly motored around the point and soon found out weather was going to be a major player after all. The building winds out of the south prevented us from landing on one of our favorite beaches, ripping my stern anchor loose and causing us to cut our stay short.
We toodled along for a few minutes in the strengthening winds headed west toward Bull Bay, then decided to turn around and head for home instead. The winds were increasing, not decreasing. Too late. As we headed back into the open water of Charlotte Harbor, the following seas were too heavy for a straight heading back toward the Myakka River. Afraid of burying the bow and the following sea rushing behind, I took a northeasterly course across Charlotte Harbor toward Punta Gorda which allowed me to at least control the boat in the building seas without taking water over the bow or being swamped from behind. We were soon in three foot seas and fifteen mile per hour winds from my right rear quarter. Disney World has nothing in its ride inventory to compare with the trip. The nine-mile trip across open water in a pontoon boat was a thrill to say the least, but I only drenched my passengers once. I couldn't go faster than nine or ten miles and hour and still control the boat, so it was a simple grit your teeth and hang-on type trip. I couldn't prevent one huge breaker from sloshing water over the port bow, but at least our guests were in good, if not soaked, humor. It was a real test for our ten year old Golden Retriever who squeezed himself between our guests for most of the bone-jarring trip. He gave me more desperate stares than my wife did.
We finally pulled into the Ponce Inlet canal at Ponce De Leon Park and sighed with relief to get out of the heavy wind and rolling seas. We throttled back to idle and found the wind still pushing us through the canyon of big boats nestled safely up on their dry lifts. The twenty minute respite from the incessant see-sawing across wave crests and troughs was enough to give everyone a chance to see if their sense of adventure, if not their sense of humor, had survived.
Cutting through Punta Gorda Isles brought me out into the Peace River in the lee of the winds from the south. I took a direct course across the Peace River, then aimed westward toward the entrance to the shallow Hog Island Cutoff which would once again get us out of the fifteen knot wind. The last few minutes across the Peace River once again found me fighting the steering as I minimized our exposure to the moderate seas as much as possible.
I entered the Cutoff on the western side, avoiding the sand bar that catch many boaters unaware, and throttled back to a comfortable cruise through the shallow mangrove creek that always reminds me of the Florida Keys. Several dedicated fishermen watched as we glided past, once again enjoying the relative quiet. We were almost through the two mile long creek, enjoying the twisty parts and joking about taking a “short cut” when we slammed to a sloshing halt.
Our German friends immediately set the front anchor when they realized we were drifting toward the mangroves. Luckily they are as at home on the water as we are, and knew exactly what to do as I was preoccupied with the other end of the boat.
I propped myself against the stern and after the required expletives, began prying the wire chicken-mesh from around the prop. If I had to use heavy leverage, I would have to get off the boat and in the three feet of root-beer colored water just to use my ever-present tools, but I was lucky, the re-bar lifted up and off the propeller after only a few minutes of prying and twisting. The trap splashed back into the water and we were free. We were once again ready to finish our trip and not only was I still dry, I hadn't even opened the tool bag.
We sat at idle for a few minutes after starting the motor, making sure it didn't make strange noises or leak from any seals. I pushed the boat back up to cruising speed and we finished the creek without any further drama. Entering the Myakka River well past the Hog Island Point kept us out of the wind and waves so the remainder of the trip home was almost dull by comparison. An hour later, after washing the salt water off the boat, and checking the prop for nicks, we all sat down to a glass of wine.
The German clinked our glasses and said “Thank you for showing us the Dolphins!”
“No problem, any time! It was our pleasure.”
I'll know the next time I try to get our dog back on the boat. He might not want to come.