Several years ago, Matt and I decided to take the boat to the Florida Keys for vacation. The
drive from Central Virginia to Islamorada is a grueling 1100 mile gauntlet of fast food, gas
station coffee and rest stops. With only one week for vacation, we decided to drive down non-
stop while our wives flew down to meet us. Seventeen hours after we left Richmond, we arrived
in Tavernier. Rather than unpack or even wait for our wives to arrive from the airport in Miami,
we headed straight to the boat ramp and went fishing… We’d already been up for more than 24
hours straight, but we were too excited for exhaustion.

Altogether, the trip was about as good as we could have hoped for. Matt caught his first tarpon
and I caught my first sailfish – all from a 19’ center console bobbing around between Florida Bay
and 35 miles off shore in the Gulf Stream. In the spirit of Extreme Fishing, here are a couple of
the memorable stories from that trip.

Color Matters

Early in the week, Matt and I decided to go exploring in Florida Bay and Everglades National
Park. The fishing there includes a wide variety of opportunities from mangrove snapper to
bonefish and tarpon and we were excited to try it all. But exploring the Bay as a new area can
be tricky, with narrow navigation channels running between small mangrove islands. Entering
these channels is a little like passing on a blind curve – you can’t see what’s around the next
bend and even in a small boat and there are shallow places where you’ve got to stay up on a
plane to avoid running aground. In the absence of channel markers, the only clue to “deep”
water is its color. Shallow water looks brown, deeper water looks green. Everyone knows this.
During our exploration, Matt was driving the boat while we scoped out likely places to fish.
Every turn into the mangroves looked promising but without a good chart, we found ourselves a
little disoriented. At some point, knowing the tide was outgoing and the water getting shallower
by the minute, we decided to head back in the general direction of the condo and fish closer
to home. The wisdom of our choice was confirmed when we rounded a bend between several
islands and saw a larger boat had run hard aground.

We stopped to offer assistance, but the captain was busy red-lining the diesels in reverse,
kicking up clouds of sand in the water trying to power the big boat off the sand bar. Matt and
I noticed two things almost immediately: First, all of his bilge pumps were working overtime
pumping cloudy water out of his bilge; and second was the pungent odor of anti-freeze. When
he finally noticed us idling behind him, I suggested that he take it easy on the motors and Matt
offered him a ride back to his marina so he could get help. He thanked us and declined, saying
that he’d be off the sandbar as soon as the tide changed.

Matt and I exchanged a look… we both knew from the endless stream of water coming from
his bilge that IF he managed to get off the sandbar, the boat would never make it to a marina.
As gently as we could, we pointed to the water gushing out of the stern bilge pump, and
said, “Looks look you’re taking on water, leaving it up on that sandbar might actually be a pretty
good idea.” In all our time on the water, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recreational boater
put together a more creative string of profanities. He cursed the entirety of maritime history
going back to Magellan, swore to murder shipwrights all over the world and mentioned his boat
broker’s lineage at least twice. When it was clear he was just getting his second wind, Matt and
I drifted off to what sounded like a challenge for Poseidon himself to appear and swallow-up
Florida Bay.

On our way back to the condo, I noticed that Matt was making some odd choices of his own
navigating around the mangroves. When channel markers were close by, he managed to
stay in deep water, but when none were in sight, he’d take short cuts across sandy points and
shallow water. Finally, with the big boat episode fresh in my mind, I suggested he stick to the
channel. He kind of nodded and said, “Uh-huh.”

After a couple more close calls, I politely inquired, “Hey, moron, you TRYING to kill us?” Matt,
who’s fluent in sign language, responded using the one sign that’s understood the world over,
the one-finger salute, and yelled, “It’s not as easy as you think” over the roar of the outboard.
We were doing close to 40 MPH.

“What do you mean it’s not easy”, I screamed, “the brown water’s shallow and the green water’s
deep. Everyone knows this. Drive in the GREEN water.”

I recognized the deer in the headlight stare, followed by a flicker of light in his eyes, and I could
tell that something had just clicked. He finally shouted, “I’m red-green color blind, I can’t tell
brown from green…”

I drove the rest of the way back to the condo and we stayed away from the mangroves for the
rest of the week.

2 Responses to “The Florida Keys Chronicles – Chapter 1”

  1. Wait, wait, wait. Let’s get this right.

    Driving through those narrow channels was harrowing. The fear of running into an oncoming boat at full speed was daunting and if I recall, I wanted to drive slower. YOU were the one who forced me to go faster to “stay up on a plane”.

    And, in my defense, we never did run aground. At least not THAT day.

Leave a Reply