If I Die in the Backcountry at Least I’ll Die Free

Saturday promised to be a fun vacation day; in the morning I drove to the Key West airport to pick up my girlfriend Dina who arrived on an 11:08 AM Delta flight from cold and dreary North Carolina. It was an early departure for Dina, she was awake since 2:30 AM and appropriately excited about her vacation in the Florida Keys. Dina is petite of stature, standing on her tippy toes she barely reaches five feet two and a half inches (half an inch is important to short people and men). Wearing long blue jeans and a brightly colored cardigan, overdressed for the hot Lower Key’s weather, Dina stepped out of the arrival gate and smiling like a little girl, she happily skipped across the street. She was greeted by me and three majestic Key West roosters who in a proud cocky fashion displayed their rainbow-colored feathers and their giant red combs.
Our initial plan was to zoom around Key West on bicycles. We intended to check out art galleries and shop for funky clothes in stylish boutiques on Duval Street followed by a few vacation drinks, the kind in plastic cups decorated with paper umbrellas stabbed in a garnish of citrus slices and topped with a bright red cherry. But the day was sunny and after a week of high winds the skies were calm offering perfect weather for boating. My friends across the street Mike and Michelle are avid boaters who own a 27.5-foot Grady White (half a foot is important to boat owners). They generously invited Dina and me for a day of boating, our plans for the day had to pivot. Our new destination was Snipe Point, a popular spot accessible only by sea and on pretty days frequented by leisure boaters.

On the way to Snipe Point we planned to wakeboard in the backcountry and stand-up paddle around mangroves, a perfect action-packed plan for a beautiful mid-March Saturday in the Florida Keys. We loaded the boat with light snacks including corn chips, salsa, pretzels, celery and slices of bell peppers, adult beverages, and fresh water for hydration. Before the departure Michelle encouraged us to take a few extra bottles of water: just in case we get stuck somewhere. We took off a little after noon and headed Northwest into the backcountry, known for its beautiful but shallow waters. Snipe Point was awaiting our arrival.
On the way Mike and I wakeboarded behind the boat. The sea was turquois blue and a little choppy. Wakeboarding was doable but tremendously tiring on our legs since we had to continuously amortize the choppiness of the sea. When we arrived at Snipe Point we were astonished, never before have we seen this place so crowded.

There were boats anchored everywhere around us and people walking in waist deep water. Giant yachts were anchored a little distance away. Excited dogs were swimming around the boats following their owners.  We could see private vessels of every size and specification. Many of them were flying flags with political slogans like “Let’s Go Brandon”, or flags depicting emblems of major league sports teams. Amidst the chaos we noticed a couple bright orange speed boats with quadruple 400 hp engines with music blasting from their dueling stereo systems. Frankly, it was not relaxing nor pleasant rather it was obnoxious and anxiety building. What the hell is this boating culture about? Why do people venture far into the sea to secluded locations and picturesque islands only to blast dreadful music? The agonizing music insulted our sensibilities and made our ears wither. After an adult beverage to calm the nerves, we decided to go visit the island.

While on the island, Ted the dog who is Michelle’s faithful companion enjoyed a swim and chased a stick which was three times bigger than his fluffy Pomeranian self. Ted gets insulted if someone throws a small stick as he has no time for that nonsense, the only sticks that Ted retrieves are three times his body length. Engage Ted with one of those and it will be hours and hours of fetching entertainment.

After spending enough time observing the boat culture at Snipe Point and losing ten percent of our hearing, we decided it was time to relocate to Marvin Key, a quieter and more family friendly Key. But not before we guesstimated the cost of an orange speed boat with quadruple 400 hp engines.

Here is our back of the envelope assessment:
4 * 400hp * $100 + boat hull + electronics + upcharge for COVID + increase for inflation = ~ $800K

After the cost assessment and before our departure Captain Mike discussed the strategy of approaching Marvin Key, well known for shallow waters and narrow channels. These channels must be skillfully navigated to safely enter and exit the lagoon. Captain Mike conversed with a half drunk, sun burned man who was standing in the water next to our boat; the man said, “we’ve been there every day last week. Soon the tides will fall, follow the channels, don’t go through the middle. Good luck!” Neither nautically specific nor voyage encouraging instructions but we were high on life and a little sun-stroked.

We charged forward through the shallows and arrived at Marvin’s Key, which offered a calmer than Snipe Point. From a distance, we could smell meat sizzling on portable grills. The aroma made our mouths water and stoked our hunger; we realized that chips, salsa, and celery sticks were not enough for a long day at sea. Looking towards the beach we could see kids building sand castles, dogs playing in the shallows, and we could hear music with lyrics and volume to our liking.

While we were having a wonderful time, captain Mike was notably conscious of the receding tides and spoke with a few locals about a safe passage out. One captain offered that we could follow him out when he leaves, but not knowing his departure time we decided to look around and follow the next boat out of the lagoon. We took off with Captain Mike at the helm, Michelle, Dina and I hanging off the port and the starboard sides watching for the shallows and hoping to assist in finding the channel. Initially things were going well but then we got into shallower and shallower water until the boat ran aground. We jumped out in hopes of freeing the boat from the shallows. We rocked, we pushed and we pulled. We used the front and the back anchors to gain more leverage but to no avail; we were stuck. The strong current was sweeping us off our feet and all the water that could lift the hull of the boat was running passed us from the lagoon into the sea.

We looked around and were strangely comforted to discover there were other boats around in the same predicament. Their respective crews also tried to rock, to push and pull to free their vessels but with time they gave up.

It was frustrating to see boats passing by only ten feet away in the navigational channel leading to freedom and most importantly to food and dry clothes.
As we looked around another boat ran onto a sandbar. The crew plowed boat’s engines hard in the last hope to free themselves but the muddy chum spatted from the engines high into the air and with time they too gave up.

The last stroke of hope was a private boat in the channel attempting to assist one of the stuck boats. They attached ropes and once again they rocked, and pushed, and pulled with the added force of another boat’s engines; but that too was a futile exercise. It was time to check when the tides will come back and release us. It was about six o’clock and we learned that the outgoing tide at our location would stop at about 9PM and then reverse direction, 3AM being the highest tide. All we could do is open another beverage, put some chips and salsa on the table and wait.

As time passed and the ocean receded, two dogs from one of the grounded boats happily played in the shallows. I decided to take a walk towards the other stranded boat. There were three people in their mid-thirties on board: Salty Stefan with sun-kissed skin, his girlfriend Veronica with long blond braided hair, and another guy not worthy of a description. As I approached the boat, I could feel the emotions and tension so thick in the air above, I could almost slice it with a fishing knife. They were not happy and there were no good vibes on their boat only controlled anger, disappointment and displeasure. Veronica mentioned that all three of them were Coast Guards boating on their day off, we both smiled at the irony of the situation. Salty Stefan and his not worthy of a description friend did not find humor in the irony of their predicament and explained that they were forced out of the channel and into the shallows by a boat full of “Spics” (people from Miami of Cuban descent). Apparently, Captain Salty Stefan had a choice to either aggressively negotiate the channel with the Cubans risking damage to both boats or giving way and risk grounding. He chose the latter and watched the Cubans speed away while flipping him off. His temporary anger might be excused. Veronica, Salty Stefan and their not worthy of a description friend had boat insurance and they already called for a tow boat. Veronica offered to send the tow boat our way after it was done with them. Captain Salty Stefan was not as optimistic, he did not believe that their boat could be freed and was mentally prepared to stay on the vessel until the tide comes up. We did negotiate that at the least we would put our women and Ted on the tow boat to get us back to land and Captain Mike would stay with our boat until the tides return.

We went back to the location of our grounded vessel; there was nothing else for us to do but entertain ourselves with stories.

As the sun was setting, we played the game of “Gilligan’s Island” selecting our characters. Quickly I called dibs on Ginger. The role of the Captain was of course taken by Mike, Michelle clearly was the Captain’s Wife and Dina had her choice, Mary Ann was still available. Once we got our roles, we proceeded to discuss our food options. Ted the fluffy Pomeranian, of course made it to the top of our menu.

Good thing dogs have only a limited understanding of human vocabulary otherwise Ted would not feel comfortable on the boat with us hungry humans: Ted in mushroom sauce, Ted with potato gnocchi, roasted Ted with mango salsa. Michelle finally put a stop to Ted recipes, she values Ted at no less than two human beings. We then looked around at each other to see who would be next on the menu. Dina being too petite in statue and deemed of not enough nutritional value did not qualify so we concluded that we would eat one of Captain Mike’s meaty legs, with Michelle’s permission of course.

In the distance we could see the tow boat so we walked towards our new Coast Guard friends. Tension on that boat was still high so we agreed to stand back a few feet as they performed boat saving maneuvers which ultimately failed. We moved to Plan B to get our women and Ted onto the tow boat and to safety so we stood aside and watched. A few minutes later Veronica called to us and announced that the tow boat was also stuck. We politely expressed our disappointment and started walking back to our vessel and yet when we looked back, we noticed that the tow boat was happily sailing away with the not worthy of a description dude on board; our women and Ted remained stranded. At that moment, I was angry with the Coast Guard, how do these people serve and protect if they promised safety and delivered nothing.
The sun was setting fast with most spectacular colors of crimson orange painting the sky and spilling down into the waters of the backcountry.

As the moon was rising in the sky, Captain Mike decided to climb onto the elevated roof of his Grady White sport fisher boat to gaze at the stars. I recall saying, “do not fall Captain, we need you to take us to safety.” A split second later we could hear a big splash as Captain Mike landed on his back in two inches of water. Michelle ran over to make sure her husband was OK. I murmured under my nose, “personal responsibility,” but loudly said, “I am glad that our Captain did not hurt himself, otherwise we would all have a pretty expensive helicopter ride to the Key West hospital.” Captain Mike responded, “nothing got damaged except for my ego.”

It was time to open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and watch the moon majestically raise in the remote backcountry of Florida Keys. The sky was clear and while the moon was not full, it was certainly big and bright and awe inspiring. Captain Mike commented that the moon will be our savior pulling the tides back towards the island and releasing us from the dire clutches of the sandy ocean bottom. I looked down into the water and saw a decapitated head bobbing in the ripples, the current directing it towards our boat. It was a man’s head with a shaggy beard and brown eyes; they were wide open grotesquely looking up at me expressing fear. The bobbing head was followed by two hammerhead sharks smiling up at me with numerous rows of razor-sharp teeth. Just kidding – there was no decapitated head and no sharks. Remember: we were grounded! But the moon and the open sea inspired stories.

At that moment, I wanted to thank the three unfortunate Coasties for not getting us onto that tow boat. Our sea experience on a warm night and under the stary sky was priceless. We had plenty of towels and enough warm clothes that Michelle thoughtfully brought on the boat and while we were hungry for fancy food, we were not starving. Unlike the Coasties’ boat, we were all in good spirits, laughing and having the time of our lives. I would pay extra for this excursion. From a distance we heard a voice: “tides are coming in.” We yelled, we whistled, we got energized for action. Waiting a few more minutes because we needed 18 inches of depth for the engine propellers to work, we jumped into the water and rocked, and pushed and pulled and this time we freed ourselves. Hurray!
On the way home Captain Mike was at the helm with Michelle holding a giant spotlight to guide the way. Dina after being awake for over 20 hours was finally sleeping cocooned in damp towels, sweatshirts and whatever was available on the boat. While I was comfortably resting stretched out on the back of the boat, I thought how this was the best day of my life, what an adventure! I hope these types of unforeseen but perfectly safe adventures continue enhancing my daily life.

For the navigators, scientists and engineers in you, factual details from our exploit:

(1) To raise the sea level by 1 foot, the moon pulled 208 million gallons of water into the one square mile where we were stranded.
(2) 208,530,432 gallons in one sq mile = 27,878,400 sq feet in a sq mile * 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot
(3) The moon pulled in 28,672,934,400 gallons of water in the entire Keys while we waited.   (137.5 sq miles * 208 million gallons)

A short video compilation of events that transpires (diving is a separate trip): https://youtu.be/JIVLzlmYXQA

Special thanks goes to Erik Staub, Editor in Fact, for reviewing the material, assisting with grammar and for improving the flow of the narrative.

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20 thoughts on “If I Die in the Backcountry at Least I’ll Die Free

    1. Irena

      Thank you for the “real boater” complement but in the draft I wrote “starburst.” Fortunately I have an excellent editor who quickly recognized my ignorance and corrected the text; now I look like a “real boater” and all smart.

  1. Bill H

    Glad to know other people have those days. I like the “appropriately excited ” line..and hey, 18.9 Key West..it’s not just the half a foot..every Inch matters…maybe I will chk and see if it’s 18.93 just for accuracy of course..good read…yeah hate the dueling boats..part of why picnic island is just not my bag..among 200 other reasons

  2. admin

    Fun feedback from Florida Keys Fishing Group on FaceBook

    Jeff Rudd: Great story, glad it turned out to be a good experience in the end.

    Henry Borger: Great story! You really need to pay attention boating in the Keys, the Captain needs to have his head on a swivel at all times, especially on the Gulf side.

    Rick Carn: Awesome story and enjoyed reading it.
    Being a local I can say been there done that. We ran out of water and was left cooler water with crawfish in it to drink. It’s an experience.

    Trent Thomasson: The moment is what you make of it.
    Good story & congratulations on your whole crew for making the situation a happy & memorable one.

    Ben Dubois: Amazingly put together and probably one of the most detailed smooth articles I’ve read in years!!!! You sir would put every other journalist to shame! Thanks for making my morning!

    Rodney Burris: Yeah learned the hard way south of Marco Island years ago when that tide starts going out you better go with it

    Jason Brown: You aren’t the only ones ever to get stuck there. 😂

    Captain M: we had plenty of stuck company including a tow boat(not for us) 🙂 who got hung up for 30 min.

    Jeff Peters: You ain’t been around if you ain’t been aground !

    Med Toore: Been stuck a few times but luckily we were able to push it out.

    Don Billbrough: Still paradise!

    Tim Pulice: Great story

    Tim LaMacchia: Great story!

  3. Charles

    Glad you could find the positive aspects of being stranded in such a beautiful location. I’ve spent the night on stranded boats a few times — good attitudes and good company help a lot! And I do not understand the particular boating culture that involves blasting loud music and cramming multiple people into a small area – I thought the purpose of a boat was to get away from all that 🙂 Interesting info about the tidal volume.

  4. Roger Dixon

    Been there myself, along with my wife, stuck on a sandbar on the outgoing tide off the west end of Marvin Key. Boat US pulled us off after dark on the incoming tide. While waiting for the tide to come back in, we enjoyed the quiet time – saw a couple of rays, a shark, a conch walking by. Made the most of the moment.

  5. Ted

    I understood every word, and …. until i heard the starfish scream i thought you all were kidding. FTheThreeOfYou!!

    1. Irena

      Ted! I did not realize that Ted the Dog has a gmail address … that little pup is worth more than two average humans, stupendous intellect and an awesome companion for all sorts of adventure. Hello Ted! We love you and we would have not eaten you while on the boat since we did not have mushrooms for the sauce and we did not have gnocchi.

  6. Gilda

    Loved the story. I could feel the hunger pains and a good story to tell your grandchildren. Really felt bad for the off duty coast guard people.

  7. McKinney

    Great story!
    I laughed at “half inches are important to short people and men” and “half a foot is important to boat owners” – I could identify with all those.

    1. Irena

      Note worthy is the fact that when we were hoping to be rescued by the tow boat, Roger was the person who would perform the land part of the rescue by picking us up whenever and from where-ever the tow boat would drop us (women and Ted) off. Thank you Roger for having our backs!

    1. Irena

      Personally, I am a fan of portable boat grills and juicy t-bone steaks. When we start marketing these trips as unforgettable vacation adventures, we should feed steak to our paying customers.

      1. Michelle

        Agreed! Steak adventures on a sandbar would go well! As far as Running aground, I’m in with your fishing crew – you have to pay attention, it happens, and the good news is that as long as it isn’t high tide- you can get yourself off! Nice write Irena!

        1. Irena

          You are so right — and we were so lucky to get stuck in a low tide as opposed to getting stuck in a high tide. A big reason while we can smile about this entire adventure.


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