There are a few agencies whose core business is to provide for our safety; triple-A (AAA) gets us out of car trouble and TowBoatU.S. gets us out of boat trouble, and trouble is everywhere especially in the shallows of the backcountry in the Lower Florida Keys. I was excited when my friend Fred invited me to join his fishing expedition, this would be my first fishing trip of the 2023 snow-bird season. I’ve been in the Keys for ten sunny days – a fishing trip was an overdue adventure. In addition to me, Fred invited his neighbor Schmit – a half-timer in the Keys, long-time boatsman, and an avid fisherman. Our departure was scheduled for 9AM on a Monday, three days after a full moon.
In the morning I was awoken by the sounds of a tropical rain, but I figured this type of rain comes and goes and as the day progresses the weather will improve and our hot Florida sun will firmly position itself up in the blue sky. Nevertheless, in an abundance of caution I decided to take a Dramamine pill — I did not want to be feeding fish today or worse yet screwing-up the trip by demanding a non-life-threatening medical transport home. I grabbed a couple bottles of water and a box of crackers and headed out to Fred’s dock where both captain Fred and Schmit were eagerly waiting for me. The gear was ready in the boat and captain Fred asked me if I brought my Rod (see prior article). This time I did not have Rod with me but that was not a problem because captain Fred had plenty of gear available. Captain Fred checked the weather app one more time and acknowledged that later in the day a heavier wind was coming which would be inconvenient on the ocean side but not a big deal on the gulf side.
Schmit proclaimed, “I don’t care about the winds, I’m gonna fish today.”
We were ready to go — our destination was a deep hole on the Gulf of Mexico side in the Lower Florida Keys. We were hoping for king mackerel and cobia. But to get to the fishing hole we had to go through the treacherous shallows of the backcountry where no one ventures without either an experienced leader or a good set of tracks on a marine GPS. Captain Fred had fished there many times and since he never erased his trips from the Garmin GPS, he had many tracks showing successful expeditions. We were intending to follow a solid blue braid of prior tracks, but when captain Fred turned on his Garmin the tracks to the backcountry had disappeared.
“Holy smoke,” captain Fred exclaimed, “Where are my tracks?”
He power-cycled the GPS hoping for the memory glitch to work itself out. It was not in captain Fred’s nature to clear his GPS tracks and most certainly he did not intentionally erase the backcountry tracks.
“I am not comfortable heading out there without a known path,” captain Fred announced.
I was standing quiet, ready for anything. Fred was the captain of this boat and whatever he said or whatever he decided to do, I would follow and agree to without questioning.
Schmit was eager to go and didn’t want to abandon the original plan. “Fred, only yesterday I was fishing in the backcountry with a couple friends. I might still have yesterday’s track on my phone GPS. We can follow that line.” Schmit pulled his phone out of a bright orange dry-bag, tapped the screen and the GPS app came up — the track from yesterday’s trip was shining on his phone screen.
Captain Fred looked at the phone but the bright sun provided so much glare that he was not able to see anything on the small screen, “I can’t see the line. I can’t see anything on this phone, the sun is too bright,” he said.
“Fred, why don’t you steer the boat and I will guide you according to this track,” offered Schmit.
With an air of apprehension captain Fred replied, “OK, I guess we can try to do that,” and brough the boat onto plane.
I sat down on the right side of captain Fred, took my hat off so it would not blow off in the wind and settled for a twenty minute journey out to the fishing hole.
The two men shoulder to shoulder were navigating through the shallows at high speed.
“Turn right,” yelled Schmit trying to over-power the loud sound of the wind, “More, more right.”
Captain Fred obliged.
“Left, go left, more left – good job,” yelled Schmit.
Captain Fred obliged.
“Right, left, right – we will go around the island and then get into the deep channel.” Said Schmit.
Captain Fred obliged.
I was sitting starboard side looking down into the water marveling at how clearly I could see the bottom including rocks, sand, and grasses. Yikes, we were definitely in the shallows.
The two men continued, “Right, right, more right – good. Left, left, right, left, straight,” Schmit directed and captain Fred obliged. The boat was zooming close to an island at high speed but this was not a straight-line adventure. The boat was snaking taking a twisty-turny almost an S-line serpentine path — if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was operated by a couple drunk sailors. All of a sudden, something hit, “grrrzz.”
“Raise the engine,” with an air of haste Schmit instructed and our captain obliged.
“Put in neutral, turn it off, raise it higher,” Schmit was politely barking out commands and every time captain Fred obliged.
Schmit walked to the back of the boat to inspect the engine and specifically the propeller.
“Is it fucked?” Captain Fred asked.
“Yap,” Schmit responded.
“What now?” the two men looked at each other, I was sitting as quiet as a mouse. This was a perfect moment for someone to get angry and explode — I did not want to be the one to poked a little hole in a high-pressure balloon. But while full of regret and disappointment no one exhibited anger — the group cooperated and hoped for the best.
Schmit jumped in the water behind the boat acknowledging that we were in 1.7 feet of water a fact that was confirmed by Garmin. He tried to push the boat — it was moving slowly but the bottom was soft and Schmit was sinking up to his knees in the soft sand. He gave up and climbed back aboard. We looked around and noticed that the deep channel that we were after was only 50 feet away.
Looking towards the darker strip of water, captain Fred murmured, “Missing by a few feet is like missing by a mile. Let’s try to slowly make our way into the channel,” said captain Fred, and Schmit agreed.
I kept quiet.
Captain Fred turned on the engine and trimmed it up — slow, very slow we inched forward towards the safety of the deep channel.
“Without a fully functional propeller, I’ll not be able to get us out of here. No way for me to get through the shallows,” said captain Fred.
“Yap,” replied Schmit.
“We’ll need to call a tow boat.”
“Roger that,” affirmed Schmit.
We kept crawling forward, pleased that we were not fully grounded.
“Just yesterday, I came through here — twice” said Schmit, “We followed the this same line, I don’t understand what happened,” Schmit was shaking his head feeling guilty.
“We cut to the right too soon,” offered captain Fred, “normally, I go further past the island and then cut sharp right into the channel.”
Schmit retorted, “Maybe the tides changed because of the full moon, we crossed here at about noon yesterday and the water level was higher,” he walked towards the front of the boat to put more weight on the bow.
Captain Fred offered, “Could be the full moon, but it also could be the timing of the tides. It is 10 AM now, we might still be in the low tide and by noon water level could get higher.”
“Irena, come to the bow,” lets put more weight up front to unburden aft,” I sprinted to action and plumped my butt as far forward as reasonably possible.
Our boat creeped slowly towards the deep channel which we could clearly spot based on the darker water.
We finally made it to the channel just a few, albeit too long, feet away from the place of our incident — but as opposed to calling TowBoatU.S. the two men decided they would make an attempt to cross back to where we came from. I really did not understand that strategy but I was not about to ask. Captain Fred turned the boat in port direction and we left the safety of the deep channel once again headed towards the shallows.
“Three-feet, two and a half feet,” captain Fred was reading the depth gauge, “two feet …”
“It is getting shallower,” I spoke the obvious as I was looking down at the sea floor.
“Stop!” said Schmit abruptly, “We don’t want to get stuck in the shallows.”
Captain Fred agreed, “We should go back to the deep channel, anchor and call for towing.”
“Roger that,” responded Schmit and added, “trim up the motor and lets move back slowly following exactly the way we came from.”
“I can follow my exact track,” said captain Fred as we were slowly making our way back to the safety of the deep channel.
I was glad that we were going back to the deep channel as I still did not understand the reason why we attempted to cross back — but I wasn’t about to ask.
We arrived back in the deep channel and Schmit threw out the anchor — there was not much on the bottom of the ocean to hook up with but the anchor was heavy and held the boat. Captain Fred pulled up the emergency number located on his key chain and dialed (305) 872-3092.
A female voice answered on the other side, “Hallo.”
“Hello, this is Fred, I will need a tow in the backcountry. We went out, got stuck in the shallows and damaged my propeller. We won’t get back without help.”
“Hello, captain Fred. Are you in your 20-foot Boston Whaler?”
“Yes, I am.”
“OK, I got your information. You are a Gold Member so there will be no charge for the service today,” the lady on the phone politely informed us. “Please provide your location or coordinates.”
Captain Fred read out the coordinates from the GPS.
“Captain Fred, you’ll be getting updates via text and the captain of the tow boat will call you with details.”
“Thank you Ms. much appreciated. Bye-bye now.” Captain Fred politely finished the conversation and two seconds later his phone buzzed with a text message specifying that captain Fred’s request was received and is being processed.
Five minutes later the captain of the tow boat called. His first concern was our safety and when he was assured that we were OK, he said that it would be better for us to wait a couple hours until the tides come up.
Good natured captain Fred said, “Okey Dokey, we were intending to go fishing and have all our gear rigged-up and live bait ready to go. We can happily occupy ourselves fishing for a while and wait for the tides.”
“OK, captain, please call this number back in a couple hours or when you are ready. We can be at your location within half an hour.”
“Sounds good,” said captain Fred and hung up the phone.
We got our fishing equipment out and threw our baited hooks into the deep channel. I gazed in the distance and spotted sharp dark fins cutting through the surface of the ocean. Those were dolphins, there was a school of six playfully swimming, jumping, and submerging. It was a happy vision like seeing unicorns in a dark scary forest. The playful dolphins made me feel like everything will be all right.
My mind was yanked back to reality when our good-natured captain Fred loudly chuckled, he was looking at his phone.
“Get this. I texted my wife to tell her what happened. I said that we ran on ground and damaged the propeller,” then he read the following texts.
“I will need to buy a new one.”
“A new boat?” was the wife’s reply.
We all laughed, “Well Fred, you wanted a new boat and it sounds like you just got permission to buy one.”
Captain Fred laughed, “I don’t think a damaged propeller will justify getting a new boat, but I can keep wishing.”
We fished for a couple hours but nothing meaningful was biting. A couple small blue runners, a tiny lane snapper, and a few jacks were biting – nothing worth keeping but at least the activity kept us occupied and time moved faster.
Two hours later the wind picked up and we realized that we were slowly drifting from our reported location. Since we were not catching any fish for dinner our attention span ran out and we were done fishing. The tide came back and it was time to make our phone call to TowBoatU.S., we were ready to be picked up. Luckily, we did not drift too far and we could power up, follow our blue track, and slowly motor to where we first anchored, which is exactly what we did.
About half an hour later a red RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with two men came towards us. They pulled to our starboard side and began to instruct us in the rescue procedure.
“Stay anchored for now. We’ll throw you a rope and you need to clip it to the bow eye, the place where you normally tie the trailer.” Schmit caught the rope and proceeded to clip it onto the bow eye.
“Keep your motor down as low as possible without dragging the bottom,” came further instructions.
“Motor on or motor off?” Asked captain Fred.
“Motor off, but keep it low so you can gently steer. I’ll tighten the rope and start hauling you slowly. We’ll go very slow through the shallows.”
Schmit pulled up the anchor and the tow boat started to haul us – we were homeward bound.
Captain Fred decided to have the motor on to have power steering but tilted it up so the propeller would not drag on the shallow bottom. There was nothing else for us to do but sit and enjoy the slow ride home.
Every now and then captain Fred read the depth from his GPS map, “Two feet, two point five feet. WoW! Just a foot to our left and the same to our right.”
But the TowBoatU.S. team knew their stuff and safely navigated us through the surrounding shallows.
When we arrived in the safety of deeper water, we disconnected from the tow boat and proceeded on our own powered. At no more than five knots, we scooted towards captain Fred’s canal and slowly maneuvered to dock the boat in the back of his house. Once safely on land, Schmit jumped out and dragged a yellow kayak plopping it into the canal; he tied it off right behind the boat’s engine, took a large socket wrench and unscrewed the propeller.
We all stepped up for a closer inspection — two out of the three blades were significantly bent. The propeller could not be fixed and it had to be replaced. I read out the brand and the digits from the propeller and typed them into Google “Mercury Marine Mirage Plus 48-19838 15P.” Google responded with numerous selections and a price tag of about eight hundred dollars, an expensive fishing trip for captain Fred and we didn’t even bring home any fish.