This story is by Joseph W Harrer and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Chris decided to drive south to the Florida Keys for a final taste of freedom before facing the rigors of a geological curriculum at the local university. He borrowed his father’s Electra 225 and a credit card for gas, then filled the ample trunk with scuba gear, a suitcase, and a 9.5 hp Evinrude outboard motor. His mom donated canned food for the trip south. Once he got to the Keys, there would be no shortage of food provided by the sea. He secured his father’s 13-foot aluminum flatboat and six-gallon gas tank to the roof and covered it with canvas.
The trip to the Keys was at least 1,000 miles. He had been there before. A girlfriend had invited him to stay at their family summer home on Marathon Key. He remembered the emerald green waters and the Mediterranean styled homes on Marathon. The tropical plants splashed vibrant colors all through his memory. He could visualize the florescent tropical fish that darted among coral heads of Florida Bay where they snorkeled each day. The calcium oolite beaches were amazingly soft compared to the rough quartz sand of north coast beaches. Walking barefooted on short beaches that bordered the island felt like walking on baby powder. This was Chris’s vision of Paradise.
Early on the first day, Chris jumped into the Electra before dawn and drove 5-hours down I-10 to the Fort Walton, Florida exit. The Pass between the Fort Walton and Destin beaches provided the only path for tidal change between the sea and Fort Walton Bay. He arrived between tidal changes. At a small marina on Ft. Walton Bay, Chris slid the boat off the car and alongside a peer. This maneuver avoided the charge for launching. After mounting the outboard motor, he put the gas tank, scuba equipment, and spear gun inside the boat and parked the car, as a well-dressed attendant eyed him wearily. The bayside was shallow, and he puttered slowly along the shore towards the jetties being careful to avoid a wake that might damage the expensive yachts nestled tightly along the pier. This area was familiar to Chris from his Scuba training at the “three-mile reef” and subsequent dives in Ft. Walton Bay. He had also snorkeled along the nearshore jetties on previous vacations. But this time, he desired to dive the outer jetties. These were no longer accessible to land-based snorkelers since a recent hurricane had created a gap in the string of rocks.
Chris secured the bowline to some rebar sticking out of the Jetties. The water was calm; but he still took care, so that the boat didn’t “swamp” as he dove off the starboard side near the jetties. Chris was underwater for a half-hour, but could never get close to the Sheepshead he was trying to spear. The wave height and current velocity were increasing. He had to take fast action several times to avoid contact with rocks covered with spiny, black sea urchins. These half-mace looking attachments with their needle-sharp spines had once taught him a painful lesson when he was 15 and snorkeled along the St. Andrews jetties in Panama City. That time, he stepped on one of the spiny urchins. He couldn’t dig the spines out until they festered and popped-out on their own. Very painful!
After the dive, he managed to get back into the small boat despite the increasing wave action. The motor started on the first tug. But as he pulled away from the jetties and into the channel. He saw that the waves were much higher and closer together. Then, he realized that the outgoing tide had begun. The current was picking-up much quicker than he could have expected. What he didn’t realize was the sheer volume of water that was being forced through the pass. The outgoing tide was emptying an immense amount of water from Fort Walton Bay. This narrow pass was the only outlet for the tide! He was in a very deep channel, being pushed out to sea in one of the roughest currents he had ever experienced. Navigating this was becoming more challenging than the Class 5 rivers he had canoed.
Resistance was futile, the currents were pushing his tiny boat out to sea. The standing waves keep increasing in height and the troughs less separate. There was no way to turn the boat around in these waves without breaching the short gunwales and losing everything including his own life. His only hope was to get out into the sea where he might be able to turn the boat around in a single, longer trough.
The wave heights increased to at least 8-feet above the boat. By instinct, he accelerated, and with all the weight in the back, the front of the boat rose instantly to meet the crest of each wave. He powered over the wave and then decelerated to keep from plowing into the next wave. It was like a dance between his small, open boat and the enormous waves. Only a cool head obtained from working on hazardous oil rigs would allow him to survive in this situation.
The battle between the tide and the opposing gulf waves got worse but he was in survival mode and fueled by excess adrenalin. After several minutes of this tango with the waves, he was beyond the jetties and in the open sea. The tidal effects were dispersing. As expected, once out at sea and a good distance from the opposing current, the waves although enormous, got further apart and more rounded. Now, all he had to do was find a wave that was gentle enough to turn around in its trough. He laughed after successfully completing the turn. He rode the crest of the next wave like a surfer headed for Ft. Walton Beach. One final wave grounded the boat and Chris quickly got out of the boat to pull it ashore. He had slain the monster of the sea.
A couple of boys came running up and asked, “What is such a small boat doing out at sea?” Chris grinned mischievously and with his best fake Cuban Accent said, “Well, it was a perilous journey; but I made it from Cuba to this wonderful land of Freedom.” “Donde es Miami?”. As the boys pondered the question; he asked if they would watch his boat for a couple of minutes. “Sure”, they said in unison. So, he ran off to get his car. With keys that had survived bouncing around in the pockets of his cut-off jeans, he started the car and drove down to the beach. He quickly loaded the boat and said, “Adios” to his young friends who were wondering how this Cuban refugee had stolen a car so quickly.
That night, Chris celebrated his survival with a seafood platter in Destin. At this time, people were still allowed to camp on the beach. It was rather secluded unlike the “fun” destination of Panama City Beach. No amusement park, crowds, or endless cottages, here! In 1980, Destin was very small, consisting of a restaurant and a dive shop near the jetties. There were no condos blocking the view between the highway and the Seaoat covered sugar-sand dunes which framed the picturesque “Emerald Sea” and blue sky. Chris was amazed at the brightness of stars in a sky void of light pollution.
That night, under the stars with a bottle of Sangria, Chris thought about all the close calls he experienced on these boundless adventures. He thought about his best friends from high school that had already lost their lives in car and motorcycle accidents. And he was as wild as any of them. However, his risks generally involved nature instead of manmade machinery. Did he have a deathwish or was he just a fool? The wine made him feel warm all over, perhaps an unseen hand was guiding his life. He sorely missed all these friends. They had pulled a lot of pranks together and had a good time doing it. He was lonely, but never felt totally alone.
The next day looking out of the tent, he noticed the boat had been stolen. “What sneaky bastards!”, he thought, “and only 100 feet from where I was sleeping”. But, he still had the scuba gear in the trunk and was determined to continue to the Keys. He knew from past experience that an opportunity for adventure would open along the way!