Friday, February 29, 2008

Water Skiing With Lookouts

When Jan sent the invitation to take a sunset sail to celebrate Lucy's birthday I remembered what I had previously forgotten: that I hadn't been sailing in a long time. We sold our catamaran two years ago and that was after it hadn't left the dock in a year and that was when we got back from our Bahamas trip in 2004 I think. So it was past time to get under sail and even though my wife was away shopping I wanted to go and celebrate in style. Carol and Chuck had fun also, on the schooner Hindu celebrating Lucy's unspecified birthday:

And so I did, and it was perfect, and it's one of those things one should do more often and instead we leave them for visitors to enjoy and they do. The eager tourists were sweet and spiffy in their name brand clothes and excellent good manners as they listened to Captain Kevin expound on the joys of Key West. They were entranced and I liked counting myself among them as we lurched out into the flow of the harbor life. I remember when I used to run a sailboat for cruise ship visitors, they liked getting out on the water as much, if not more, than resident Key Westers. Of course residents get all squirrely about playing tourist in a home town where being local is a badge of honor like being made is an achievement in the Cosa Nostra. So, to avoid the dreaded tourist label we skip the sunset cruise, and what a shame that is.


In actual fact the actual sunset sucked, not least because the cold front that was getting ready to climb into bed with us was loading the skies with thick gray clouds, but the sail was just fine without a wild display of purples and yellows and orange across the evening horizon.


Before driving us out of Key West Bight Kevin the captain gave the safety speech in a thick New England drawl and he pointed out that Key West is home to the second largest (winter) fleet of sailing schooners. Who knew. It was also his pleasure to point out that five of us on the boat were also licensed Captains, but I for one was busy ordering room service, too busy to be an actual licensed captain.


Room service came courtesy of the fresh young things living their adventures in Key West before old age and respectability descend on them. They raised Kevin's sails and then turned their hands to hauling out the wine and the beer, complementary they called it; free I called the ice cold can of Yuengling. I dislike euphemisms. Then the youthful adventurers brought out trays of bruschetta sandwiches, fried bread with meat and cheese and peppers and it was all too delicious. " Who told them my wife is out of town?" I asked, glad to have dinner served to me. Everyone was too busy eating and drinking to reply.


And so it went, this most civilized means of travel, a warm teak deck to sit on surrounded by true friends who know how to live and let live, people with lots of stories to tell and ready to laugh. We were I think, a little rowdy, though it was cheerful middle aged rowdiness, glad-to-have-woken-up-this-morning good cheer. I was thoroughly happy watching Kevin start the engine to get us through the tack, and then listen to the silence of sail as he entertained those lucky people sitting in the front row as we sliced past the Key West waterfront including this crowd of people perched on the pier at Simonton Beach peering at some unseen thing, the missing sunset perhaps:


By the time we had tacked out to the end of Fort Zachary Taylor it was getting quite dark and we had been crossing tacks with all the other schooners out hauling people around the harbor, including trading cannon shots which was corny and funny and very loud.


It so happened that Gretchen was one of our slightly rowdy party of locals and Gretchen was one of those five spare captains on board, and she started the cruise seeking approval for her decision to abandon buffing her 20-foot center console, and take the evening off instead. We all heartily agreed this was the right thing to do. And so it went. The thing was, that as the good ship Hindu turned around and rode the tide back towards Mallory Square and the lights came up over a darkened Key West, one of our number brought up the time honored lament about the old Key West, a phantom of a place before hotels lined the waterfront and the locals sold their heritage for a large pot of gold. Well Gretchen got to telling her stories of boating in the good old days (the only aspect of those days that I think I really miss) and we got to talking about water skiing, a hobby I never took up during my life on the surf riddled coast of Central California.


Gretchen (dressed in blue, stone cold sober, sitting next to a startled birthday girl who couldn't figure out what the flash was about) told of water skiing the flats even on windy days in places unmentionable, where calm waters lie between exposed flats that keep the waves out of the skier's path even on the very windiest of days. Ah yes those were the days, not least she said because skiing was allowed. Nowadays she said, the Coast Guard has made it an idle zone. That is to say a zone where the engine can be run at idle speed, not a place where only idlers may dawdle. She looked dreamily at the bright lights of the city's waterfront and remarked how odd the world had become. Nowadays you can only water ski with a lookout, she mused. And I wondered what it would be like, not just to water ski, but to do it like an outlaw, a gang member riding a wave while the Coast Guard's back is turned. It sounded very exciting, and I felt perhaps we should score one for modern day Key West, a place where lookouts, the epitome of lawlessness, find employment.

Oh well, I'll probably never know as teak and canvas and six miles per hour is more my waterborne speed.

It started to rain on the way home and I was so energized by my gentlemanly sail I failed to stop to put on my waterproofs and got home riding the Bonneville tinkled upon and buzzing. What a great day.


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I saw Bob riding my Vespa in the brilliant afternoon sunshine on Ramrod Key yesterday afternoon. He was smiling happily to himself. With the best will in the world I hope he goes home to Kansas soon.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Vignettes VI

My wife went out of town for a few days at a teacher conference in Tampa and when she told Lori, the volunteer coordinator at the Tropic Cinema, Lori squealed: "Oooh you get to go shopping!" her voice trembling with jealousy. Our house cleaner came by Saturday morning which was perfect for me, home alone, I got to enjoy a perfectly scrubbed home for a few days in perfect solitude while my messy wife is off filling the convertible with wrapping paper.. And the Angel of Cleanliness had the same reaction as Lori when my wife told her she was off to Tampa for a few days. "Oooh, excellent. Shopping!" In fact so keen were they to go shopping that my wife and her colleague left town early to put in some quality time at the outlet maul near Fort Myers. Its one of those things, shopping as recreation. Everyone on the island misses it. Except me.

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The locally owned supermarket in Key West, Fausto's Food Palace has been offering clever little shopping bags for sale. I'm not much of a shopper and I'm not interested in clutter but I do carry a couple of these excellent bags in my saddlebag, especially to pick up groceries as part of the daily grind. We keep four in each car as well and my wife uses hers all the time. We haven't used plastic or paper sacks at the supermarket in months. Chico bags has a website where they offer these clever nylon sacks at $5 apiece or five for $20 and they come in a rainbow of colors, if that's important. They also take back worn out bags and re-manufacture them into fresh Chico bags. The profoundly clever thing about Chico bags is that they are self contained and fold into themselves:
Which means you have a 20-pound carrying capacity in an 18-inch by 18-inch shopping bag that folds into a ball that fits in the palm of your hand. These aren't typical bulky canvas carry sacks. These you can't fail to carry with you into the store:And they also come with a handy little clip so you can secure them to your person or your purse. I have made a habit of overloading my Chico bags and they are very tough and durable. They dry instantly as they are made of nylon and they are very useful to carry all the crap that accumulates in a busy life, school books, left overs, even trash and they can be tossed in the washing machine with the laundry.A couple of Chico bags in the saddlebags lend great versatility to the motorcycle-as-daily-pack mule concept. Plus they may be good for the planet, if you care.

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On the subject of saving the planet I am a member of the Sierra Club, and they have been irritating me lately, most recently with a piece on automobiles. They talk about "greening the planet" which in itself is an irritating phrase to me, because I dislike the nasty habit of turning nouns into verbs, or adjectives into verbs. There are plenty of verbs already in the English language. Greening their ride is a fusty look at what car to drive and be ecologically aware (!). What cage to make cell phone calls from. What four wheeler to buy to clutter up the roads. I appreciate that riding a motorcycle is as much about passion as it is about utility or low gas consumption, but modern scooters are an entirely reasonable proposition for the Sierra Club to consider. Instead we get a review of motor cars that manage mileage between 20mpg and 46 mpg (thePrius). Modern scooters anyone? 70mpg any greening anyone? Not if you are a blinkered Sierra Club editor apparently. They aren't totally opposed to two wheels though as a form of trail wrecking sport:
Pedal bike: good. Motor bike: bad. Go figure. I've got to find somewhere else to waste my money. I am too much the motorized wild one for these fuddy duddies.

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For the past week or more we had been having odd weather, the wind kept clocking round from east to southwest like we are supposed to get a cold front, but the cold front took a while to get here so we got to enjoy temperatures in the upper 80's and a fair bit of humidity too, which all felt very summery. A perfect opportunity for dinner al fresco on the porch with friends.It makes up for a lot, including hurricanes, high cost of living and lack of amenity to name a few, to able to sit out in February, drink wine and feel the fan whipping the stagnant night air into motion. To able to do this with Lisa and Josh makes it extra good, as they are smart, well traveled and with an eye for the absurd they make an evening fly by.

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Gratuitous motorcycle picture on Spain Boulevard, Cudjoe Key.


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And regarding the Citizen newspaper's incredible editorial this Sunday, February 24th, wherein the Editorial Board listed all the headlines from the past eight months outlining the deficit of common sense in the County Commission's Gang of Three. To quote from the paper: ...stories about inept leadership and poor decision-making in county government are just beginning to click (for residents) now that layoffs, reduced services and higher taxes are becoming reality. We are going to be voting this fall and one hopes we will collectively manage to oust these cretins. I was heartened by the newspaper's scathing editorial, perhaps change will come and it will make things better. Optimism, a much over rated quality in local politics.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vespa Gone

I pocketed thirty four hundred dollars this morning for my Vespa GTS and now she is gone to Bob, a snowbird from Kansas. I know it is supposed to make one feel better when one's cherished motorcycle goes to an enthusiastic new owner, and perhaps it helps but I am sad to see her go. Bob lost a two stroke Vespa P125 to Hurricane Wilma and he was pining for a replacement. He's lucky Vespas command no market down here("Huh? I could get a Harley for that!") but with that cash my Bonneville is paid for. And my wife has promised that she'll let me ride her Vespa ET4 from time to time to ease the bitter loss.

Safe Harbor

Riding round South Roosevelt Boulevard on my lunch break I saw a fishing boat at anchor, all lit up on the flat waters half a mile south of Key West. It's where boats go to get out of strong north winds when cold fronts arrive and a front is upon us this morning. Seeing that boat put me in mind of Safe Harbor, a boat basin off Front Street on the south side of Stock Island. I have an acquaintance who used to work as a commercial fisherman, and when the National Marine sanctuary was proposed for the waters of the Florida Keys he fought the Feds strenuously. And then he had an epiphany and he joined the move to protect the waters of the Florida Keys. Today he works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and he educates boaters of all stripes about the rules and regulations in place to keep the reefs alive. But its not just environmental pressures that are killing off commercial fishermen; simple economics are doing them in. Its cheaper to pay Third World wages and fly the fish to our tables than it is to pay Americans to chase fish. And so it goes, the shrinking of the Key West commercial fleet.Thirty years ago it must have seemed inconceivable to all but the most far seeing observer that the shrimpers crowding Key West Bight would be gone, replaced by pleasure boats. Yet today no one would argue that the marinas lining the boardwalk look out of place. They smell a good deal better than the commercial docks, a level of authenticity the city fathers would have a hard time selling to visitors, if the commercial fleet were still docked in the middle of the gentrification that is Key West Bight.
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On Stock Island meanwhile, Front Street leading into Safe Harbor, home of Hogfish Restaurant, is a mixture of mobile homes and light industrial uses, not exactly laid out to attract the casual visitor. Though the street does benefit from an eccentric camera angle and the cover of darkness:Safe Harbor is still thriving as the hub of commercial fishing at least for the time being. Fishbusterz is the anchor business here, an ice house that offers dockage and a place for shrimpers to sell their catch. And refrigerated trucks stand by to haul away the fish; you won't often see an 18-wheeler with Key West as it's home port:At night this place makes my heart flip, what with the flat shiny waters, the bright lights reflected and the sound of humming generators. I love waterfronts even if I really don't belong there. Boarding a ship, any ship including ferries and cruise ships feeds the romantic in me in a way that getting on an airliner never has. Taking my middle-of-the-night lunch break by prowling the deserted docks of Safe Harbor is pure pleasure. I am not cut out to be a commercial fisherman, I don't have the stamina or the strength or the nuts to mix it up with people of their ilk, and they wouldn't know what to do with me acting like a tourist flapping my fingers at their hardscrabble way of life. On the recreational side of Safe Harbor I have no desire to return to boat living. But I sure do like looking at the craft lined up, listening to the ropes creak, watching the boat cats delicately prowling the dew covered decks. Across the harbor I remember the basins lined with live aboard boats, run down wrecks many of them, but homes nonetheless. They are all gone to make way for development of modern marinas that average pleasure boaters will never be able to afford. The commercial side of Safe Harbor is safe for now, but there's too much money to be made here to feel complacent that things on this side of the basin will stay this way for long. The National Marine Sanctuary spelled the beginning of the end for commercial fishing, for good or ill, as large areas of reef were placed out of bounds to sustain tourism to the detriment of commercial boats. The transformation of Stock Island will eventually push out the inconvenient commercial boats and I don't doubt Fishbusterz will get an offer he can't refuse. And then I will be able to say I remember the good old days, and that I appreciated the tenuous thread that held all this together, the shadows of boats barely visible in the encroaching darkness... And its that air of imminent destruction that perhaps gives Safe Harbor a romantic overlay, because whether I remember it or not in 20 years, it will still all be gone most likely and I will just be a bore for reminding people of what used to be.
And I was there at 3am with my inseparable companion, my 2007 Triumph Bonneville.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Boca Chica Sunrise

I used to walk my Labrador here when she was still able to walk and after Emma died I was reluctant to return, but as they say, time heals all wounds, and riding a Bonneville helps. The colors of the sunrise were spectacular enough my little point-and-shoot Nikon managed to capture them in rare style.Luckily I'm fairly immune to mosquitoes because they descended on me en masse and settled like a large buzzing halo around my head, the only part of me exposed to the air. When I arrived it was dark, around 6am, and the fence lights at the end of the military runway were blinking bright red almost outshining the moon.Boca Chica Road has been a dead end for decades but the roadway got ravaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and the county, in their wisdom threw up a barrier and cut off the last mile or so of beach road. So now the chunk of roadway available for vehicle parking is a tiny portion of what it once was. However the pedestrian gap in the barricade up by the trees, is still wide enough for a motorcycle to pass through. And I was astonished by the amount of grasses and creepers that had grown over the unused paved road in less than three years.When Emma and I used to come down here to go for a little Labrador stump the roadway was lined with bushes and trees all the way along the water front. Wilma put paid to them all when the storm pushed sand and water over the road spilling on military property inland of the road. However, by riding the Bonneville past the tree line, through the barricade I got a crisp dawn profile of the motorbike. As far as mossies go I'm lucky because even after they dig into me I never show a welt and the sting goes away just a few minutes later. Even so they were incredible. They landed all over my mesh and Kevlar jacket, and even with my leather gloves on they crawled over my hands desperately seeking blood. I should have dug out my repellent from my saddlebag but I wasn't planning on hanging around... and they took horrible advantage of me.And slowly the sun came up, highlighting the dew on the windshield and the incredible, summer-like stillness of the waters. I was entranced, despite the abundant insect life.We're supposed to get a cold front again this week, possibly by Wednesday with temperatures plunging back into the 60s they tell us, but at the moment we have the pre-frontal heat and humidity and the big puffy thunderclouds hanging over the Gulf Stream add to the summer-like ambiance.

Ambiance or no, the sun was coming up and vampire-like I had to get home to my coffin, er bed. Night shift works like that and I was getting seriously sleepy as the day brightened.

I took a quick stop at Geiger Creek, a saltwater "river" which is usually home to a bunch of bridge anglers, but not at that hour. The mosquito population here was minimal. An enormous relief.And so it was that about 40 minutes later than usual, tardiness possible thanks to my wife being out of town, I started out for home. First I had to make my way back to Highway One through Tamarac Park, a subdivison of stilt homes set among numerous trailers on canal front lots. In the distance I could see low lying mist which I thought very evocative:Highway One was busier than I am used to on my trip home in the morning, as by now it was nearly seven am and the daytime workers were massing on the Highway into Key West. Lots of people commute as I do (in cars) from as far afield as Big Pine Key around Mile Marker 30, sometimes to pay less rent or get a larger home on a more spacious lot. Others like the relative peace and quiet and many like the easy access to the water in the Lower Keys, thanks to the many homes built on canals. But they sure do clog the roadway between seven and eight in the morning. Tired as I was I had to stop for a moment on Cudjoe Key and attempt to capture the rising orb that had stayed coyly out of sight on Boca Chica Beach. I can only say it looked way better in real life.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Conch Republic Air

I do not associate the Florida Keys with flying, which shortcoming lies in my mind, not in the facts. People who choose to live around Boca Chica Naval Air Station are made well aware of the importance of flight with all the training jets swooping overhead. For some reason the pompously named Key West International Airport has its sole runway aligned directly over old town so city residents can take joy in the sights and sounds of commercial aircraft's underwear drifting loudly and lowly overhead several times a day. I, in my roost far from the madding crowds, hear the low lawn mower buzz of small aircraft from time to time. They remind me of summer insects but in fact they are the objects of much love and attention from their owners on nearby Summerland Key. People who devote their entire homes to the business of flying.
I am fascinated by these stilt homes that house aeroplanes in the garage instead of expensive cars. The houses themselves aren't much to write home about, architecturally speaking, but the notion that one lives breathes and flies aircraft is fascinating to this reformed sailor.

I have mooted around the idea of getting my pilot's license, more perhaps as a thing to do for its own sake than as a means to an end. I have held at one time or another just about every kind of vehicle license, boat master, cab driver, truck driver, school bus driver even (pity the poor kids! but the job offered excellent health insurance) but pilots license? where I feel at home on the docks or in a marina I feel all at sea around airplanes.Up and down West Shore on Summerland you will see the usual agglomeration of stilt homes, boats for sale, palm trees and..aircraft hangars? It's an odd mixture of dwellings and a block behind the airstrip, next to the canal, the homes sink into the usual historical Keys landscaping style of discarded boat parts and decomposing appliances and gently rusting cars:And you can call me old fashioned but I'm one of those people who feels that had God intended us to fly she'd have given us wings, and I know whereof I speak.


Many years ago a new "sport" came into the public consciousness and they called it "hang gliding," and had you ever tried dangling from beneath a plastic bat wing you would know that the name is closer to the truth than one might find comfortable. I was looking for something to fill the void of a recent divorce and I threw myself into activities that, in retrospect one realises were plain foolhardy. I went at it with a will, launching myself from the top of a sand dune near Fort Ord, California, kicking like a newborn while lurching 20 feet above the sand underneath the stork that would bear me crashing back to earth all too soon. My instructor would appear alongside galloping and screaming "Run! Run!" but my brain had emptied itself of all instructions thanks to the magic of flight and I would hit the sand and tip forward with the force of a projectile banging my chest on the cross bar and the bat wing collapsing about my head like a parachute. I kept trying until one day I asked my leader what one did when one qualified to hang glide alone, like a bird."I go up to San Francisco and we hang glide off the cliffs," she said and I went and looked at the hang gliders at Fort Funston and I saw them dangling underneath their wings like popsicles staring out at the foggy ocean and I realised one could do nothing with hang gliders but dangle and honestly it all seemed rather boring, so I quit before I broke a limb.


And that was that. When I decided to move out of my apartment I realised one cannot live on a plane, at least not comfortably, so by default as it were I ended up on a sailboat, on the theory that a SAIL boat would be cheaper and more effective than a motor boat. I was delightfully naive in those days.So it is that I am naively curious about the flying Keys lifestyle and I hang on the periphery wondering. Wondering who thought a golf cart might be an effective way to tow a plane for a start. I met this combo as I was turning onto the main street and the sight nearly wobbled me off my Bonneville: two men perched on the cart towing a plane backwards across the road.They loaded up some extra victims hoping to impress the ladies no doubt (thats what we sailors do at any rate, always living in hope):Then they parked at the end of the runway where they revved the engine up to make sure I assume that all would be well in the air, like commercial jets do, though the engine sounded like a lawnmower in distress to me:The next thing I knew they were gone wobbling off into the wide blue yonder, until all I could hear was the summery lawnmower buzzing gently somewhere up among the clouds:I'm not saying never and perhaps one day, after the economy gets back on an even keel and after my wife stops forcing me to go to school to improve myself I might find the time and money to try to get my pilot's license for the hell of the thing. Until then I'm going to fly like everyone else, as a way to get someplace else in a hurry:My wife snorts when I tell her that in retirement I shall only travel by boat or by train or by sidecar, but I still think that if God hadn't meant us to have fun while traveling she'd never have given us motorcycles.