Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bubba Sticks

This is, what is known in the Florida Keys as a "bubba stick:"A lot of people would say it's just a piece of PVC pipe stuck in the mud with a great deal too much of it showing above the water. What you are looking at here is a vital tool in the arsenal of back country navigators up and down the Keys. "GPS!" you argue, "bubba stick!" sez I, and why shouldn't I, because I know they work. Bubba sticks are seen all around the islands down here and they mark, in sometimes inscrutable ways, where the dangers lie. This particular stick tells the prudent mariner to turn and follow deeper water. The imprudent boater will tend to leave propeller scars like these in the shallow grassy waters behind the stick: That white crescent barely visible on a hazy afternoon on Newfound Harbor marks the progress of a boater who dug his/her prop deep in the marl and chewed up sea grasses vital to the nutrition and development of sea life. It is not a good thing to chew up sea grass. Lesser mariners also throw up clouds of mud if they get too close and sometimes the white fog in the water looks like a school of fish feeding voraciously:Commercial (and some recreational) Keys fishermen, and they are predominantly men, like to leave marks behind so they can find their way easily through narrow passages and across some intricate channels through extremely shallow flats. The problem is that unless you know what they mean or the sun is bright enough you can easily read the water bubba sticks can end up looking like Sanscrit to people who were not raised to be polyglots. I mean seen from here with the sun still hazy and uncertain, can anyone guess what this stick marks? Where pray is the deep water and where the shallow? Pass at your peril:This blob might be mistaken for a bubba stick but it's actually not; I happen to know it is a branch washed up and trapped on a spit of very shallow water off Picnic Island in Newfound Harbor. Get up close to the blob and you'll see for yourself -by which time you will be snug aground:Remember, chewing up the sea grass is illegal and a Bad Thing, but it can absolutely lethal to your prop and worse yet to your transmission and all sorts of things mechanical. Stir up too much mud and you scour your impeller and tear it apart thus wrecking the cooling capacity of your outboard. So when you see the white crescent it pays to pay attention:The thing about the waters surrounding these mangrove islands is that almost all of them are very shallow, frequently less than six feet at low tide and very often much less than that. GPS isn't that helpful sometimes in the narrowest cuts because the satellite system is still more accurate than the technology used to create the charts, and a difference of ten feet to the side, can put you hard aground. Physical evidence in the water is still the best way to go. The Federal Government's Coastguard service still operates automated lighthouses and navigational beacons for that reason. The channel entrance from my canal is maintained by my homeowners association (the implausibly grandiloquent Breeze Swept Beach Estates) and I am happy to pay my annual, very modest fee, because they do a good job marking the narrow, rock lined channel. They use Federally sized bubba sticks to mark it, though the old PVC pipes can still be seen alongside the edges of the channel, to this day:Bubba sticks come in different formats, sometimes metal posts, sometimes marked with floats or other nautical artifacts:My ruminations on bubba sticks led me to a passage that I have long been thinking about exploring. If it were deep enough it would cut half a mile off my trip around the end of the island that is owned by the Spottswood family at the mouth of Newfound Harbor ($18.5 million is the asking price if you fancy some lonely houses stuck on a small scrubby piece of more or less dry land). There are three bubba sticks and what the one closest to the camera, off to the left, marks I have no clue; the water south of the stick is deep and clear as far as I could tell.The other two sticks obviously mark the deepest part of a very shallow pass between the end of Ramrod Key and the shore of the island. I've never seen a boat successfully navigate this channel and I've seen quite a few intrepid, imprudent visitors resort to pushing to get back to deep water.I pretty much determined that at high, high tide I could probably get through but the current is fierce here so I'd like to do it at slack water to allow for some maneuverability. All of which told me this isn't really worth it... but I got out and waded up to the sticks. I have a 30 second timer setting on my camera so I had a go, and of course the focus focused itself on the pretty sky behind me and despite repeated attempts I ended up looking fuzzy and drunk as I tried to balance on the slippery rocks in the torrent of shallow water. Oh well:The speed of the tide was encouraging though as it would surely sweep away any of these critters I had seen earlier:Portuguese Men O' War are actually colonies of nasty little stinging things that apparently float around together and cause very painful grief for any animal caught in their lengthy stingers:That's the nasty critter of the day, to remind people why they are leaving the Keys in droves at this time of year to enjoy sweltering summers in jellyfish-free places like Ohio and Indiana. And there are of course other dangers in these shark infested waters (arrgh!) like shallow patches that have come to the attention of the US Coastguard. They use those large bubba sticks to mark their trouble spots:There is a shoal somewhere around this marker supposedly but I have not yet found it, happily. Which is why god invented the telephoto lens. And so back to the canal and a gentle putter up the clearly defined deeper waters to home:A cool shower, a change of clothes and time to meditate on why summer is the best season in the Keys.