Kayaking the Florida Everglades and The Bahamas-Part 1

Published March 22, 2017 by jillamatt

**This is a multi-part series about a trip that I did with my ex-husband in 2001-2002.  Unfortunately, I do not have access to my journals that I kept during this trip, so this is all from memory.  Some dates, places and timelines may be slightly skewed. **

As Jamie and I pushed off from the sandy beach behind the kayak store in Key Largo, my parents stood on the shore and waved to us.

It was a surreal moment.

We had never kayaked before, but the guy at the Kayak shop assured us that we were buying the “Cadillac” of tandem touring kayaks, a Current Design Libra XT.

Most of our hatches were stuffed with brand new gear that was first stuffed into black garbage bags.

We literally had no idea what we were doing, but we had a plan!

South Carolina

We had arrived in the States a couple months earlier, shortly after 911.  It was October 2001.  We had worked our butts off all summer in anticipation of a winter of fun and adventure.  A family friend and his wife had purchased a72 foot sailboat that not only needed some serious repairs, but it also needed 2 new masts to be built!  The captain of the boat told us that if we came down there to work with them on the repairs, we could sail with them down to Florida, and crew for them on their planned charters from Miami to the Bahamas.

It sounded like a good gig.  We were in our early 20’s and were always looking for adventure.

We flew into Charleston, South Carolina.  Immediately, we were shocked by the presence of Army and Marine personnel at all of our travel stops.  Coming from Canada, the west side at that, we were a fair distance away from what had happened on that fateful day in New York.  The gravity of the event hung heavy in the air everywhere, but we had seen no physical evidence that anything had changed, until we touched down in the States.  As we sat in bus stops, we eyed up the soldiers that were headed off to Afghanistan.  Off to fight George Bush’s war.  They were our ages. They were young, full of vigor, with a huge life ahead of them.  The reality of what they were up to was not lost on us.  We were both thankful that we weren’t in their shoes, and happy to be heading off into a winter of fun and adventure.

Beaufort map

We arrived in Beaufort, a small town on the ocean, where “Paradise” had sat literally rotting for many years.  The boat, a 72 foot ketch, had been neglected by the previous owner.  Having lost both masts in a storm, he had managed to limp it back to the dock, where he lived on it for many years, never taking it out to sea again.  He also didn’t take care of it at all, or take it OUT of the water, meaning that the new owner, our Skipper, had to put it in dry dock to rid it of years of marine build up.  Apparently the above decks leaked so bad, we were told, that on rainy days it was a constant run around trying to keep the many buckets from overflowing that were catching the dripping water from above.  Thank fully most of the miserable work that was done on the hull, and the leaking decks, was completed before we arrived.

Beaufort close up

Beaufort is nestled in a vast network of waterways that line the shore of the Carolinas. 

 

Paradise

Paradise docked just outside of Beaufort, South Carolina

By the time we got there, Paradise was out of dry dock, and back in the water.  It was located in a prime spot next to a giant metal building, which was the perfect housing to build a couple masts.  The dockyard reminded me of where Forest started the Bubba Gump shrimp company from.  In fact, I would not be surprised one bit if the film was filmed right in that area!

We met some seriously interesting characters from our little marine perch.  One guy, his name was Jerry, came down to the dock almost every day, and was always maneuvering large pallets of bags that looked like dog food.  Jamie finally went to talk to him one day, and found out that it was actually bags of monkey food!  Just off shore, there was an island that held captive a society of monkeys.  Unfortunately for them, they were akin to lab rats, as they were used to test pharmaceuticals for future human use.  This was definitely an eye opener for us small town Canadians.  There were rumours that places like this existed, but not once did we think they actually did!  And certainly not in the United States!  I laugh now at how naïve we humans are as young adults.

monkey food

Monkey Food!

Jerry was in charge of feeding the monkeys, and we enjoyed listening to his Southern Twang as he regaled the most hilarious stories of his encounters with them.  However, it wasn’t all good news as many of them were very sick, likely from whatever they were being given for the “testing.”   We decided that it was best to not ask too many questions.

We had some great food, and a large share of shrimp for sure!  Some days we ate feasts of crab as fisherman would come in with their catches, and throw up a basket of claws just for us.  Nights like this were heaven!  We would feast on crab, garlic butter, and nothing else and just feel like life could never get better.Crab claws

Most of our days were spent working on the boat, but the odd time, we were able to escape into Beaufort, and even managed a short road trip to Savannah, Georgia.  We were fascinated with the Deep South.  The architecture is grand and moss hangs off the trees like long wisps of witches hair.  We vowed that someday we would return.

spanish moss

The streets of Savannah, Georgia

After a few weeks of some serious elbow grease, and the erection of 2 brand new masts, Paradise was ready for the trip to Florida.  She was all shined up with a nice paint job and a new beautiful blue stripe.  We never did get around to stringing any sails, so we knew that we would be motoring to Florida.

masting paradise

Stepping the Mizzen Mast

masting paradise 2

Stepping the Main Mast

ratlines

Hanging the Rat Lines!

___

On the day we had decided to leave, they were announcing a small craft warning on the weather reports.  Typically this means, to many sailors, that it isn’t necessarily safe to go out in the open water,  but apparently our Skipper decided that we were bigger than a ‘small craft’, and wanted to get going, so get going we did.

sparkling paradise

All cleaned up and ready for the voyage!

heading to sea

Adios Beaufort!

We headed out around 3:00 in the afternoon, and had barely left port when the Captain asked Jamie to go down to the engine room to check on something.  We were motoring straight into the waves that were pounding down on us, making it feel like we were riding a bucking bronco.  Most sailors know that this motion is NOT good for those who may get sea sick.  Jamie had never really been out in the open ocean, save for one experience in the Whitsunday Islands in Australia, not nearly the same experience as taking a head on beating by the wide open Atlantic Ocean.  Well, sure enough, within a couple minutes of him coming back up, he announced that he didn’t “feel that good.”

For 3 days we bounced along the coast, past Georgia and into Florida.  Jamie was a puddle on the salon floor for the majority of that trip.  We encountered some pretty interesting seas, but I had recently been part of a program for students called Class Afloat.  It’s truly a story for another day, but we essentially sailed around the world on a 188 foot tall ship, from the West Coast of Canada, to the East Coast…..the long way around.

I’m sure what I experienced at sea on that trip, had made this trip pretty easy for me.  I had seen a lot of crazy seas in that year, and this wasn’t really that bad.South Carolina to Florida

Florida 

We all took turns on watch duty.  It was supposed to be by couples.  Each couple would do 4 hours on, 4 hours off, so we could cruise non-stop through night and day.  By  the morning of day 3, the day that we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, Jamie’s seasickness finally abated and he joined me on deck for the final watch duty.  I’m sure we were a sight for sore eyes as the rusty streaks, where metal had met seawater (and of which we didn’t know about until we got off the boat), melted down the side of our nice white paint job.   We caught our first glimpses of the city as we slowly maneuvered down the inland marine canals that connect everything together, like roads do in most cities navigating amongst multi-million dollar yachts and mansions that lined the water ways.

Ft. Lauderdale waterways

Back “alleys” were waterways that held the yachts.

Ft. Lauderdale opulenceFt. Lauderdale 2

Most mega mansions on shore, had equally extravagant mega yachts tied up in front of them.  Many of them also had multi car garages, and in one case, as told by a water taxi driver, the house had a 6 car garage, with a lift in each bay, meaning that they could store 12 vehicles in there!  And let me tell you, we saw some of these vehicles (accent on the plural), and they were nothing to sneeze at either!  The place was literally dripping in money!

Yup, we certainly WERE NOT in Beaufort anymore!

We anchored our boat (that was now coined a “rust bucket”), in a small 24 hour anchorage in Ft. Lauderdale, for what seemed like TWO WEEKS (although I can’t say how long it was for sure.)  Eventually we got kicked out of that spot, and had to go somewhere else, so the skipper opted to tie up at a dock for a night or two, then we would go back to the anchorage again for a bit.  We worked on the boat some more, trying like mad to get it looking good and ready for our first charter.

jill grinding decks

Grinding the Decks in Ft. Lauderdale

Finally, the big day came!  Our guests had arrived to charter the boat, and we were off to the Bahamas!

Florida to Bahamas Map

Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas.  It encompasses the entire chain of islands you see here. 

It was only a, really quick, week long trip, but we had a lot of fun. The clients were great, and although the deck was still leaking, (despite our many attempts to seal all holes), we managed to keep a solid rotation of dry sheets, at least keeping the beds comfortable below decks.  I’ll admit that it was a little rough, and at least one of our guests, a dainty blonde, was definitely not quite up to the adventure that this trip provided.  However, in the end, it was a great trip and a great introduction to the Bahamas for us.

rusted boat bahamas

I took very few pics on this first trip over.

The Bahamas is basically a series of sand bars, only 40 nautical miles off the South Eastern coast of Florida.  Because the land is very low lying, 207 feet at the highest point (Mount Alvernia), there is zero run off into the ocean.  The lack of sediment makes the water in the Bahamas some of the most perfect, clear, turquoise waters on the planet.  Couple this with its spectacular white sand beaches, and a whole different kind of Paradise was born.   It was love at first sight and we yearned for more.  But alas, it was not meant to be, we had to return our guests to the safety of the mainland so that they could get back to their normal lives.

When we got back to the hustle and bustle of Ft. Lauderdale, we were told that the next charter wasn’t for another few weeks.  We lauded the thought of hanging out in Ft. Lauderdale, the land of expensive things, for that long.

And so, shortly after hearing this news, Jamie and I decided that we were finished with our time on Paradise (the boat that is.)  Not only were we dreading staying in Ft. Lauderdale that long, multiple weeks of living in cramped quarters had taken its toll, and we had started to not see eye to eye with the Captain and his wife.  In short, it was time to move on.  Besides, we had the whole winter to travel, and it was only the beginning of December!

As we sat on the aft deck one evening, bobbing in the water in the center of the city, we hatched a plan.  We decided that we were going to cut our ties with Paradise, rent a car and head down to the Florida Keys to do some exploring.  I think we talked briefly about doing some kayaking, but we really had no idea what was to come.

Within a couple days, we were headed south.

______

Key Largo is the first major city in the Florida Keys.  Right away we found a kayak shop that backed directly on to the Blackwater Sound, and Florida Bay beyond that.

Blackwater sound

The kayak shop backed onto the Blackwater Sound.  The ring around the outside is a thick wall of mangroves, and there was one tiny passageway through to get out to Florida Bay. 

Florida Bay Map

Note Everglades National Park in Green.

 

We immediately were drawn to the idea of kayaking around.  There was water everywhere and we just wanted to get in it!  Besides, we were on a budget.  What a better way to save money traveling then to cut out transportation costs all together!

After chatting with the staff in the shop, and having them show us the beautiful used “Cadillac” kayak that they had for sale, our idea was formed.  We were going to go kayaking in the Florida Everglades!  After purchasing a chart book and figuring that we could just paddle across the Florida Bay to get to Flamingo, the gateway to the Everglades, our plan was set.

We spent the next 3-4 days running around the keys, stopping in at Marine Shops to purchase a GPS, hand held radio, and any other boating stuff that we figured we needed.  We also grabbed as much camping gear as we could afford, which was not much more than the bare bones basics.  Not knowing a thing about kayaking, we stuffed all of our newly purchased gear into a few black garbage bags (those dry bags are expensive!), and then hastily stuffed them into our water tight hatches.  Who needs dry bags when your hatches are water tight!?

We were greener than green.  I laugh today, some 17 years later, at how astonishingly brave we were.  There was no talking any sense into us.  We had made a decision, and that was it.  How hard could it be?  We could learn to kayak WHILE we were kayaking right!?  No problem!  We HAD this!

Coincidentally, my dad had some business in Miami around this time.  Obviously they wanted to see what we were up to, so they drove down the keys to connect with us.  We hadn’t told them of our plan yet, although they knew that we were finished with Paradise.  I worried a bit about their reaction to the whole thing, but in fact, it seemed as though they were supportive.  My parents have had their share of adventures in their lives, so I never did hear any comments about trying to get us to change our minds, or asking us why we were doing this.  They just quietly allowed us to navigate this crazy plan that we had while simultaneously doing whatever it was that they could to help us along.  I’m sure, as they helped us push off from that Beach, on that December day, they must have wondered, at least momentarily, if they would ever see us again.

pushing off to the everglades

All loaded up and ready to go!

 

*Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for Part two of our adventure, coming soon!*

*My boyfriend and I are currently transitioning from a “normal” life to that of an adventurous one!  We are selling everything to head out into the world to make traveling a priority in our lives.  If you are interested in reading about our letting go process, please read my first post here.*

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4 comments on “Kayaking the Florida Everglades and The Bahamas-Part 1

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