The dive buoy smack-dab in the channel forces us to choose one of two actions: buzz right past the flag and murmur unpleasantries about the windbag who put it there, just as two other irritated boaters are doing, or prudently find an alternate course at least 300 feet from the flag.
“The depth is five feet under this other bridge section,” says my co-captain and 20-year Keys boating veteran, Chris. He’s fingering a paper chart that has our preplanned course — now moot — highlighted in yellow.
We take the secondary route, away from the divers and on plane so as not to test the draft of the 2860, which, with our load of people, gear and fuel, is closer to 38 inches than the 36 inches listed on the specs. While taking the bypass, we make sure the numbers on our depth sounder match those on the chart, especially when we’re forced to thread a needlelike strip of six feet of depth that leads back into the channel on the other side of the bridge. All is still serene belowdecks, but up top our eyes are as wide and white as coffee-cup lids.
“You have to be more alert here,” Causey said. Numbers support the boater’s paradise theory, perhaps. But another series of numbers spell “boater beware”:
• Monroe County, which essentially is the Keys, had more reported boating accidents in 2008 than did 47 states.
• There are as many boats unregistered in the county as registered — i.e., visitors unfamiliar with the water.
• Remember the 6,000 reefs and 800 keys? That means the depth changes quickly and rarely hits double digits, and the bottom is hardly Cottonelle soft.
“It’s easy to see all this beautiful water, jump in the boat and think, ‘let’s go!’” said Florida Fish and Wildlife officer Bobby Dube. “But you have to know how to use your chart and read the surroundings. We train our officers to navigate without electronics in case they go black. Read the shadows, tree branches, anything. The water colors tell you a lot.”