The old mariner refrain should be plastered on every marker in the Keys: “Brown, brown, run aground. White, white, and you might. Green, green, nice and clean. Blue, blue, sail on through.” It is currently ringing in my head, over and over and over.
Finally clear of the divers, we embark on a side trip to the world famous Seven-Mile Bridge. The channel is slightly wider than a tightrope near Marker 36, with white (“ ... and you might”) showing on either side. Most disconcerting is Marker 37. it’s there on the chart, but our four giant eyeballs can’t find it on the water. Instead, we use a compass bearing of 78 degrees, which on the GPS looks to keep us in six to eight feet, and take a leap of faith toward Marker 38.
In doing so, I can’t help but think of what happened near Islamorada three days earlier, when a trawler captain missed a marker, found shallow water and grounded. He enjoyed the landing so much that he kept going for 1,000 yards until his hull stuck hard, like a pit in an avocado. Not only did he suffer major damage to his boat and the indignity of calling for a tow off the protected sea grass, but he was also looking at a fine of $100,000 for splitting the sanctuary floor.
“You can’t just haul off and go across the middle of bays,” Vic Spellberg, director of sponsor promotions for Formula Boats, warned me. “My charts have these highlighted U-turns and jagged lines. The next marker isn’t necessarily the one you see directly ahead. It can be 45 degrees to either side. Cutting corners is the fastest way to the prop shop, or worse.”
This is why Maya Meyer, owner of Big pine Key Boat rentals, carries 30 spare props for her fleet of 11 boats. Last summer her mechanic changed one boat’s prop four times in a week.
“My first advice is, if you don’t know an area, don’t go there,” Meyer said. “It isn’t worth the risk.”
The sun is just clearing the clouds on the horizon, producing a dramatic backlit view of the Seven-Mile Bridge. From here to there appears to be open cruising. But on the GPS is a tiny circle with the word Boiler, and we’re on a collision course with it. A three-degree correction takes us around what is basically an underwater atoll, one that might have devastated our hull.
“The number of groundings has gone down over the years because of navaids,” said Bruce Popham, owner of Marathon Boat Yard. While he told me this on a Monday, all nine of his techs were busy, some working on major bottom repairs. One boat, a catamaran, sank three days earlier. “I still hear all the excuses about the markers or the seafloor moving. That’s ridiculous. Nine times out of 10 it’s driver error. You have to use a chart and GPS to cross-reference. We still have a few hundred groundings a year, but it used to be way more.”
The marine sanctuary was established shortly after three ships grounded in a 17-day period in the fall of 1989. At that time there was also an average of nearly two small-boat groundings per day.
“There’s a lot of water out here, and it can’t all be marked,” Popham said. “You might only see a marker every couple of miles. It should compel boaters to stay within a navigable area on the chart.”