We pull into neutral at the base of the Seven-Mile Bridge, one of the most photographed landmarks in South Florida. On one side is the Atlantic, on the other the Gulf of Mexico. We settle on the Gulf side because the wind and waves are coming from the ocean side, and it seems safer to let them gradually push our boat farther into open Gulf water. It’s the wrong call. After half a minute we realize that the tide is shoving us the opposite way, toward the ocean ... and the bridge pilings between it and us.
“You have to watch what the tide’s doing with your eyes,” Capt. Chris Brown of Stray Cat Charters told me. “Your chart could say high tide, but on the bayside it might be rising for another two hours. It’s easy to get caught in a current because the tide hasn’t completed its cycle on both sides.”
As we fire up the Volvos and start cruising toward Big Spanish Key, we make a move around a “Danger Shoal” marker … and notice we’re in four feet of water. I stay on plane until the water turns dark blue, then stop and gaze back in wonder, as would a person who had just stepped in dog manure: “Where did that come from?”
The paper chart doesn’t show the shoal or the marker, and in fact had us in five to seven feet back there. And then there’s the GPS. It actually shows two hazard markers, 30 feet apart and with blue water in between. Here’s the reality: The “Danger” marker sits over a three-foot shallow, and nearby is an unmarked underwater hump the size of a whale. Had this been low tide, we would have felt it.
“Use everything you have,” Brown said. “If something doesn’t add up, stop and figure it out. Never be in a hurry when you’re boating here.”
The course to Big Spanish is mottled on the chart with telltale abbreviations like rky, obstn and subm pile. My eyes catch a thin finger of brown jutting into our otherwise blue straightaway. Another boiler bubbles up on the chart. We even curl around a sizable hub marked as a Key Deer refuge. Key deer refuge! It’s in open water!
Using the compass, chart, water color and GPS, we run around the obstacle course. By mid-morning the water, ensconced in the Keys and their obstructions, has turned glassy. On the surface this would seem to bring with it a limplegged calm at the helm, but Brown had warned me about this.
“The hardest navigating is when there’s no whisper of wind,” he said. “You can’t read the water when it’s mirror flat.”
We’re also locating markers two miles apart and some at hard angles, as Spellberg had cautioned. So, boat traffic becomes a fifth source in our navigation toolbox. We keep an eye on three big sportfishers running a conga line well ahead of us. If they hit ground we’ll know it.
Following a sharp starboard turn, and an equally abrupt turn to port, we find a seafloor ahead so white that it’s visible through the surface glare. This will be our snorkeling turf. We approach slowly, watching the depth to avoid kissing the prop on the grass, before walking the anchor out and nesting it by hand on the soft bottom. Not everyone is so careful.
“Of the sinkings reported to us, 90 percent are because of anchoring off the stern,” Dube told me. “We rescued a guy last week who did that. His boat started taking on water so he went to the stern to check it out — worst thing you can do because his weight overwhelmed the bilge. When we found the guy, he was sitting on a portable fuel tank, smoking a cigarette.”
The tide pulls the slack out of our anchor line, and the Regal settles neatly into place. Snorkel gear is pulled from the transom locker. It has taken three hours to travel 13 miles, plus the extra six miles to the bridge for photos. But this is a boater’s paradise. You don’t care about the wayward gob of sunscreen on your ear. You wear hats that you don’t wear at home. and you never, ever hurry to get from here to there.