I’ve taken a center console from Key West to Havana, cruised the Galapagos on a battlewagon, and run a flats boat up a Belizean river to visit Mayan ruins. But the wildest boating adventure I’ve ever had occurred on an aluminum Jon boat in the canals of South Florida.
We were 17, and my buddy Rob invited me to fish for tarpon rolling in the brackish canals that criss-crossed through our neighborhood. He threw a cast net over a large school of mullet and we headed to a dead-end canal culvert where a school of tarpon had been rolling. We had just set up our live-lining rigs when an ominous black cloudbank started gathering from the Everglades out west.
Daily afternoon storms are as predictable as the sunrise in Florida summers. We knew one would come eventually, just not so soon. Still, we saw tarpon rolling and the sun was shining so we decided to take our chances.
Things quickly turned for the worse. The clouds rolled in with unprecedented speed and the sky opened up. Rob fired up the tiller-steered Mercury and we started the 20-minute run back to his dock. Five minutes in, the lightning started. The most intense I’d ever seen. Normally you can count the delay between the flash and the thunder boom, but everything happened simultaneously. Huge bolts of lightning started crashing on either side of the canal. And here we were in an open boat made of metal. Rob had his dock in sight down the canal when suddenly the boat started to hum, and we could feel the crackle of static electricity. A bolt crashed down about 50 yards in front of us and the entire neighborhood lit up like a Christmas tree.
Rob cut the tiller hard and slammed it into the mangroves lining the canal. He pushed the boat in as far as it could go and killed the engine and we both jumped out and moved as fast as we could into the thick bramble of mud and mangrove roots. Lightning crackled above us. We only had to push through a hundred yards of growth to get to the neighborhood, but it felt like a hundred miles.
Finally we emerged in someone’s backyard and ran to the house, excited to see that round front they’d left the garage door open. We ran into the car bay, covered in mud and cuts and grime up to our knees. Then, just as suddenly as the rain started, it stopped and the beautiful Florida sun came out beaming as if none of this had ever happened.
We looked at each other and laughed. To this day anything to do with lightning scares the hell out of me, but that crescendo of bolts left me with a boating adventure I’ll never forget.