Crossing into Florida was a bit anticlimactic. We'd hoped for warm weather for so long, pinning our hopes on getting to the Sunshine State in order to have it in spades. When we finally crossed the state line and made our first pit stop, I was almost tempted to turn around and flee, despite the abundant and delicious sunshine. I've never been fond of Disney in any way, crowded theme parks ceased to hold much appeal in my early 20s, and we were arriving right at the beginning of spring break season. Not a good trifecta for my curmudgeonly self. We hit the Welcome Center on I-95 and I wanted to hide. Piles of Vacation Mode folks everywhere, kitch and hype and crowds, all things that give me hives. The boys delightedly discovered the free juice counter while I was in the bathroom, and the man handing you a little paper cup with your choice of grapefruit or orange juice in it looked like he'd morphed from a human being into a robot long ago. Jaded, tired, completely sucked dry of any emotion or energy … he did nothing to change my own view of things.
Once we sidled our way over to the western side of the state and dropped down into Palmetto (just south of Tampa), I started to revive a bit. Not a theme park in sight, just piles of trailer parks and strip malls, the promise of a hug from Ann Marie, and the ocean. We camped in an old trailer park within walking distance of our friends' winter trailer, which was bounded on one side by an entrance ramp to the highway, and a busy main drag on the other … convenient, cheap, and frill-free. Mostly full-timers in that park, not seasonals, and we'd barely parked when the neighbor lady next door blew in with garrulous enthusiasm, praise for Michael's mustache, immediate pledges of friendship and libations and great times together, and a fine how-de-do. We'd Arrived! (The libations never did, in fact we barely saw her again during our week there. I think she'd had most of them herself just before we showed up :)).
We found our way over to Steve and Ann Marie's, and made ourselves at home for the evening. They wanted help painting their trailer, and I think the promise of our arrival was as much help as the painting itself, as by the time we came back the next morning to get started, Steve was already attacking the front trim with a paintbrush. We jumped right in, and by dusk we had the entire project done! We'd booked a week at our campground, so the rest of the time was spent sailing, talking, flea marketing, hiking the mangroves and old Indian mounds, and biking and swimming.
The sailing was a delight, and pure entertainment to boot. The first trip out on Tuesday was fairly short due to the tides and light breezes, but as it bore the honor of our first experience ever in a sailboat, it was perfect. Steve has an old 17' boat that he keeps stored in the woods just up the road from his nephew's clam farm, so we helped haul it out of the undergrowth and down the road to the dock where he launches. Life jackets, paddles, maps, water bottles, and the tiller and sails were carried down and stowed. The mast had to be set once we were out a bit from land, as the trees were too low on shore. Steve gave calm and patient directions as we threaded ropes, helped rig sails, and got underway. Fynn's incessant questions were handled with equal patience, and we headed out of the inlet towards the mouth of Tampa Bay.
We circled a bird sanctuary island that was really really cool, and Michael especially was just mesmerized. A mangrove and tree-covered island absolutely teeming with big birds … pelicans, roseate spoonbills, glossy ibis, cranes, egrets, great egrets with their fluffy white tails, anhingas, osprey, and more. Every tree had dozens and they didn't bat an eye as we silently circled the island, staring and hopelessly snapping photos and video, knowing that truly capturing the scene was impossible. Steve, sitting in the back with the tiller in hand, quietly delighting in our delight, and offering bird names as we pointed and asked. The boys got a chance to try their hand at the tiller once we were back in the little inlet where we launched, and declared it a perfect day.
We went out again on Thursday, and Fynn had set his sights on going Fast! And Far! He wasn't disappointed on the Fast! bit, as the winds were better at 10 mph or so, and we started hiking our way speedily across Tampa Bay, taking turns working the ropes, checking the map, and swinging the jib. The sun was peeking out and we were just starting to feel like we had a handle on this sailing thing, when a loud CRACK! invaded the quiet and we momentarily all froze, watching the mast swing towards the water, dip in, and start to drag the sails under. Frantic grabbing ensued by all hands, and with a fistful of sail and cable in my arms, I asked Steve “What's the plan of attack?” It appeared that a mast cable had broken, shearing off a pin holding it in place and sending the mast overboard, though it was still attached by two more cables. Steve's “Well, first we need to secure the mast and sails …” kept us busy for awhile, and after it was determined that there was no way to jury rig the sail, we took them completely off and stowed them in the cubby, and lashed the mast to the side. Upon searching the cubby for the oars, it was determined that one of them had been left in the back of the car, leaving us with one oar, a dis-masted boat, and the closest shore about 1.5 miles away!
We tried rowing by tossing the oar back and forth between Michael and I, but that quickly proved futile. Steve tried tying a bucket to a rope and throwing it ahead of us and pulling it in, while balanced on the prow, but that lasted about 3 dangerous and slippery tosses before being abandoned also. Phone calls were made to the nephew, and to Ann Marie, in an attempt to get someone to come tow us in. In the meantime, the boys were tasked with watching for passing boats and waving life jackets to attract attention.
There was something delightful in the air though … no real dismay or fear, just the excitement of something to Do!, and a Problem to Solve!, and Steve was the one who set the tone for the rest of us. He didn't seem unduly dismayed, more like a wee bit pleased to be honest, and it truly was entertaining! We had water and snacks, we knew someone would eventually see us, or come find us, and the weather was clear and sunny with a nice breeze. Things could be a LOT worse. Just as Steve got his nephew on the phone and was working through rescue options, the boys managed to hail a beautiful fishing boat with two men on board, and they offered to tow us to Emerson Point. As they were getting ropes tossed and tied, I spotted a Tow Boat going by, and was rather thankful that we got help from passers by instead. They kindly towed us as close to shore as the shallows would allow, and we pulled the boat up on the beach there, a spot we'd hiked to just 2 nights before.
We waited there for Ann Marie, who had braved driving Matilda over to pick us up (their car being at the launch point), never having driven anything remotely like her before. There are some benefits I guess to Michael's penchant for leaving the keys IN the truck! I was as proud of her for that as anything … she rose to the occasion beautifully, and I do believe found her own delight in it all.
We parted ways after a week, though I knew I'd see Ann Marie again in a few weeks, as we had a cruise coming up later in the month, together with my sis Martha and sis-in-law Keren. (Tom really rocked it in the birthday department this year!).
That week set the tone for the rest of our time in Florida. Staying away from big attractions for the most part, quiet adventures and misadventures, lots of water and sand and heat, and most excellent companions to hang out with. And nary a Disney character in sight :).