We met at the Hertz counter at the Tampa airport. None of us had ever been into the heart of darkest Florida before and, as a consequence, nobody had the urge to say anything wry that would be regretted later. There was my fragile wife Carol, my friend Pat M——, who brought his wife Georgie and his new camera with the zoom lens, although not necessarily in that order. For the record, let it be noted that the three of my associates were no more experienced around boats than I was.
We brought along food and suntan lotion. They were at the top of our list, along with gin, bourbon and beer. So we had, actually, five things at the top of our list; six, if you count tonic. For food, we leaned toward cheese crackers, peanuts and Hostess Twinkies.
We also brought reading material, hats, rubber-soled shoes and bug spray. Finally, in a very good deal, I was able to obtain 250 postcards at must-sell prices from an overstocked Apollo backup crew. These postcards were carried with us on every step of our historic journey, and would make ideal high-priced gifts for loved ones.
Oh, yes. There was one other thing we brought on board our boat that I feel it only fair to tell you about: Ken Gumtow. Ken had been piloting freighters on the Great Lakes for about 30 years, as well as navigating various other tricky waterways all over America. He is a skilled, experienced, able, resourceful captain. If you thought for a minute that I, or the beautiful mother of my children, or that either of the M——s was going to get near a boat without our very own captain, then you just don't understand. If God had wanted me to be daring, he would have named me Tenzing Norgay.
We cast off on a Sunday from Cape Coral, near Fort Myers on the southwest Florida coast. It was a beautiful sunshiny day in the Sunshine State. The boat we were aboard was half houseboat, half sport-fisherman, as unlikely as such a combination may sound, a model called the Cutter made by the Cargile company in Tennessee. It was 28 feet long and could do about 30 mph or 30 knots, one or the other. And that is good enough for me. Our Cutter, otherwise unnamed, was leased through a company called Hiawatha Valley/Hiawatha Hills, whose main property is a large year-round resort on the Mississippi River near Alma, Wis. If you are inspired enough by this saga to want to rent a Cutter (or some other comparable model), Hiawatha is P.O. Box 125, Alma, Wis. 54610.
Our journey was planned to take us from Cape Coral, out into the Gulf of Mexico, to Captiva Island; back inland on Monday, up the Caloosahatchee River-Canal to Clewiston; then around the rim of Lake Okeechobee to Stuart via the St. Lucie River-Canal, and down the inland waterway to Palm Beach for Tuesday night. The next day we would retrace most of the previous day's route back to Indiantown, then Thursday cut across the middle of Okeechobee and up the Kissimmee River to near Lake Wales. After a day's old-fashioned motorcar trip to Disney World and back, a last boat trek would carry us to Tohopekaliga Lake, near Orlando, our final destination. A busy and action-packed week.
I would not necessarily recommend this particular cruise, but we were consciously trying to do a little of everything. Thus, we saw both Florida coasts and the most varied inland waterways; we had to handle the boat under the most diverse conditions a novice should dare attempt; we saw Florida at its beautiful best and at its scruffiest; we fished, shelled, swam and—but for two uncharitable thunderstorms—would have gotten in some tennis as well. For sheer sightseeing we managed such extremes as Fantasyland and Worth Avenue, Palm Beach—and had we been absolutely determined to jam more in there was the opportunity for jai alai, the trotters and any number of marine worlds or snake farms, parrot lands and salad bars. But we did feed marshmallows and cheese crackers to a friendly wild alligator and we ran across John Glenn at a seafood buffet table.
I cannot guarantee that all of this will happen to you if you take a boat trip since the alligator may have moved and I have absolutely no assurance where John Glenn is going to dine in the months ahead. Nonetheless, I do suspect that if you undertake something as loony as this, equivalent experiences are virtually bound to occur. And you might have an even better time if you plan a trip around your specific interests: a fishing cruise, for example, working all the best spots, Gulf Coast to Atlantic; a nature cruise; or a luxury cruise down the ritzy East Coast; even a baseball cruise to look in on teams at spring-training time.
One never can really be sure what might appeal to boaters. I always thought of boats in the sense of glorious isolation, sailing away from it all. On the contrary, it seems that what the boat people like best is jamming together in close camaraderie at the marinas. Boats often seem merely to be things that were invented to get people from one marina to the next. Of course, there are some old salts who do want to get away from it all. I understand that people will hire houseboats and inquire where the reception is best. Then they will anchor a few miles from where they rented the boat and watch TV for a week or two.
Sooner or later one must face the matter of sleeping on boats. The Cutter is advertised as "sleeps 6-8." This is perfectly true; I also have no doubt that if there were PR men around a couple of hundred years ago they would have pushed the Black Hole of Calcutta with "sleeps 142-146." On the Cutter you got your eight this way: the seats up on the bridge or whatever it is (the place where you sit to steer the boat) fold down into two beds like an old Nash Rambler—if you are willing to take the time to put up a lot of canvas to keep out bugs and prying eyes. Under the maindeck up front there are two bunks, coming together at the bow. Accordingly, they are called the V-Berths and appear to feature about six inches of headroom. The V-Berths began to look more spacious the longer we stayed on board and the hotter it got, though, especially since the air-conditioning unit was what took up much of the headroom. Then, in the cabin, there is sort of a master double bed that folds out in the back, and a smaller one toward the front, opposite the stove. It was here, in these two beds, that we first prepared to spend the night.