By Bruce S Kershaw
The full moon was bright, in the
cloudless sky. A slight haze from a humidity of ninety-five percent
clung to the horizon. At 1:00 am, it was still in the mid-eighties
on that late June night. The air was like a heavy weight, without
even the hint of a breeze. From a quarter mile away you could
see an occasional coconut or palm frond, as it bobbed along in
the glass smooth water.
Moving to Southwest Florida from the
Midwest was like dying and going to heaven for a teenage boy
who loved the water. Brian lived two doors down from our new
home. I was 16, he was 14. We became quick friends. An all night
fishing trip, under the full moon, was just the first of many
adventures he and I had planned for that summer vacation.
That evening after supper, we met at
Brians johnboat where it was docked in his back yard. We
loaded up our gear, and made the short trip down the canal to
the Caloosahatchee River. Four miles down, the Caloosahatchee
opens out into San Carlos Bay. A mile or so beyond the mouth
of the river, the Intracoastal Waterway makes a turn to the west
as it skirts around the south end of Pine Island, before it turns
north again and runs up the center of Pine Island Sound. The
eastern half of this east-west leg is known as The Miserable
Mile. The channel is very narrow, with shallow water on both
sides. Not a favorite passage for sailors.
We knew the fishing would be better
up under the overhanging mangrove branches on any of the small
islands that dot the bay, but without a breeze, the mosquitoes
would have carried us away. So we decided to fish in open water.
We anchored in about four feet of water, on a grass flat, just
to the north of the channel, at the west end of The Mile.
After a few hours, we were getting bored.
We had a couple of trout in the cooler, and had battled and released
a variety of "junk" fish. We had talked about cars,
girls, rock & roll, and the camping trip we were planning
to North Captiva. As the outgoing tide reached its ebb,
the fishing and the conversation tapered off to nothing. I was
just getting ready to say that, maybe "all night" wasnt
such a great idea, when, with a lurch that almost flipped the
small boat, the six-foot-seven Brian shouted "A BARGE!"
"A barge" was our battle cry.
There is a steady flow of tug drawn barge traffic on this stretch
of the Intracoastal, and up and down the river. Much of it is
the transportation of oil and equipment for the Florida Power
& Light power plant, up river, east of Fort Myers. "A
barge" meant a huge rolling wake to play in. I am convinced
that our survival into adulthood is due to the fact that in those
days, we had never heard of Jet Skis.
What had first caught Brians attention
was the beam from a super-bright searchlight that we could only
assume was mounted on a tug. For almost an hour we followed the
beam as, what ever it was, carefully followed the channel as
it worked its way down the Sound.
When it finally rounded the bend at
York Island and got a little closer, we could see that it was
indeed, a large tug towing two barges. In the light of the full
moon, we could see that the first was loaded with long lengths
of pipe that had to be at least five feet in diameter. The second
carried a collection of heavy equipment. Including a tractor,
a bulldozer, and a huge crane that was disassembled into several
What we hadnt noticed, until its
engine started and it separated itself from the rest of the train,
was a very small tugboat that was bringing up the rear. We were
surprised when it pointed its own searchlight in our direction
and headed straight for us.
Just about the time this mini-tug was
within shouting distance, it ran aground in the shallow water
at the edge of the channel. Two men appeared out of the pilothouse,
and one hollered over to us, "Where can we buy some beer?"
I should stop and explain something
about Brian and myself
While I tended to be the cautious,
dont-talk-to-strangers type, Brian had an anything-goes
outlook on life. Just keeping up with him took a lot of nerve
sometimes, but it certainly wasnt boring!
Anyway, I was getting ready to explain
to our visitors that, it was after 2:00 am, and that there werent
any stores within walking distance of anyplace where they could
tie up, when Brian shouted, "You should try Little Shell."
The next thing I knew, we were pulled up next to the tug, and
one of the guys was climbing into our boat with us.
Little Shell Island is a half-acre pile
of oyster shell with a few mangrove trees growing on it. It sits
In the middle of the river, right about where it opens out into
the bay. In those days there was a small restaurant on the island.
One of those "Cheeseburger In Paradise" places. (The
real subject of the famous Buffet song is located a few miles
away, in Pine Island Sound, but thats another story.)
As the little tug backed off into deeper
water, the three of us in Brians boat buzzed on ahead of
the slow moving conglomeration. I was a little uncomfortable
with the whole situation, but at least we were heading in the
right direction. We would soon be delivering our guest (probably
empty handed) back to his buddies, and then we could call it
Eventually, we tied up to the end of
the long dock that jutted out from the restaurant, and our passenger
headed for the door. Brian and I couldnt see much from
the boat. The tide was low, and the dock was a couple feet above
our heads, but pretty soon, the porch light came on, and we could
hear muffled voices. There was no shotgun blast, which I considered
to be a good sign. After a few minutes, our man came back and
deposited four cases of warm Busch into the already overloaded
boat. When we asked him how it went, he just mumbled something
about it costing a fortune.
When we arrived back at the tug, it
had just negotiated the turn, and was chugging its way towards
the mouth of the river. As we got closer Brian and I were greeted
with praise from the crew, who could see that our mission had
been a success. As we maneuvered up to the aft end of the second
barge, our passenger asked if we would like to tie up, and ride
for a while.
By this point, I was over my uncertainties,
and all wound up in the whole adventure. Besides, they were going
our way anyhow, and it sure would feel good to get out of the
small johnboat and stretch my legs. We both said, yes.
It felt strange to be moving along on
something that large, and that low in the water. By the time
we passed Little Shell again, Brian and I were exploring the
big flat deck and the heavy equipment tied down to it. One of
the crew took us across a catwalk to the lead barge, where the
huge lengths of pipe were being carried, so that we could go
forward and have a look at the tug.
What a sight! Ropes as big as my arms
formed a V as they came back to the front corners
of the barge. The rumble of the diesel was deafening. Under the
bright lights that illuminated the deck, I could see that the
prop wash was filled with mud as the huge screw sucked it up
from the river bottom and pushed the muddy water back, under,
and around the bow of the barge were we were standing.
Soon we noticed as we headed up river,
that we were passing by our own neighborhood. Brian and I just
looked at each other and shrugged. This was all too interesting
to pack it in and head home just yet.
We returned to the rear barge,
and finally got to see the little tug in action. As we approached
the Cape Coral Bridge, it was used to keep the tail end in line
as we went through. Even with the efforts of the mini-tug, the
barge we were riding on bounced and scraped along the heavy wooden
guardrails that protect the bridge pilings, and for a second,
we all lost our footing.
Once clear of the bridge, the small
tug returned to its place at the rear where Brians boat
was tied up.
Before shutting down, the pilot asked
us if we would like a tour of the big tug. That was an opportunity
we couldnt turn down. We jumped aboard and he headed forward
to the port side of the small ship, made fast, and we climbed
aboard. The winches, bits, and other equipment on deck were huge.
When the mate opened the engine room door. It was like looking
down into a basement. The deck where we were standing was just
above water level. I was amazed at how much boat there was below
the water line. It wasnt hard to picture it occasionally
bumping along the bottom even in the 12-foot deep channel.
To top off the whole experience, he
led us up two decks to the pilothouse. Someone must have radioed
the captain, and told him about us stowaways. He didnt
look too surprised when the mate brought us in, but he did look
busy. The thing that struck me about the helm was that there
was no wheel. Just a couple of small levers that the captain
somehow used to control this huge boat. We were coming up on
the first of two bridges at downtown Fort Myers. So we took a
quick look around, thanked him, and left him to do his job.
Well, we had seen everything and we
were getting further and further away from home. So halfway between
the Caloosahatchee Bridge, and the Edison Bridge, Brian and I
cast off for home. A breeze had picked up and was kicking up
a light chop as we headed back down river. The sun was just becoming
visible on the horizon as we turned into our canal. It felt like
it was going to be another hot one. Time to get some sleep! We
can wash up the gear later.
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