Sailing on the Edge
In Memory of Nat Fain
By Jill Green
“The whole idea of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is to set foot in one’s own country as a foreign land.” G.K. Chesterton
I found that land in my own backyard. I knew I was home when I saw the infinite unobstructed vista of grass and water, sea and sky straight to the horizon that is the Florida Everglades. The ability to see all around me; clear of tall mountains, trees or buildings, is part of my South Florida heritage.
Captain Nat was a perfect sailing companion for our adventure along the Lower West Coast. A rare Florida native, he embodied the traits of a true southern gentleman and accomplished sailor. A smile showed readily on his handsome tanned face as he loped about the boat on his tall lanky frame, tightening lines or checking GPS settings. He was easygoing, but calm and direct in the face of crisis. He had been engaged in boating, from marine mechanics to sailing the Caribbean for many years. I was new at the game and had a lot to learn.
I met Nat, Phyllis and family over 45 years ago, when my husband and I moved next door and into the best neighborhood I’ve known. Their daughter Tamy became our first and best babysitter (along with her mom) as our family grew. Our families remained close friends through the years though we both moved away from Ormond Beach. –It was one of the few relationships that lasted a lifetime. The years passed. Nat lost his wife to cancer and I lost my husband to divorce. I’d always dreamed of sailing and finally got the chance. Nat bought a new boat and needed a first mate to fill out the crew. After taking deep-sea sailing lessons and getting on-the-job training from a great and patient teacher, we were ready to go.
The 38 ft. Krogen sloop with a nice shallow draft was fitted out like a queen for the week. We left Key Largo during the spring equinox on a perfect wind. After learning to work together as a team and getting a few kinks out, Nat gave me the wheel, “Give it a try. Lady Luck’s with us and the weather’s perfect.”
“I’m ready to fly!” I pulled in on the sail and laughed as the Blue Moon leapt ahead. We sailed smoothly through the Long Key Bridge, north along the West Coast and spent our first night anchored under a clear starry sky.
We established a daily ritual. I made breakfast, washed dishes with the salt water hose and shaped up the ship. Nat puttered in the cockpit preparing for the daily sail, first through Florida Bay. Being new to the modern technology, I marveled at the accuracy of our GPS and automatic pilot maneuvering the boat through the narrow channels. We took turns sailing, one carefully navigating the Florida Straits, while the other took care of the daily chores. The weather remained beautiful, cool but sunny, windy, with a few fluffy clouds.
After attending to sailing duties there was plenty of time for all those leisurely pursuits one is always interrupted from doing at home. I read books, wrote and listened to music on the fancy sound system. Nat was an excellent captain. I respected his deeper knowledge and he delighted in the exuberance I showed for my newfound sport. We worked things out together, gave each other space, and had fun. Best of all was the sailing; the wind filling the sails and my face, the boat heeled and running fast. I liked trimming the sails for that extra spurt of speed, the boat a spirited filly shivering in excitement to be released.
“ I love it out here!” I sang out hauling in the line an extra inch for that extra bit of speed.
“You’re a natural,” Nat observed as the boat leaned into the wind.
“I couldn’t be doing this if it hadn’t been for the sailing lessons you made me take. You’re a great teacher – and eternally patient.”
“Let’s hope the winds of fortune remain with us.”
We anchored off the beach of East Cape, the most eastern point of Cape Sable where Florida Bay ends and the Gulf of Mexico begins. Appreciating the east wind on this unprotected shore, we boarded the dinghy to explore the isolated beaches. The setting sun bathed the thin strip of beach in its golden light. Ours were the first human footsteps to grace the shore, dancing in and out with those of the raccoons, shore birds, and trailings of myriad mollusks. Behind the beach was Glade. Dry saw and wire grass stretched in all shades of brown to the eastern horizon, interspersed with yucca in bloom, cactus, sabal palms. The gumbo limbo trees’ bark, shining red gold in the sweet light, lent substance to the legend that pirates buried treasure under their roots. A baby coon sauntered playfully downwind until it detected our scent. Scampering up the closest tree, it shook with fear, surprised by us giant predators invading its space.
We rambled on careful to watch for dangerous plants or animals, seeing visions of crocodiles and pythons hiding in the grass. “This might be the only place left that humans rarely tread,” I sighed.
“We haven’t seen any yet. Probably won’t either, the only way to get here is a long boat ride.”
When the blood red sun leaked empty into the sea we returned to the sloop to enjoy a simple gourmet meal of grilled lobsters and vegetables, the gentle rocking of the waves and the cool breeze rippling across our skin. As the night darkened the shore and the stars peered through the giant sieve of a sky, my thoughts turned from the peacefulness of our first day to the past when civilization was just arriving. I fell asleep dreaming of being a biologist, catching a ride on a pirate ship, surveying all types of weird and wondrous species on these inhospitable shores and praying that if we encountered wild Calusa Indians, they would be friendly.
We spent the next day sailing the Ten Thousand Islands up the West Coast with the best winds one could ever want. Reaching the Little Shark River, we motored up river and anchored at Oyster Bay. Mangroves a water surrounded us in a green silence. We found a small canopied waterway into the giant mangroves and followed it as far as the roots and mosquitoes would allow. I could see only outlaws, the likes of P. Matthieson’s Mr. Watson or explorers like DeSoto’s conquistadors braving such a harsh environment. We were neither, and gladly returned to the sloop and the Gulf winds. At dusk flocks of ibis in tight formation, filled the evening sky on their way to roost in the swamp. Our luck held. Our evening was bug free.
At first light the disturbed surface of the sea gave me an inkling of the drama occurring beneath it. Schools of fish surfaced and arcked over the water escaping some larger threat. Cool mist softened everything to gray. Flocks of white dots glinted over the Seurat sea. The sun leaped above the gumbo limbos and a breeze picked up so lovely, damp it gentled my sun-parched skin. As we neared the Keys, we followed a procession of sailboats heading south for home. Anchored on our last night, dense grey clouds adorned the bright giant red sun dissolving into the ocean, marking the end of our pristine and peaceful dream trip sailing on the edge – one place in Florida left as a reminder of the uncivilized past.
Thank you dear friend Nat, for making this adventure possible and sharing it with me. I love you and will miss you terribly.