OFF THE GRID
5 Days With a Living Legend and a Bum Engine
TThe St. Johns River is a tyrant in the winter because it will shatter any expectations you may have of the Sunshine State as it slowly tries to break you. It engages in the kind of psychological warfare that torturers use; that Sun Tzu would surely respect. Like a classic schoolyard bully, it’s big, imposing, and prone to wild fluctuations in attitude. Thisisn’tyourgrandmother’sFlorida, it seems to snarl on a bad day. Its body is wider than the Mississippi in parts, and it flows northward like the Nile. Its weather is subject to fits of highs and lows, and the lows are low; they tend to resemble the typical conditions that bear a dusting of snow in the Northeast. It’s the furthest thing from good weather for cruising, really, and yet that was exactly what Capt. Bill Pike and I were in the middle of doing, out here on the St. Johns without another soul in sight.
We had just rounded Devil’s Elbow, going around a blasted stretch of land that jutted out into the channel like a hook. An abandoned boat, capitulating to the whims of the rust-colored waters, whacked itself against the swampland. “There’s a lot of
trees down. This area must’ve got hit pretty hard in the last hurricane. Holy smokes,” said Bill. “Wanna take a look?” He passed me the binoculars.
From the flybridge of the Betty Jane II, I could see them, large swaths of felled trees leaning tight to one another in a never-ending row.
Whenever he would get nervous, or bored, or intently focused, or the conversation would hit a lull, Bill would hum, and he was humming now. Dahdahdah. Deedeedee, doodoodoo. Because he did this so frequently I had trouble reading what he was thinking at any given moment. I would come to learn later that it had nothing to do with the bleak landscape and everything to do with the Betty Jane II, a Cape Dory 28 Bill had—only recently—purchased but was still in the process of learning and rehabbing.
A Man of Few Words
At the dock, before we had departed, Bill had intimated in his reedy twang that there might be a few issues with his boat. “She ain’t quite ready for prime time,” he admitted. We’d been standing around on the docks. Above our heads gulls wheeled and cawed. A freight train rattled the nearby tracks. The boats docked around us were covered in languid shadows.
Bill kept the Betty Jane II tied up at Sadler Point Marina, along what’s known as Jacksonville’s Marina Mile, west of the city proper, and my first impression of him was he is something of a local celebrity there. He would wave and call out and converse like he knew everyone, which he probably does.
I had just come back from washing up in the marina’s facilities, anticipating an early departure while the weather was fair. I was about to say as much when Bill stopped me.
“We have a little problem with the engine,” he said matter-of-factly while standing on the edge of the engine bay.
“A little little problem or a little big problem?” “Well it’s an issue with the electrical. Chip here is the local genius.” I looked down at the gray, 240-horsepower Yanmar. It took a second for my eyes to adjust and take in the man who had wedged himself into the incredibly tight space between the exhaust manifold and battery banks—it was hard to discern where the mechanical apparatus ended and the man in the dark-blue coveralls began. Chip didn’t look up or smile, or even grunt a reply. “Ok, hit it,” he said. Bill attempted to start the engine. “Nope, no dice,” he said. Chip, who had an assortment of tools dangling from his belt, wore wide spectacles and had a shock of white hair. His hands were covered in grease. He didn’t look up from his work for a long time, and when he finally did he coughed, climbed up out of the engine room, mumbled something to Bill, and rode off down the dock on—maybe the most unbelievable part—his tricycle.
Napoleon’s Philosophy of Mail
Here is where I tell you that the engine was fixed and we went on our merry way. And it was. But the solution was a temporary salve to a further problem. That afternoon, as we wended our way towards Green Cove Springs, a diesel-fuel leak started. It was slow at first, only a few pencil-eraser-sized drops, but fairly quickly it turned into a quarter of a cup every few hours, with fuel collecting in the fiberglass pan under the engine. Bill had to clamber down the flybridge ladder to check it periodically and mop up.
“Here, take the wheel,” Bill said, laying the binoculars aside. “I’m going below to check on our leak. Think it’s a gasket problem with the fuel-water separator on the side of the engine. Got no gaskets unfortunately. And it’s unlikely we’re going to find any around here.”
Eventually, he scurried back up to the flybridge, apparently feeling if not altogether wise, then downright philosophical. “Napoleon had this theory about opening mail,” he said, clearing his throat. “He refused to open any letter sent to him until after a month, because he
believed that most problems would have fixed themselves on their own by then. It appears the same may be true with the engine. I swear that darn leak is not as bad now as it was an hour ago.”
“I’ve often thought you get a very different view of America when you travel by water as opposed to traveling a little less adventurously by land,” said Bill. We had been walking the dusty trail into Green Cove Springs like a couple western gunslingers, hardly talking, after an overly fraught docking. In front of us, the large Floridian sun hung like a fat orange slice on the horizon. Bill had said it to break the tension, but I could tell he also believed it to be true.
We had made it the 30 miles to Green Cove Springs with little trouble; and once there were told the dockage fee would cost us just $30. If we didn’t have it, well, then we could just get it to them another time. “They’re pretty loose around here,” said Bill, with a grin.
The problem was the wind had kicked up as we made our way into the marina, almost lurching the against the corner of our dock. Luckily, a man had been there to assist us. He introduced himself as Lou, a wise-cracking old salt with a foot-long scar running the length his arm.
Earlier, Bill had likened the cruising ethic to a pioneer mentality, like when settlers crossed the Great Plains, always willing to help each other out with tools, expertise or advice. I had grown up on a friend’s boat, a 26-foot Cobalt that was tied up on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, with TheCommitments original motion picture soundtrack on repeat in the CD player. It was a boat for good times, for laid-back times. This was an altogether different type of boating. This was going beyond the grid, trusting your instincts, and relying, at times, on the inherent goodness of mankind.
After he was done helping us, Lou asked if I smoked cigars. “Here. I don’t want my brother-in-law to have it,” he said, handing me a Cuban.
“I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s a nice cigar.” And it was.
The Heart of Darkness
Buzzards circled a point along the shoreline. Dusk was some ways off yet. We had gone another 40 miles, well past Palatka, where with any luck we would be docking for the night. We were seeing how far south, beyond Palatka, we could get in the slowly dying light. The patchwork of civilization was starting to fray along the edges, and in its stead, was replaced by satellite fishing camps and the odd skiff fisherman hunting for the bass and bluegills that can be found in the brackish waters.
Bill had to have been feeling more lucky than good, for after looking at the charts for a time he stabbed a finger at a winding channel that ran parallel to the larger river. It was called Murphy’s Creek, and when viewed on the chart it looked like the serpentine coils of a snake. Bill thought for a moment, clearly weighing our options. Doodoodoo.
Dahdeedah. “The problem is it looks like the other end of this thing is blocked by a shoal,” he finally said, “but heck, let’s go in there and check it out. With any luck, the engine will continue to operate. And we won’t get ourselves up the proverbial creek after dark.”
As we entered Murphy’s Creek, I thought of Werner Herzog, and his contention that every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life. By continuing our cruise up the river, Bill and I weren’t pulling a boat over a mountain, not even close, but we were venturing into some decidedly water moccasin- and gator-infested waters that no one to whom we had hitherto spoken professed any knowledge of—with a leaky engine and an engine ignition system that seemed to work only half the time.
With every twist of the ever-narrowing channel, with every turn of the meandering waterway, we watched the depthsounder like a pair of hawks. The creek was shallow in ways that played tricks on your mind. And the Betty Jane II was certainly the largest vessel anywhere around. The few jon boat fishermen we came across, obviously surprised by the appearance of such a comparatively large watercraft, must’ve taken us for a couple of geographically challenged, hardcore bird-watchers. Or fools.
But nothing prepared us for what we saw when we rounded one of the sharper bends in the snakey waterway. It was a giant steel ferryboat, anchored along the shoreline with giant links of ship’s cable and presumably giant anchors. On the deck stood what appeared to be two correctional buses, solemn as sentinels, and an Airstream trailer. On the shore, baubles and other trinkets spun lazy circles in the trees. The flotilla looked altogether deserted. It was hard to say if the lack of occupants made it spookier or not, but the gray clouds cast ominous, lonely shadows about the place, and seemed to imbue it with a tribal power wholly separate from modern times.
The name Noble Phoenix was embossed in stark relief on its side. Goose pimples stood up on my neck; the same feeling the conquistadors must have felt when they encountered the Aztec pyramids rising above the dark jungle flora. The ones who have been here, who will be here still long after we’re gone. Here was the physical manifestation of taking the idea of cruising to its logical conclusion; to test the very limits of what is possible. Dah dah dah, dee dee.
Bill comes from mountain-bred mining stock, from men who trudge down deep into the bowels of the earth and blast away tons of rock in search of iron ore, zinc, lead, and talc. He has been in scrapes and seedy locales, from Port-au-Prince to New Orleans. He earned a Silver Star for his services as a combat medic in Vietnam. He’s piloted oil-field supply vessels through tempestuous seas in the Gulf of Mexico. And yet even he had never seen anything like what we were looking at now. “Do you suppose anyone lives on this thing?” If they did, they weren’t home.
When we finally slipped the last bend of the creek, negotiated the shallows at its southern mouth, and made it to Palatka it was dark and growing darker. We were up on the flybridge, Bill craning with the binoculars to spy any kind of a landmark that would indicate the location of Palatka’s Boathouse Marina, just south of the bridge. There were no channel markers or lighted beacons. We puttered along for a long time, with Bill periodically looking through his binoculars and tweaking the steering wheel ever so slightly in the direction he surmised the deep water would be.
Finally, as we approached a long, lighted face dock, a man came out to greet us. He took our lines and helped us secure them tight, offering a word here and there but little else.
In the morning, I awoke to voices outside. “I talked to a fellow on the dock who knew a little bit about that ferryboat,” said Bill as
we ambled into town. He explained what he had been told, that the Noble Phoenix had once been the old Mayport ferry. That a couple of people were now living on board. And that the man’s wife knew about them. For entertainment sometimes, Bill said he’d been told, the couple would sit on the floating dock that connected their flotilla to the land and shoot water moccasins.
Diner of the Angels
We had breakfast at the oldest diner in Florida, and the conversation drifted, naturally, back to the Noble Phoenix and the events of the day before. “They’re sorta living on the edge I’d say,” repeated Bill. “But on the edge of what is the question. Probably only they know.”
Our meal times were usually reserved for highly detailed dioramas, with Bill using the odds and ends found on the table—a spoon, plates, a napkin—to make teaching points concerning some aspect of boating. Today was different. Bill looked like he was somewhere else. When he finally spoke, he said the ferryboat and its mysterious trappings had reminded him of a man he had interviewed as a young reporter for the Watertown Daily Times, a newspaper in northern New York State. The man’s name was Ed West, an American Indian who wore a shoulder-holstered .45 semi-automatic pistol most of the time, lived in the midst of a heavily guarded compound in the Adirondacks, and led an isolated commune of people who had flocked to him from all over the world. West had been a restless, cagey soul, said Bill, pushing and indeed sometimes testing the limits of what most people would consider normal.
When we got back to the marina Bill checked the engine again. While it started (something we had learned not to count on), the leak had returned and, what’s more, we were for some reason out of coolant. Bill went off to see if he could find some, returning in a few minutes with an unopened bottle of pre-mixed anti-freeze someone had given him. Said Bill, “Ask and ye shall receive.”
Later, as we pulled away from the dock bound for Jacksonville and Sadler Point Marina—the vestiges of civilzation slowly wresting control from the wilderness—Bill said he had offered to pay his benefactors for the jug of coolant, but they wouldn’t hear of it. As we were about to enter the main part of the river, I thought I saw the man who had told Bill about the Noble Phoenix and its occupants. He sat on a picnic table on the dock, wearing an expression similar to Bill’s—his long, bushy beard braided in the middle. He was looking past us, out into the far distance, off towards the way we’d come.
After a while, I looked back and he was still there, his gaze unbroken, his mind fixed on a point downstream. I didn’t follow his gaze; I didn’t need to to know what he was thinking. The wilderness is alive and well in all of us, but we stave it off with random acts of kindness. Only together do we keep the wolves away from the door. ❒
“You came up here—didn’t you—to find a simple man of the woods, a man of the forest. You see now that that’s just not the case.” —Edward West, as quoted by Bill Pike in the Watertown DailyTimes (1974)
Left to right: Murphy’s Creek; the in all her glory; the author earns his keep.