OFF THE GRID

5 Days With a Liv­ing Leg­end and a Bum En­gine

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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.”

Lou’s Cuban

“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.

Old-Fash­ioned Nav­i­ga­tion

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.

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