Tales from Geezer Boatworks

by Paul Browne
Geezer Boatworks

The Pelican Pete Stories
Part II - Life On the Bounding Waves

In our last installment, I had bought a converted lifeboat. Pelican Pete and I set out on a 500 mile cruise down the St. John’s River and around Florida, bringing the boat home to Tampa. In spite of some fuel troubles, we were settling into a routine:

Pete Goes Eyeball to Eyeball with a Ruffian

“Every fish on the Ottawa has heard about Pelican Pete”

Folks who have never cruised inland or coastal waters on a slow boat have asked me, “Isn’t it boring going that slowly.” The answer is never. There’s always something to do. There are water maggot riders and fizzboat drivers to curse at, sailboaters to wave to and laugh at. Birds to watch, dolphins to clap for. (An old salt told me once that they like it when people applaud. Do you believe that?) There are sights on the shore to contemplate. The engine needs worrying over. Dock lines need whipping. The fuel mileage needs ciphering. The lunch situation always calls for cunning calculation, and of course the question of a snug anchorage for the night needs considering. And for certain folks like Pete, there is always fishing.

As every fish on the Ottawa River knows, Pete likes fishing. He had a trolling line out for most of the trip. Nothing was biting though, and Pete was starting to get depressed. He would fiddle with the rod and mutter subtle hints like "The fishing is lousy in Florida". So as we were rumbling and chewing our way through the water down the intracoastal ditch I, spied one bait shop that looked particularly rustic. There were signs with fish stuck on them, and nets and floats and stuff all over the place. I figured they could give us some advice. I swung the helm hard to port and cut the engine. We managed to tie up without destroying the dock.

As we swaggered up the ramp to the shop, I noticed that there was a sleepy pelican on the deck outside the door. Now pelicans can be quite common and reasonably tame down here, so I merely nodded politely at the bird as we went in. But Pete bought some bait inside, and when he came out clutching his paper bag he found himself nose-to-beak with the pelican, who wanted the bait, and had been plotting while we were in the store. The bird nearly got it too, backed Pete up into the store again, with much flapping and snapping. And the bird was pretty agitated too. But Pete's a red-blooded Canuck, and from behind the shelter of a display counter he gathered himself for a charge. Sort of like the original General Brock up Queenston Heights in 1812. The bird saw the wild colonial look in his eyes and decided maybe he'd let this one go. Pete made it to the boat and we cast off in our usual 120 decibel cloud of diesel smoke.

But despite that heroic battle and much further effort Pete never did catch a Florida fish. Not every story has a happy ending.

The Soothsayer

We were coming up to Cocoa. The General used to live in Cocoa. That was where his former owner John lived. John ran a sign shop in the touristy section of town. So Pete and I tied up at Henderson's Marina and cleared our stay with the dockmaster for a couple of hours. Then we stumped downtown to visit John, maybe pick up a few pointers. We found the shop open. All over the walls were nice signs made from cedar with neat letters sandblasted into them. So that explained how the General got his pretty cedar-trimmed interior. John himself was in attendance, working on a layout back of the counter. "Hi John," I called out, "Good to see you again. This is Pelican Pete." "Hi uh... Hey, you’re Paul, aren't you? The guy who bought my boat," he asked. "That's right," I answered, "We were cruising by and I just thought we'd stop to see what you were up to." "Cruising by?" he said, "What, in the boat?" "That's right," I said, "We're taking her round to Tampa." "All that way? But that means you'll go through Lake Okeechobee," he observed. "That's right," I confirmed. "But what if the wind comes up?" he asked, and he looked at me like I were nuts. "Well, the boat will take it," I answered, and I looked back at him like he were nuts, "Won't it?" "I guess so," sputtered John. Pete just rolled his eyes. I should mention that Lake Okeechobee has a fearsome reputation in some quarters. To begin with it's big enough, the second largest lake in the USA. To make matters worse, it's not much over six feet deep, so it kicks up a wicked chop in a hurry when the wind gets its dander up. But the General was a decked-over double-ended lifeboat, wasn't he? So what did John know about him that we didn't?

"So where's the boat now?" asked John. "Tied up down at Henderson's Marina." I answered. "Henderson's! They let you tie up there?" "Why not?" I asked. "Well, it just that they're kind of...choosey," he answered, giving me that puzzled look again, "Did the dockmaster see the boat?" "Well yeah, sure he did," I said, giving him the look right back. Pete rolled his eyes again. "So uh, anything we ought to know about the boat John? I mean before we travel on?" I asked. "Umm, nothing I can think of," said John, "Uh...good luck crossing that lake." And on that confident note Pete and I took our leave. "Got your life insurance paid up, Pete?" I asked as the marina came into view. The dockmaster didn't charge us for tying up. I guess he felt sorry for us. Do they charge you for your last meal on death row? Maybe John should have bought us supper.

The Old Man Instigates Naval Hostilities

A day later, and somewhere close to Vero Beach, we needed some groceries. Well sometimes things have a way of working out for the pure in spirit. And son of a gun, there off to starboard was a Publix, just over the road. Even better, there was a pier jutting out into the waterway. Now this was just what the doctor ordered, a supermarket we could easily walk to. If we could tie up at the pier for a half-hour, Pete could hop over to the grocery while I stayed with the boat. I swung the wheel and we headed in slowly. Pete stood on the foredeck, checking the depth. The pier was tee-shaped. The end was covered with a roof. And there were three guys out at the end fishing. They weren't old men really, but they weren't young either, maybe in their late fifties or early sixties. The wind was blowing down the channel, so I planned on coming around the end of the tee, and tying up behind where the fellows were fishing. That way the wind would keep us off the pier, and we wouldn't be interfering with the fishermen and their lines. We crept in dead slow, nose to the wind now, watching the water depth carefully.

When they saw what we were up to, the fishermen started shaking their heads. "Can't come in here," one of them hollered. "We just need a few groceries. Won't be but a half hour or so," I hollered back. The men on the pier wore windbreakers and ball caps. They seemed like regular guys. Surely they wouldn't mind. "Look," one of them said, "No boats allowed. This is a private pier." It didn't look it to me, but then I saw a fancy mobile home park over the road. Must be an over fifty-five retirement park, and this would be their fishing pier, I thought. "How 'bout I just put the lad ashore?" I asked, "Then I'll be out of your way." "Whazzamatter, can't hear? I said no boats allowed," the closest fisherman said, and the three of them glared at us malevolently.

Well shoot. There we were, sort of hungry, a glitzy supermarket - probably with a deli, and even some fried chicken (Mmm, fried chicken) right across the road. We had no dinghy, we were drifting astern into who-knows-what with the wind, and there was a perfectly usable pier right in front of us, with three old goats standing on it looking ugly. I was a little ticked off. Now the wind by this time had us sideways, with our bow pointing out towards the channel for our exit, but their fishing lines were strung across and ahead of our bow. I backed and cranked the wheel, but the General didn't want to point any other way any time soon, and I didn't really want to drift much more downwind. It looked pretty shallow over there. The old guys could see that I was having trouble turning. No matter, they weren't about to pull in their lines to give us room. I was getting even more ticked off. I looked at their lines. I looked at them. They looked at their lines. They looked at me. Then I just got angry. I pushed the gearshift for'd and opened the throttle. The General sort of snorted and then romped across the three lines, pulling hell-bent for the channel.

Pete was back in the cockpit by this time. "Dad, stop, you've caught their lines!" he yelled. I could hear the commotion on the pier. "Hey. Hey!! You.. Stop!! Ah &*$#!!" "Don't look back Pete," I said, and I steamed straight out to the channel, so it would be too far to see our registration numbers when we turned. "But…" Pete said, and then he laughed. "I guess the old man has some spunk in him yet," he said. "I shouldn't have done it," I muttered, "but they made me mad." "Some old guys just get mean," mused Pete. "Yeah, they deserved it," I said, and I remembered being yelled at by older men a couple of times when I was a young lad. Pete said it was funny watching the three rods bending right down, the three of them fumbling with the reels, the three lines snapping one after another, and finally the three old goats stomping and cussing along the pier.

We found a restaurant a couple of miles down the ditch and ate there. I half expected to see three fishermen drive up looking for us, but of course nothing like that happened. Now I realize that wasn't exactly the battle of Trafalgar, but that's the first time I can remember ever doing anything basically nasty to someone else on purpose. I'm still sorry I did it, after all it was their pier. I suppose half the pleasure they got from it was keeping others from using it. Even so, if I knew who they were I would feel better paying the few bucks their tackle cost. But then they just cheesed me right off! Ever feel like that?…Wait a minute…. Pete said some old guys just get mean…. He was talking about them; he couldn't have meant…?

…to be continued