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Authors: Randy Wayne White

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09-Twelve Mile Limit

BOOK: 09-Twelve Mile Limit
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RANDY WAYNE WHITE

 

TWELVE MILE LIMIT

 

A Doc Ford Adventure

 

The Simiadae then branched off into two great stems, the New World and the Old World monkeys; and from the latter at a remote period, Man, the wonder and the glory of the Universe, proceeded.

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN

 

Part One

Prologue

On Sunday, November 4, a Coast Guard helicopter was operating fifty-two nautical miles off Marco Island on the west coast of Florida, when a crewman spotted a naked woman on the highest platform of a 160-foot navigational tower.

In the crew chief’s report, the woman was described as a “very healthy and fit” redhead. The woman was waving what turned out to be a wet suit. She was trying to attract the helicopter crew’s attention.

The helicopter, a Jayhawk H-60, was in the area searching for a twenty-five-foot pleasure boat that had been reported overdue nearly two days earlier. According to the report, the motor vessel, Seminole Wind, had left Marco on Friday morning with a party of one man, three women. According to relatives, the foursome had planned to spend the day offshore, fishing and SCUBA diving, but did not return Friday afternoon as expected. The Coast Guard had been searching for the Seminole Wind since Friday night. The crew of the Jayhawk was looking for a disabled boat, not a naked woman waving a wet suit from a light tower.

The helicopter flew east past the tower, banked south, then hovered beside the platform. One of the crew signaled the woman with a thumbs-up. It was a question. The woman signaled a thumbs-up in return—she was okay. Then the woman wiggled into her wet suit, climbed down to a lower platform, and dived into the water. The crew of the Jayhawk dropped a basket seat and winched her aboard.

It was 9:54 A.M.

The woman they rescued was thirty-six-year-old Amelia Gardner of St. Petersburg, a passenger on the vessel that had been reported overdue, the Seminole Wind.

According to the Coast Guard report, the woman was given a mug of coffee from a Thermos and asked what happened. She replied that she’d been a guest on a boat that sank. When the crew chief asked where the boat had sunk, Gardner replied, “Oh dear, God! You mean you haven’t found them?”

She was referring to the two women and one man who’d been aboard with her: the boat’s owner, Michael Sanford, age thirty-five, of Siesta Key; Grace Walker, twenty-nine, a Sarasota realtor; and Janet Mueller, thirty-three, who lived on a houseboat at Jensen’s Marina on Captiva Island and worked part-time for Sanibel Biological Supply, a business owned by a man named Marion Ford.

A Coast Guard crewman shook his head and told the distraught woman, “Nope. We’ve had crews searching for thirty-six hours straight and no one’s seen a thing.”

Gardner told the crew that Sanford’s boat had swamped and capsized at around 3 P.M. Friday while anchored over the Baja California, a wreck they’d been diving. She said the four of them had held on to the anchor line until the boat finally sank at around 7 P.M. and they were set adrift. By then, it was dark, waves had gotten bigger, the wind stronger, and she was gradually swept away from the others in rough seas. Because she had no other options, Gardner began swimming toward the light tower, which she’d been told was approximately four miles away.

“I never thought I was going to make it,” she told the crew chief. “I was sure I was going to die.”

She said that it was a little after 11 P.M., according to her dive watch, when she finally reached the tower, climbed up the service ladder, and collapsed, exhausted, on the lower platform. She’d been on the tower since 11 P.M. Friday—thirty-five hours—and she told them she was very thirsty. She was sunburned, she had barnacle cuts on her hands and legs, and she appeared to be suffering from exposure.

When Gardner was offered the option of being flown to a hospital or remaining on station, she replied that she wanted the helicopter to continue searching. She told crewmen that all three of her companions were wearing wet suits and inflated BCD vests, buoyancy compensator devices. “We’ll find them, we’ve got to find them,” she said, and offered to help the crew get Loran—an electronic navigational system that aids mariners in determining positions at sea—coordinates for the California wreck from her former dive instructor, who lived aboard a trawler at Burnt Store Marina near Punta Gorda.

The crew chief told Gardner that they already had the coordinates for the wreck.

The helicopter crew, with Gardner aboard, searched for two more hours but found nothing—nor did what, by now, was an even bigger search group that included a second H-60 helicopter, a C-130 fixed wing aircraft, the Coast Guard’s eighty-two-foot cutter Point Swift, and a forty-one-foot utility cruiser. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and other volunteers were also providing boats and crew, but the smaller vessels could not search offshore because the wind was now blowing twenty knots out of the east-northeast.

Hopes of recovering the three missing divers remained high, however. They were all young, all in good shape, and they were all wearing wet suits and inflated vests.

As one of the Coast Guard staff assured Gardner, “Don’t worry, we’re the very best in the world at finding people lost at sea.”

Which is true.

1

On the bright and blustery November afternoon when we first got word that our friend, Janet Mueller, was one of three people missing after a boating accident, I was working in the lab of my little wooden stilt house at Dinkin’s Bay Marina, Sanibel Island, Florida. I’d spent most of the morning testing salinity and oxygen content in my aquaria while serving as reluctant referee in an argument that had been going on for way, way too many days between my friend, Tomlinson, and my sister, Ransom Ebanks.

Well, actually, she’s not my sister, and her last name is no longer Ebanks. She’s a first cousin, the daughter of my late and much crazed uncle, Tucker Gatrell. My only cousin, and my only living family on my mother’s side. However, she’s introduced herself as my sister so widely and consistently to fellow islanders that I no longer attempt to set the record straight. If people are willing to believe that I am the brother of a lanky, busty, coconut-brown Bahamian woman who wears Obeah beads braided into her hair and makes blood offerings on the full moon, so be it. She is smart and savvy, with a bawdy sense of humor, plus a brand of fierce independence too rarely seen in men or women, so I’ve come to consider the association a compliment.

What they’d been arguing about was what lots and lots of people all along the Gulf of Mexico are arguing about. It’s the new save-the-manatee laws. The West Indian manatee is a horse-sized, prehistoric mammal with a fluke tail that is as slow in the water as it is slow intellectually. Because of its pug face and teddy-bear countenance, it evokes an emotional response from people, me among them. The manatee is one of my favorite sea creatures.

They have been among the favorites of many over the years—but for very different reasons. For centuries, people hunted manatee for their meat and skin, and still do in Cuba and Nicaragua—impoverished, desperate nations—and in Asia and Africa, too, where a similar species is known as a dugong.

In the United States, we stopped hunting the animal for food long ago. But we continue to kill them with our powerboats. After watchdog organizations filed lawsuits against the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the feds, working with state bureaucrats, have proposed restricting or closing thousands of hectares of public waters to private boaters in an effort to save the few thousand animals that remain.

One of the bodies of water the feds want to close is our own Dinkin’s Bay. If they get their way, it will mean no more powerboats, no more fishing guides. No more Mack and his marina, no more of the cast of quirky liveaboards who make their home here. No more Sanibel Biological Supply, the small business that I run, providing fish and tunicates, squid, crabs, sea stars, octopi, anemones, and a whole long list of specimens, preserved or alive, to labs and schools around the country. No more of the traditional Friday parties after Mack ceremoniously locks the gate. No more Red Pelican Gift Shop with its exotic silk and incense wares, no more fish market or fried conch sandwiches.

In short, if the laws are implemented, it will be the end of life as we know it. Finally, the inevitable will occur far, far in advance of it being inevitable: Our small marina family will have to say good-bye and go our individual, solitary ways.

An ironic fact: As Tomlinson and Ransom argued about losing the Dinkin’s Bay family, we’d already unknowingly lost one of our members, Janet Mueller. As we spoke, she was somewhere out there, adrift, alone on a horizon of gray, almost certainly fighting for her life. Alive or dead? It was a question that would take me thousands of miles from home and would get good people killed before I learned the truth—if there can be truth in such a situation.

I stood at the stainless-steel dissecting table, holding a 300-milliliter flask in my hand, attempting to concentrate on the Winkler Titration method of determining oxygen content in water, as Ransom raged at Tomlinson, “Here’s what I’m thinkin’. What I’m thinkin’ is, if you used your brain as much as you like to use something else you got, you’d understand a very simple fact. People, us people, we all more important than any fat no-brain creature that swim around so slow and dumb it can’t keep outta the way of boats. You one sad old hippie, you can’t see the truth in that.”

She stood there, hands on hips, speaking with her island accent, the words joined together like musical notes, the inflection surging up and down. She was wearing a hibiscus-pink tank top and purple jogging shorts. Every day at lunchtime, the two of us had been running Tarpon Bay Road to the beach, then along the water for two or three miles and back. She’d come dressed and ready to work out but had ended up in an old argument that was becoming increasingly tiresome.

As I dipped the flask into one of my fish tanks, I watched Tomlinson’s long and nervous fingers comb hair from his eyes. Blue and bloodshot eyes. Judging from all the fragile, broken capillaries behind those two wise old lenses, he’d been drinking, partying, smoking more cannabis than ever. Seeing lots of women now, too, after ending several months of sexual exclusivity with Ransom—probably another source of the woman’s fury.

I listened to him reply, “My dear, dear lady, that’s precisely where you’re wrong. Animals, humankind—there is no difference. One’s as valuable as the other. Like the koan my old instructor, my roshi, really flogged my consciousness with: Does a dog have Buddha-nature? Spend a few years meditating that one and your ass will go numb. So does it? Have Buddha-nature, I mean. Yes. Absolutely. Animals have Buddha-nature, ’cause as it says in the Nirvana sutras, ‘All sentient beings possess it, a living consciousness, their own karma.’”

Ransom used her hands to wave away her disgust. “You crazy, man.”

But Tomlinson continued right along. “It’s true. Replace the word dog with manatee and you’ve got your proof. Does a manatee have Buddha-nature? That’s exactly my point. We let them go extinct? Might as well accept the fact that we’ll soon follow. All of us. People, I’m talking about.”

Ransom made a grunting sound of contempt, rolled her eyes, and turned to me. Bright blue eyes looking out from her African skin, eyes that were alive, fierce. “He know lots a pretty words, but he still full of goat shit. Got his head so far up his backside I’m surprised he not walking into walls.”

“He walks into walls all the time,” I said. “Usually around midnight. A couple days ago, he staggered up my steps and fell into the shark pen.” I was adding a manganese solution to the beaker. Next would come the iodine base. Then I would titrate the solution and watch for color change.

Ransom said, “I wisht they’d eaten the crazy fool,” as she looked through the window at her new skiff tied outside. A pretty little teal-green eighteen-foot Hewes with a ninety-horse Yamaha for power. She’d just bought the thing but, within a few months, might not be able to use it on the bay waters around Sanibel. Most of us are eager fans of the environment, until its maintenance threatens to inconvenience us.

The question of the manatee, however—and more and more so-called environmental causes—is: What is necessary maintenance? And what is symptomatic of very human and predictable attempts by government and nonprofit bureaucrats to expand their power?

The line has become so broad, so gray, that I sit way, way back and gather all the information I can before choosing sides in any environmental debate.

In Florida, considering environmental issues has, increasingly, become a time-consuming job. Truth is? Sometimes there are no good choices, and there is almost never a perfect choice.

Ransom said, “Tell him he’s full of crap, my brother. All the people here at the marina, they all hate the idea of these crazy new laws ’cept this ol’ rummy pal of yours, Mr. Peace Love Dove Hippie Boy.”

I said, “Don’t put me in the middle of this. I’ve got problems of my own, right here in my lab, and listening to you two bicker isn’t exactly expediting a solution.”

BOOK: 09-Twelve Mile Limit
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