A Mother’s Gift

Cutty Shark2

My mother bids me farewell as I embark on my first solo sailing adventure

This image from a half-century ago is etched into my heart. I am a 14-year-old boy running away from home in a 12-foot sailboat. Or so I’ve told my parents. I’m sick of school, I don’t have any friends, I want to be alone. Mom watches from the shoreline as I prepare my sails for departure. Instead of lecturing me, locking me into my bedroom, or simply saying, “No you can’t go”– as another parent might–my mother encourages me to set sail. She tells me to be safe. She tells me that home will be waiting for me when I want to return.

It was 1969. I was living between ages. Kids a few years older were hitchhiking to Woodstock that year. Many others were dying in Viet Nam. A quarter-million were marching in Washington to protest the war. Richard Nixon had been elected president. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. And a British sailor, Robin Knox-Johnson, became the first person in history to sail alone non-stop around the world. At age 14, it was clear who I wanted to emulate.

Mom was born Alvina Sorzickas, the daughter of conservative Lithuanian immigrants who lived in Chicago. She rebelled against her strict upbringing. She was the first in her family to go to college, graduating from the University of Illinois with degrees in both Journalism and English History. She was also crowned as a beauty queen. Mom dated Hugh Hefner (once was enough). Then Mom met Dad and they fell in love in front of the bronze lion at the Chicago Art Institute. They quickly married and moved to South Florida to live an independent life closer to the ocean.

In 1969, Mom had just turned 40. She was a high school teacher raising four children and a squirrel monkey named Sandra. We lived in Ft. Lauderdale with a yard big enough to work on a couple of boats. I acquired a plywood sailing dinghy. Inspired by the image of a clipper ship on the label of a bottle of scotch whiskey, I painted my little boat bright yellow and called her Cutty Shark.

JC early sailing 2.sm

School sucked, I was “going to sea” in a 12-foot boat

One day during the middle of my 9th-grade school year I announced to my parents that school sucked and I was “going to sea” in Cutty Shark. I would sail from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West, for starters. After that, I thought, who knows? The world is my oyster.* I hadn’t read Shakespeare yet but Mom was a drama teacher so I’m sure she understood that sentiment. I remember the conversation, my parents looking sternly at me across the dinner table. Dad said, “Well, when you get where you’re going give us a call.”

Sadly, I have misplaced the log from the voyage of Cutty Shark. Fortunately, Mom, now at age 91, has a better memory than me and she has filled in some of the details. Because my little boat would founder in seas rougher than a knee-high whitecap, I decided to sail the backcountry route of 175 miles from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West. I couldn’t afford charts so I navigated with a Gulf Oil road map of the Keys. My plan was to stop each night on a deserted island and sleep in a jungle hammock tied to the mangroves. I would catch fish to eat, I thought, but I had forgotten my fishing pole. Later, a fisherman in Biscayne Bay would take pity on me and loan me his rod and reel. He trusted me to return it one day, he said, because I wasn’t “one of those long-haired hippies rioting in the streets.”

In the Middle Keys, I encountered rough weather late one afternoon and I ran Cutty Shark hard before a squall for the sanctuary of an island. As night fell I hurried to get my jungle hammock rigged before the thunderstorm hit. Having no time to cook, I stuffed my mouth with cold beef stew from an open can. I zipped myself into the hammock just as the sky opened with a torrent of rain and lightning. Soon I had a nauseating feeling in my stomach. Then that feeling quickly went south to my gut. Uffft! I had to get out of the hammock. Fast. The hammock zipper was jammed. The bellyful of bad beef stew erupted into diarrhea as I thrashed in the enclosed jungle hammock. Crazed, I tore my way out of the hammock’s mosquito netting. Lightning bolts were arcing into the mangroves. I was covered in mierda. Suddenly, in the strobe of a lightning flash, there was the form of something big crashing toward me in the mangroves. Was it the mythical Everglades Skunk Ape? (I had a vivid imagination). Free from the tangle of the hammock, I ran through the darkness–seemingly for my life–tripping over prop roots and through spider webs. I could see a distant light coming from Long Key State Park. A bathroom in the park was open. Safe! I crawled under the open sink and fell asleep on the floor. When I awoke the next morning the squall had passed. Excrement and mud were still caked on my clothing and skin. I wasn’t alone. I peered out from under the sink. A more civilized camper was watching me, warily, while he shaved and brushed his teeth. I missed home.

Things always look more positive in the light of day and so I continued my little voyage in Cutty Shark. On a sandbar near Sawyer Key, I saw naked people walking along the flats. Ever curious, I jibed to a starboard tack for a better look. A man and a pretty woman, with two young children in tow, greeted me warmly. “You look hungry,” the woman said. I was a 14-year-old boy and she was naked. Of course I was hungry. Sawyer Key is a part of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge but a corner of the island remained private. The couple, sea hippies, had staked out a modest homestead and were living off the land. They had a garden and a few fruit trees with key limes and papaya. I had caught a couple of small barracudas earlier in the day. “Bring your fish and join us for supper,” the woman said. I wish I could remember their names, they were so kind to me. The children ran unattended around the island like baby barbarians. The man, hair to his shoulders and skin tanned brown from the sun, rolled a homegrown smoke. After dinner, we soaked in the warm tidal pools on the rocky shoreline at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t recall discussing any of the momentous news events that were swirling around us in the outside world. We were in a bubble of calm. The woman took my hand softly and said, “You can sleep here tonight.”

I arrived in Key West like so many other wanderers. It was the end of the line. The island was a quiet little fishing village. Green turtle, lamb’s wool sea sponges, and Tortugas pink shrimp were still being harvested in Key West. It was apparent, however, that times were changing. In 1969, the first cruise ship docked at the Navy’s pier in the Truman Annex. Key West was moving toward a tourist-based economy. Traditional Conch houses were being replaced by hotels. Still, I was grateful to have the opportunity to arrive under sail at this unique island. It would eventually become my home. I tacked my little yellow boat into Key West Bight, tossed a line around a piling, and dropped a dime into a payphone. Mom and Dad said they would be happy to drive down to Key West to pick me up. They’d even buy me a lobster dinner at the A & B Lobster House. I was ready to return to school. The ocean would call me back soon enough.

Mom and Dad went on to encourage all of my sailing adventures. They didn’t stand in the way three years later when I left Florida for New England in 18-foot Icarus. A few years after that I was sailing alone across the Atlantic aboard 23-foot Betelgeuse. Among the ship’s stores I found stashed onboard Betelgeuse was a box with dozens of small, individually wrapped gifts. “Open one each day of your passage across the ocean,” said a note from Mom. The wrapped packages contained little treats like chocolate, smoked oysters, and books–something each day to bring a smile and thoughts of a mother’s love.

Our best moments as a family were spent aboard sailboats. In a wonderfully reckless burst of inspiration, Mom and Dad once took all of the kids in our family out of school to sail from Florida to Europe. For a teacher, Mom didn’t always have strict regard for organized schooling. Instead, she taught us the lessons of fully living our lives. Now in their 90s, Mom and Dad are healthy and still fully living their lives. “Who knows,” my Dad said at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, “maybe your Mom and I will meet you aboard Flying Fish later this year to go sailing with you in the Mediterranean.”

Mothers Day card.sm

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* Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open. –William Shakespeare

 

As the coronavirus recedes, and when it becomes safe to travel again, I hope to rejoin Flying Fish where she is moored in Fethiye, Turkey to continue my journey onward. Please subscribe at the bottom of this page and you will be among the first to know when I am back aboard my little ship.

I welcome new readers. Please consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the continuing voyage of Flying Fish.

To see where Flying Fish has sailed since departing Key West in 2017, click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

Instagram: FlyingFishSail
Facebook: Jeffrey Cardenas

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020

 

64 thoughts on “A Mother’s Gift

  1. Thank You Jeff:

    This is a wonderful story beautifully told.

    I was in Key West about that time, along with Tom Corcoran. We were Naval Officers enrolled in the ASW school. Evenings had us at the Bamboo Room listening to Coffee Butler.

    My first trip to key West had been about 1950 with my grandfather to fish.

    Yes, in the mid to late 60’s it was still delightfully quiet.

    I have remained a fisherman all my life and still work the waters today on Long Island sound out of a small skiff near my home.

    I am sure you have no time to read the stories of others but in case you do, here are two from a fan who has your books.

    The first is about coming of age on a boat, like you perhaps. The second is about a time on the Beaverkill River where I served as Riverkeeper for some years. In the second story I tell of being drawn into a diplomatic mission by the late Paul Volcker. I was asked to write that story when he passed away last year.

    Anyway, please keep writing, fishing, connecting and enjoying life

    David Fox

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    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for your comments, David. I look forward to reading your work.
      Key West truly was wonderful a half-century ago, but isolation on the island during this time of coronavirus reminds me that it is still a great place to call home.

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  2. That is without a doubt one of the best things I’ve read in quite a while! I had heard parts of this story before from your family. Amazing to now hear it from you with all the detail and imagery. It’s a fantastic story, beautifully written, and the perfect Mother’s Day gift. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll have these images in my head for days. You made my day Jeffrey!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This post is very emotionally moving for me. It was written from your heart, Obviously!
    Thank You for allowing me to be a very small part of your journey.
    Fair winds my friend.

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  4. Hi Jeffrey—

    That’s a beautiful piece, and, boy, do you have wise parents!

    Hope all is well with you. Marilyn and I are well, still hunkered down in Naples while waiting for NC to open up so we can see some mountains.

    Btw, do you know Carey Winfrey? He’s putting together a collection of stuff by KW writers, to benefit the Elizabeth Bishop House. You should certainly be represented if you have interest.

    Cheers, Larry >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Larry. My parents are so incredibly wise, I wish I had a little more of their DNA.
      I’d love to contribute to the Elizabeth Bishop House. She was a Key West treasure.
      Stay healthy.

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  5. 🌎much love for this beautiful story, for you, your parents and the gift you share with all of us. Fair winds, smooth seas wherever you roam dear Jeffrey.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. IALWAYSTT WONDERED WHAT HAPPENEDT O MY JUNGLE HAMMOCK. A WONDERFUL TRIBUTE TO YOUR MOTHER JEFF. THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR UNENDING LOVE TO MOM AND ME. DAD

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    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautiful story and what great parents. Happy Mother’s Day to your Mom! Glad to hear you will continue your journey aboard Flying Fish. Keep safe and thank you for sharing.
    Byron

    Liked by 1 person

  8. perfect! growing up in the same town (was 9 in 69), it sent me back to all of the crazy things you could do it south Florida duringnthat time – so much to explore. I look forward to your continuing adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great Story, Jeff. I remember the times well. My first boat was a decrepit Old Towne canoe with rotting canvas. My brother and I patched it up so it would float. It also had a lateen sail, leeboards, and a rudder, so I learned to sail it. I was hooked. I was also unhappy with school and longing to get out in the world. I left school and became a US Infantryman. That kept me away from sailing but probably also turned me into an anti-war “liberal”. Who the hell is “pro-war”? In my 20’s I got back to boats, crewing on big keelboats, sailing and owning dinghys, and eventually owning and racing a number of small keelboats of my own. Hope you are safe and sound. I look forward to your next writing, and to follow your continued journey in the Med.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, Being just a couple years older than me brought you into the armed forces while I went sailing. I agree, there is a certain insanity in those who are “pro-war” but I will never forget that those who did and still do defend our country make it possible for us to go sailing. This is a roundabout way of saying thank you for your service.

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  10. Fabulous story Jeffrey. I know you have Amazing parents. It was fun working with them on the Saltwater angler building while termite “Dust” dropped on our heads. Please give them my regards.

    I remember you told another hammock story about kayaking the Everglades and your hammock broke and dumped you. You had to share your friend’s hammock!

    Keep em coming. I love your stories.

    Marilyn

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the Everglades story, too. That friend is Bob Morris, and while he was none too happy to share a night in a small hammock with me in the middle of the swamp, we remain friends to this day 🙂

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  11. This is a beautiful gift, Jeffrey, for all mothers, and I thank you for sharing. It made this dreary, cold, rainy day in NY so much brighter. Glad to know you and your parents are well. Happy Mother’s Day to your mom and safe travels on your next adventure, I’ll be reading along. Be well, Diane

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jeff, this is such a heartwarming passage! How lucky for you to still have your Mom.. And hey, there’s the 14 year old the shy Leanne had a huge crush on! Happiness to you and your Mom on the special day of Mother’s Day! 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Best of the best writer, storyteller and Sailor I know and call friend, dear friend. You make me recall sailing our 18′ sloop out of Hilton Head with Radeen’s Dad. Sun was setting and this was when I learned about sailing into a current. Every tack to starboard pointed our bow towards our little creek and then the flood current would set us way past the inlet and we would tack back out and try again. Dr. Mann, DOC as we called him just smiled and said figure it out, we will get in, we are safe, don’t worry. Well about 5 tacks later we were in the correct position to flood onto the creek and we made it back. Doc, a Navy man crossed the ocean and had many more serious life adventures. He really enjoyed sailing with us. We had just begin our sailing, it was 1982. Thank you for all your amazing stories so well written. I really enjoy your work.
    Hayden….off Grenada

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hayden, you are a wise man to listen to mentors like DOC. Even wiser to have married his daughter! Thank you for all of your enthusiasm for the voyage of Flying Fish and I wish you and Radeen to very best on your return from Grenada to America. You can do this because DOC taught you how.

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  14. Jeff, lovely story of mothers, family and love on the eve of Mother’s Day. As I remember from our early days at UF, you were still off sailing at any and all breaks, writing about it even then. How nice to appreciate that passion still in our ‘middle age.’
    I share it and look forward to many more years of your sailing passion, your prose, and your travels. Perhaps my Gin will join you on the next leg of the FlyingFish.
    Love you, old friend, Vicki

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  15. Hey Jeffery
    What a great read and a wonderful tribute on Mother’s Day. We look back fondly on the time we spent with you in NZ and look forward to sharing your and our future adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The picture of you getting ready to set sail with your mom standing there to say goodbye brought me to tears. Seriously. You were only 14, and yet she trusted you to respect the sea and be safe, not knowing if she would ever see her beloved son again. And 50 years later your parents are still enjoying your sailing adventures! I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, thanks Jean. I didn’t mean to make you cry 🙂 but I have to confess my eyes got wet a few times, too, thinking about that day of departure 50 years ago. Thank you for thinking of my parents and me.

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  17. I remember when you told me this story when I was the guy in charge of finishing the Flying Fish. This motivated me so much I wanted to be a Captain, so I went to captain school! I then looked for any voyage I could get and did. With now thousands of miles at sea I find my self land locked in indiana and longing for the sea. I think of this story from time to time and it motivates me to this day. I am building my 17 foot dory here in indiana and I am going to sail it to Key West! I think of this story so much when I am building my little boat and I can’t wait for the day I follow the footsteps of that young man that braved the keys in 1969. Thx Jeffrey for the continual motivation and the awesome adventures of the Flying Fish! You are a true adventurer!
    Jeffrey Mack

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeffrey I knew the minute I met you that you’d be drawn into the ocean forever. When you complete that dory launch it into the Mississippi River and sail to Key West via the Big Muddy! Thanks again for all of the time and good attitude you put into the building of Flying Fish.

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  18. Jeffrey-

    Thank you for the story, it’s a wonderful Mother’s Day tribute…and I’m glad you were able to write it from home. At some point, after you finish your global trek, I still owe you a low and fast view of The Green Room! Take care my friend, fly safe.

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  19. Great story. As a mom, I feel certain that it took a fair bit of nerve-steadying for her to let you sail away that day. Reminds me of a lullaby my mom used to sing to me: “Sail baby sail, out across the sea–only don’t forget to sail, home again to me.”
    I manage the Facebook page at an NPR affiliate station in Tennessee, where your story has just been posted. Please wish your mom a happy Mother’s Day from all of us at WETS:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello L. Loy,
      I love the lullaby. I had not heard it before. Thank you.
      I also appreciate you reposting Flying Fish at your NPR affiliate. I am grateful for new readers.
      Finally, Happy Mother’s Day to you, too.

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  20. Jeffrey,

    Great story and great writing. You were born with adventure in your bones and the gift of telling it. If you haven’t read Jim Corbett’s books about his hunting the man-eating tigers of India, I think you would get a kick out of them. His first I believe was Man-eaters of Kumaon. And I’m sure you know the work of the recently passed Peter Beard. All to say I see a book in your future (with photos) and hopefully ours.

    Best,
    Steve

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve, thank you. It’s nice to hear from you. I did read Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Unlike modern-day TV “entertainment”, the tigers in Jim Corbett’s books were truly kings of their world. And Peter Beard… amazing. I savored his photographs hung from the walls of the Shagwong Tavern in Montauk. He lived a full life, and somehow it seems especially appropriate that he died “in the field” instead of in a hospital room somewhere.

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  21. Your story touched both Austin & I. What a beautiful tribute to your mom, a tale of adventure, and a disturbing image of being stuck in a sleeping bag with bodily fluids. More posts, please! I laughed & cried.

    PS – it was almost 2 years ago we shared sunset cocktails on your boat in Huahine. Thank you for being part of OUR stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry about the disturbing image of being stuck in the sleeping bag–hahaha. Not something you want to read at mealtime.
      Laughing and crying at the same time is a good thing, Joanna. Thank you for feeling both emotions.
      I’ll never forget those days in Huahine. I mark it as one of the most special anchorages for Flying Fish. Meeting you and Austin there added to it.

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  22. Something tells me you are pretty much at the end of your rope when it comes to this voyage and having to leave your boat… aka known as your child in Turkey…I can not imagine the pain and sadness you are experiencing….if you can, know those of us who love you … and we are many …are cheering and hoping for the out come you are wanting…you are not alone, my friend. We are here for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Maxie: Yes, I am more than ready to return to Flying Fish. It is important to remind myself, however, that my frustration with not being able to travel is meaningless compared to the pain and suffering of so many other people who have felt an economic or personal loss. As I write this, 10 million people have contracted this virus worldwide. More than 500,000 have died of it. Sailing should be the last thing I am thinking about, but we are all only human. Flying Fish represents a sanctuary from all the craziness in the world today.

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  23. I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT HAPPENED TO MY JUNGLE HAMMOCK..A WONDERFUL TRIBUTE TO YOUR MOTHER,JEFF..THANK YOU FOR YOUR UNENDING LOV

    >

    Like

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