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.
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.”
* 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.
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To see where Flying Fish has sailed since departing Key West in 2017, click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020