So I have a new job now and as with any new job, there is always the typical 3-Month Probationary Period during which I am not allowed to take any time off. It's a test, you see, to see how dedicated I am as a new recruit, but really, I have no problem with it. My new employer closes on major holidays like Thanksgiving, so that was a day without pay that I was obligated to take since it fell during my probationary period.. I was told, however, that it was back to business as usual on the day after Thanksgiving so I didn't make any alternate plans for that day. Several day before Thanksgiving, though, I was sent an e-mail with the news that our office would, in fact, be closed and it would be yet another day without pay. "Okay...no big deal," I thought. My husband, Ty, would be working and I'm wasn't about to get tangled up on the brew-ha-ha that is Black Friday, so I made plans to take the Gheenoe out and practice my navigation skills. It had been several weeks since I had been in it, so this presented a great opportunity to see what I had remembered from my last lesson. The question that followed, though, was who would be my teacher for the day. Like I mentioned earlier, Ty had to work and I just assumed that most of my girlfriends would be getting their Christmas Shopping on so after a few minutes of thought and scrolling through my contact list, I decided to call my friend Albert, who lives in Ozello, and ask him if he would be my co-pilot for the day. He was delighted to take me up on my offer. He's taken me fishing on his little green plywood skiff more times than I can count. Now it would be my turn to chauffer him around for a change. I mentioned my plans to Ty. "Have you checked the tides?", was his immediate question. "You really need a guage for launch time." And, of course, he was right, my plan was just to rely on Albert's knowledge but I also needed to check for my own knowledge. I've just never given tides the power to change my decision to go fishing but as soon as I pulled up my Tide Trac app on my iPhone, I threw my head back, rolled my eyes, and uttered "UGH"! Of course I had chosen a day with negative tides (-29). "Great!", I thought to myself, "Just perfect!" <sarcasm naturally> The last thing I wanted to do was putter around in negative tides...but...I suppose it would be a good learning experience for me and I really wanted to get on the water after a long hiatus so I decided to go for it anyway.
Okay...so it's going to be low tide...so what? I haven't been out on the water in while and I'm not one to be labeled a "fair-weathered-angler". I like adventure as much as the next guy - if it's not gonna kill me and I don't think low-tide is gonna kill me. Might be a little inconvenient, but I'm not going to stress about it, and like I said before, it'll be good practice for me. Unfortunately, one of the other daily factors that I neglected to consider was the wind. I secretly hoped that was going to just drive out there and the wind would be at a minimum and I would say "Thank you, Lord, for the beautiful weather today." But today wasn't one of those days. A quick check on my wind app registered 7 mph at 7:00 a.m. and increasing throughout the day. "UGH" again! One thing I hate most is fishing in the wind. I'll do it, don't get me wrong, but it's no fun and I don't enjoy it. Again, I just have the urge to get out there and throw caution to the wind. I know it's going to beat me up and I know I'm going to be miserable, but hey...at least I'm out there and I'm in control of my route and distance, right? So despite the awful conditions predicted, I still forced myself to stay true to my plans. I'm really stubborn that way.
Like I said before, once I set my mind to doing something, I'm pretty much going to carry it out despite the challenges. In fact, I welcome the challenges, they keep my problem-solving skills sharp and I learn how to develop "Plan B"s from them. Based on my new knowledge of what the tides and wind would be, I knew in advance it wasn't going to be a super pleasant trip but I was bound and determined to get that Gheenoe on the water and practice my launch and navigating skills any time I have a chance to. So I spent the evening going over my check-list so that I didn't forget anything important and then went to bed. Got up the next morning, took care of the last-minute details, like filling the cooler with ice and packing a lunch, and then got on the road heading toward Ozello.
Because I'm still a little uncertain in my ability to navigate Ozello waterways without fear of hitting hidden structure like oyster bars and such, I asked my good friend Albert if he would be willing to go with me on this little adventure. He would be able to warn me in case I strayed a little too far to the left or right. He was happy to oblige and I was glad that he would be my security blanket in case I ran into problems that I didn't know how to solve, so I swung by his house and picked him up and off to the ramp we went. He gave me some great advice as I was staging the boat before launching it. I noticed him really giving my Gheenoe the "once over" as I began to walk back to the ramp from the parking lot.
Albert and I discussed the finer points of gear placement on the gheenoe and he made some really great suggestions, not all of which I'm going to follow through on but some that made good sense like trimming the motor all the way up before putting it in the water. While I was parking the truck, the boat goes somewhat unattended and west-bound winds tend to push the transom toward the shoreline causing the prop to eventually hit bottom as it's pushed toward shallower water, therefore causing it to get stuck in softer mud at times. No bueno, right? As we climbed in, we each gave an extra foot push to get the boat away from shore. The momentum moved us far enough into the deeper water where I was able to lower the motor all the way down and start it with a push of a button (electric start, of course), and after a few seating/comfort adjustments, we were off.
Albert, is blessed. He was raised in Crystal River and his playground as a young boy encompassed the entire perimeter of the Ozello backwaters. He knows every island, creek and mangrove line and could take you just about anywhere with his eyes closed. When he retired from his career as a electronic software engineer in Nashville, he was naturally drawn back to familiar territory where his fondest childhood memories were made and ultimately build his retirement home there. He's often offered to set out a baited pinfish trap for me when he knew that I was planning a kayak fishing trip out his way, but I've never actually taken him up on that offer. This trip would be different, however. Since he would be my co-pilot for the day, I suggested that he set his trap out the night before so that if we got tired of throwing lures, we could switch things up and relax with some live bait on a hook. He was in agreement and so we left the launch site, circled around to his house, tied up to the dock and loaded our bait bucket with a handful of pinfish the he'd trapped the day before.
According to the plan, I was going to be solely responsible for operating the skiff, from running the outboard to the trolling motor and everything else in between, as though I had no passenger at all. Albert was merely going to be present in case I encountered a problem that I couldn't solve and to give navigational advise if needed. I already had a route laid out on my handheld GPS unit so there would be no question as to the distance I would travel and where I was at any given moment. I had done as much pre-planning as I could in order to keep the unexpected to a minimum. Then....while I was getting the bait bucket situated on the Gheenoe and making sure that everything was in it's place, Albert received a phone call from a neighbor. Seems that his buddy had some intel on several schools of redfish that had been spotted not too far from where we were. He made an executive decision to change my plans and so it was.
We headed off in the direction that Albert's friend had suggested. It wasn't a route I was familiar with or prepared to navigate so I had to rely on Albert to point me in the right direction. For that reason he had to sit up near the front and because I couldn't see over him, I had to add the tiller extension and stand up so I could have a good view of my surroundings. He and I worked out a few hand signals so that he could communicate to me like "turn a little to the left" or "slow down some" without constantly turning around to tell me these things. I started off going pretty slow at first, until I felt comfortable and then bumped up the speed slightly. My nervousness began to evolve into confidence.
The calm water by Albert's house was deceptive. The wind was predicted to be coming from the west and his house was situated on the leeward side of an Ozello island so we got a false sense of calmness while we were preparing to get underway. Once we made it out of the cove the wind became a significant challenge to our fishing plans. The breeze started out at 5 mph, which was delightful. As the hours passed, we felt it intensify to 10 and then to 13. Frustration set in. I had a difficult time managing the trolling motor against the opposing current combined with westward winds. We were heading east in search of that elusive school of redfish. Although I had my rod in my hand, ready to cast at any given moment, I held back because I just didn't believe that I could manage a proper retrieve while navigating the trolling motor against wind and tide. If I was going to get any fishing in at all, I would have to anchor down to do it, and that's exactly what I did. Everywhere you go to in Ozello holds great potential. You could anchor down almost anywhere and cast within a foot of an oyster bar or mangrove line. I was ready to do some fishing, even if it were only for a few minutes. I turned to Albert and told him that I was going to anchor down for a few minutes so that he was aware of my plans. As soon as I turned the trolling motor off, the wind and tide began to push me back. I quickly dropped the stick anchor and right away it stopped me from drifting. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt like I just needed to take a break. I threw my line 5-6 times, Albert threw his as well but neither one felt the slightest indication that there were fish around. Frustration set in again but we were past the point of turning around. The tide was still going out and the wind grew even stronger. This became more of a navigational challenge than a fishing trip.
The windier it became, the more anxiety I felt. This trip was supposed to be a routine practice run with maybe a few pointers from Albert about how best to navigate negative tides. It turned into an unplanned lesson in managing battery reserve for the trolling motor staying on course during constant wind gusts. Had I known ahead of time what a disappointing experience I would have, I probably would've never made the trip, my stubborn streak, however, forces me to face these challenges head on just for the satisfaction that I made it through the tough time and I learned something in the process. It was now almost noon and we hadn't caught much of anything. While I had been steering the skiff, Albert managed to hook up on a respectable sized ladyfish that shook itself loose at the boat. That was the pinnacle of our angling expedition. We had made a track in the shape of a semi-circle and it was going to be just as quick to continue on our course back to his house as it would've been to turn around and go back the way we came so the next couple of hours was spent slowly making our way back. Albert offered up some advice about channel markers, we spotted a bald eagle literally hovering over the water for what seemed like forever. I was amazed at how long it hovered in one place for so long, like a humming bird almost. We saw dolphins swim right under the boat, we almost bumped into a manatee and even though we motored past several other boats that were anchored down, we never once witnessed any of the anglers catch any fish. Albert continued to point out familiar landmarks in hopes that I would recognize my surroundings as expertly as he does but alas, I had no idea where we were much of the time. I was just ready to get off the water. The whole experience had worn me out physically and mentally.
Albert turned to me as we were slowly making out way back to the ramp and asked, "How much fuel do you have?" That question crossed my own mind as I was driving to his house that morning and it was then that I became a little concerned about it myself. I hadn't thought to ask my husband about it the day before but was hoping that he wouldn't have let me leave the house without enough fuel to get the gheenoe to the finish line. He's always the one to check that and he hadn't yet taught me how to do it, so I was just going to "hope" that I would have enough fuel to make it out there all day. Worse case scenario, I had my trolling motor as a back-up. Little did I know that I would use much of the stored battery power to get me through opposing wind/current direction so that plan would not have worked out in the long-run. I looked at Albert with a blank stare for a moment and came clean, "You know", I said, "I honestly don't know." He wasn't too happy with that answer. He told me that he should have asked me that question before we had even gotten started and I got a quick lecture on the importance of checking fuel routinely and he was right. It would have to be added to my "list of things to do" when I got home. We stopped the boat and I unscrewed the gas tank. I could see some fuel in the tank but it was almost impossible for me to measure how much was in there. I simply had no reference point to measure it by but Albert was certain we could make it back on what we had. I started up the motor again and we buzzed around some oyster bars heading back in. At one point I cut in a little too close and banged my lower unit on some sort of submerged structure. I turned the motor off again, struggled a bit to raise it out of the water to see if I'd caused any damage (which I hadn't), and then lowered it back down. It was then that I realized I could no longer start the motor. One, two, three tries and nothing! I looked at Albert and said, "Well, I guess I'm outta gas". We weren't that far from the ramp but I know he wouldn't be happy about the news, none the less. He turned and looked at the motor and noticed immediately that something didn't look right. It seems that while I was jostling with raising and lowering the motor a few minutes earlier, I had inadvertently disconnected the fuel line. He was a good coach and talked me through identifying the fuel line and how to connect it back to the motor. Lo and behold, it started right up! Big smile on my face and a sigh of relief. I'm not one to shy away from adventure but I'd had about all I could take on this one! I made a bee-line straight to the ramp, and for once was actually happy to get off the water. Albert helped me load the boat back on the trailer, I dropped him off at his house and was so grateful that I had made it through the day without disaster. It had not been a fun day, but it was one filled with good lessons that I learned and won't soon forget.