The anchor and chain are stashed in the locker, the mainsail is up and trimmed tight, and the large genoa sail is folded on deck, ready to go. On a cloudless Saturday morning during the first week in May, the temperature hangs in the low eighties. A gentle breeze fills in from the northwest, excellent for sailing.
After five days of rest and recuperation at the office, this weekend warrior is back on the water. Alone in the cockpit, I motor-sail the trimaran out the channel into the Gulf of Mexico, shut off the engine, and hoist the genoa sharply. I grab the helm again and turn the bow off the wind. The warm air rushes through the slot between the sails and lifts the boat across the water.
On days like this, one of my dear fantasies kicks in. Sell the house, the furniture, the Ford Ranchero, and quit my job so I can broaden my horizons beyond Florida's Suncoast and sail away to the Caribbean. But I can't quite make the break.
It's a slow Friday at work so I slip out early, stop by the house to change into casual attire, then drive south to the causeway. The wind funnels around the pillars of condo towers and ripples the surface of Boca Ciega Bay. A dozen small sailboats are racing, jockeying toward the favored end of the starting line. If the weather is like this tomorrow, I'm going sailing again.
One more bridge to cross and I'll be on time for the dinner party. Up ahead, horns begin blaring and yellow caution lights flash. The gates come down across both lanes and the iron grate roadway of the bascule bridge rises over the Intracoastal Waterway. The cars in front of me slow to a stop.
Stuck in traffic, I turn the radio on hoping to hear a favorite tune. Instead, a news broadcaster blabbers about First Lady Nancy Reagan's new "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign. Another station replays some asinine commercial about the new improved something or other. That's enough. I switch it back off.
It doesn't seem fair that ten or more cars have to wait on both sides of the bridge for one sailboat to pass, especially during the Friday afternoon rush hour. Whenever this topic comes up at the sailing squadron, the old-timers remind us that the waterway was there long before the road.
The city of St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast of Florida is surrounded on three sides by water and has more than its share of bridges. All along the waterfront, marinas and yacht clubs cater to the needs of an oversized boating community. Members of our sailing club have visited every yacht club and squadron in the bay area, most often to compete in a regatta.
On the far south side of the city, not too long ago, only Mother Nature lived on the mangrove barrier islands. Today in that same area, called Tierra Verde, multistory dwellings are being built several feet above sea level along dredged canals. The newest structures have living spaces above the ground floor in preparation for the inevitable high water. Two of my sailing friends, Ted and his wife Joni, prefer the community because the canals provide access to the Gulf and to Tampa Bay without being blocked in by bridges.
The gates go up, and the traffic rushes across the bridge into the neighborhood. A sneaky cop in an unmarked vehicle selects my ugly Ranchero for some crazy reason and pulls me over.
"In a hurry?" asks the officer standing at the window.
"Yes, sir." With my driver's license and vehicle registration card ready, I hand 'em over for inspection.
Now I'm definitely late for dinner.
The officer lowers his sunglasses and reads my name on the license. "Is it pronounced Frick or Frickey?"
"It rhymes with tricky." Call me whatever you want, just hurry up. "But some of my old friends call me Frick."
"Okay, Mr. Fricke. I'm giving you a warning today." He hands my IDs back. "Keep it under thirty-five on this side of the bridge."
Whew! Got lucky.
Parked at the curb in front of the house, I get out carrying a full six-pack. Most other days, one of the bottles would have already been opened. On the front porch, Ted is waiting in the doorway. At six-four, the older man stands about a head taller than me and could easily crush some bones with a firm handshake. He doesn't and probably never would.
"I'm a little late. Got stopped at the bridge and a cop pulled me over for speeding."
Ted glances at the old Ranchero. "Damn, I should have warned you about the speed trap."
"Lucky me, it was just a warning ticket."
"Good, come on in."
Once inside the double wooden doors and through the foyer, we enter a vaulted living space two stories tall. The ceiling slants toward the far wall of windows which offers a view of the canal. Artwork acquired during a visit to the American Southwest graces the walls and shelves. Handwoven Navajo rugs and blankets are scattered about.
When Joni sees us, she shuts off the faucet and dries her hands. She greets me with her usual sisterly hug and takes the six-pack. "There's still two cold ones in the fridge from the last time."
"I'll trade you for one of 'em."
Fesser, their pet cockatiel, takes off and flies around the vaulted room. A much larger bird they call Sugar—a white, sulphur-crested cockatoo—screeches from its cage. It's probably jealous of Fesser whose wings aren't clipped. Whatever, Joni pulls the cover over the cage and the piercing cries stop.
"That bird could live another forty years." Her tone sounds like a complaint, but it's no secret, Joni loves her pets. She’s the outdoorsy type and watches for hours sometimes to get the perfect zoomed-in photo of a feathered friend in Fort De Soto Park. In the heat of the day, she’ll tuck her chestnut brown hair under a wide-brim sun hat, but I’ve never seen her tie it in a ponytail.
Ted picks up his drink and walks away. "There's a cockatoo over fifty years old up north in a Chicago zoo."
As we follow Ted into the living room, Fesser the cockatiel lands on Joni's shoulder.
Being a handyman, Ted recently built a saltwater aquarium in one of the living room walls so that it can be viewed from two sides. He ran the wiring and plumbing, cleverly hidden in the wall, through the floorboards into his workshop on the lower level, which is stocked with every imaginable household tool.
Colorful tropical fish brought back from dive trips to the Florida Keys normally fill the aquarium, but this time the tank appears empty until something slithers slowly up the glass. The creature blends perfectly with its surroundings, making it hard to identify, but then a row of light-colored suckers on the underside of a coiled tentacle gives it away.
"You've got an octopus!"
"Yeah, kinda hard to see, isn't he?" Joni rubs her hand on the glass. "We named him Penner, our friendly little octopus vulgaris."
Ted slides the heavy top of the tank off to the side. "We found him on a dive trip out in the Gulf. Actually, he found us. Go ahead, put your hand in the tank."
Yeah, right. Each tentacle is about the same thickness as my forefinger but much longer. Joni offers no encouragement, no warning. She just smiles. Fesser the cockatiel bobs his head back and forth.
"I might put my hand in there after you demonstrate how it's done."
"Okay, watch." Ted lowers his right hand into the tank and the octopus curls one of its tentacles around a finger. The creature reaches for another finger, but as Ted slowly raises his hand out of the water, the octopus releases its grip.
"Put your hand in so you can feel its strength," says Ted. "And don't jerk it out because you could rip off some of its suckers."
I place my empty beer bottle on the shelf, lift my arm, and dip my hand in the saltwater. The little octopus holds tight to the side of the tank with six or seven tentacles, wraps another one around my finger, and squeezes. Following Ted's lead, I pull my hand away slowly and overpower little Penner.
"He sure has a strong grip. Let's hope we never have to tangle with his big brother in the wild." I wipe my hand on the seat of my pants, retrieve the beer bottle, and point toward the tank. "It's clever the way you built it into the wall."
"Thanks." Ted slides the top back on the aquarium and places a brick in the middle to secure it. "I'll show you the filtering system later."
Joni leads the way back to the kitchen past the windows facing the canal. A snowy egret stands steadfast on the seawall staring into the water, feathers reflecting pink from the red sky at sunset.
"Where's your sailboat?"
"We sold it." Ted swirls the ice cubes in his glass. "We're having a new one built in southern England."
"You're kidding me."
Joni fills her glass and freshens Ted's drink. She pulls the other cold bottle of Beck's from the fridge and hands it to me. An itchy sensation lingers in my finger. Must be octopus withdrawals. We join Ted at the counter which separates the kitchen from the living room.
"Why did you decide to have the boat built in England?"
"We selected a design by John Shuttleworth, who lives on the Isle of Wight," says Ted. "He recommended a builder close by, so he could supervise the construction and check on the progress."
Well-known in the world of offshore multihulled sailboats, Shuttleworth routinely publishes articles in Multihulls Magazine discussing the benefits of a well-designed catamaran while sometimes referring to his boat building plans.
"Good move. I've read several sailing articles by Shuttleworth. He's definitely ahead of the competition."
Ted clears his throat. "It's a catamaran, a Spectrum-42 design."
Wow! Adding a Shuttleworth catamaran to the club fleet will be exciting news for the members. Before I can say anything, Joni launches Fesser off her finger and turns toward me.
"Plus, during construction Ted and I can do some sightseeing in southern England and visit the boatyard all in one trip."
"The deciding factor, though, was the favorable exchange rate." Ted takes a sip of his drink. "The dollar is much stronger in Europe these days."
What would I say if they asked me to help with the delivery?
Fesser finishes another flight around the room and lands on the back of an empty bar stool. Ted whistles a melody and the bird repeats it almost exactly. Joni looks amused then Ted continues talking about the boat deal. All the while, I keep wondering what it would be like to sail from England to Florida. The cockatiel easily makes the jump to Ted's shoulder.
Turning on my stool, I glance at the bird, then at Ted. "Are you gonna sail it across or have it delivered?"
"I planned to have it delivered but Joni keeps talking about sailing it across ourselves."
I have dreamed of sailing west from St. Pete straight across the Gulf to Corpus Christi, Texas or maybe heading south into the Caribbean, but not across the ocean. The biggest hurdle has been finding a compatible mix of experienced crew. Sailing with Ted and Joni on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in their boat or mine, has always been a delight—compatibility being the least of our concerns.
"That's right." Joni looks excited and very serious. "We could sail it back if you'd go with us."
Opportunity of a lifetime.
Can't be. Opportunity doesn't knock twice.
After enjoying another one of Joni's baked fish dinners with steamed veggies, we sit around the dining room table and talk for hours. Are we really thinking about sailing across the ocean?