Tuesday, October 25, 2005

First boats and heavy cross - South Padre Island

Back when I was about nine years old, I was seated at my regular stool in the Tradewinds Bar & Lounge, nursing a Coke while my dad visited with friends. A fifteen-foot wooden motorboat had inflicted itself upon us, the first boat in our family since my dad had suffered a massive heart attack back when I was a toddler. He and his buddies were trying to think of a name for the boat, but weren't having too much success; their latest proposal was "Peanut" (maybe named for the bar appetizers?).

"Good Grief!" I exclaimed... and then was more than a little embarrassed when that became the boat's name. We used that boat on and off the explore the Laguna Madre behind South Padre Island for the next couple of years and for my dad to stock the freezer at our beach trailer with speckled trout, redfish, and flounder. However, none of us in the family were mechanical whizzes or well-versed in the art and craft of boat maintenance, so Good Grief slowly decayed and came to grief, sinking in shallow water by the Palm Bay fishing pier.

The island then was reached via a swing barge bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and then a mile-long causeway. The causeway was still a fresh memory to old-timers on the island, who could remember traveling by Colley's ferry to an almost-deserted South Padre Island consisting of little more than the Coast Guard station and some fishermen's shacks. Business expanded apace after the causeway's construction and the island became a popular vacation destination, but even then very few people lived year-round on the island. Not until I was a teen did the first tall condominiums begin to be built, prompting some wag to pin a picture of Miami Beach with the hand-printed legend "Padre Island 2000" to a wall at the Tradewinds.

The island had a relaxed atmosphere; residents joked about contracting "Padre Island Paralysis" and were more friendly, tolerant, and hospitable than folks would have been on the mainland. The county park that was our second home had a large section of "permanent" mobile homes with some full-time residents mixed among part-timers such as our family and a good mix of retirees, families, and others. Park residents were friendly, with people visiting each other for parties or card games or general gossip. The island was a place where I was free to roam and explore, to take chances, meet people on my own, and have the sort of independent, free-booting adventures that may be almost unknown to today's suburban youth.

This was about the time that boats became more a part of my life. We'd been a boatless family since my dad's heart attack when I was about three years old; encounters afloat were rare. I have a vague memory of perhaps being on a catamaran with my uncle and visiting a freighter in Port Brownsville with my parents, and a better memory of the time when we got word that a family friend, Otis Sullivan, and people with him had gotten stranded on a fishing boat. That was the first time I boarded a coast guard cutter and I got to be a very unofficial part of a rescue party. (No doubt the rules were more relaxed and flexible back then to allow me on board!)

Of course, other boats came and went in my young life. I had first become fascinated with watercraft after hanging around with an interesting older couple (growing up, it seemed that many of my friends were at least several times my age), Chuck and Nancy Crane, who like me enjoyed beachcombing for seashells and interesting odds and ends. They also traveled extensively into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, spending several months each year on Isla Holbox with their island friends. Perhaps the first boat ride I ever remembered clearly was on their little aluminum skiff, "Chautauqua". I still remember the many stories they told of their forays into the Yucatan and would later enjoy exploring that part of the world.

Grief in our family was placed by a plastic-and-fiberglass Sears Gamefisher, a tweleve-foot, open boat, which, unfortunately, had exposed fiberglass strands that would break off and irritate my skin. I think my dad also got tired of the boat, because by the time I was in high school as a sophomore, we were looking for a replacement. Soon, we found a newspaper ad for a boat 150 miles away in Corpus Christi, Texas, were driving north to look at the boat, and getting a test ride in a small pond. There, the seventeen-or-so-foot center-console fiberglass boat achieved speeds of 35 or 40 mph, quite impressive compared to what we'd had before. So, we bought and named "Pez Vela" (sailfish), and that remained our family's boat until it was time for me to attend college and my dad again wanted something easier to handle and maintain.

About this time I sailed for the first time, sailing a couple of times on Jack & Kitty Locker's 35-foot sloop, "Traipsing", sailing out of the Sea Ranch Marina. Mostly I was just a passenger, though once I got to hold the boat into the wind while Jack wrestled with a stubborn genoa furler and got his eyeglasses knocked into the drink by the flogging sail; then I wound up having to handle the boat a bit longer than expected. I also supplemented my allowance by cleaning and taking care of a thirty-foot cabin cruiser occasionally for a Brownsville insurance broker, and, later, by working as a deckhand on the Colley family's bay fishing boats. Some folks we knew through St. Andrew's church were sailors, but I never happened to go out with them, so my life as a sailor remained in the distant future.

A Heavy Cross to Bear:

Around my thirteenth year or so, my mom and I started attending St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, in Port Isabel just several miles from where we spent most of our weekends and summers. I became an "acolyte", which was similar to being an alter boy (or nowadays alter girl or alter server) in Roman Catholic churches. The church was a small mission church near a resort area, so the number of worshippers in attendance at services was quite variable. Sometimes, especially for the major religious occasions, we might have a hundred or more people and would have an organized procession to initiate the services, but other times only a third that number, and often I was the only acolyte. If nothing else, the position reinforced my counting skills, as I became very skilled at counting or estimating the size of the congregation so the priest would know how much wine and host (wafers of unleavened bread) to consecrate. This was important, because if too much of the Holy elements had been consecrated, the priest and I would have to finish them off before the end of the communion service. Other acolyte jobs in this small church were perhaps a bit unusual, such as climbing a twentyfour-foot ladder to change light bulbs.

The Texas International Fishing Tournament, or "TIFT", was the biggest event of the year for area anglers. Boats of all sizes would converge upon South Padre and Port Isabel as seven hundred or so people would compete for trophies in a myriad of divisions. The fishing competition commenced immediately after the "Blessing of the Fleet", which was performed by a local cleric from the bow of a small Coast Guard cutter. Each year the duty was rotated among the ministers and priests of local churches.

Thus it came to be early one morning that I was holding a heavy brass cross upon its wooden staff, wearing red robes, and preparing to board a thirty-foot cutter the year it was St. Andrew's turn. Even in the early-morning calm of the harbor, maneuvering the cross to the open bow was a bit tricky. As the boat moved out into the area where the tournament fleet was assembled, keeping good footing became even more of a job; the cutter was maneuvering in and out and among the big fleet of perhaps a hundred boats. All sorts were present, from little twelve-foot fishing skiffs for fishing in the protected waters of the Laguna Madre to gleaming forty- to sixty- foot millionaire's yachts.

At last the ceremony of blessing was completed, and the cutter led the way into the choppier waters of Brazos Santiago Pass ("Arms of St. James") and now I really had to work on my balance to keep Cross and Self aboard. At least the chore was offset by the delight of seeing the early morning sun rising above the entrance to the Gulf, lighting sandy beaches and bringing the huge fleet of rumbling boats into focus.

Then things became a bit more interesting. With the open Gulf in sight, most of a hundred skippers decided, as one, to shove their throttles all the way forward. The channel rapidly became a boiling cauldron, with boat wakes crossing and criss-crossing each other in a confushed agitated mass, and our ride on the exposed bow of the cutter turning into something more like bareback bronco riding in the wildly confused chop and heave. Gyrating boat, swinging cross, flapping robes and all, I somehow managed to dance on the heaving deck and keep my footing. The experience was memorable, the views were magnificent, and getting back on solid land felt pretty darn good.


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