After writing about Bimini recently, the story opened more memories of how much I enjoyed my many trips there over eight years of the 1960s.
Part of the fun was just getting there–which, at that time, was a real adventure for me. After I became the first mate of Ebbie’s new 38-foot sports fisherman, the Miss Katie, the two of us would start the long trip south, usually at daylight on a Saturday in early March.
We started from a marina in Jacksonville Beach. When the weather was good and the ocean calm, we would run offshore following the coastline. We could make much better time that way. If the open ocean was too rough, we would travel the Intracoastal Waterway–commonly known as “the Ditch.” We always tried to make it to Vero Beach on the first day. There was a good restaurant there–“The Driftwood.”
With good luck and good weather, the next day would get us to Fort Lauderdale and Pier 66, a large hotel-marina complex on the Waterway. Some years, we would leave the Miss Katie there until we could come back and have more time to make the crossing to Bimini.
That crossing was the tricky part. This was before GPS, so the course east would be followed using the boat’s compass.
The “interesting” part was that Bimini is only a few miles long, but fifty miles away. Crossing the Gulf Stream, which flows north at about four knots an hour, was a place you did not want to find yourself in bad weather. The current flowing north, working with the wave action, could push a boat our size way off course. Even with the best compass and automatic pilot we still had to make adjustments. That’s when what’s called “dead reckoning” was put to use. You didn’t take your eyes off the compass for long and were constantly steering just a bit south of your course to compensate.
After the Miss Katie was safely at the dock, I would come and go for visits–a long weekend or a week or two at a time–all summer long. One of the first times I was returning from Bimini after a visit, I flew Chalk’s International Airlines to Miami. Arthur (Pappy) Chalk had started his small airways business in 1917, and the company flew to and from Miami and the Bahamas for eight decades.
When I first flew Chalk’s, they were flying Grumman Mallards–a flying boat. They were manufactured from 1947 to 1951, so the planes being flown by Chalk’s were already twenty years old in the mid-sixties. They are still being flown today. They are a wing-over plane with twin-prop engines mounted high on the wings and close to the fuselage. They could take off and land on a runway, but, with retractable wheels, more often than not, they landed in water.
I had seen them take off and land in the waters of Bimini Harbor many times. After landing, the plane would head for the passenger ramp as it lowered its wheels; then, using its strong engines, would roll up the ramp and out of the water. I flew Chalk’s many times over the years, but I still remember that first flight very well.
The passengers boarded by climbing a set of removable steps to a door positioned high on the fuselage, so it would be above water on landing. There were twelve seats–a row of two seats on one side of the aisle and one of single seats on the other side. At that time, the seats were still wicker. They had seat belts, but I wondered how much good they could do a passenger when seated in a wicker chair. There were two pilots and they were always young.
Once the door was closed, the cabin quickly became an oven. The port engine started with a great roar and a puff of smoke. The starboard engine, near where I was, sputtered and the propeller made a couple of turns, but did not start. A couple of more sputtering attempts and the copilot came down the aisle, reached behind the last seat, and pulled out a wooden Coca-Cola crate. The steps were brought back, but the port engine was not shut down. When the door was opened, the cabin received a welcome gush of fresh air.
I watched with great curiosity as the copilot placed the Coke crate under the stubborn engine, stood on it and opened a small hatch on the engine cowling. He then produced a long screw driver I had not noticed. He stuck the screwdriver in the hatch, then turned his face away, and pushed the screwdriver further into the engine compartment. Sparks showered down his arm followed by blue smoke. He then removed the screwdriver, closed the hatch, re-entered the plane, returned the Coke crate and, without a word, went to his seat.
The engine started, and we were soon rolling down the ramp to the water. With wheels up, we lumbered through the clear water–then off into the sky.
Naturally, being young and foolish, I loved every minute of it.
Don’t stop now–keep those masks on!