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By Capt. Ariel Cabrera
All of us experience things in our lives we would rather avoid, whether it
requires personal sacrifice, suffering, or an act of humility. Eventually each
of us is confronted with a choice in which we either face up to the challenge
and persevere through it, or slowly succumb to the darkness. Only then are we
able to look back and discover that had things not occurred in just a certain
way, the whole situation might have been much worse. A guide's worst nightmare
is not failing to produce fish for his customers, it's encountering engine
trouble and breaking down in the middle of a charter. It happened to me in one
of Florida's most remote places - Shark River, Everglades National Park.
It was about 1:00 p.m. when the connecting rod on my outboard unexpectedly came
loose, puncturing my engine's oil reserve and leaving us stranded. We had just
barely made the entrance to Little Shark River. A malfunction that was beyond
my control had occurred and I had to remedy a situation that could easily turn
fatal. I found myself more angry than concerned, questioning why this seemingly
random breakdown had happened to me! I later realized that sometimes the ones
who teach and guide others are taken to school themselves.
I immediately waved down the first boat that passed and asked for assistance.
It was a fast bass boat and the two gentlemen on board quickly responded to my
request for motor oil. After a quick dipstick check the skipper and I both knew
the engine was seized. A quick tow to a nearby sailboat named Perseverance
followed. I gave my business card to my newfound friends and told them to get
My client, Woodford Mooers from Mahwah, New York, felt relieved to go aboard
the Rochester-based sailing vessel (which spends six months a year at sea) and
call for assistance through VHF radio and a cellular phone. Even with the high
mast antennae Perseverance afforded us no communication. Myself and sailors R.
Paul and Rigmor Miller tried all means possible to reach anyone, but the only
relief Woodford got was from two malt beverages and the freshly-made sandwiches
Rigmor prepared. Within minutes I decided to take R. Paul Miller's offer to use
their dinghy. It was a fair trade for my skiff (really a gift from
Perseverance) since their eight-foot hard-bottomed inflatable actually worked.
The responsibility of returning my client to the Flamingo Lodge, where his wife
and kids were waiting, weighed heavy on my mind. How was I going to get Woody
to safe harbor before dusk? I prayed for something Whitewater Bay is simply not
known for - calm. Woody and I were about to traverse the vast Everglades in a
miniscule inflatable susceptible to being punctured, swamped, and sunk when I
needed to fly.
Once R. Paul Miller lowered the eight horse-powered dinghy, Woody and I boarded
with my commercial gear, water, and communication devices. I felt an
overwhelming pang of humility and regret leaving my incapacitated skiff behind,
but my immediate concern was getting my client back home. Keeping a pace of
about three knots in the cramped vessel, our journey back to Flamingo Marina
was a long one. We waved down all the boats that crossed our path and I handed
out my business cards. Woody dubbed this "leaving bread crumbs."
Almost three hours later we finally contacted the National Park Service via
cellular phone and a boat was immediately dispatched. The Service boat arrived
soon after and I told Woody he should go with the authorized National Park
Volunteer and that I would wait for another ride. He took with him the lucky
fly that had landed him a seven-pound snook that day. After securing Woody's
safety, I had a moment to reflect on the fact that throughout our harrowing
expedition back to base, not a single powerboat we encountered was willing to
sacrifice some time to speed up our return journey. Folks, a chance to save
someone is always a golden opportunity - never let that chance pass you by. You
must take action! The rewards are always greater than the risks involved.
Only the prop wash trailing from the rescuer's boat remained in my company, but
within minutes someone else arrived to assist me. Marvin Montgomery and his
friend gave me a lift back to the dock in their 20-foot skiff. We glided along
comfortably with the inflatable in tow.
I arrived at the Flamingo Marina at dusk. I was tired and frustrated, but I
knew it was important to return the borrowed vessel quickly to Perseverance
because they were planning to sail the next day and I didn't want to delay
them. I then realized my mistake - I had left my car keys stowed in my skiff,
which was about 25 miles away. I had no means of ground transportation away
from the lodge and the only resource I had was the telephone. I made scores of
calls and visits to the Marina Office and the night dragged on longer, darker,
and grimmer than a ghost on Halloween night. My exhausted body almost gave in
to the offering of a Lodge room, but my unrelenting soul would help me
persevere through the night.
I continued to ask for assistance. I contacted everyone and anyone who could be
reached. Eventually my efforts paid off. I received a call from my mechanic
(who was at the time hospitalized). His friend had rang him with some good news
- they would be able to come pick me up, tow the dinghy to the sailboat, and
salvage my skiff that very evening. I was re-energized with the information and
was grateful to my friend, but fate had another ending in mind.
Pier Milito, a fellow guide who has a USCG Master license with a towing
endorsement, was at the ramp. He had just completed a chartered trip and was
getting ready to load his trailer and head for home. I quickly briefed Capt.
Pier on my predicament and there was no hesitation on his part. We searched
desperately for a spotlight or flashlight but neither was available. Pier and I
were hopeful and confident even in the darkness that perseverance would guide
us safely beneath the dim evening stars. Would the cold and dark night see us
through on a journey to the light of day? Would we ride to find the sun when
the night is overcome?
Navigating at night through the tight "S" turns of the mangroves with no moon
and low visibility requires local knowledge, experience, confidence, and a
glance every few moments at the Garmin 182C screen to confirm that the
navigation path you have chosen is the right one. As we rode along our course,
Joe River, Pier said to me, "In life I have done and will always do the right
thing." The last time I saw Pier, he confided, "Helping you that night was the
right thing. Under no circumstances was I not going to help you or even allow
you to pay me for my help."
The crew of the Perseverance never expected us back so soon. I returned the
dinghy and set about repairing my blown engine. It was almost daylight when
Pier and I made it back to the marina. I felt a strong sense of accomplishment:
Not only had I produced fish for my client and returned him safely to dock in a
timely manner, but I had met an adverse situation head on and persevered
I offered Pier a room at the Flamingo Lodge but he declined. He too chose to
persevere through the night and would return just a few hours later the next
morning for another charter. I thought about Perseverance and her crew for
several days after our encounter. I called them a few weeks later. They were
moored in Palm Beach with a sailboat called Ariel - I have the picture to prove
I learned something that night that only certain experiences can teach you. I
learned that success is something that requires patience and calm; it means not
giving up. My brush with Perseverance has made me a better captain, it has
given me more confidence and clarity. Perseverance was my destiny that night.
It had chosen me, and, with the help of others, it had seen me through the