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, and 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 quickly 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 fast tow to a nearby sailboat named perseverance followed. I gave my business card to my newfound friends and told them to get help.
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 boat (really a gift from perseverance) since their eight-foot hard-bottomed inflatable worked.
The responsibility of returning my client to the Flamingo Lodge, where his wife and kids were waiting, weighed heavily 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 minuscule 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 still more significant 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 essential 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 boat, 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 rung him with some good news – they would be able to come to 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 on time, but I had met an adverse situation head-on and persevered through it.
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 it.
I learned something that night that only specific 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, and it has given me more confidence and clarity. A determination was my destiny that night. It had chosen me, and, with the help of others, it had seen me through the night.
By Capt. Ariel Cabrera