In the dark, our crew of six bobbed like stray lobster pot markers in a five-foot swell a half mile off the shore of the barrier island where we camped. The waves were whipped up by a strong wind moving westward along the Straits of Florida, 90 miles north of the Cuban shoreline. We wore masks and fins, and carried diving lights but the wind and strong current stirred the sand along the reef and cut visibility underwater to about a foot. Nearby, the Polynesian-style war canoe we'd muscled out from its mooring rolled in the waves. To the east, a thunderstorm rumbled toward us and lightning lit the foaming horizon. No sharks...yet.
A more unlikely scenario for this keyboard jockey to find himself in would be difficult to concoct. Yet there I was, wave-tossed and in something approaching peril at sea - and by my own choice at that.
Last week, a group of seven scouts and five adult leaders (including my son, my nephew and me) flew to Ft. Lauderdale, rode the 170 or so miles to Summerland Key (about 25 miles up Route 1 from Key West) in a rented van, and the next morning rowed five and half miles out to an "out island." Big Munson Island has no running water and no electricity - just 100 acres of high hardwood hammock fringed in lush mangroves, beribboned on its south coast with thin strands of sand strewn with rotting sargassum.
We packed light, under the watchful eye of our island mate - one of the intrepid college students who work summers guiding teens and their dads through Scouting's "high adventure" programs in the Florida Keys. A couple of t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a bathing suit, sunscreen, sandals, a broad hat, and a water bottle were the basics. No towels, no soap, no rain gear, and no electronics of any kind outside of a camera. I managed to get a small camp pillow, a novel, reading light, a lightweight hammock and my pocket journal into the dry bag before we shoved off.
Primitive as can be, and that's the idea: tents on the sand, just inside the treeline from the beach. A chuckbox with some freeze-dried and canned provisions - we added fresh fish to that menu via rod and reel. An open fire pit, a canvas rain fly, and big jugs of fresh water the boys retrieved from the floating docks, a couple of hundred yards from shore. Primitive, but controlled. The program was both intense and well-planned, keyed to several real physical challenges over the course of five days - the long pull in the war canoes, deep-sea fishing through six-foot swells in 22-foot open boats, diving for spiny lobsters, kayaking through the inland mangrove maze, night-time fishing for sharks from the floating docks - docks we then had to wade back to shore from through the very chum we'd salted the water with in anticipation of dorsal fins we couldn't see. A brilliant day spent snorkeling on the gorgeous Looe Key, a brilliant coral reef that is the third most dived site in the world.
And the night snorkeling trip to Munson Rocks - where we tilted on the edge of panic, but still made it back to the canoes as a group, and raced the storm for shore.
There were two sides to the out island challenge for me - the mental challenge of going off the grid and dealing with some my fears (lightning, sharks, heart attack), and the physical challenge of getting into good enough shape to get through the program without letting down the side. As it turned out, dewiring this blogging brain was the easiest part; the grid sailed on without me, and I suspect was better for my absence. I know I was. Time became something governed almost entirely by the sun. Activities and planning reported to their natural nautical superiors, weather and tide. And I just gave in entirely, within hours of setting off from shore.
In some ways, the physical part was the most rewarding, especially for this typically hypochondriacal New Yorker in his middle years. The limits are farther out than I thought - in some cases, much further indeed. The combination of pushing past the normal physical limits of laptop calisthenics while facing down some potentially dangerous but exhilarating situations was an absolute tonic.
And it was great to see our crew pull together. On the final day, we packed our gear and waded out to the canoes. The wind was strong once again, and the seas out by the reef ran pretty high. Already filled with water from the rain storms, the twin hulls took on more water. As we tried to come about and paddle in front of the current, a large wave swamped the war canoe. Suddenly we were sinking, our gear bags floating away, a few hundred yards from shore.
Yet there was no panic, no screaming, hardly any real alarm. For an hour, we treaded water and worked with the guys in the outboard skiff to figure out how to refloat the canoes. We worked as a team. And eventually, the canoes were bailed and floated again. We were exhausted, but there was no easy tow back to the scout base on Summerland Key. No, we paddled back, five long miles, shoulders and arms screaming silently, drenched to the skin and sun-burned, singing songs about the Titanic.
The grid could wait a couple hours more.