Take Me With You

Thinking about blowing major cash at the boat show this week? There is a cheaper way.

I'd thought it was obvious: The boat friend is selfless.

You can call on him anytime — like an aquatic fireman.

When summoned, he will arrive in a boat full of women and, also, beer. And maybe even a few hot dogs. And some fishing poles. And one of those electronic fish-finders, so you don't have to putz around all afternoon like a pair of jerks.

Jessica Hische
Jessica Hische

The boat friend is not a new concept. It began in Miami-Dade County with a hard-working seventeenth century Tequesta Indian. While fellow tribesmen had a grand old time hunting and gathering, this guy (let's call him Frank) was off in a corner, fashioning a canoe out of mud and a tree trunk.

When Frank finally finished, he had a big party and announced that anyone in the tribe could borrow his boat, any time. The Tequestas were so pleased with Frank, they ritually sacrificed him.

Several months passed before I returned to the Venetian Islands with a new strategy. Dressed in a blue blazer (think nautical) and legitimate pants, I vowed to show potential friends I was serious. But the islanders would have none of it.

"What?" shouted one old man. "You want a boat?"

"No," his wife hollered to him as she unloaded groceries from the trunk of a large silver Cadillac. "He wants a friend."

"What?" he added.

I skulked across the lawns of San Marino Island, knocking here, ringing there. At one point, I came upon an Englishman hailing a taxi for some weekend guests. He said that he owned a boat but that he didn't think it would be big enough for my article.

"It's really just a little speedboat," he replied, ushering his guests away from me and into the waiting cab. "It's not a proper boat."

Neighborhood Watch signs and an increasing ratio of unanswered doors led me to wonder if I had set off a phone tree.

Then I found Dale Hightower. It was a fluke, a whim. By the time I wandered up to his towering, beige mansion, the sun had set, and hope seemed entirely lost.

His call box shrieked at the push of a button.

The massive gates opened wide onto a long, intricately paved driveway, which held a pair of Mercedes 500s, black and maroon, and a Ford Expedition.

A pretty Vietnamese woman, clutching a baby boy, opened the door. "Dale!" she shouted over her shoulder. "There's somebody here to talk about boats."

The ceilings hung fifteen feet above the black-and-white marble floors. A life-size, musket-wielding, plasticine pirate leered at me from the corner. Ernest Hemingway's image hung along the walls, on maps, and in homemade collages.

Dale Hightower wandered in looking like the mayor of Margaritaville: broad-shouldered, six feet two inches tall, bearded, and clad in a blousy pink Hawaiian shirt and sandals.

His trusty dog, Pete, stood watch from the steps behind him.

Dale made things simple. There were two types of people in the world, he said: boat people and land people.

"Land people are I don't want to say ömean' ..."

"Guarded?" I suggested.

"Exactly," he said, clapping his hands together.

Boat people will share their wine and food. They will yell hello from 30 feet away. They are the salt of the earth, Dale explained.

Unfortunately life had saddled him with a corporate law firm and millions of dollars. Some day, he just wanted to cut loose and set sail. The world had been good to him, he said, describing himself as a boat person trapped in a land person's body.

"It blows my fucking mind how we all live in this box, and boat people totally reject that. We're taught to go to college, get married, have two kids and that's it," he said. "You're in fucking prison. I can't tell you what it's like to live in a marina on your boat." Dale approximated the experience as "the opposite of prison."

Dale invited me to go on an aquatic bender with him to Boca Chita Key. I agreed and we parted with plans to meet the next morning.

Dale was up early, puttering around.

He didn't pack much. Some sandwich meat, half a dozen Coronas, and a small tangerine parrot named Mango, who had the unpleasant habit of shrieking, frequently. "He's been to the island, like, twenty times," Dale said, gingerly setting the small white cage on the deck of his shiny 30-foot Intrepid. On the last trip, Mango forgot his wings were clipped and nearly drowned trying to fly away.

Dale's boat boasted a pair of golden engines, smart vinyl couches, and small sleeping quarters that his wife dismissed as a "coffin."

Dale purchased The Son Also Rises to replace his beloved Hemingway — a massive pleasure cruiser with a three-story fishing tower, living room, and huge bed that met its tragic end during Hurricane Wilma. He produced a photograph of him fishing in a coat and tie atop a corner of the wreck, shortly before divers blew it up and hauled the rubble away forever.

"The Hemingway well, it was like a big frat house," he sighed, as if describing a deceased relative. With that, he took the helm and fired up the engines. "Easy Skankin'" echoed off the water while Dale coasted gently out to sea. "Legend is the number one boat album," he shouted, as Bob Marley excused himself for having to light his spliff.

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