By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
An appeal to middle-class boaters proved even rougher. A few days later I set up a card table on a boat launch on Key Biscayne and put out a large foam board sign: "TAKE ME WITH YOU." From their boats, legions of Cuban-American families eyed me with a steely combination of hatred and pity.
I abandoned the boat launch shortly after a fisherman named Angel asked me to join his party, only to speed away while I stowed my blazer in the trunk of my car.
The next morning, I set up shop on the front steps of the Dinner Key Marina office in Coconut Grove. I tried a new sign: "BE MY BOAT FRIEND." Just to make things official, I topped the card table with a stack of business cards and a bag of Wint-O-Green mints.
Three hours and 37 mints later, no progress had been made.
I decided to roam the gated docks, where boat after boat bobbed, silent and still. Charter captains who will be your boat friend for several hundred dollars a day did their dirty business in broad daylight.
The scene proved sad and boring. No one wanted to sneak into Cuba, hunt sharks, or search for treasure. So I wandered, dejected, back to my car. On the way, the world turned upside down.
A brief unguarded stretch of commercial slips presented a wild scene. Dogs ran amok along the quay, barking against a backdrop of dingy boats and nets peppered with rotting fish. Weathered old men and toothless women drank cheap beer and cackled big warm laughs. Oldies blared out of a pair of boom boxes.
"Hey there!" called a wiry man with a thick, bristly mustache and bulbous, gnomelike features. "You look like someone I know who was around here last week 'cept you got more weight on you."
"Um," I replied. "I don't think so."
I asked him what my alter ego had been up to.
"Fuckin' up," he said as he untangled a net on the rear deck of an old shrimp boat. "Too many drugs."
My new friend's name, for the purposes of this article, was "Captain Fritz." He lived on a houseboat moored in the bay and worked three nights a week as a shrimper. He had been doing it since he was fifteen years old. "You can come out and see," he said. "I just sit there and pull up bags of trash all night."
The required equipment, Captain Fritz advised, was a joint and a sandwich.
When I returned a few nights later, Captain Fritz was sitting on the rear deck of his boat, laughing as he mended holes in his nets with a spool of twine. He wore a red sleeveless shirt, a Gilligan hat, and a long silver crucifix.
The boat (let's call her Pegeen) looked like a faded white tug and couldn't have been longer than 30 feet. The rear deck held a pair of large aerated bins to sustain captured sea life. Nets and worn iron trolls jutted out of corroded scaffolding at the boat's center.
The tiny wheelhouse up front was bare-bones. A couple of plastic deck chairs sat behind the console. Technology consisted of a tape deck mounted to the roof, a truck radio behind the wheel, and a hand-held, battery-operated GPS device that Capt. Fritz "has no use for," which sat dead on the console. He navigated by the lights of nuclear power plants and the SunTrust building.
Also on board was the boat's owner, who did not want to be named. He lifted up a floorboard on the rear deck and climbed down into the room containing a massive diesel engine. As he lowered himself into the soot-lined pit, he muttered something about how he wished his father would hurry up and die so he could inherit his boats and sell them.
Captain Fritz's dog, Copper, stood guard, growling furiously at me until Fritz waved a finger, indicating I was okay.
The boat's owner shut the trap on the engine room and gave Captain Fritz his order. "Seventy-five," he said as he heaved himself back onto land.
Captain Fritz nodded and tossed him the docking ropes. We were off. The sunset burned rich pinks through dark blue clouds, which seemed to grow thicker and denser the farther we traveled from the shore.
Off in the distance, lone shrimpers waved hello. A figure bathed in pale blue light zoned out before a TV on the deck of a sailboat. Captain Fritz pointed out his houseboat amidst the shrinking cluster of vessels moored outside the marina. "Not that big one," he said. "The fucked-up one behind it." Copper curled up on the bow.
"The only way I can get into [this job] is to stay stoned," he said as we hit open water. "So, I dunno about you, but I'm gonna roll me a joint."
Captain Fritz headed into the open wheelhouse and pulled a wad of odorless dark reefer out of his pocket. He began to crumble it onto an orange Frisbee.
"Commercial weed," he said. "In this line of work, you can't be smoking that other stuff. You won't wanna do a goddamned thing." He emerged from the cabin and screwed a fat joint into the corner of his mouth.