Cruising

Sailing Eden Again

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It is a warm moonless night in northwest Florida. A whiff of late spring wisteria wafts across the lake. In the distance, cicadas drone their night music. Overhead, every star in the galaxy is shining. Their reflections on the black waters of northwest Florida’s Lake Seminole create the illusion that we are sailing through outer space. In truth we are ghosting along on my 16-foot Hobie Cat, soft music whispering from the stereo on the triangle of shrimp net stretched between our slender bows.

It is a little after 0200, and for hours we have been enjoying the silent tranquility of these wide star-lit expanses. There are no cruising houseboats, no speedboats, no night fishermen, nothing but us and a few alligators whose distant eyes glow red as taillights. The lake acknowledges our presence only by the soft, sibilant sound of our hulls slicing its surface.

We have no running lights, only a flashlight, which I now slip from under the hiking strap as we sail toward a large tugboat slowly angling our way. The tug moves cautiously, feeling its way with a broad-beamed searchlight that rhythmically sweeps from one side of the dredged channel to the other as it makes its way through shallow flats of old trees and stumps en route to the deep, open water of Jim Woodruff Dam’s giant reservoir.

“Watch what happens when they spot us,” I whisper to my sailing companion, as we glide closer. Moments later the beam hits us and starts to move away. Then it jerks back in a double-take, fully illuminating us in the darkness. I flash my light up into our sails, wave, and tack away.

That was 30 years ago near Chattahoochee, Florida. I remember it as the best of times. In 1957, at the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, the Jim Woodruff Hydroelectric Lock and Dam created the 37,000-acre Lake Seminole Reservoir. Its 376-mile-long shoreline stretched out to include Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Built for commercial and recreational purposes, this giant reservoir was the first of several such government dam projects linking this area to the Gulf of Mexico 106 miles down the Apalachicola River.

When the lake opened, everyone who could beg, borrow or buy a boat took to these beautiful waters. Marinas and fishing camps popped up as people engaged in every kind of water activity.

In Bristol, Florida, a Baptist minister named Elvy E. Callaway published a book titled In the Beginning. Genesis 2:10 states, “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers.” According to Callaway, the country we called home was the Garden of Eden, because the Apalachicola River created by three other rivers matched the description. There were other remarkable coincidences that seemed to prove his theory, and many in this beautiful lake region believed this may just have been Eden.

Soon, however, the pristine lake fell on hard times as an insidious water weed named hydrilla began to grow and clog the waterways. Since this Asiatic weed had originally been imported for tropical fish aquariums, many assumed it was introduced along with someone’s pet goldfish.

Despite government efforts to control it, nothing seemed to work. It spread like wildfire, blocking off miles of waterways. Islands of weeds turned into water-supported continents of hydrilla. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did what it could to stop the scourge, but it was a costly, daunting task.

Eventually the fast-growing hydrilla overwhelmed all efforts to combat it. No one came to sail anymore. The local marina and restaurant disappeared and with it, the Booster Club boat livery. The last time I looked at the lake, seagulls were walking around on a great, green mass of weed. As the years passed, I moved my sailing to the Gulf of Mexico, 80 miles to the south. I figured the reservoir was simply no longer sailable.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my friend Wayne Vignes suggested we go sailing there this past November. He had recently purchased a Gloucester 16 pocket cruiser he’d named Senta and was anxious to take it out for a spin. He swore the lake was free of weeds; the Corps of Engineers had revitalized it and turned it back into the Eden it once was, he said.

I drove out to the lake and was amazed to find it virtually weed-free. It seemed the government was gradually winning its war against the hydrilla through the judicious use of a combination of new herbicides and natural biological enemies, such as triploid grass carp, hydrilla flies and hydrilla weevils.

Next weekend, Wayne and I launched our boats—Wayne’s Senta and my 1977 Com-Pac 16/2 Misty—at the old Booster Club Landing, where the Corps of Engineers maintains a pleasant park, launching ramp and camping facilities. Looking across the gently rippled lake, I could see few signs of weed. After years of watching the great reservoir slowly die, I was amazed to see it once again vibrantly alive, just like I remembered it. As we sailed across the lake I could see some hydrilla still flourishing in the shallows, but in the deeper water, things were wonderfully clear.

Eventually, we both dropped anchor in 23 feet of water near a point where Wayne remembered catching numerous fish in the past. Although the fish were not especially cooperative that day, I did manage to catch one nice silver catfish for supper.

At sundown we motored back across the lake into the lee of a tall timbered point. I dropped anchor and Wayne rafted up alongside. We cooked the catfish and later, in the glow of my brass lantern, we toasted each other with some 10-year-old homemade wine I’d named “Magic Ruby.”

That night a front came through and temperatures dropped into the mid-30s, but we were ready for it. My goose-down sleeping bag never felt so good. Around midnight, high winds made our rigging sing, but the next morning broke clear and sunny, with the lake flat and calm. I knew Lake Seminole often had still mornings with winds matching the coastal sea breezes, so we spent the next couple of hours motoring around, looking into various coves and visiting secret sites I recalled that had been fine fishing hangouts.

Early in the afternoon the breeze started to come on strong, and the two of us sailed back and forth together, talking on our VHFs and taking photographs of each others’ boats. Wayne hauled out a little later, but I kept sailing, mesmerized by the warmth of the sun and the steady action of the boat under sail. It was sweet, sitting snugly on the white cockpit cushions with the boat heeled over and plowing along, the beautifully varnished tiller smooth and responsive in my hand.

Back and forth Misty and I raced, water sizzling, white sails flashing, telltales snapping, beating east to the stump flats, then tacking smartly to drive hard west again into the hot glare of the sun, now slowly turning the color of old gold. I tried to sail back to the landing and haul out around 1600, but Misty would not hear of it. She loved having a bone in her teeth, so we sailed on. I tried again to make her go in at 1630, but still she refused. The sailing was just too fine.

That afternoon I shot 369 photos, attempting to capture every nuance, every way the sails acted or the shadows shifted, the way the red and green telltales danced and the way the sun burst around the mast. I shot everything that created the magic of that November afternoon as Misty and I blasted across that wonderful expanse of glittering green water. We were in Eden again, and neither of us wanted to leave.

Finally, with the sun sinking, I wrestled the tiller away from her, and together we reluctantly returned to the landing. I tied off the last line on my trailered boat, and bid farewell to Wayne who was still there to make sure I was OK. Just before I climbed into my truck I looked back at my little sailboat and had to smile. As my eyes slid down the sweet curve of her smooth, still-damp white bow, Misty seemed to be smiling back at me. Clearly, she too was happy to be back in Eden.

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