December 26, 2009

airboat ride in the everglades

This morning started out like any other morning. The alarm went off at 6:15 so that we could get up and get on our way to the everglades. We left the Embassy Suites and walked down 17th Avenue toward the intercostal waterway where we were picking up our rental car. On the way we split our forces with half of us going to Einstein’s Bagel Shop and half to Starbucks for Tea, Chai Latte and Cocoa.

We beat the traffic heading out of town easily on our way to the Sawgrass recreation park. It is part of the Everglades national park. We had an appointment with Captain Randy and his airboat at 8:00. Our instructions were to meet him ½ mile past mile marker 38 on highway 27. We got there early, the sun was still pretty low in the sky and finished our breakfast in the small parking lot. A few minutes later a pickup truck pulling an airboat with seating for nine pulled into the lot. We watched as the captain fired up the 500 horsepower Corvette engine hooked up to a four blade airline propellor. After the short checkout period he backed the boat and trailor into the water and brought the boat around to the ground.

We greeted Captain Randy, who showed us onto the boat and gave us a short intro to our safety equipment, which consisted of headphones to protect our eardrums from the sound of the engine and airplane prop. He invited one of us to join him in the topmost pair of seats as the co-pilot. We took off, and after a short lesson in steering the airboat, push forward for right and pull back for left, he turned the steering over to me. Driving an airboat takes a lot more anticipation than driving a ski boat. When you want to turn a corner on one of the trails in the everglades you need to start doing so a few seconds in advance. Luckily if you cut the corner to sharp, or too late you really don’t run into any problems. You make the trail a little wider as you mow down the Sawgrass and cattail, but there seems to be enough of both to go around.

Taking the early morning trip was a great idea as the angle of the sun was just beautiful, and we saw hundreds of birds as we cruised through the trails. We saw hawks, and herons, and vultures and birds of all different colors and varieties. In addition to the birds we were always on the lookout for gators.

Captain Randy seems to have come from a long line of Everglades boat captains that have been involved with all kinds of dubious activities. Pappy was an alligator poacher, and Randy and his brother kept small alligators as pets when they were younger. As Captain Randy fed one of the gators along the way hotdogs and marshmallows he informed us that feeding the gators was strictly against the law. That didn’t stop him, and we got some great pictures of Randy feeding his Mi Amoure Catalyna.

Shortly after our gator feeding experience, we reached the farthest point on our tour. By this point we were all pretty comfortable with the boat and so I was sitting in the bow taking pictures and the rest of the family was comfortably spread around. Randy headed the boat down a narrow trail and suddenly I noticed that we were boating in mud instead of water. As the mud got thicker and drier the boat went slower and slower until we finally came to a halt. Stuck in the mud!

After trying to gun the giant engine on our airboat for many minutes Randy finally admitted that we were stuck and going to need some help getting out. At this point we learned a couple of things about Randy’s friend Lyle. First, Lyle had an extremely long message on his business phone, and his cell phone. Second we learned that Randy had helped Lyle out of a similar situation just a couple of days ago. After failing to reach Lyle by phone we resorted to the old fashioned VHF radio. “Laxahatchie, Laxahatcie, Laxahatchie, Lyle this is Randy are you there, over….” With those words our 3-hour tour became a rescue mission.

Our airboat was partway down a trail that had been drained of water. We were about 150 feet onto the mud and it looked like the mud continued for another 300 before it rounded a bend. The trick was to turn the airboat around and pull it out the short way. Unfortunately in the Everglades walking on mud is not so easy. When Randy got out of the boat to try and use a rope to turn us around he sunk up nearly to his waist. To get back to the edge of the water required him to crawl on hands and knees to distribute his weight.

The four of us stayed in the boat feeling somewhat amused at our situation. Clearly we were not in any sort of life threatening emergency but for Randy this was clearly a pain in the butt and probably somewhat of an embarrasment. We were not dressed to jump in the mud and help him, although Kaia seemed very willing to do so. Josh was protecting his new green and white Nikes that Grandpa Miller bought him for Christmas but other than that I think he would have helped too. I had on a brand new pair of Tommy Bahama shorts that I was definitely not interested in getting covered in Everglades mud.

The rescuue mission was long and tedious as Lyle’s big boat could not turn around at the end of our trail. This required the help of a third airboat driven by a kind stranger. The third boat acted as a tug boat getting Lyle in the proper position and ferrying the rope into Randy when necessary.

The procedure that Randy and Lyle determined for getting us out involved tieing a line to the bow of the boat and then pulling with Lyle’s larger airboat. To a physicist this seemed like a dumb idea as the angles involved were all wrong, but neither Randy or Lyle were physicists so this was not an issue. After breaking Randy’s bowline there was some thought that the way to resolve the issue would be to bring a couple of pieces of plywood so that the tourists would be able to walk out of the trail but going from plank to plank and moving the planks as we made progress.

Walking the tourists out was not an acceptable plan to Captain Randy. It was clear that Lyle’s larger rope needed to be connected directly to the bow of our airboat and then threaded through the side of the boat about halfway back. Randy decided that he would get to the side with a second rope and pull to try and provide the needed force vector to get the boat to turn to the side. After several long pulls we finally had the boat turned at a ninty degree angle to our original course. (This only took about three hours to get us to this position).

We repositioned the rope to the bow of Randy’s ship and he got in his captains chair. At this point the plan was to have one last pull by Lyle with Randy ready to “Give her Hell” as soon as we were headed in roughly the right direction. With this plan in mind and one last pull we were finally free!

Once free of the mud we followed Lyle back to his docking area where hugs were exchanged and many thumbs up were given to our kind helpers. By this time Captain Randy had completely missed his 11:30 trip and was wanting to make sure we got back to the landing in time to meet his 2:30. So we took off for home base at high speed. After a while he slowed down so that Jane or Josh could drive. Josh wanted to have nothing to do with driving as by this time he was convinced that he would do something even worse than get us stuck in the mud. So Jane took her turn and did a great job of driving the boat.

Just before we got back to the landing we made one last stop with captain Randy to make sure that we had our stories straight. Clearly he was a little nervous that his muddy appearance might be offputting to his next group. Particularly if we were unhappy and complaining about the trip. He really had no reason to worry, all of us thought the trip was a great adventure.

After our exciting airboat trip we planned to stop at the Sawgrass Mill, an enormous shopping center. It took us almost a half hour of driving around to find the Ron Jon outlet store. Even after we found it it took forever to get in because the parking lot was so busy and full. The plan was for us to stop there to get Kaia a swimming suit. Since I had discovered that my old suit was too big for me I decided to get one too. Josh also found himself a nice suit and a football for using in the water.

The next big surprise of the night came when we walked over to Pazzo’s for an italian dinner. We walked in the door and talked to the hostess who told us to wait just a minute as she checked the tables. As we stood waiting for a minute a familiar figure came across the bar headed toward us. Sasan Mokhtari and his family were in the restaurant! they were in town for the soccer tournament. It was really fun to reconnect with Sasan after several years. We had a great talk with Sasan and Mary and their kids Tara, Eva, and Daniel. Tara is a first year at MIT and Eva and Daniel have transferred to Breck. It took Sasan only about 3 minutes to ask me if I would be interested in doing some consulting for him!

We had a great meal, although Josh was feeling a little sick and didn’t eat very much.