by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 10: Adventures by Boat
During these wonderful years, almost every day we were with our grandparents meant a day out in the boat with Papa. Actually, he always had several boats, and we enjoyed them all at various times. After Mama packed us a lunch, we’d all be off with Papa to go “down to the river.”
The Miami River was a quick drive from the Old Nest, and Papa owned some property with river frontage. He had bought it years before, since he always had boats and needed dock space. It was probably 5 or 6 lots just downstream from the big 12th Avenue bridge on the north bank of the river. It was all sea-walled, and Papa rented dockage space to several other people. So in addition to his boats, there were always others tied up along what we called “Papa’s river property.”
Papa’s biggest boat was a sort of ugly old 40-foot cabin cruiser called "Betty Jayne" (for my cousin Betty Anne and my sister, Jayne). Then he had a sort of sporty varnished speed boat called "Rage" (After me, Ray, and my cousin George). There was a third small boat called "Hal." (after my cousin Hal). So we all not only got to go out on the boats, we had them named for us!
The Miami River was then, and still is, what is called a "working river." Although today, high-rise condos are mixed in with the boatyards, fish companies, and dry docks, it's still an important part of our port. Huge freighters arrive and depart daily from the Caribbean and are unloaded at several marine shipping companies located several miles upstream. These big oceangoing ships, barely able to fit between the banks and under the open drawbridges, are dragged up and down the river by pairs of tug boats--one tug at the bow, another at the stern. Some are, literally, banana boats, laden with produce from Latin America. Others bring in and leave with all sorts of cargo.
None of this has changed since Papa's day. So even a trip to his "river property" without setting foot on a boat was a big treat for a kid. We'd stand on the sea wall and gaze at the tough little tug boats churning the water and hauling towering freighters as they passed just feet from Papa's dock. We also ooohed and ahhhed at the glamorous yachts that often passed by, since the Caribbean's only dry dock for mega-yachts (then and now) is just upriver from Papa's property. And I remember we'd always wave at the "Seminole Queen", a double-decker tourist boat that motored up and down the river. The tourists would wave back, and we'd hear the announcer on the boat point out Papa, if he were outside, as a "Sea Captain." We loved that.
But of course, the real treat was getting into Papa's boats and going up and down the river, in the midst of all this activity. Usually, it was the "big boat", the Betty Jayne, since our destination was usually Biscayne Bay to fish. This meant a 2-mile trip to the mouth of the river, and then out into the wide blue bay.
We loved the river, and the trip out and back was always an adventure. We got to know all the boatyards, the fish markets, and the fancy yacht marinas. Papa knew everybody of course, and we’d stop for gas at some boatyard on the way and he’d talk to his friends. Each time we'd wait for the stop he always made for us to get "cold drinks." Each kid was allowed one. You could have a grape soda, an orange drink, or whatever you wanted. We all leaned into one of those old open-top metal ice coolers and reached around in the ice for our choices. I remember the old cooler sat right on the riverbank at one of the marina stores Papa knew. That was always our favorite stop.
As we proceeded down the river, we not only went beneath bridge after bridge, we’d also have to clear the old rusty railroad bridge that sat in the middle of the river. I always marveled that unlike the other bridges high over the river, this one sat right in the water, and when it was needed, it moved to complete the tracks that came to the riverbank on one side to the same on the other. I learned later that it was what is called a "swing bridge." It was a huge steel section of track which was normally stationary in the very middle of the stream while boats passed on either side. But when needed, it turned and blocked the river and connected the tracks. When that began to happen, red lights would flash on both ends of the railroad bridge, and loud bell alarms would go off. It was exciting to see it turn and connect the banks. Papa would have to idle the boat, and we’d all just stare as the train would go across. As soon as that happened, the old rusty bridge would groan into motion again, and turn on its underwater turntable to position itself back in the middle of the river. Then we could go by and on down the river.
As we approached the mouth of the river, the tall buildings of downtown would line both sides of the river, and the bridges were close together. Almost every downtown street has a bridge, and they are all draw bridges. The Betty Jayne could clear all but one, since the old boat was quite low. If we had been on a sailboat, we'd have had to "open" them all.
“Opening a bridge” involved honking our horn at the bridge tender, the man who worked up in the little cement house at the side of each bridge. For the old, low 5th Street bridge, Papa would have to honk the Betty Jayne’s horn and allow time for the old bridge to “go up.” Then we’d motor through, and turn around to watch the bridge “go back down.”
As we passed under the higher bridges, it was a great adventure to see them at water level—the huge hinges that lifted the spans, and how each one was built a little bit differently.
Hal and I would often run up front, lie flat on our backs on the big deck and look straight up at each bridge as they passed overhead. It was exciting to hear the cars and trucks rumble across just a few feet above us. We loved the river.
Soon, we’d reach the mouth of the river, and it would widen into the sunny stretches of Biscayne Bay. Just outside the river, Papa had a choice to go north or south of Claughton Island, a small land mass that was formed years before when the rapids were blasted out of the Miami River. The island was uninhabited, and we always looked for homeless men who often camped there. Today, Claughton Island is named Brickell Key, and filled with high-rise condos.
Once out in the bay, we would all be ready to fish. Papa would calm us down, and remind us we had to get to a “good place” first. Of course, he knew everything, so we waited. Pretty soon, he’d decide the spot was right, cut the engine, and walk up front to throw the anchor overboard. We’d all feel it connect with the coral rock on the bottom, and as the Betty Jayne swung around in the current, we got ready to fish.
Now, fishing with Papa on the Betty Jayne was always a treat, since he made it that way just for the grandchildren. There was always a contest. Papa would announce the prizes. “Ok, kids, here are the rules: A nickel for the most fish, a nickel for the biggest fish, and a nickel for the first fish.” That’s all we had to hear.
With little kids aboard, the fishing was almost always “bottom fishing.” That meant no rods and reels, just fishing lines wound around a piece of broom handle. Papa would go “below”, which meant down in the cabin, and return with a box of fishing lines, and hand them out to us. Then each of us would check the hook and sinker on our line, and be sure they were ok. If not, Papa would fix them, right then and there. Then Papa would carve up a fish, usually a mullet he had bought for bait along the river, and bait each hook. Then—finally, he’d say, “OK, kids…good luck.”
We’d run to the edge of the boat, and toss our lines into the bright turquoise water. The hook and bait would immediately sink out of sight, and then the waiting would begin. We’d all wait and wonder who would get the first bite. It never took long, and we’d start screaming, just sure that first bite was going to lead to the nickel prize. This is how the day went by, fish after fish, with a quick break for lunch, and then back to the lines. We never tired of it, and Papa never did anything to limit our fun. If one of us was having no luck, Papa was quickly by that grandchild’s side, offering new bait, or taking over the line for a few minutes to give the unsuccessful fisherman some special advice. He was always completely aware of all five of us, and was always positive and encouraging. He loved kids, and we loved him.
We caught snapper, grouper and yellowtail, fish that are rare today in the bay. But most of all, we caught grunts, the brilliant multicolored fish so common around Miami. When you pull them out of the water, they make a grunting sound. If they were full grown, we’d keep them, but even a big grunt isn’t very big. We were always looking for a grouper or a snapper to win “biggest fish.” But even if your fish was too small to keep, Papa counted it in the contest for “most fish.”
Sometimes it rained, sometimes we had a “squall” and the Betty Jayne would rock like a big rocking horse, but whatever happened, we never feared a thing. With Papa, there was nothing to fear.
Most of these magical days on the Betty Jayne ended around dusk. Papa would tell us to pull in our lines, and the old boat’s motor would roar to life. We’d head for the river and get there just before dark, and then go under the bridges again to Papa’s property where our parents would be waiting.
But sometimes, we stayed out overnight. These were the really unforgettable trips. After an afternoon of fishing, Papa would start up the motor, and move the boat to a place he deemed proper for anchoring for the night. It was usually near one of the uninhabited islands in the bay, often down south off Elliott Key. On these trips, Papa always cooked dinner. It was always fish we had caught during the day. Of course, we wanted to help, but thinking back, Papa really had to do everything, and he seemed to love it. First he had to clean the little fish we had caught. For him, I guess that was nothing, since he had cleaned thousands. I’m sure we just stood around and watched. Then he had to fire up his cook stove
The Betty Jayne had no galley, but Papa had some sort of old stove on board that I guess was fired by alcohol or kerosene. He’d bring it out, brush it off, and in a few minutes, he was frying fish. One time we all remember when he was lighting the stove, something went wrong, and fire flamed up about 4 feet and scared us all. It scared Papa too, and in about two seconds, he had picked up the whole stove and thrown it overboard. We all watched as the fire went out as the stove sank. We had sandwiches that night, which was just fine.
When night came, we slept all over the place. If it was very calm, the “big kids” could sleep out on the big front deck. There were only two bunks, but they were in the cabin anyhow. We all wanted to sleep “outside.” I remember bright moonlight, bright stars, and most of all, once everything was quiet, the relentless lap lap lap of the waves against the side of the old boat. Anyone who has spent nights on a boat knows the wonderful feeling of going to sleep with that comforting sound.
At daylight, we were up and ready to fish again. Most times, that’s exactly what we did, but a few times, if the plans had been made, we went swimming. In the very early years, there was no bridge to Key Biscayne, so Papa would take us right up to the beach, and ground the boat on the magnificent sand that is now Miami’s Crandon Park, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We’d hop out and swim for a few hours, and never see anyone, except maybe a few passing boats. In those days, Miami’s beaches were completely unspoiled and un-crowded. The water was crystal clear. And anything that we’d find would be taken to Papa and he would know all about it. I always looked for bottles that might have messages in them. (They never did.) And Papa would tell us stories about his days as a cabin boy on his father’s schooners in Key West, and how he remembered loving to fish as a kid.
Rarely, Papa would steer the old Betty Jayne oceanward, and we’d go “outside.” To Papa, that meant out of beautiful Biscayne Bay and into the open ocean. As anyone who’s a boater knows, ocean waters are quite different from protected bays and rivers, and off Miami was no exception. The ocean was limitless, of course, and the water was suddenly deep blue and the waves larger and more powerful. I remember whenever we went “outside” Papa’s whole demeanor changed. He became very serious, constantly scanned the horizon for squalls, and had us all sit down and be quiet. Once a boat is in the ocean, it is serious business.
A few times, Papa took us all the way out to the Gulf Stream, the famous warm current that flows around the Florida peninsula and all along the east coast up to Canada, and then across to Europe. To reach it from Miami, you have to be out of sight of land, so it’s quite a trip. Not everyone knows the water is a distinct different color in this massive current. You can actually see the “river in the ocean”. As we’d cross into the Gulf Stream, Papa would point out how the water was suddenly very deep blue, and there was suddenly a northward pull in the current. We were always amazed.
One reason to go “outside” was to “troll” for game fish. That usually meant sailfish, marlin or shark off Miami, and when we fished for those, it would mean motoring along in the boat with long lines off the stern, baited for the big fish. Catching a big game fish was exciting, but as kids, I think we all liked the bay fishing better.
A few very special times, Papa took us to “bump the bars” in the bay. This is something no kid could ever forget, and it involves beaching the boat on a sand bar, but not just nudging into the sand. This was a thrill ride that Papa loved. He knew which sand bars in Biscayne Bay were soft sand, and which ones had sharp coral just waiting to tear up a boat. So he’d pick one of his favorite “soft bars”, and head that way. About 100 feet from the bar, when you could see it whiten the water ahead, he’d shout to us over the engine noise, “Are you kids ready?” And of course we were. Then he’d shout “Hold on” and rev the old Betty Jayne’s engine as high as it would go. The stern would sink down, the bow would come out of the water, and we’d race directly toward the sand bar. When the boat’s flat bottom hit the bar with a thud, she settled down on the sand bar with a bang, shaking every board in her frame. That was “bumping the bar.” After the bumping, we’d all jump overboard into the shallow water, and help Papa push the old boat off the sandbar. As soon as it was free, we’d scramble back on board, Papa would rev the engine, and we’d be off again. Of course, we were all thrilled by these joyrides. And looking back, I wonder how many kids had a grandfather who could do that for them.
Sometimes our parents would go out on the boats with us, but usually it was just Papa and the five grandchildren. He took us on these fishing trips over what must have been five or six years. I’ve thought so often how wonderful he was to put up with five little kids all day long, and we also marvel that our parents let us go with him. Obviously, they knew how great he was with children, and how careful and knowledgeable he was about the boats. Nothing bad or even mildly dangerous ever happened. For us, it was kid paradise.