The view from the catamaran

One of my best ocean memories is hiding under a catamaran on Santa Rosa Island in the middle of the night. I was visiting my friend Dale while he was attending college and living in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. and spent two weeks in the northwest Florida panhandle, absorbing local history and inhaling salt air. Dale was a bachelor and had a pleasant apartment close to the ocean, and he had an extra vehicle, a Jeep, that I used while he was at school and work. For two weeks I reveled in my freedom and the closeness of the sea, and I enjoyed tours of historic sites and nature parks. Much of the time was spent on Santa Rosa Island, a 50-mile long barrier island that mitigated the gulf’s waves, offering safe anchorage in peaceful bays and sounds.
A story famous in that area tells how Santa Rosa until recent times was a long spit, connected to the mainland near Destin to the east, until college kids as a prank dug a trench across the island, connecting ocean to sound. That was all the encouragement the ocean needed, and it carved a deep inlet that now allows quick entrance to the gulf for the Destin people. But the city of Destin website says, “Spanish explorers surveyed Florida in 1538. Don Francisco Tapia was commissioned to survey the Florida coast and in 1693, drew the first known map of East Pass and its shores.” So much for a fun legend, which sounds plausible when you’ve studied barrier island structure.
Dale and I ranged that particular barrier island from easterly John C. Beasley State Park to westerly Fort Pickens, within view of Pensacola. The island was developed after people had become aware of the need to preserve dunes, and I was especially smitten with its natural aspects, especially in the confines of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which includes Fort Pickens. The island and the ever-present water were compelling, and some nights after listening to bands at Fudpuckers, a local hangout on the island, we would return to the beach, which was technically closed after dark. Dale’s friend owned a catamaran that was anchored at the beach, and we hid under that boat one night. We weren’t doing anything wrong, just walking on the beach after hours, but when the beach patrol came along in its golf cart, we hid under the catamaran, spurred by a sense of adventure as much as by fear of arrest.
Santa Rosa Island got me hooked on barrier islands, those coastal custodians that stretch from Maine to Texas and on into Mexico. Sometimes small, sometimes stretching for dozens of miles, they are often only wide enough for dunes, a road and a single line of houses, with shallow sounds on one side and the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico on the other. My wife and I visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1993, and one evening we sat on a wooden bench atop a dune, watching the sun set over Pamlico Sound while the moon rose over the ocean. I especially loved the long, isolated stretches south of the developed areas, where the power line and the road paralleling the dunes, with sand drifting across, were the only manmade intrusions into the view of sand and water.
I visited Santa Rosa Island in 1988 and the Outer Banks, as mentioned, in 1993, and they still call to me, pulling me from my landlocked Ohio home to the edge of the ocean, where land and water meet in a fluctuating, fascinating melding of land, sea, and sky When I stand in the surf, I feel a connection to the world and to the explorers who landed at Santa Rosa Island, who gave thanks at Virginia’s Cape Henry. I read once that our blood contains the same percentages of elements as sea water, and when I shed my shoes at the beach and enter that salty water, I feel reconnected to that which is my source and my home.

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