May 8, 2014:
“Well, how long you plan on staying, son?” Chief Varnes asked.
“Uh, two nights, sir. Maybe three,” Phillip responded.
“Alright, why don’t we say thirty dollars a night. You head on over to City Hall tomorrow morning and pay Miss Linda. Tell her Chief Varnes sent you.”
I kid you not. He called Phillip ‘son.’ The Chief of Police in Apalachicola sounded just like an old Mayberry officer. It seems they don’t keep too stern of an eye on that city dock. While the tourists traveling through Carrabelle apparently can’t be trusted, those frequenting Apalachicola by sailboat are automatically enrolled in the honor system. Chief Varnes even gave us directions to City Hall: “Turn around to face the road. Now look over at about your two o’clock. You see a big beige building there? That’s it. Head on over tomorrow and see Miss Linda. Y’all have a good evening.”
We never saw the man. I assume he had no idea how long we actually stayed. But, we docked, called and set aside some cash to pay “Miss Linda” in the morning. We were glad the river was high enough to allow us to moor there. While there is no power or water, the city dock is economical and literally right in the heart of downtown Apalachicola. Hop off your boat and you are there!
Phillip and I walked along the dock to check out the other boats there, and we couldn’t take our eyes off of this beauty:
Beautiful woodwork, classic lines with the step ladder up to the mast. And, it was in great condition. We had all but stepped onboard when a man came up from behind and startled us with a slap on the back. “She sure is a nice boat, huh?” Phillip and I just kind of stood there, wide-eyed, bobbing our heads in unison. “Uh-huh. Yep. Nice boat.” Then, he stepped on board (more like hopped really), turned around and held out a hand for us. Phillip and I weren’t sure if he owned the boat or was just ballsy enough to step on without permission to have a look around. “I’m glad you feel that way. She’s mine,” the man said with a smile. He invited us into his massive cockpit to sit for a bit while he introduced himself, Gene Weatherup (great sailor’s name, right?), and told us a little about the boat. It was an original Herreshoff design. Built in the seventies. 47 feet with an 11-foot beam. Gene showed us some pictures of her under sail. Just gorgeous.
Gene was eighty years old. He and his wife had been living on the boat and sailing it all over the West Coast of Florida for an impressive twenty-five years. That is the kind of stuff I want to be doing at eighty. And, he was a sprite old fellow too. He hopped up and down all over that boat with far more ease than Phillip and I. He was an avid cruiser who actually was there heading up a 6-boat flotilla, the Blue Dolphins, on a 2-3 month cruise along the West Coast. Gene guaranteed us it was possible to cruise the entire West Coast of Florida by making only 5-6 hour jaunts offshore. He said there were tons of little rivers and inlets, even in the Big Bend, that sailboats could tuck into. We knew he would be an excellent resource the next time we planned to cruise along the coast.
He was also an excellent resource for Apalachicola. Gene told us the first thing we needed to do was go to this place called the ‘Halfway House.’ “Now, I’m not sure that’s exactly what it’s called, but you’ll know it when you find it,” he said. “They get the first batch of oysters that come in every day at 2 pm, and they’ll shuck them right there for you and serve ’em up.” Apalachicola oysters? That was one of the main reasons we had decided to come back around these parts, Carrabelle and Apalachicola, for the fresh, local oysters. It was nearing 2:00 p.m. while we were chatting with Gene, and Phillip and I knew as soon as we were finished getting the tour, we would be headed to the halfway house, halfway point (whatever!) to get some real-live, local oysters. Gene had also lined up an exciting endeavor for dinner. What I really liked about the guy was his sense of adventure. When Gene travels to a new place, he likes to find his way off of the beaten path and explore the tucked-away places. “Anyone can make a reservation and go eat at a restaurant,” he said. “I like to do things different.” And, what did Gene have on tap for the evening? Why, a private van ride to an old Apalachicola oyster warehouse where he had reserved the entire sixteen-seat diner for his Blue Dolphin flotilla crew. He’d even talked to the gal that owned it, a three generation oysterman, and had talked her into giving his crew a tour of the facility and an oyster history lesson.
I don’t think Phillip and I even checked with each other on it before we both nodded yes when Gene asked us if we wanted to go. “Uhhh, yes please!” Plans were made to meet back at “the boats” around five when the van would come to pick us up. “I hired this gal who was taking some kayakers up the river to haul us into town tonight,” Gene said. “That way we have a DD, too.” I liked that man. He made me hope I would still be hitting it hard enough to need a DD when I’m eighty. Gene was awesome.
With dinner plans set, Phillip and I cleaned up and got ready to venture out to find the Halfway House, which of course required to-go drinks. You never know how far the next drink might be …
We started walking around in search of the ‘house,’ when I spotted this place called the Hole in the Wall.
“That’s it,” I told Phillip.
“Hole in the Wall?” he questioned. “I thought Gene said it was the … ”
“Halfway House, yeah,” I interrupted him. “But, Hole in the Wall, Halfway House,” I said, holding my hands up in a sort of po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to fashion. “Trust me, this is it.”
Don’t ask me how, but it made perfect sense to me. Phillip shrugged his shoulders and followed me in and turns out, I was right. They had just dumped a huge bag of oysters right out of the bay onto the shucking station and this big, woolly mammoth-of-a-man was shucking them. We sat down at the bar and told them first thing we wanted a raw dozen. I sat in amazement at the shucker. He was so quick. Best I’ve ever seen.
Stick, crack, pop. Every time. He probably shucked an oyster every fifteen seconds. We sat there salivating while he put our platter together. But, it was so worth it. Finally. Fresh, local, Apalachicola oysters. Not from Texas. Not from Louisiana. These had come right out of the Bay we just sailed in.
We hadn’t had Apalachicola Bay oysters since we set off from Carrabelle to bring the boat home in May of last year. I can assure you, it was a momentous event.
The owner of the place, Dan, even came over (probably intrigued by our moans of satisfaction) to check on us and see how the oysters were. “Aweome, amazing, the best thing we’ve ever eaten!” He was a lot of fun, though. He told us how the oystermen head out before sunrise every morning to start harvesting and how he was able to get in good with the some of the boys in the warehouse so they now set aside one bag for him everyday, which apparently doesn’t last long.
“I get one bag.”
“And in a couple hours, it’s gone.”
We felt lucky to have got one dozen, but with the shucker still cracking and popping back there, we went ahead and ordered another before the bag ran out. Even though we were headed to an oyster diner for dinner. We didn’t care. We were planning to get our fill. In all, we really enjoyed the good salt of the earth folks and atmosphere we found at the “Halfway House.” We filled our bellies halfway with wine and oysters and then sauntered back to “the boats” to catch the van for dinner.
See? There’s the boat right there at the end of the downtown strip! She likes to be in the action.
The other members of the Blue Dolphin flotilla were starting to gather when we got there and we started to make introductions. Most were from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, were making the trip in sailboats, and had been cruising for 5-10 years. They were all incredibly friendly, laid back folks, with great stories to tell. We were the youngest of the bunch, but definitely not the loudest or the rowdiest. When the van pulled up, this energetic brunette bounced out and asked us if “We chaps was ready to go?” She was a straight-up Aussie with a riveting accent. This evening was just full of surprises. The Roo packed us in the van and headed off, entertaining us all the way with stories of kayakers she often had to rescue in the river. “All balls, no brain,” she said.
The “oyster warehouse” she took us to looked like an old highway restaurant. Just a small white brick building on the side of the road. We shuffled out with the rest of the Dolphin crew eager to see about this sixteen-seat diner inside.
“Phillip? You coming?”
It was a diner indeed, and I think I only counted twelve seats, not sixteen, but there was one for each of us and they sat us down and immediately started serving up some oysters.
Raw as well as oyster “poppers” (with melted monterey jack and an jalapeno) and “Cap’n Jack” style (with buffalo sauce and blue cheese). While the Hole in the Wall oysters we’d had that afternoon were top-notch, Phillip and I both agreed these were the best oysters we’d had the entire trip. Sorry I was too busy eating them and talking (probably with my mouth full) to take any pictures. I did get one of the shrimp gumbo I ordered up for dinner, though. Absolutely delicious.
The oysters and wine kept coming and everyone got real friendly.
The good folks of the Dolphin Crew decided to induct Phillip and I then and there as honorary Blue Dolphin members with a little “mumble-jumble ceremony” and a “gumbo baptizing” Those guys were a real hoot. Funny story, though, we somehow got on the topic of what their favorite stop had been along the West Coast. The gal I was talking to, Joanie (loved her!), couldn’t quite remember where it was at, but she described it as “Paradise Island.” Her partner in crime, Dottie (loved her too!), said “Oh yeah, we called it that because there really was no better name. It was paradise.” The more they kept describing it-a sandy island you could walk all the way around, where you could let your dogs run and play, and on the other side there were old fort ruins- Phillip and I began to piece a few things together. “You mean Ft. McRae?” Phillip asked. “Yeah, that’s it! Ft. McRae,” they all said in unison. They were describing our Bay, our anchorage, the very place we sailed to and dropped anchor every other weekend.
That was their favorite place along the entire coast. Just goes to show you. You don’t really have to travel that far to find the place you want to be. While Phillip and I enjoyed every bit of our trip to/from the Keys, we were starting to think Apalachicola, that sleepy little old Florida town, was quickly becoming one of our favorite places on the Coast.
These folks were kindred spirits. While we had a phenomenal time at dinner, the aftershow was the true treat. After we cleaned out every oyster shell and last drop of gumbo in the diner, the gal who owned the place, Tammy, took us out back for a tour of the facility and an incredibly personal and enlightening rendition of the decline of oystering in Apalachicola.
Tammy’s family had been in the oyster business for three generations-her grandfather, her father and now her. She told us they used to have three trucks they ran to ship the oysters out and she pointed across the highway where the last of them stood derelict, hidden in the weeds with a for sale sign on it.
While most people, including Phillip and I, had thought the decline of the oysters in Apalachicola Bay was likely due to the oil from the BP spill, we were surprised to learn that wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, they thought the oil would get to the oysters and kill them, so harvesters were sent in from all over to Apalachicola Bay with instructions to harvest as much as possible as fast as possible before the oil came. And, so they did, but the oil never came, and they had cleaned the oyster habitats right out. Follow that up with an incredibly dry year, meaning not enough fresh water coming in from the river, and the remaining oysters all but died out. Apparently there has to be the right balance of salinity and fresh water to maintain an oyster habitat. If there is too much saltwater or too much fresh, the oysters will die. It was fascinating to learn about their fragile habitat.
Tammy also showed us around the warehouse, which I thought looked more like a “shuckery.” There were five or six work places (stand-up stucco cubicles, basically) where women stood all day sorting through the oysters and throwing the empty, excess or bad shells out through these little green holes in their station.
Outside, you could still see the piles of oyster shells that had built up under each hole.
Tammy also showed us the back deck where the boats would come in and the harvest would be run through on the conveyor belt for an initial sorting.
It really was a beautiful place on the water and sad to see it now just sitting, a quiet homage to what was once a thriving industry.
Tammy said the oysters are slowly coming back and that she hopes to see the warehouse up and running again in the next ten or so years, but there’s just no guarantee. It was a heartbreaking story, but Tammy had a great spirit about her and an infectious optimism about the return of the oystering in the Bay. In all, the dinner and tour were very engaging. We were definitely glad we met Gene and were honored to have been invited on his Roo-Van-Crew oyster adventure!
Our delightful Aussie DD drove us back to the boats where, to Phillip’s obvious pleasure, most of the Crew began to gather around our boat asking him what type of boat it was, how many feet, what was the beam, when was it built, etc., etc.
Phillip was beaming. “Why, thank you. She’s a Niagara. Hinterhoeller makes them. You may have heard of their non-such yachts. Well, this is the sloop. There’s only one other in Florida.” I’ve heard that speech a million times, but I still love to hear him say it again and again. We love our boat, if you couldn’t tell.
Soon the Blue Dolphiners bid us a warm adieu and we thought about nestling in our boat for the evening, but we realized it was still so early! The Dolphin Crew seems to prefer the early bird special. With dinner, drinks and a tour, we were only looking at 8:30 p.m. So, Phillip and I decided to venture out for one last nightcap and we found ourselves soon at Up the Stairs (home of the “freshest, finest, most creative cocktails in Apalachicola!”) with drink menus in hand.
A jalapeno margarita,
and a mint chocolate chip-tini later,
and well …
We may have outlasted the Blue Dolphin Crew, but just by a drink or two. Those cats were wild!