The Blue Dolphin Crew, a Roo and Us Too

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!

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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:

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Who You Gonna Call?

May 7, 2014:

So, the whole world and only Carrabelle’s got it …  I know your curiosity is killing you.  As one faithful follower put it, “I’m sure the server crashed with the flood of responses you received.”  Touche.  But, I also had one correct guess, from a true Panacea native!  Here’s the story:

They say the city was having problems with tourists making unauthorized long distance phone calls on its police phone.  You see, now you call the police and it rings to a station.  But, this was back in the day of the payphone.  Call the five-oh in Carrabelle back in the 60’s and it rang to a regular old pay phone, one bolted to the side of the Shop-and-Stop (or some similar) building at the corner of U.S. 98 and Tallahassee Street.  Despite harsh warnings, mean stares and policemen running at them, swinging batons overhead, the good folks passing through Carrabelle just couldn’t seem to pass up the urge to sneak up to the phone, pick up the receiver illegally and give sweet Aunt Ida back in Nebraska a ring.  Just for kicks.  “Hey Ida, you’ll never guess where I’m calling from … “


(And, yes, that photo is so good, you can buy it here).

In an effort to solve the overwhelming problem, Johnnie Mirabella (yes, from Carrabelle-uh), St. Joe Telephone Company’s sole Carrabelle employee at the time, first tried moving the police phone down the road to the Piggly Wiggly (or some similar) building, but the wily tourists discovered the phone at the Pig and continued their rampant illegal calls to out-of-state kin.  In addition to the escalating tourist telephone problem, Johnnie Mirabella also noticed the officers were getting drenched when they had to answer the police phone on the side of the building in the rain.  So, when the St. Joe Telephone Company decided to replace its worn-out phone booth in front of Burda’s Pharmacy with a new one, Mirabella seized the opportunity.  On March 10, 1963, Mirabella had the old booth moved from Burda’s to its current site on U.S. 98 under the chinaberry tree and the police phone put inside.  Not only were the good men in blue of Carrabelle now protected from the elements when they had to answer a police call and the rogue tourist collect calls deterred but the booth also became the first, last and only — WORLD’S SMALLEST POLICE STATION.  Boom.


Seriously, the whole world, and only Carrabelle’s got it.

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There’s the wise Mirabella there.  Ain’t he a looker?


He probably looked better with a mustache.

Old shot

Everyone did in the 70’s.

Eventually the dial was removed from the phone, making it impossible for tourists to make calls.  Sorry Ida!  But, the booth has been featured on various television shows — Real People, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, The Today Show, Johnny Carson — as well as the movie Tate’s Hell which was produced at Florida State University.  Along with World’s Smallest Police Station t-shirts, you can also purchase hats, visors, postcards, and calendars bearing the distinct, copyrighted WSPS logo.


“I’ll take one visor please.”

They say life has not always been easy for the retired phone booth, though.  Vandals have ripped phones out of the booth and shot holes through the glass.  It has been knocked over by a pickup truck, and a tourist once asked a gas station attendant to help him load it into his vehicle to take it back to Tennessee.  “Hey Gomer, help me load this here booth up into the bed-uh-my truck.  Gramma Bickers will love this!”  I mean …  I really don’t need to tell stories when the truth is actually far more entertaining.

Needless to say, Phillip and I got a real kick out of the World’s Smallest Phone Booth when we were wandering around in downtown Carrrabelle.  We popped our head in a few other places – one rough-and-rowdy looking motorcycle bar named Harry’s to restock our rum supply.


I swear I saw a guy in the back pick up his cue stick when we walked in and start smacking it in his other hand, much like a police baton, and I started thinking about that phone booth.  We paid the nice 6’3″, 300 pound man behind the bar and gently made our way out.  We then stopped at the trusty IGA to stock up on provisions for the boat for tomorrow’s passage to Apalachicola.  Once we got everything stowed away on the boat, we were excited to get out and pay the fine crew at Fathom’s a visit that night, sip white wine, indulge on their fresh oysters and take in the live music for the evening.  But, when we got there, we were incredibly disheartened to find Fathom’s was closed that night.  That night!?!  Of all nights.  It ‘ppears the good folks at Fathom’s only find it fit to open their doors to the rogue tourists of Carrabelle Thursday through Sunday and we had the good luck to come on a Wednesday.  But, we were only planning to spend only one night in Carrabelle so that was that.  No Fathom’s.  We headed back to The Fisherman’s Wife hoping to get some good ole’ Apalachicola Bay oysters there but we were thwarted again!  “We’re out of oysters,” she said.


“What else can I get ya?”  Bollucks!  We ended up sharing a perfectly fine Fisherman’s Fried Platter and calling it an early night.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the World’s Smallest Police Station and our downtown jaunt, we felt we’d satisfied our Carrabelle craving and we set our sights on Apalachicola in hopes of finding some good, local oysters tomorrow.  Also, the droopy withered docklines and power cord on our neighbor’s slip told us it was a good time to toss our fresh lines and get the heck out of Dodge.

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May 8, 2014:

“Seven point three!” I shouted, smiling goofily like a kid at the fair.


We were making 7.3.  We had a spectacular sail across the Apalachicola Bay.  And, it was high time, too.  As you recall we had spent the last 30 hours on passage in our SAILboat doing anything but sailing across the Gulf.  Have wind, will travel.  Have not, won’t.


So, we were thrilled to watch our boat frolic and sprint across the Bay.

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Phillip had to take a business call at one point and I remember him telling the guy, “Yeah, I’m not in the office today. Calling from out of town.  It’s a bit windy here.”  A bit windy ….   We were doing SEVEN POINT THREE!  An incredibly sporty sail across the Bay.  Nothing we love more.


We zipped across the Bay in just under five hours.  And, what’s even better?  You know what we saw as we were coming under the bridge to George St. Island?

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Mmmmhhh-Hmmmm … that’s right.  Oystermen!  Harvesting piles of oysters right out of the Apalachicola Bay.  We saw several boats out there harvesting.


“You save a couple dozen for us boys!” we shouted as we sailed by.  It was great to see them out there harvesting local oysters when we had heard so many times during the trip to/from the Keys that all of the oysters were coming exclusively from Texas and Louisiana.  We were excited to get our hands on some fresh, local oysters, harvested right out of the Apalachicola Bay!

As we made our way under the St. George Island bridge and into the mouth of the Apalachicola River,


we heard a lot of talk over the radio about how they had not dredged the pass into the Apalachicola River in a while and there was some shoaling to look out for.  As luck would have it, just as we were coming in, a large shrimp boat was coming out.


It was a tight squeeze, but he called us up on the radio and said there was plenty of depth for us on his port side.  Real nice guy and we were thankful he was communicative, knowledgeable about the pass and the depth and attentive to a sailboat making its way in under sail.  And, it was pretty cool to watch him pass by so close.  I swear I thought one of his big shrimping arms (yes, that’s what I call them) was going to snag our genoa.

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But, we made it through safe and sound under the John Gorrie Memorial bridge into the Apalachicola River and up to the City Dock.  We had checked out this dock many times when we spent time in Apalachicola while our boat was stuck in Carrabelle having the transmission replaced.  It was right downtown.  Just dock your boat, jump off, and you’re right in the heart of the hustle and bustle of ole’ Apalach.  Lookout!

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I fully expected someone to mozey by in a horse-drawn carriage any minute.

We weren’t sure about the depth coming in but we had heard the river was really high at the time (remember the torrential rains and flooding we’d had in April in Northwest Florida) so we figured that would work to our advantage.  We kept an eye on the depth and made our way in gently.  We also didn’t know if the docking was free or how it worked, but we eased up without hitting bottom and tied her off anyway, hoping to find out.  I guess the tourists in these parts do seem to get a little sneaky.


But, we’re an honest bunch of sneaks, so we started looking around for a contact and wouldn’t you know it, having just left the town with the world’s smallest police station, we found ourselves once again, resorting to the police.  There was a lone sign on a pole at the city dock that read: