"We can't direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails."
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, never has a nautical axiom resonated so well — not only for the world, but also for the fishing and boating communities of the Emerald Coast.
For some Okaloosa County residents, the ability to set sail for a few hours or even a few days to fish or frolic in the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico has offered a well-needed reprieve from an omnipresent crisis.
Brady Bowman has captained Bow'd Up, a 52-foot Gulf fishing boat based out of Destin, since 2005, and he’s been fishing the Gulf Coast since 1983. He enjoys seeing people catch their first fish as much he likes catching fish himself.
Although business has been slow — Bowman said he ran only one paying charter in month of April — he and his friends, deckhands and brother-in-law went cobia fishing "seven, eight or 10 times" during the same month "just to go do it."
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"We did good one day or a couple of days, and we did not so good a bunch of days," Bowman said. "But that was another way just to get away from it all … If we’re not charter fishing, I’m dang sure gonna go out there and try my luck at catching a cobia."
Cobia season typically lasts from mid March to the first week of May, he said. Thus far, so has COVID-19, the pandemic diminishing the desire to charter Gulf fishing trips of any kind amid CDC recommendations to stay home and limit nonessential travel. Likewise, Bowman said the statewide ban on vacation rentals, which was implemented March 27 and only began easing on Friday, wiped out a large percentage of his clientele.
However, the pandemic didn’t wipe out the need for fish. Facing short-term food shortages when grocery stores were picked dry in March, Bowman turned to the Gulf to feed his family.
"At the time, there was no steak, no chicken, no pork chops," he said. "There was no paper towels, no nothing. We were like, ‘Well, shoot. At least there’s a chance we can go out there and catch a Spanish mackerel or a king mackerel or a cobia. At least we’ll have some dinner.’"
As store shelves have restocked, Bowman has continued to fish and continues to feel safe despite operating in close-quarters with his friends and crew.
"You try to be self-distancing, but you can’t really self-distance when you’re up there in the tower," Bowman said. "We all had our hand cleaner and stuff, and some guys wore not necessarily a mask but their sun-shield. It’s not like we were kissing each other or nothing like that … We did the best we can.
"Nobody was ever coughing or sick, and if they were, I wasn’t gonna let ’em on the boat. Fortunately, we never came across that."
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And so long as that continues, fishing will provide safe haven from the viral storm raging on land.
"It was nice," Bowman said. "Whether it be four hours, six hours or eight hours, it was nice."
James Jeter can attest, though his excursions have lasted a bit longer recently.
A member of the Fort Walton Yacht Club since 2004 and an avid racer for much of the past decade, Jeter has been sailing since he was a fifth-grader, and through a 25-year career in the Air Force he did his best to stay close to the water. Since he moved back to the Emerald Coast in 1996 and began working at Eglin Air Force Base as a civil servant testing software, Jeter has "owned one boat or another most of those years."
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Today, Jeter and his wife, Mary, the chorus teacher at Pryor Middle School in Fort Walton Beach, own a 32-foot Catalina 320. Although the yacht club has closed for the time being and all of its events have been postponed or canceled, they continue to sail recreationally every chance they get; they just returned from a four-night trip this past Sunday, Jeter said.
"It is a really nice getaway to anchor in some spot by yourself and spend the night with the breeze blowing," he said. "We anchored up one night just east of Pensacola Beach up against the island, and we could hear the surf on the other side of the sand dunes from our boat.
"When you get up in the morning, you see dolphins and the birds and everything. It’s really nice."
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The Jeters have done their best to share those experiences, too. Long before the coronavirus entered the public consciousness, they began inviting their friends out to sail with them — the Catalina sleeps six comfortably — and that has continued through the first two months of the pandemic "on a selective basis," Jeter said. If any of his friends feel up to the excursion and have been taking care of themselves, Jeter is more than happy to welcome them aboard.
Be it with friends or only Mary, Jeter said sailing has been a welcome break from staring at the three laptops he had to bring home when his office transitioned to working remotely.
"We try to take advantage of the flexibility," Jeter said. "As long as I get my work done and get my hours logged, I can use my time elsewhere to do what I like, which is sail."
Fellow Fort Walton Yacht Club members Scott and Jenny Bailey have also attempted to make use of the flexibility working remotely offers with some extreme ingenuity on a recent five-day voyage.
The Baileys, who bought their first sailboat, a 37-foot Island Packet 350, in 2015, both work as contractors at Eglin Air Force Base; like Jeter, they have spent much of the past two months out of the office and in their home, so why not work at sea?
"The dream has always been to spend time on the boat," Jenny Bailey said. "The problem has always been that we’ve always had to work. When they started to telework, it took us a couple weeks to figure out how we could telework while on the boat.
"So, that’s what the plan was: To spend as much time on the boat as we could while still working and still getting paid for it."
It was a good idea in theory, Scott Bailey said, until the dolphins showed up.
"What we discovered is when we’re out there, when we’re down below working, we would hear a dolphin circling the boat, so we would come up to see the dolphins," he said. "We actually found work to be a distraction, and we didn’t feel it was a good mix between using the sailboat for pleasure and working as well."
From here on out, the Baileys said, their boat is reserved for delightful escapes only.
And make no mistake, escaping is what it feels like. From the virus that has taken more than 100,000 lives in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University data. From the endless news cycle. From the dark cloud hanging over a society that feels paused indefinitely.
Scott Bailey said he feels guilty about it — to own a freedom many don’t possess. Bowman and Jeter said they feel fortunate.
"We can enjoy our thing, but there are a lot of people who are not sailors or their recreational activities involve larger groups of people," Jeter said. "Whether it’s golf or softball or going to movies, they can’t do their thing, but we can, so I feel pretty fortunate that we have that outlet."