In the Commodore’s Wake

A South Florida native searches for the ghost of Biscayne Bay pioneer Ralph Munroe while following the sailing routes of the inspired sharpies he designed

Seeking some peace and quiet, my wife, Theresa, and I slipped out of Coconut Grove early one Monday morning while the waterfront bars were shuttered and South Florida’s weekend boaters were safely stuck in traffic on I-95. It was a crystal day in February-blue sky, 78 degrees F, an east wind at 15 knots-the kind of winter day that Ralph Munroe would have appreciated.

Best known as "the Commodore"-a position he held for 22 years at the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, which he founded in 1893-Ralph Middleton Munroe was a sailor, boat designer, photographer, and South Florida pioneer whose name is synonymous with sailing in Biscayne Bay. His book, The Commodore’s Story: The Early Days on Biscayne Bay, co-written by Vincent Gilpin, offers a rare glimpse of the bay at the turn of the century, a world we hoped we still might find.

Aboard a chartered 31-foot Hunter, Theresa and I were bound for Key Biscayne, the island across the bay where I grew up. Originally, our trip was meant to be a brief escape-a three-day break from re-entry to land life after a decade of tropical cruising. But as we braced for our first winter in our new home in Newport, Rhode Island, a gift arrived by mail: the Commodore’s book, which I hadn’t read in years. A source of inspiration for my own boyhood adventures among the bay’s limestone keys and mangrove lagoons, the Commodore’s stories, as I reread them, soon gave shape to a more ambitious cruise. With a 19th-century chart, we plotted a course that would retrace the Biscayne Bay routes that the Commodore once sailed. Ideally, we’d get a chance to sail one of Munroe’s designs, perfectly suited for the bay’s shoal waters. We extended our intended truancy to 10 days and packed an extra bottle of sunscreen. February suddenly looked brighter.

Crocodile Logic

Five miles wide and extending about 35 miles from the Oleta River in North Miami Beach to Card Bank on Card Sound, west of Key Largo, Biscayne Bay forms a shallow basin set apart from the Gulf Stream and offshore reefs by a chain of coral keys, sand barrier islands, and sandbanks. When the Commodore first arrived from New York in 1877, only a handful of settlers lived along its shores, most of them clustered at the mouth of the Miami River, now fringed by the high-rises of downtown Miami.

"Panthers were still to be found, wild turkeys were plentiful, deer numerous, alligators of huge size filled every river and lagoon, green turtles swarmed on the southern beaches and shoal-water feeding grounds, and the cumbersome manatee was common," wrote Munroe, describing the Florida of his day.

Although the Florida panther and deer have retreated westward to the Everglades, Biscayne Bay still sustains hundreds of species of birds, fish, and reptiles that existed in Munroe’s day. Roughly 30 percent of the mangrove forests he explored still skirt the shoreline, forming the matrix for life in the bay by ensuring a healthy exchange of nutrients.

Before crossing the bay, we bore off southward toward Matheson Hammock, a large county park with a marina set on land donated by one of Munroe’s fellow pioneers, William Matheson, a coconut planter who once owned most of Key Biscayne. Training our binoculars on the park’s mangrove fringe, we searched the shoreline for crocodiles.

Gary Milano, an avid sailor and county naturalist, told me about the American saltwater crocodiles when I called a few weeks earlier. One of the 31 threatened or endangered species found in Biscayne Bay, Crocodylus acutus were already rare when Munroe died in 1933. But today, the bay’s apex predator is making a comeback, a fact that doesn’t sit well among some waterfront homeowners suddenly forced to reassess their position on the food chain.

"In the past few decades, we’ve made a lot of progress restoring habitat, and the crocodiles’ return is just one sign that it’s working," said Milano, who oversees habitat restoration throughout the bay. "People in South Florida don’t always agree, but I think most people recognize the importance of what we’re doing."

As we headed eastward toward Key Biscayne’s western shore, a familiar gust of wind funneled under Bear Cut Bridge, where, almost two decades earlier, friends and I would mark the end of each school year with three-story cannonballs. In the island’s lee, we ghosted past the helicopter pad at President Nixon’s former Winter White House, my favorite spot for watching sunsets after Watergate ran its course. A puff coming out of Hurricane Harbor lifted us around Mashta Point (Southwest Point on the charts, but known throughout the bay as Mashta Point), where I used to cast for tarpon from the scattered ruins of William Matheson’s mansion. It struck me that none of these places, the backdrop for the bay I knew as a boy, were around when Commodore Munroe first arrived.

Munroe sailed this same route during his first visit to the bay, when he called on John Frowe, the keeper of the Cape Florida Lighthouse. "The beauties and the possibilities of this country appealed to me at once strongly," Munroe wrote. "No sea lover could look unmoved on the blue rollers of the Gulf Stream and the crystal-clear waters of the reef, of every delicate shade of blue and green."

By the time Cape Florida State Park crept into view, Theresa and I caught a glimmer of that earlier time. On the fringes of Mashta Flats, two pelicans glided bare inches above the water, a blue heron stood motionless in the turtle grass, and an eagle ray traced graceful arcs with its slowly flapping wings. Once we set the anchor in the park’s No Name Harbor, we’d escaped the frenetic pace of the bay’s far shore. And we were fast in the Commodore’s wake.

An Earlier Time

When Munroe first arrived at Biscayne Bay by schooner from his home in Staten Island, the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne’s southern tip had for 50 years guided mariners along the reef-strewn offshore waters. Seven miles long and parallel to the Gulf Stream, which is only a few miles offshore, Key Biscayne was a sailor’s dream island. The Eastern Seaboard’s southernmost sand barrier island offered protected anchorages, fresh water, white-sand beaches, and warm, clear waters teeming with snapper, grouper, and kingfish. Munroe and the other Miami settlers would set sail from the mainland in their sharpies and catboats. On a good day, they could lay the island in three tacks. They’d swim, comb the broad ocean beach, catch fish, and run home with the sea breeze before the mosquitoes set in.

I climbed the lighthouse the summer I turned 10, shortly after I first pulled The Commodore’s Story from the shelves of the bookmobile that visited the island. Looking southeast toward Fowey Rocks Light, I imagined Munroe bound for the blue Gulf Stream aboard Egret, the stout, 28-foot sharpie he built for exploring the Florida coast. Though not as famous as his 41-foot, round-bilged sharpie, Presto (extolled by Gilpin in his book The Good Little Ship), Egret was the boat I always wanted-sound enough to weather a winter gale, shoal enough to be beached through surf. "She would run under whole sail in anything . . . like an arrow from a bow," wrote Munroe of his flat-bottomed double-ender.

That summer, I set my sights on a green smudge on the southern horizon, beyond Stiltsville, the small community of homes built on pilings driven into the flats fringing Biscayne Channel. I saw no palm trees, but Soldier Key looked just about the right size for a boy of 10. A few weeks after spying the island, I sailed my weathered pram there, tucking it among the mangroves that had taken root on the skeleton of an ancient coral reef.

The next summer, I claimed the scrub-covered Ragged Keys, a chain of smaller islands a couple of miles to the south. They were barren slivers of land, with rocky beaches at low tide. As a teenager, I found more pleasant spots farther down the bay, but the Ragged Keys were the ones to which I returned the most. Only last winter, when I picked up the Commodore’s book again, did I realize what had drawn me back: Those were halcyon days, and I wanted them to last.

"It is of course the atmosphere-the flavor-of these old times, which is of greatest significance in memory, and which is hardest to preserve and reproduce," Munroe wrote. "The bare facts of my early years on Biscayne Bay are of small moment to anyone, but as I look back there is a color-a tone, a resonance-a life, in those early days and their doings which is now unknown."

It was this aspect of our quest that intrigued me most: Could anyone truly go back? Though Munroe, in his final years, regarded the bay he loved as lost forever, I had a feeling that the moments that marked his life-and mine-were not so far out of reach.

Son of a Son of a Sailor

Two days before Theresa and I set sail, I decided to track down Charlie Munroe, the grandson of Ralph and an avid sailor. If anyone would know where I might find the Commodore’s bay, it would be Charlie. A retired IBM executive with a silver mane, aquiline features, and a faint New England accent, Charlie closely resembled the Commodore, minus the long, gray beard. "There have certainly been some changes since my grandfather’s day," Charlie said, as we skipped under a cloudless sky in Comanche, the 39-foot sloop designed by his father, Wirth, the Commodore’s son. "But on a day like today, I still think it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth."

Like his father, Wirth had a flair for designing boats that were as capable in the bay’s shoal waters as they were in a Gulf Stream norther. With the centerboard up, Comanche drew four feet eight inches, leaving room to spare for the inside route south to Key Largo and beyond. In the 18-knot trades, the bright-red hull fairly danced to windward. In the 1950s and 1960s, Comanche’s bubbling wake was a familiar sight to racers in the Southern Ocean Racing Conference.

As we flew southward, the water sparkled, and Charlie nodded as we passed The Barnacle-the Commodore’s Coconut Grove bayside home, now a state historic site-where Charlie grew up. His wife, Mimi, ducked below for drinks and snacks. In two weeks, they’d be setting out for the Strait of Magellan aboard the boat of a globe-trotting friend. It would be the trip of a lifetime, they said, yet I couldn’t imagine them being any happier than they were then, sailing on the bay they called home.

"In my grandfather’s day, they used to talk of buried treasure," Charlie said, keeping an eye on the streaming telltales. "But the real treasures are moments like this. We take them a little bit at a time and recognize them for what they’re worth."

Down by the River

Charlie’s advice had been what I’d expected: "Head south," he’d said.

Biscayne National Park, encompassing 181,000 acres of the southern bay and offshore reefs, preserves the world his grandfather knew. The park, stretching southward from Biscayne Channel to the northern tip of Key Largo, includes a chain of 33 islands and extends three miles east out into the Atlantic, where the Florida Reefs end abruptly at the edge of blue water.

Elliot Key, the largest island in the group, once sheltered the pirate Black Caesar, after whom Caesar Creek, between Elliott and Old Rhodes keys, is named. Today, the narrow, 17-square-mile island is one of Florida’s last sanctuaries for such hammock hardwoods as gumbo-limbo, lignum vitae, and mahogany. Over 150 species of birds, including the least tern and the piping plover, both endangered species, feed, rest, or breed within the park. The islands within the park are the only place where one might see in the wild the rare Schaus Swallowtail butterfly, only a few hundred of which today remain.

But before we left Miami behind, I wanted to return to the Miami River, where Ralph Munroe first made a small camp for his family in 1881.

Epicenter of a population explosion from 4,500 to 1.9 million people in less than a century, the Miami River would seem the last place to search for the Commodore’s lost Eden. Although the flow the Seminoles called miami-sweet water-no longer runs gin clear, it would captivate any lover of working waterways. For me, the riverfront represents the raw, unadulterated Miami, a place that, as the Commodore put it, still retains "a tang, a reality . . . which are of necessity lost in a great winter resort."

In a span of less than a mile, we drifted past shipyards buzzing with the sound of grinders, herring gulls wheeling over the fishing wharves, and Haitian and Dominican freighters listing against creosote-stained pilings. Erased by riverfront development at the turn of the century, no traces of Munroe’s camp remain. Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that his spirit still lived in this place, and in the watermen who called it home. After rounding a bend in the river, we met Pedro Perez, who was finishing the interior of his modified, 45-foot, Chapelle-designed ketch.

A retired shipyard worker, Perez has been building the boat for most of his life. It was moored in front of his home, a tidy, white-stucco house sited not far from where, during the Commodore’s day, entrepreneur Henry Coppinger Jr. taught Seminole Indians to wrestle alligators for Miami’s first tourists. "I grew up on a farm in Cuba, and no one in my family liked the sea," said Perez, who emigrated to Miami in 1954 when he was 22. "But I’ve always felt like I belonged on the ocean. I sometimes think that in my former life I sailed on a Spanish ship. I see it in my dreams."

As he spoke, the river tugs shepherded freighters down the narrow waterway. Each time a ship squeezed by, Perez would stop in midsentence, silently watch, then pick up where he left off. Our conversation rambled-from hurricanes past to the trading schooners he sailed to the merits of mahogany for planking. He had big dreams for his boat. "Too many people think money, money, money," he sighed. "I try to keep my life simple. I want to sail to Central America, maybe find an island for me and my wife."

Into the Bay

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| (C)Billy Black|

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| Theresa and I kayak the mangrove channels leading into Jones Lagoon in Biscayne National Park.* * *|

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| After a solid night’s sleep in No Name Harbor, I awoke feeling disoriented. Before Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, the winds at Cape Florida whispered through tall casuarina, a fast-growing invasive species introduced to keep newly dredged land from blowing away in the trades. Ironically, the trees themselves finally blew away, leaving the anchorage strangely quiet.

When Andrew flattened the casuarina forest with 110-mph winds, environmentalists pounced on the chance to turn back the clock. Now, a $20 million restoration effort has taken hold in the state park. Saw palmetto, Biscayne prickly ash, and cabbage palm are taking root again, and summer full moons bring 70 to 80 nesting green turtles to the oceanside beach. The long, sandy strand consistently ranks as one of the nation’s best for bathers as well.

The Commodore might recognize this stretch of shore, but the landscape was new to me. Amid seven acres of newly planted mangrove lay a small sandy islet designed to attract the endangered least tern, a bird doomed by its dependence on beaches, its chosen nesting grounds.

We left at dawn under a pastel sky, following brown pelicans as they headed south. To the east lay their fishing grounds, the Safety Valve, a name the Commodore gave to the shoals, laced with deepwater cuts, that extend south from Key Biscayne for seven miles. The tidal currents that rush through these narrow passes ferry an entire food chain between the offshore reefs and the bay. Pursued by schools of yellow jack, threadfin herring spooled in an eddy near one of the seven Stiltsville homes spared by Andrew. Any fish that could escape the pursuers from below would face the pelicans that plummeted from above.

Egret could work her way into these shallows with ease. One of the Commodore’s favorite pursuits along this stretch of banks was leading so-called "banking trips." Wading in this expanse of sticky marl and sea grass, his guests’ initial reluctance would give way to the excitement of new discoveries-brittle stars, conchs, crabs, sea fans, sea hares, and urchins.

"There were always exclamations of dismay from the novices," wrote Gilpin, who frequently accompanied the Commodore on these trips, "but they turned into cries of wonder and admiration when the marvelous complexity of life began to reveal itself."

Island Hopping

Once south of the Safety Valve, we threaded through shoals east of Featherbed Bank and set our sights on Boca Chita Key, a tiny island with an extinguished lighthouse and a small basin nine miles south in Biscayne National Park.

Heating-control magnate Mark Honeywell filled in parts of Boca Chita when he bought it in 1937, but park status has preserved the surrounding islands as Munroe knew them. Nearly 95 percent water, Biscayne became a national park in 1976, 11 years after a bitter fight in Congress to have the area-at the time destined to become the next Miami Beach-proclaimed a national monument.

We spent two nights at Boca Chita, in the company of one other boat and our feathered hosts. Great egrets, spotted sandpipers, and palm warblers staked out their territories on the east side. In the evening, royal terns, brown pelicans, and cormorants played musical chairs with the pilings in the basin.

From Boca Chita, we poked our way southward, making several stops along the way. On Elliot Key, we walked the cross-island trail, where large spiders called golden-orb weavers spin their webs between buttonwoods. We picnicked on Adams Key, home to two park rangers and their children who live a Swiss Family Robinson life there. In Jones Lagoon, between Old Rhodes and Totten keys, we explored by kayak as a black skimmer traced ice-skater patterns on the water and mangrove snappers peered out from the mangrove prop roots. At our southernmost stop, we anchored for a night just north of Key Largo near Angelfish Creek, gateway to the east and north to some of the best and least crowded coral reefs in the Upper Keys.

Influenced by Gulf Stream back eddies, the water over the Florida Reefs was just as the Commodore had described it: "a sort of liquid light." Big barracuda lurked along the deep edges of the reefs. Banded butterfly fish, parrot fish, and queen angels flitted within the clusters of elkhorn, stag, and brain coral. Tiny damselfish defended their algae farms, nipping at our fingertips and fins.

The fish and the birds were often our only company; in five days in the islands, we saw few boats and, on our forays ashore, only four people. The occasional jet or powerboat broke the silence; otherwise, we heard only the croaking of cormorants, the soft drum of waves, and the rustle of palm fronds. The trade winds blew consistently, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. And our four-and-a-half-foot keel never touched bottom, no easy feat for a keelboat of any draft.

When we returned to Boca Chita on our last evening, we took the flashlight and watched juvenile lobster prowl the sea grass near Boca Chita. We counted 11 in only a few minutes. That night, not even the loom of Miami could shatter the illusion that we were alone on an empty coast. At sunset on the sixth day, we threaded through Featherbed Bank and headed back to Key Biscayne. A quarter moon rose above Cape Florida as we slipped past Mashta Flats and found a spot among several anchored sailboats off the Nixon helipad. At the end of a perfect reach, we were home, back in the world of man. Only one thing remained to be done.

Aboard Egret

I met Terry Coulliet, the state’s keeper of The Barnacle, late the next afternoon outside the boathouse where the Commodore drew the lines of nearly all of his 57 designs. Today, the pine cottage serves as a workshop for South Florida’s wooden-boat enthusiasts-Munroe devotees who need to be persuaded that the Commodore’s friend, Nat Herreshoff, had his own claim to fame.

After admiring the work in progress-a small Bahamian sloop-we walked down the long dock beyond the boathouse to where a gleaming sharpie was moored. I stepped aboard and raised the boat’s sails while Coulliet poled us to deeper water. Seconds later, we were skimming along in the state of Florida’s replica Egret, just inches above the turtle grass.

As I scanned the shoreline for signs of crocodile (I hadn’t given up), the little boat picked up speed. We skirted a dry flat where a great blue heron hunted, silhouetted in golden light. The sun was dropping fast. Silently, not four feet ahead, a dark shadow broke the surface. For that split second, I heard no other sound but the quiet whoosh of air. The young manatee surfaced so closely that we could see its small eyes, glistening like black pearls.

"They come here often," said Coulliet, as he leaned over the windward rail. We both turned our heads and watched in awe as the manatee disappeared in our wake.

It was one of those wondrous moments on Biscayne Bay that the Commodore would have appreciated-moments far more beautiful than any memory.

Two days later, as Theresa and I crossed Biscayne Bay by bridge on our way to the airport, I replayed my impressions of the place, sensations I was sure the Commodore and I both shared. I knew the Commodore would be smiling at the goings-on below: the naturalist Gary Milano tending an island for birds at Cape Florida; the Commodore’s grandson, Charlie Munroe, chasing the winds through Bear Cut; and the old Cuban, Pedro Perez, testing his new mainsail on a reach to Elliot Key. The images reminded me of what keeps bringing me back to Biscayne Bay: plenty of wildlife, fine winter sailing, and the promise of tropical islands. Some things, it seems, never change.

Darrell Nicholson, a CW associate editor, returns often to Biscayne Bay to visit family, commune with the wildlife, and defrost.