Lost art rediscovered in the heart of Cortez

Cortez, Fla. – If these old boats could talk, they would tell of journeys to foreign nations, through storms and calm seas, of fish, swamps and good times and bad.

The boats sitting at the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks, 4404 116th St. W., Cortez, have been given a second life, and Rick Stewart to tell their stories.

Stewart, manager of Boatworks, specializes in wooden boats, but he, and a group of loyal volunteers that routinely joins him, renovate all types of boats donated to FISH.

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Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks manager, Rick Stewart, places a fresh cypress plank on the historic Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina at FISH Boatworks Aug. 13.

 

“This is art. Wooden boat building isn’t mechanical, it’s an art,” said Stewart.

The boats coming into FISH’s Boatworks are donated, often historical, and are restored to be sold to benefit FISH.

FISH is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Cortez Village’s maritime culture and history, as well as overseeing the FISH Preserve in Cortez.

Stewart said he has nearly 50 volunteers throughout the year and, in the off-season, he has eight steady volunteers.

“This place is a beehive in October. I need summer volunteers,” Stewart said.

The steady volunteers, Stewart said, are old-timers that have valuable skills relating to the vanishing art of wooden boat building and, they also have abundant knowledge of the area to impart to newcomers.

Stewart is actively seeking younger volunteers with any skill level to come to Boatworks 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, to learn the vanishing trade.

Stewart also is offering classes on the history and trade Saturday mornings at 9 a.m.

“I’m giving back to what I’ve learned in my younger years. I want young people to be involved in craftsmanship. They’re so involved in technology that’s coming out in rapid succession. This industry is about slowing down and handcrafting things and learning skills from elders,” Stewart said.

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A skeletal structure made of African mahogany will be a finished boat by February. It will be raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival in Cortez.

Inside the shop, vessels in various stages of restoration take up all but the little space left for walkways, including the skeleton for coquina-rowing skiff.

The skiff, which is only framework, will be a finished boat by February, and will be a raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Stewart builds or renovates a boat for the raffle at the festival every year.

The coquina-rowing skiff is made of African mahogany, replacing pressure-treated pine, which Stewart said is know as Cortez teak. Stewart plans to finish the wooden boat with varnish.

“This will really be beautiful when it’s finished,” he said. “It’s like a Harley-Davidson Sportster. It has those lines.”

Seventy-five percent of the materials used in the Little Coquina are recycled from other vessels on the property.

Raised on blocks on the outside porch is an old Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina which, translated means “peasant girl.” Stewart said the fishing boat has sat in the Boatworks yard for years, and with an increase in the Boatworks budget from FISH, he is finally able to restore it.

The previous year’s budget allotted Boatworks $6,000, and Stewart said the amount left him and his crew scraping by, and pushed major restorations off to the future.

The current year’s budget doubled to $12,000, allowing him to purchase lumber and tools necessary for larger projects, such as the Campesina.

“I love this boat. I only have two photos to work from to restore it, so it’ll never be historically accurate,” said Stewart.

But, like a skilled surgeon, Stewart can diagnose the needs of the vessel as he dissects it, and speculate about its history.

“This boat was nailed together, which is not typical. It was crudely built, but the skills used to build it are top notch, including the design. That tells me there was probably a lack of resources,” he said.

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The Ana Mendez, a reproduction of a longboat circa 1539, owned by De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton is undergoing renovations at FISH Boatworks.

Next to the Campesina sits a celebrity, the Ana Mendez. The Ana Mendez is government-owned, belonging to De Soto National Memorial. The reproduction longboat, circa 1539, is used in De Soto Memorial’s annual reenactment of the Spanish conquistador’s arrival to Florida’s shoreline.

The longboat also is used in parades and displays. Stewart said the Ana Mendez was originally made at Boatworks, and is on deadline to be used in a fall festival event at the end October at the park.

“This project is helping us build a relationship with De Soto Memorial. I feel like I’m doing a good thing because it’s for all the people,” Stewart said. “It’s one charitable organization helping another.”

The Boatworks building, housed on the northwest corner of the FISH preserve, also houses other celebrity boats including the Esperanza and the Sally Adams. Both historic vessels will be on display at Nov. 1 at the Sarasota Bay Water Festival at Ken Thompson Park in Sarasota and the Nov. 15 at the Florida Maritime Museum’s Boatyard Bash.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 20, 2014.

Birds, nudists edge for space on Passage Key

Anna Maria Island, Fla. – Those passing by Passage Key on their watercrafts get more than a view of the birds at the wildlife refuge.

Passage Key is a nationally designated wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a popular spot for nudists.

Mostly nude boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.
Boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.

The FWS released a statement in late June that said officials were surprised to see a reemerging sandbar, more than four acres in size where the National Wildlife Refuge, Passage Key was designated previously existed.

It had eroded and disappeared almost seven years ago.

“When Passage Key first started reemerging a few months ago, we were under the impression that it would vanish in weeks, like it had been in the previous 7 years. To everyone’s surprise, the sand has been continually accumulating, rising at several feet above the high-water mark,” said Stan Garner, FWS supervisory law enforcement officer, in the June release.

Officials also reported a high number of nesting colonies of least terns and loafing colonies of royal and sandwich terns, black skimmers, pelicans, oystercatchers and other shorebirds, amidst hundreds of visitors surrounding its shores.

However, the hundreds of visitors to the once submerged wildlife refuge are mostly nudists.

“The island has gotten overwhelming attention from the nudist community,” said Ivan Vicente, FWS visitors services specialist. “The thing is, the island came back up, so the nudist community tripled in the last four months and they claimed it as their nudist island.”

Extra markers were placed on the perimeter of the reemerging island, notifying visitors the area is a federally protected wildlife refuge.

Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.
Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.

Vicente said people are allowed to visit the island by boat, and stand in the water, but they cannot walk on land. The new markers allow people to stand in the shallow water around the island, while keeping them far enough away so as to not disturb the birds.

“Ever since it was established as a refuge, it was never allowed for people to be on it. We are reinstituting normal regulations. Now, even in high tide, part of the island is exposed. We don’t care about excluding people, we care about preserving the wildlife,” Vicente said.

Passage Key also is the site of a dispute that led to a suspicious death that is being investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

Vicente said a helicopter landed on Passage Key July 13 in an attempt to locate Pamela Carter Doster, who later died July 16 in at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.

The helicopter flushed the birds from the refuge, however Vicente said some of the birds have returned to feed and loaf.

Passage Key was the second established national wildlife refuge in 1905 by Theodore Roosevelt. The preserve is particularly important for nesting colonies of native seabirds and wading birds.

Passage Key also was the first refuge to be a federally designated Wilderness Area, in 1970 under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In the early 1900s, Passage Key was a 60-acre mangrove island with a freshwater lake.

Passage Key began to shrink following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The storms eroded away significant portions of the island. The refuge went completely underwater following the presence of hurricane Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.

“No one expected it. It’s almost like the hand of God dumped sand on the shoal,” said Vicente.

Officials have stepped up enforcement to keep people off the land, however Vicente said there isn’t constant enforcement.

Passage Key is jointly patrolled by the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We don’t a have a problem with nudity out there, as long as it’s not happening on land. We manage animals first and then people,” he said.

This article was originally published in The Islander August 13, 2014.

Wildlife Inc. faces funding woes

Bradenton Beach, Fla. – The home on Avenue B in Bradenton Beach looks like any other on the street. The exception is the large tortoises milling around the fenced front yard, the colorful parrots calling “Hello” along the side yard, and the cages stacked upon cages filled with various wildlife in the backyard.

Wildlife Inc., an education and rehabilitation center for wildlife, calls Bradenton Beach home in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood.

Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.
Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.

Amid the screeching of birds, Gail Straight co-owner of the rehab with husband Ed Straight, a Bradenton Beach commissioner, said the organization is now facing a new financial obstacle.

“We’re trying to find a sponsor. They’re discontinuing the blood drive on the island,” said Straight. “For us it’s a matter of life and death if we can’t find out where the money is going to come from.”

The annual island blood drive was a saving grace for Wildlife Inc., and benefitted three other island charities: Anna Maria Island Privateers, Anna Maria Island Community Center and the volunteer West Manatee Fire and Rescue Auxiliary.

Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated
Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated

During the island blood drive, donors chose one or shared $100, given by an anonymous donor among the four charities.

Straight said the blood drive was Wildlife Inc.’s single biggest fundraiser, providing on average $10,000 in the weekend-long event.

Other sources of income for Wildlife Inc., include donations collected at festivals, payments for shows and two small local grants. Straight said the nonprofit also receives a small amount of personal donations.

Wildlife Inc. brings shows into Manatee and Sarasota county schools, organized by education director David Sadkin, but Straight said the fee for educational programs in schools is low to make it more affordable for the school.

“If you apply for 100 grants, you might get one. That’s why the blood donations were so important,” Straight said.

She said they learned in July the blood donation program was moving off the island.

A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.
A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.

Straight said Wildlife Inc. has been getting in more hawks and owls, birds of prey that are expensive to feed and has spent $10,000 this year on rats and chicks to feed those birds.

Wildlife Inc. rescues wildlife from all over Tampa Bay. The rehabilitation center has been in operation in Bradenton Beach for 28 years, and a second educational location, has operated for four years at Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton.

Wildlife Inc. employee Damen Hurd cares for the animals at the Mixon location and leads tours.

“This is really going to hit us hard. Hopefully the public will step up and help us out. It’s really sad. There’s not a lot people who will give donations to wildlife, but all kinds of people call for us to rescue them. We want to do it, but it’s hard to continue when you’re pouring your own money into it,” Hurd said.

A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.
A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.

The expansion to Mixon’s served several purposes. The space on the farm houses many animals that could not be released back into the wild due to permanent injuries another, and gives Wildlife Inc. a platform to educate the public about local wildlife.

The wildlife tours are integrated into Mixon’s tours of the citrus groves. Hurd said Mixon charges $10 for adults, and $5 for children to take the tour. For every adult 50 cents and a quarter from each child’s ticket goes to Wildlife Inc. And Mixon built some of the wildlife enclosures.

“The whole goal coming out here was to support the rehab. Now expenses have gone up and it’s just not sustainable. We’re really taking a hit,” said Hurd.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 13, 2014.