The Gulf of Honduras Bridge Is Not On The Charts!

 

 Sailing south along the coast of Belize

 

Sailing south non stop for over twenty hours along the Caribbean coast of Belize between the mainland and the Belize Barrier Reef where the seas are low; winds over twenty knots, the boat doing eight, at times nine knots. The miles go fast. Small mangrove islands to port, tall mountains to starboard, dark and mysterious, a huge river delta poring its brown waters in the sea.

At night, we try to take turns steering the boat, Ivo, Viktor, and I, but most of the time Ivo is at the helm, enjoying the speed. As we enter the Gulf of Honduras, the wind dies and the sea becomes flat as a lake. Staying awake is a challenge. Humongous cargo ships criss-cross the gulf, passing just next to our tiny boat. One even alters her course avoiding us. Good thing she saw us.

 

The Gulf of Honduras bridge

 

Around 3 in the morning Ivo wakes me up after a sharp tack, worried.

„There is a bridge in front of us and it looks low, we almost crashed into the bridge!“

„What bridge are you talking about, I don’t see a bridge.“ All I see is city lights in the distance. I take the spotlight and gaze into the darkness.

„The bridge, there, don’t you see it? Shit, it’s not on the chart! And that’s exactly where we have to go, it’s on our way!“

 

Ivo

Ivo

 

He really sees a bridge. Viktor and I try hard, staring into the darkness to see it too. Ivo has convinced us the bridge is right there, only, we cannot detect it…

We spend an hour circling in front of the bridge, altering our course in order not to collide with it, checking another chart to see if they maybe indicated it there. They didn’t. Sometimes the charts are way off, but omitting to mark a creepy low bridge in the middle of the Gulf of Honduras is preposterous!

„Wait a minute, this isn’t a bridge, I say, this is a road on land far away in the distance and you are hallucinating! Go get some sleep,“ I take over the wheel for the rest of the night and turn the boat directly towards the imaginary bridge.

Ivo goes below to get some sleep thinking to himself, „Man I hope she doesn’t hit the bridge…“

 

 

weekly writing challenge

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Inside The Storm

„When in the wind’s eye she refused to go farther and with all her sails aback she slowly forged astern. Back, back, until every watcher’s heart was ready to burst with suspense, back to that fearful maelstrom. Back, to the octopus whose arms were extended to receive the doomed ship and her crew. Back, till in the hollow of a huge wave her stempost struck the sand beneath and the story is told.“

-An account of the 1849 storm and the wreck of the Hanover, by Milton Spinney, son of the keeper.

 

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Imagine you could get to a small Caribbean island, one hundred percent virgin, covered with lush tropical vegetation, bordered by a long stretch of white powdery sand where you can go for walks in the morning and collect pink seashells, surrounded by waters so crystal and fresh you just snorkel all day among purple corals and fish. Imagine you can get there for free and stay for as long as you like to, never having to pay for airplane tickets and hotels. There, you don’t even have to worry about food. The avocado and mango trees are loaded with fruit, lazy lobsters and fat fishes are begging to be fillet and barbecued, and watch out for those big coconuts constantly falling from the palm trees just next to your bare feet. Totally free!

This is what you sign up for when you give up house and job, when you buy a sailboat and load all your belongings and kids aboard, and one fresh April morning you lift anchor, spread the sails, and chose a direction.

This island experience is not some romantic totally unrealistic representation of the cruising family’s journey. We are enjoying such moments since a few months now. The only detail that is not completely true, besides the coconuts falling next to your bare feet (if you want a nice coconut, you have to climb up the palm and get it!), is the „totally free“ part. Everything has a price, especially freedom. And not everyone is willing to afford the price of ‘free travel’. Sometimes this price can be as high as your very life and the life of your children. But you only realize that when you hit your first storm.

August 23

We are tired after a day of sailing and we still haven’t found a protected place to anchor. It is dark when we clear the reef and drop anchor just past the breakers, in sixteen feet of water, not too close to the shore of a small island where we can see the lights of a few houses. Belize City glows in the distance, further west. We are now in Belize.

This isn’t really an anchorage, there are no other boats, and between us and the sea is just a tiny stripe of coral reefs which are calming the waves a bit, but are unable to slow down the south winds. Our plan is to spend a few days here, check out the islands and snorkel around the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But Neptune had other plans for us.

The next morning we wake up under heavy skies. A black cloud almost touching the sea is getting closer and closer from the south-east and soon a thick and dark wind full of rain descends upon us squealing and roaring and howling. Here comes the crazy old man riding upon the storm like a demon coming from the deep, mighty and furious. Lightnings slit the darkness around us followed by terrific explosions. We no longer see the shores of the island, we see nothing. The GPS says we are dragging anchor and fast. We turn on the motors and try to keep the boat from crashing into the reefs or to shore, but we have no idea which direction to turn, plus the wind is way stronger than the engines to be able to turn. Total chaos.

Good thing we dropped anchor away from the reefs and the shore and we had enough space to ‘drag safely’ for an entire mile. After some time, I have no idea how long the squall lasted, the wind calms down a bit, giving us enough time to reanchor and let out 300 feet of chain. Then it hits again. This time we don’t drag. We take GPS position every half an hour. The storm like a vulture circles above us and assaults us many times in the next couple of days and nights. Each squall is worst than the previous with winds of 40, then 50, then 60 miles per hour. But the boat takes it. We even get used to it and start playing cards.

On the third day looks like the worst has passed. The sky is still grey, the wind is still blowing hard but steady and the sea is rough, but no more squalls. Our wind-vane which anyway wasn’t working is missing and we are exhausted, but everything else is fine. It could be a lot worst. We could have been at sea and not at anchor, what would we have done then? Probably, for the experienced sailor, this would have seamed just a swirl of clouds. To us it was a hurricane. Later we found out that it was tropical storm Erin.

Time to sail the hell away from here, forget about snorkeling and visiting Belize, we now just want to get to Guatemala as soon as possible. Thus, we never set foot on Belize land, nor in Belize waters, we never met a single Belizean man or animal, although technically we spent a few days in Belize. Our memory of this country is populated by the terrible sounds of the storm. And the story is told.

 

Inside The Storm

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A Perfect Day At Sea

 

Caribbean Blue

Caribbean Blue

 

 

„What is your favorite color?“

„I love the colors around me“

It’s so peaceful. The world flows all around us. The sea, like a little girl gently carrying a butterfly on the palm of her hand carries our little boat, her white wings luminous against the sun. The liquid blue is poring beneath. I could dip my brush inside the ocean and paint blue jays, sapphires, eyes, moons, igloos at dusk, forget-me-nots till the rest of my life. My vision has become equine.

Some days at sea are truly perfect. Such days begin with a perfect candy-colored sunrise and end with a perfect candy-colored sunset. Orange, purple and pink clouds burst over the horizon during those two short spectacular moments, and then: just blue again. We sail.

Blue dolphins.

„Why do dolphins make us act like idiots?“

„I think they heard the music, some funny song they probably like, and that is why they came to dance around us.“

And we lough and we giggle, we call them and talk to them as if they understand. Surely they understand.

Blue wind.

„Wind is blowing from the right direction with the right velocity: five on the Beaufort scale. That is not too much and it is not too little.“

„It is perfect“

The sails are full and tight and shiny like the belly of a pregnant woman. We sail.

We fish. Fishing is important. We stick two fishing poles on both sides of the boat so that they are really stable and will not fall in the water when the fish pulls. Thus we don’t have to hold the fishing poles. We let the lures drag about five waves behind the boat. We wait and we listen for the sudden hiss of the line. Both lines pull almost at the same time! First one and a second later the other! Swish. (One). Swish. We panic. But it is a happy panic full of excitement. We bring in two identical tunas. Twins. The next couple of days, we don’t fish.

Some days at sea are truly perfect. This was one such day. Somewhere in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Mexico. And it happened to be my birthday, I am not joking. The sunrise, the blue of the sea, the wind, the dolphins, two tunas, a perfect sunset. Neptune sending me gifts.

 

 

Mira and her Birthday Gifts

Mira and her Birthday Gifts

 

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Playa del Carmen: Mayan Ruins and Sea Turtles

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August 18.

We pick up the anchor and leave Isla Mujeres heading south.  (The windlass suddenly doesn’t work, so Ivo has to bring the chain and anchor up by hand.) Our destination: Rio Dulce, Guatemala, a hurricane hole famous among the cruising community. Lots of boats spend the unstable summer months here as Rio Dulce is one of the most protected anchorages in the Caribbean and storms rarely visit this pace. The distance we have to sail is about 450 nautical miles, at least 4-6 days of sailing depending on the wind and if we don’t stop at night.

But we have to be mad not to stop, we are sailing parallel to Riviera Maya, keeping close to shore, and on our starboard side are some of the most beautiful Mexican beaches and resorts. Why not spending some quality time in a five-star ultra luxurious resort (or somewhere near it) for free?

 

Hotel Pool, Playa del Carmen

Hotel Pool at a 5-star resort, Playa del Carmen

 

After a few hours of uneventful sailing we drop anchor just south of the crowded Playa del Carmen after the last hotel right in front of the beach. There is not a single anchorage here, so we are hoping for calm winds and seas at night. The next day we explore.

 

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

For the first time we leave our boat anchored in front of a beach, alone, in a country notorious for its high crime rate. There is no dinghy dock here, so we paddle to shore and finally Viktor brings the kayak back to the boat and swims to shore with a bag full of shoes. Thus we don’t have to worry at least for the kayak. We head to town.

 

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

 

Once a small fishermen village, today Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination with modern gated hotel complexes and condominiums, downtown area with shopping plazas and boutiques, internationally recognized chain restaurants and bars, and luxury department stores.

 

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

 

From here we go to Tulum to check out the ruins. If we had a good detailed chart or/and a cruising guide explaining how and where to clear the reef breakers, we could have sailed to Tulum, a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, and anchored just in front of the God of Winds Temple perched on the edge of a bluff, facing the sunrise. But we don’t have a guide and the chart doesn’t show any depths beyond the reef, so we take the bus instead.

 

Mira in Tulum

Mira in Tulum

 

Tulum, City of Dawn, is one of the last Mayan cities and one of the best preserved Mayan sites. (Maya did not have to pay admission because of her name. Joke. Because kid under 13 enter for free.) We are impressed by the size of its territory and the number of individual structures: temples, palaces, frescoes, platforms. But the hundreds of tourists invading the ruins inevitably spoil the entire experience. At some point we just want to run away from there. Plus, we are getting worried for Fata.

 

Tourists at Tulum

Tourists at Tulum

 

We get back at the boat in the afternoon to find her undisturbed, quietly waiting for us. The next day we spend walking around the coast. South of the last hotel and sandy beach is a rocky deserted shore where we notice at least twenty recent sea-turtle nests. Suddenly, we spot a coati digging in the sand. The animal runs away and hides in the bushes as we approach. There is blood and turtle eggshell. He’s been eating recently hatched baby sea-turtles! We find two survivors and keep them in a bucket covered with sand, like Suzy did back at Loggerhead Island. We plan to release them on the beach around midnight.

 

Ivo with a baby green turtle

Ivo with a baby green turtle

 

It’s midnight, full moon. Ivo and I paddle with the kayak to the beach to release the two baby turtles. One is dead. The other one swims away. And then, we see a huge green turtle just finished laying her eggs, exhausted, covered with sand, heading back to the Caribbean Sea. I can’t resist and snap a picture. She tolerates us, ignores us, and disappears in the black waters of the night. We are overwhelmed. Was it a dream?

 

A green sea-turtleheading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

A green sea-turtle heading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

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Marina Hemingway to Cayo Levisa

 

Leaving Marina Hemingway

After a week and a half in Marina Hemingway, inadequately expensive, noisy, mosquito-infested place with terrible facilities, we are eager to leave and sail west. On the way out of the marina, we have to clear la guarda and immigration again. In Cuba, you have to go through this painful process every time you enter or exit a port. Even if you go for a two-hour sail near the shore and comeback to the same port, which we’ve done once while in Marina Hemingway, you have to check out and check back in with la guarda and immigration, as if you are leaving the country and then coming back. This means: officials on board inspecting your passports, boat documentation, and the boat itself, before authorizing the move. I believe, Cuba is the only country who does this to cruisers. Unpleasant.

 

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.  Here Ivo and an immigration officer paddle the kayak, El Poderoso (the name of the kayak means The Mighty One in Spanish) back from the boat anchored at Cayo Levisa. Fastest kayak ride ever, said Ivo.

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.
Here Ivo and an immigration officer paddle the kayak, El Poderoso (the name of the kayak means The Mighty One in Spanish) back from the boat anchored at Cayo Levisa. Fastest kayak ride ever, said Ivo.

 

Our plan is to sail 60 miles west to Cayo Levisa and spend a few days there, then continue to Cabo San Antonio, the westernmost tip of the island before crossing over to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

We hoist the main sail and the jib early in the morning on August 4, but there is not much wind until noon. The ocean surface is calm and sleek like the skin of a sleeping manatee. The boat barely moves with 1,5 knots.

 

Viktor and Maya are doing some laundry while the boat  gently sails west.

Viktor and Maya are doing some laundry while the boat gently sails west.

 

In the afternoon the wind picks up from the east and we start making good progress doing about 6-7 knots, wing-on-wing. Our autopilot and wind gauges don’t work since we started this journey, so we never know what is the wind speed, and we constantly hand-steer the boat. These are two major things we have to work on as soon as possible, but for now we just make the best of it. We became really good at ‘feeling’ the boat while steering and guessing the wind. They certainly didn’t have wind indicators and autopilots in the old times, is our consolation.

Thus we sail west all day along the Cuban north coast keeping a safe distance from the reef breakers, on the edge of the indigo-colored Gulf Stream. On our left slowly float by soft green hills, deserted beaches, and small coastal villages.

As the sun prepares to dive behind the horizon, we prepare to clear the reef and find an anchorage behind Cayo Levisa. It has been a long day.

 

Cayo Levisa

 

Fata Morgana is the only sailboat at Cayo Levisa anchorage.

Fata Morgana is the only sailboat at Cayo Levisa anchorage.

 

Cayo Levisa is a tiny mangrove island with a long stretch of fine sand on the north side. Tourists, mainly from Italy and France, arrive here daily, but the place is never overcrowded, as there aren’t any hotels, but a few coquette wooden bungalows alongside the beach. I wonder, how much it would cost to come here and rent one of these for a week. The good thing about sailing is that you can visit places like this and stay as long as you want for the reasonable amount of zero.

 

Cayo Levisa Beach

Cayo Levisa Beach

 

We even get a huge pile of fruits and vegetables as a gift from a guy who works here. Marcus is  one of those rare people with open hearts and minds and a talent for kindness and benevolence. „Remember, not all Cubans are like those you met in Havana. In the countryside, people are welcoming, honest, and generous, even if they are poor“, he tells us with a perfect English. This little gesture illuminated our entire Cuban experience and restored our faith in this country’s ordinary people.

 

An unexpected gift.

An unexpected gift.

 

The next couple of days we spend with Harley and April who followed us here from Havana. Together we go snorkeling on the reefs in the morning, feeding with leftovers the thousands of yellowtails and sergeant-majors swarming near the corrals who come and take small pieces of food from our hands. We spend the afternoons on the beach submerged in the warm shallow waters only our heads sticking out, like a family of hippopotamuses, around a small surf board where we rest our beers, exchanging stories.

 

Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa

 

And in the evenings, the kids stay on the boat and watch Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3, while we go on shore to the small restaurant and dance on the beach. April brings two cords with scorched tennis-size balls at the ends where we attach glowing sticks because we couldn’t find kerosine and teaches us to fire-dance but without the fire (and a good thing too, especially for beginners). Ivo is natural and ambitiously masters most of the moves in just a few hours. The tourists are sitting at a safe distance, watching us.

 

Maya drinking Cola at the beach restaurant

Maya drinking Cola at the beach restaurant

 

Although we enjoy our time in Cayo Levisa, we get disappointed again when we try to go on the other side to the mainland and visit La Esperanza, a tiny fishermen village nearby. The authorities tell us we cannot go. Even if Harley and April would stay behind and keep an eye on our boat, we are not aloud to set foot anywhere except Cayo Levisa. The explanation is that there is no customs and immigration authorities there to clear us in (although we already cleared three times in Cuba…) It’s ridiculous. Not being able to go on shore and explore the country’s rural interior is the biggest downside of visiting Cuba by boat.

The next morning, we lift anchor and sail off to our last Cuban destination: Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio.

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Sailing to Cuba

 

 

Sailing from Dry Tortugas Florida to Havana Cuba was our first offshore passage. We did 95 nautical miles in 29 hours, never used the engines, only winds.

July 23, Tuesday.

The morning of the first day is calm: flat seas, clear skies, very light winds. Our maximum speed is 2.0 knots. Minimum speed 0.0 knots. A few hours later, we could still see the lighthouse of Loggerhead Key behind us. Thus, we drift and wait for winds…

becalmed

becalmed

We expected a strong current to affect our course at night once we hit the Gulf Stream, but we don’t notice anything of the sort. Only stronger winds and more waves, which were welcome after a day of nearly deadcalm. Or maybe the fact that we first sailed west to Dry Tortugas and then south- southeast to Cuba made our crossing of the Gulf Stream, one of the most powerful currents in the world, easy. The full moon is a welcome companion and invaluable light source creating a silvery path for the boat to follow.

The next day, our average speed is 4 knots. The sea is beautiful, full of curious dolphins playing around the boat. Two cargo ships pass behind us booming slowly, metal giants going somewhere far. At noon, tiny fishing boats start to appear. Tall buildings emerge on the horizon. Hola Havana!

Cuban Fishermen

Cuban Fishermen

As we are slowly approaching our destination, we feel excited and proud, as we have just accomplished something very important. I face the shore line: Havana’s grey buildings to the left, green mountains to the right, and call out as loud as I can: „Cuba!“

Fisherman near Havana

A boy fishing near Havana

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Our Key West

Key West is a fantastic little city. A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem. If only there were not so many tourists…

Still, we absolutely loved living on a boat anchored just opposite Mallory Square; riding bikes through the narrow streets carpeted with tiny yellow flowers fallen from huge trees and iguana droppings; eating sandwiches at The Cuban Coffee Queen tossing occasional crumbs to the paranoiac wild roosters proliferating all over Monroe County; roaming through downtown in the evenings with friends and a backpack full of beers; or making a small fire after sunset on the coral covered shores of a mangrove island.

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Most of all, we will miss our friends. We played a six hundred year old plastic bottle game in front of The Green Parrot, we waited for the afternoon rain to stop on the terrace in front of Turtle Kraals looking out at the grey waters calm under the raindrops. We sailed. Aboard Fata Morgana, Rocksteady, and The Liquid Courage, we dreamed together and planned the future.

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It’s time to leave, one more time. To part. It has been twelve years since we arrived in America. We didn’t land here by plane, we got here swimming across a dark river. We arrived wet. And that is how we are leaving, twelve years later, the waters again will carry us some place else.

As you are reading this, we will be probably somewhere in Cuba, if not at the bottom of the sea.

Farewell Key West, we left a lock of Maya’s red hair and a piece of our hearts on the dinghy docks, next to the tarpon pond.

And farewell friends and boats, we will be seeing you some crazy day in Guatemala, Tonga Tonga, or at the bottom of the sea.

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Laundry On The Boat

Ah, the laundry post!

There isn’t a respectable sailing blog without a heroic laundry post, explaining how it is a huge achievement to wash clothes aboard the boat with seawater and dry them in the breeze hanging them from the mast…  And the pubic is full of admiration and esteem.

We, Americans, Canadians, First World, First Class citizens, are addicted to certain technological comforts and doing without is an act of bravery.

So here we, go:

We, the Nomadiks, like to announce to all: we are doing laundry on the boat! Washing clothes by hand with seawater, rinsing twice in rainwater which we collect through a very complicated system in buckets and coolers. Then, we hang the laundry from lines and rigging, and the sight of this colorful installation amazes the tourists piled up on sunset cruises, who turn their cameras toward our boat, neglecting for a short second the setting sun. I mean, it must be quite a sight if the sunset becomes secondary.

And we don’t limit ourselves to shorts and t-shirts. When Ivo steps in, Ivo steps literally IN (in a 5-gallon bucket where he stomps with his feet bed sheets and even blankets!)

The electric washing machine was invented in 1908 by Alva J. Fisher, Google told me. How did people live before that is no longer a mystery.

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Visit by a German Journalist

A few days ago, a journalist, Ann-Katherin Eckardt, came all the way from Germany to write a piece on Boat Punk for NEON magazine, a magazine targeting readers in their twenties and thirties, reflecting the young generation’s issues, aspirations, and viewpoints of the world. With her came a photographer Charles Ommanney, and they stayed for 3 days in Key West interviewing and photographing kids from the Boat Punk community.

Tyler, who is one of the founding fathers and nucleus of the community, helping everyone, organising Boat Punk events and meet-ups, and who was also featured in a French reportage by  Anne-Cécile Genreand , was the official host of the event and the star of the article which should be published in NEON soon.

Tyler introduced us to Ann Katherine and we had the chance to talk to her a few times during her short stay even though we felt we don’t truly qualify as Boat Punks, or at least as Punks: we have no tattoos nor piercings, no Mohawk haircuts, and we don’t listen to the right music. The only reason we are part of the Boat Punk community here in Key West is our common ideas and ways, shared experiences, as well as our friendship with Tyler and the others which is now fathoms deep.

Still, we all felt a bit flattered by the attention. By the recognition that what we, as a community and as individuals, are doing is interesting to others, unique and exciting, but also valid and rebellious, worthy of international attention and recognition. That people across the Oceans will read about us, the Boat Punks, and maybe get inspired.

The last day of their visit, we all gathered for a sunset sail aboard Tyler’s boat Rocksteady.

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The Photographer

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Tyler

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How to Eat Poisonous Fish for Supper

That particular evening started with a benign game of chess between Ivo and Tyler aboard Rocksteady.

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But then Ryan and Stacie showed up with a bucket of fish a friend gave them.

„Lionfish, Ryan, who loves animals and nature more than anything in the world, explained, is a non indigenous invasive species here in Florida, and you can catch it and eat it all you want. It has poisonous spikes, but if we manage to cut them off without getting stung, we can eat the meat and we will not die! “

This sounds almost reassuring…

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So basically, you need to fillet the fish without touching it much…To do so, you need to stab it with a knife in the head using a coffee pot.

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…Use pliers, knifes, forks, and all available instruments…

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…and band up with others if necessary. Team work pays off.

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Discard all bones, guts, and spikes. Keep only the fillets.

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Repeat as many times as fishes there are in the bucket. Do not forget: Operate with caution!

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Then cook the fish! Add salt, lemon, some pepper, and it is delicious! And ask a friend to make the salad!

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What’s left to do is eat the fish, with lots of salad, beer, friends.

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I tried it and I loved it!

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„Lionfish are an invasive species that threaten Florida’s saltwater fish and wildlife. The FWC encourages people to remove lionfish in Florida waters to limit negative impacts to native fish and wildlife. Lionfish can be speared, caught in hand-held nets or caught on hook and line.

A recreational fishing license is not required for recreational fishers targeting lionfish while using a pole spear, a Hawaiian Sling, a handheld net or any spearing device that is specifically designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish. There is no recreational or commercial harvest bag limit for lionfish.“ (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

I just want to add to this that it is extremely tasty and safe to eat if correctly prepared and: Thank you Ryan, this was the greatest tasting poisonous fish ever!

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Ryan and Scabs

 

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