Cedar Key's Clamming Sailor

~~~ An Optiman and more

Originally published in SCA, July 2012
Photos courtesy of Michael Scheibeck.

Bobby Witt looked like a lean, Western cowboy with cutoff jeans, but a too-wide straw hat. He's a native of this shallow coast, and, like a seasoned working cowboy, his fingers, too, were bent and first knuckles bulged --- hands of a fifty five year old, life long waterman. He'd just unbent his long self from an old plywood Optimist Dinghy on Atsena Otie Key.

Bobby and his Optimist pram Bobby a sailor? There he was, toes in Atsena's sand, chatting with a woman from the Pacific Northwest.

I asked later how he became a sailor. He was, after all, the first local waterman in twenty seven years, I think, to bring a sailboat to the May small boat meet.

"As a kid I was always putting a sail on something," he said in his soft twang. He sailed the first time when he was twelve, at the helm of the first boat he'd built, a skiff from scrap ten foot soffit plywood, rigged with a shower curtain sail from the trash. "It was exciting! I was enchanted."

"I like to row, too. All Crystal River kids rowed," he smiled. "Last year I built a fourteen foot 'net skiff.' Plywood. 'Tar-built,' like the first one --- nails and screws, asphalt roofing tar in all the joints."

At sixteen he'd made enough money mullet fishing, crabbing and construction to buy a thirty two foot steel, bottomless, hulk. Friends and he raised it enough to weld on a scrap bottom. He lived on Swamp Yacht the next six years towing a skiff or two, working the inshore fisheries, and dock jobs in Tarpon Springs.

Bobby and his Optimist pram When he was seventeen and six feet tall he bought the used Opti, sailing it obsessively in Crystal River and Bay.

The next year, a female kitten, just weaned in the bilge of a wooden sailing yacht, moved aboard Swamp Yacht, becoming Opti crew.

For three years in the late 1970s Bobby was mate and able seaman on the forty four foot waterline, charter gaff schooner, Nightwind, out of Crystal River. She'd been a pre-World War Two trade vessel. Among other 'ropes,' she taught him to set a working topsail.

When he was twenty three, he bought the "hard-used," Wirth Munroe designed, twenty five foot centerboard yawl, Affinity. She was a coastal cruiser for Kitty and him. Her dinghy was the towed Opti, and in many Florida ports, he and Kitty sailed it as addictedly as ever.

Heading to Key West after a couple hours of motoring in a calm away from a small key in Florida Bay, he couldn't find Kitty. He argued with himself most of an hour, and turned back and got her.

Bobby kept fishing inshore, and captained sail and power boats from Connecticut to the Gulf, Bahamas, and the Caribbean. (His license now is a 59 passenger Master.)

From Affinity, in 1983, he and Kitty moved to a thirty six foot houseboat, Snafu. He married in 1987.

Kitty died peacefully in 1991. The family moved ashore when his first daughter was two. Shark, redfish, yellow-tail jacks, and oysters became more of his harvest.

"There are two ways to fish. You either beat your head against it or you mesh in, become part of nature, know what to release and do it. Learn to love all critters, even blue crabs," he grinned, "which try to pull your face off."

Bobby and his Optimist pram By referendum in November 1994, Florida's Constitution was amended to ban "entangling" (gill) nets. On the last night before their livelihoods evaporated, Bobby said women were crying, and drinking watermen "were gathered under the bridge in Crystal River." Talk was vicious.

He said science and the old time fishermen had agreed and had it right, but money politics won. (Seventeen years later his conclusion seems valid.) Bobby felt he'd been "cheated," so, he took everything Florida offered, with help from Federal money, to further educate himself, including clam aquaculture. In the first years, as clamming grew, guiding sport fishermen kept the family going.

Bobby's clam boat In 2012 his daughters are starting at local colleges. His ex-wife has the house in Crystal River. Bobby's in Cedar Key on a forty four foot houseboat at his dock with his workboats, skiffs and prams. "Clamming's been better than a mullet fisherman could've imagined."

That Saturday of the small boat meet, I saw him staring at an eighteen foot, round-sterned sharpie ketch. I thought I saw above his head a little cloud of Valentine hearts.

Not long ago he showed me his freshly painted fourteen foot skiff, navy gray in and out, with a dark green sheer. "I still love fishing with a small legal net, but not the row across the Channel in the wind and chop. My three horse outboard can't do it either... can you put a sail on the skiff?"

Back to top
Back to main page