GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. (AP) - Far from the frenzied crowd, about a mile due south of the crowded flight line of the recent Blue Angels Homecoming show at Pensacola Naval Air Station, some 200 boats of all sizes dotted the shoreline of a serene cove.
On one of the white sand beaches, about a dozen yachts and motor boats, some sporting Blue Angels flags, lined up rail to rail, with bows and gangplanks leading to what amounted to a boater's version of a tailgating party.
Terry Smith, captain of the 46-foot sport fishing vessel DeDecker II, commanded the beachside kitchen where he cooked up Gulf red snapper.
"Mmmm. You gotta try some of this," he said handing out samples of the sweet nuggets of fish.
A few yards away, the click, click, swoosh of Apalachicola Bay oysters being shucked by Jay and Jessica Meisenzahl drew a crowd. Other boaters, bundled up against the chilly wind, filled the tops of folding tables with bowls of coleslaw, platters of hush puppies and french fries and all the fixings for a post-air show feast.
For these boaters, life doesn't get any better.
The north shore of Gulf Islands National Seashore is one of the few oases where boaters can - for free - drop anchor in the emerald waters or nudge their boats to the white sandy shore for a day of recreation or a weekend of camping.
Now they're worried their hideaway may be taken away from them, or, at the very least, that access might be restricted.
Park officials, hammering out a road map for the future direction of the park, plan to establish seagrass protection zones from which boats can be banned temporarily if the grasses become damaged or destroyed.
Seashore Superintendent Dan Brown said he doesn't think it's going to come to that, so long as the boaters take care of the area.
"It is absolutely not our intent to restrict access to boaters on the north shore of the islands," Brown said about the shoreline used by boaters from Perdido Key to Fort Pickens, and the Santa Rosa area near Navarre Beach. "We are, however, required by law to protect the resources. Ultimately, whether there is a restriction is dependent on the boaters themselves. If they are sensitive to seagrass beds and don't damage them, there is no reason to limit access at all."
But the boaters are distrustful, concerned that any wording by the federal government calling for any type of closing of seagrass beds could spell wholesale closure of the north shore.
That's why they're doing everything in their power - attending meetings, writing letters and sending emails - to make sure their voice is heard as the management plan is developed.
"We, as citizens, enjoy and take care of the seashore," said Dianne Smith of Big Lagoon. "We definitely want to preserve it. But we feel government intervention, whether through the park service or another agency trying to regulate it, would be detrimental to us."
Caring for nature
Smith dug her feet into the heated sand around her husband Terry's fish fryer.
She wants seashore officials to know that there are no better stewards of the area and its seagrasses than boaters.
Boaters take "leave only your footprints" seriously, she said. When they pack up for the journey home, they clean the beach of their trash and even trash that washed up or was left behind by irresponsible boaters, she said.
That dedication to taking care of the recreation grounds is because the quality of her life, and that of other boaters, is directly tied to the harbor, she said.
Dianne Smith and her family have been "boat camping" along the shores of the seashore and sand island for 11 years. One of the reasons they moved from Panama City to the Grand Lagoon area was to socialize there with kindred spirits. They've met and made friends with dozens of boaters on these shores.
Among them, Darrell Robinson, owner of Harborview Marina on Bayou Chico and a 42-foot Jefferson yacht, Where U At?
He's watched the popularity of recreational boating along the seashore grow as the popularity of offshore fishing has declined in recent years. He's been promoting the boat-camping lifestyle to others by renting house boats to people who can't afford to buy boats.
Robinson said the boaters' secluded world is "exhilarating."
"I can't get enough of it," he said. "I was born and raised out here."
Parrish Smith, Dianne and Terry's son, is a financial planner who lives on Perdido Key. He is thankful Congress set aside the seashore for the public's enjoyment in 1971. Otherwise, condominiums would be lining the barrier islands and the boaters' oases would not exist, he said.
He wants park officials to use education and partnerships with boaters to prevent damage to seagrasses.
"When we come out here for three days, it's like we're going back in time," he said. "We build a fire, we cook some food and get back to the reality of what life should be like."
That life is not just limited to people with big boats. Even kayakers with pup tents belong to the boating community, Patricia Geci said.
"Everyone from every segment of the economy is out here," she said pointing out the varying sizes of boats lining the shorelines and anchored in the harbor.
She and her husband, Steve, have been camping in the cove for 30 years. They've graduated up to a 43-foot motor yacht, The Seeker.
"We grew up on that beach - that's our backyard," Steve Geci said. "We love it dearly. It's about the beauty of the water and sand, getting away from all your responsibilities and all the honey do's and things that need to be done. You get out here and don't have to worry about anything."
Standing atop a dune, watching the final flyover of the Blues, Jimmy Sherouse of the Big Lagoon area pointed east and west to the outline of condos on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key in the distance.
"The condos - that's the tourists' world," he said. "Everything in between - that's ours. We all work Monday through Friday in high-stress jobs. When we pull away from the dock bound for Fort McRee, we go through the pass and we leave that world behind and become new people."
As the boaters began settling in for the evening, they stoked a bonfire until it roared to life, spewing embers into the air.
And Parrish Smith jumped into a 22-foot center console boat to make one last run to Joe Patti's Seafood for another ice chest full of oysters.
"This is what it's about," he said cruising along and waving at the cluster of boaters all along the inlet enjoying what he said was the "last hurrah" of the season before winter settles in.
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