HERNANDO BEACH — In King Arthur's time, there was the Sword in the Stone, the mythical key to Camelot and the kingdom.
In Hernando County, it's the Prop in the Rock, a tribute to an eternal public works project and busted-up powerboats.
When County Commission Chairman David Russell wanted a memento of the ballyhooed Hernando Beach Channel dredge, finally getting under way after more than a decade of dithering, he thought of a rock from the clogged waterway.
"It's quite appropriate,'' he said recently. "For anyone who has navigated that channel, it's a common sight. I've had more than one prop fall prey to an infamous Hernando Beach Channel rock.''
County public works director Charles Mixson, however, "took it one step further,'' Russell said.
Mixson collected one of the first boulders hauled to the surface by the dredgers, a 60-plus-pound chunk of chert, a flint-like sedimentary rock that limerock solidifies into over time.
"They were glad to get rid of it,'' Mixson said.
He took it to his garage, ran a masonry saw across it, and glued an old bent propeller blade into the gash. Days later, and with some help, he presented it to the County Commission.
Cutting into the rock was, in a sense, sweet revenge.
"The first time I sailed into the channel, about 10 years ago, I hit a rock,'' Mixson recalled. "When a prop hits a rock, the prop loses.''
Mixson and Russell are hardly alone in their encounters with the jagged channel teeth.
Ernie Ramirez of Zerimar Builders has challenged the channel for more than 32 years. "I saw the rock and the prop at the commission meeting and I said, 'Say, that might be my prop,' '' he said.
"I learned how to avoid them,'' he said, adding: "Well, you never learn all of them.''
One huge rock in particular, around a curve in the channel, is notorious, Ramirez said. "It's called blowed-out rock. If you don't know how to maneuver that turn, you're going to hit it.''
Do local boaters have names for some of the other major obstacles? "Nothing you can print,'' he replied with a laugh.
Another big problem, one the dredging project aims to resolve, is the shallow water, especially at low tide, caused by the monumental silt buildup. During extreme winter tides, Ramirez noted, the water can be only 2 to 3 feet deep.
"I've seen many sailboats stranded in the channel, getting caught when the tide went out,'' he said.
That concern was made evident, with an exclamation point, in 2000, three years into the wrangling of government agencies over the need to dredge.
A town meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers had been scheduled for 11 a.m., a time set so commercial fishing operators could attend. But by noon, only a handful of the 45 fishermen planning to attend had shown up.
One of them pointed to the reason: A line of fishing boats that had been stranded for nearly four hours after running into shallow water in the channel during low tide.
The commercial captains and regular channel users eventually figure out the water and the rocks, but novices and weekend boaters learn the hard way.
Dennis Ressell, who owned a local marina for many years, said just about every weekend someone limped back to the dock with a damaged prop.
"Mostly it was because they weren't paying attention,'' he said. It was an expensive lesson, as propellers cost anywhere from $150 on up.
Ressell is one of the fortunate ones.
"I've been running that channel since the early '70s, and I've never hit a rock,'' he said. "Once you get familiar with the channel, you can do it. But if you're not on plane, you're going to hit one.''
As for the Prop in the Rock tribute, Mixson said the county has big plans for it. Workers are going to build a display case so it can be set up eventually in the atrium of the county government center in Brooksville.
So far, it's been a hit with people who have seen it.
"People want one for themselves,'' he said. "They all want a piece of the rock.''
Greg Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (352) 754-6113.