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Our Cuban connection: Weedon Island's Rancho Regattas 2010

The Julie T and Miss Kate are typical Melonseed Skiffs, a design used for traditional fishing boats that once dotted our shores during the Fishing Rancho period.

TERRY TOMALIN | Times

The Julie T and Miss Kate are typical Melonseed Skiffs, a design used for traditional fishing boats that once dotted our shores during the Fishing Rancho period.

"There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats … or with boats. … In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter."

Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows

WEEDON ISLAND — Long before anglers skimmed across the grass beds in their flats skiffs and cruised offshore in their triple-engine, deep-vee powerboats, fishermen worked this stretch of coast in tiny, wind-powered crafts most folks would be afraid to use as dinghies.

"They not only fished up and down the coast, they also traveled in between the islands," said Jeff Moates, a marine archaeologist with USF. "And we are talking about boats that were only 12 to 14 feet long."

These itinerant fishermen of the late 1700s established a series of "Fishing Ranchos" along the Gulf Coast where they processed their catch. Today, those fishermen are long gone but their legacy lives on in place names such as Maximo Point and Bunces Pass.

It's hard to imagine what Florida's early fishermen went through, but you will begin to appreciate the hardships they endured if you stop by Rancho Regattas 2010 Saturday at Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg.

Organizers will have several of these early fishing boats on display, including one vessel that had a fully operational live well a century before the first center console hit the waters of Tampa Bay.

Fishing Ranchos

One hundred years before Florida became a state in 1845, Cuban fishermen made regular trips to the mouth of Tampa Bay to catch mullet, pompano, mackerel, drum and sea turtles.

These men established seasonal camps where they would salt, dry or smoke their catch, which would then be shipped to Cuba and exchanged for a variety of consumer goods they could trade to the settlers and Indians.

By the late 1780s, the fishermen and their families began staying year-round in these fish camps, which consisted primarily of simple, palm-thatched huts, often situated near an existing Indian mound. It was a hard life, but the fishing was good, and as a result, the camps attracted a wide variety of workers, including Native Americans and escaped slaves.

By the late 1820s, American fishermen began to crowd out the Cubans. Some went home, others stayed and intermarried. With the start of the Second Seminole War in 1835, the age of the classic Fishing Rancho was over.

But these new fishermen from the United States brought their own culture and unique styles of watercraft, some of which are still around today.

Messing about

Around the same time these fishermen were cooking their catch at the Pass of the Grillers, due south of present-day St. Pete Beach, fur-clad mountain men thousands of miles to the west met annually at "rendezvous" to trade beaver pelts, buffalo horns and anything else of value.

These informal gatherings were as much about social interaction as they were trade. This concept has not been lost on the spiritual descendants of the Fishing Rancheros.

Folks such as Moates and other members of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association, meet regularly at events such as Saturday's Rancho Regatta to discuss and "mess about" in handmade wooden boats, several of which will be on display.

Babe, a Bahamas dinghy, is a good example of the early coastal fishing boats that were found on our waters. The sloop-rigged sailboat, typically 12 to 14 feet long, had a built-in live well and was capable of making long, open-water crossings.

Sally Adams, a 21-foot Sprits'l Skiff, also called a skipjack, is another example of an early local fishing boat. These vessels were also called "smacks" because of the sound the water made as it "smacked" up against the side of the live well.

In addition to being true pieces of art, Babe and Sally Adams are working watercraft just as capable of hauling a net or crossing the bay as they were 100 years ago. Seeing them up close will make you appreciate your aging outboard all the more.

Rancho Regattas 2010

Where: Weedon Island Preserve Natural and Cultural History Center, St. Petersburg

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Explore the history of Florida's "Fishing Rancho Period," from the late 1700s to the late 1800s when Cuban fishermen lived and worked on the Gulf Coast, including several sites in the Tampa Bay area. The free event is open to the public, though it is recommended for those 12 and up. For a $10 fee, participants may preregister for one of several professionally led activities, such as building a sculling oar, making a fiber fish net, taking a guided kayak tour or participating in a forensic or ceramics lab. For information, go to Experiencearchaeology.org or call Weedon Island at (727) 453-6500.

• The Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez (4415 119th St. W), in the building that once housed the 1912 Cortez Rural Graded School, is a must-see. Learn about Indians, explorers, pioneers, fishermen, smugglers, pirates and all the adventurous souls that contributed to the Gulf Coast's maritime heritage. For information, call (941) 708-6120.

• Do you like to mess about in small boats? Check out the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association at fgctsca.weebly.com.

Our Cuban connection: Weedon Island's Rancho Regattas 2010 05/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 7:55am]

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