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The life of a beach bum

Rod Brandenburg has sun-bleached hair and an easy grin and looks natural working around a boat. He will always look natural working around a boat.

He is what Florida beach people were supposed to look like until the condo-builders and the mall merchants took over.

Thursday morning he was sitting on the deck of Plunger, the 32-foot party boat he berths at the Clearwater Beach Marina. He had just lost his day's business, two tourists he was going to take diving and spear-fishing.

"Too much wind, so I had to cancel," he said, smiling and turning his face to the sun. This is not a man who goes wild with worry when he learns the cash flow is slowing down.

A chip off no known block, Brandenburg, 34, is the son of a Clearwater medical doctor, the brother of two computer experts. He graduated from Clearwater High and proceeded to the nearest body of water.

"I've never had a 9-to-5 job, and I've never been in jail." He smiles deprecatingly. "I guess you could call me a bum."

A trustworthy bum. He has had some responsible positions, including one on the largest boat at the marina, the 72-foot, 100-passenger Super Queen.

"Yeah, I was captain of her for three or four years. Or skipper. I don't care. I'm not into titles."

Finally he left. "I think I got fired. Toward the end, I was fighting a lot with the ownership. Anyway, I was burned out from fishing every day."

Diving is his real love. "There's a difference between divers and fishermen. Divers go out to be out, to enjoy the boat ride, lie in the sun, swim and play in the water and maybe spear a fish or two.

"But fishermen are there to kill fish. I'm on trial when I take out a fishing party. I'm only as good as the reef I take them to, and it's only as good as the number of fish it produces for them."

The new, stricter fishing rules don't bother Brandenburg. "A grouper has to be 20 inches or more. I used to see guys take them at 10, 12 inches, any size that would stay on the hook." He shakes his head in disgust. "I've seen some rapists out there."

More and more of his customers are divers or photographers or shell collectors. But his fishermen still make some remarkable catches, and he has gotten some memorable ones, too.

"A 103-pound amberjack last year. I shot him. With a spear gun. And last month on the bottom, a few miles out, I found a 13{-pound lobster. My girlfriend and I ate it for three meals."

Skippers such as Brandenburg will not let you do deep-water diving without certification, which can be gotten at dive shops. Normally six weeks of lessons will do it, or a one-week crash course.

Brandenburg charges from $35 to $45 a person for a four- to five-hour trip for reef diving (443-6731).

Often couples go out. "Women are usually better divers than men. They're more intimidated, so they've got more respect for the sport, and they're easier to teach."

Some good ol' boy joking goes on. "For a while, a lot of customers were asking about sharks, and I'd say, "You're safe until you hear the music.'

"They took it for a joke. But when they got down in the water, I'd lower a gramophone and play the sound track from Jaws. That would set them thinking."

But what Brandenburg loves about diving has nothing to do with humor. "You don't hear anything down there, except the sound of your own bubbles. I love that silence, and the freedom and the peace."

Occasionally, one of Brandenburg's computer-loving brothers will go out in the boat. "He'll dive, but it doesn't turn him on like it does me."

"You know," Brandenburg said, giving his sport the ultimate accolade, "I'll get out of bed to go diving."

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