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Chiles' legacy includes being friend of boaters

The late Gov. Lawton Chiles was a man whose rural natural instincts led him to the hunting fields of Florida, where outwitting a wild turkey at first light of day topped winning a political debate.

One can read about his country adventures, but little is known of a decision he made while in the U.S. Senate that led to lives being saved on the Gulf of Mexico.

In the early 1970s, a series of boating accidents, some fatal, took place off the Panhandle in an area south of Carrabelle and Apalachicola.

Pleasure craft being brought down the Mississippi River from upper states, including the Great Lakes area, encountered serious problems when they reached gulf waters.

Leaving Apalachicola, the usual departure point, boaters confronted a 160-mile straight course to reach Tarpon Springs or Clearwater Beach _ a stretch known as the Lonesome Leg.

The alternative to the offshore run was to follow the Big Bend coast, where shallow water was a concern.

Over time, the Coast Guard received several calls for assistance on the offshore route, occasionally from boats that had run out of fuel because of compass errors.

More often there were engine breakdowns, poor seamanship or, worse, boats disabled by stormy weather.

At least twice, boats were lost. On one rescue mission in extreme weather, a Coast Guard plane crashed, killing six aboard.

I was Times outdoors editor at the time and by chance met two men in the Inglis area north of Crystal River. As I recall, one was in the boat building business, the other in the Corps of Engineers.

They were concerned about the dangerous offshore waters and inquired if the Times would publish an article outlining the need for a lighted buoy course on the Big Bend coastal route to guide boats to safer waters. The Times ran a story as well as a supportive editorial.

Months later, I met with a Coast Guard officer from Miami. He unrolled a chart and spread it on a large table. It was the route for the proposed channel with six lighted buoys. The officer implied that then-Sen. Chiles was influential in having the course installed despite political obstacles.

That was 24 years ago. Chiles has passed on, but those tall buoys still are maintained by the Coast Guard, six monuments to a man who cared for people both ashore or afloat.