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"This is never-never land'

On a lazy summer afternoon, there are few things better than a few friends, a cool breeze and music.

What started as some friends hanging out on their boats and enjoying music near the spoil islands off Hernando Beach has become a weekly pilgrimage for many locals. The draw? Live jazz, rock, acoustic and blues performances by local musicians.

Ray Troyer, called Ramundo by his friends, works for a Brooksville insurance company during the week, but on weekends he takes his pontoon boat, equipped with a large amplifier and speakers, to an area just past Boy Scout Island, a mile or two west of the Hernando Beach boat ramp. To most people, it's known as Poke Island.

"This is why we're blessed to live in Hernando Beach," said Troyer. "There is so much talent around here."

South of the Hernando Beach channel, deep water gives boaters a resting place for their vessels. Sandwiched between Coon Key and Round Key, the shallow water forms a wading pool where swimmers can feel safe.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 50 boats gathered to hear local singer Darian Ruger perform a mix of acoustic rock and blues. By noon, the thigh-high water was thick with waders throwing foam footballs and splashing themselves with water.

Shortly after 1 p.m., radios switched off and Ruger's guitar rang out across the water with a John Mellencamp tune, Little Pink Houses.

Though he sings about people whose lives are much harder than those camped out on the decks of their small pleasure boats, Ruger has no problem holding the crowd's attention. Dressed in a hippie T-shirt, shorts and a boonie hat, his repertoire includes Bob Seager, Cat Stevens and the obligatory Jimmy Buffett.

"It's way better here than at any bar," said Ruger, 28, who performs locally with the band Soup Stone. "The more I play for people, the more comfortable I get."

The large pontoon boat has no official name, but a Jolly Roger flies on its mast. Crowds anchor within about 200 feet to hear the music.

Retired Cadillac salesman Tom Lang has lived in Hernando Beach for five years and said the music and good people are what draw him to the waters around the spoil islands.

"I come out in the summer all the time," Lang said, wading in swim trunks near his boat, Awesome II. "The water's warm. You throw a Frisbee, tell a few lies, and there's always something happening.'"

Cooled by a constant sea breeze, the crowd stayed after Ruger's performance to hear Gary Story, a singer and drummer with a local band called the Zoots. His blues set starts with an a capella version of Summertime from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

"We have Weeki Wachee river rats, Hernando Beach people, Aripeka folks, basically everybody on this side of (U.S.) 19," said Story, a 10-year resident of Hernando Beach. "This is never-never land over here."

The weekly concerts began about a month ago, Story said, when neighbors began gathering regularly to enjoy the water and the weather.

"We were just out here doing what we do every Sunday, and one day Darian showed up with a guitar," he said. "That started it, and people have just really enjoyed it."

Until the tide comes in a bit higher later in the day, the crowd is mostly made up of pontoon and johnboats, Story said, but recently the crowds have not been strictly local.

"They come out on Jet Skis and airboats, whatever they can find that will float," he said. "This has really caught on."

Retired banker Jack Stawicki has come to the spoils from Hudson for months.

"I found this right away," he said, wading in a pair of bright orange swim trunks. "This is quite a block party."

"There are no strangers," Story said. "It's just friends we haven't met yet."

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ABOVE: Darian Ruger sits on a pontoon boat near Hernando Beach, singing and playing guitar. "It's way better here than at any bar," says Ruger, 28, who performs locally with the band Soup Stone. "The more I play for people, the more comfortable I get."


LEFT: Amy Sargent, left, and Gary Troy sit in the water on lawn chairs and listen to Ruger sing in the shallows near Poke Island. "This is why we're blessed to live in Hernando Beach," says boat owner Ray Troyer.

for CROWD:

RIGHT: When Ruger sang on a recent Sunday afternoon, about 50 boats anchored nearby. "There are no strangers," says one performer. "It's just friends we haven't met yet."