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Destination Clearwater: Down on the Docks

A stroll through the city marina.

Marinas–working marinas, not the ones that simply store boats for weekend warriors–have a distinctive smell that brings me back to one of my many part-time jobs in college.

I worked at John's Pass well before it was quite as shiny as it is today. I loved the grit on my skin at the end of my shift and the spray in the air when the wind came up from the west. My hair got thick with salt and curled itself, and the smell of the marina seemed to work itself into my clothes, car and skin.

Today John’s Pass is a very different place, but when I pass the new boardwalk and parking garage, I can still feel the salt cake my lips.

The has a patina all its own.

Sure, it attracts droves of crimson-skinned tourists, crispy from too much sun and high on the smell of saltwater. They stroll past the booths as hawkers softly bleat "go for a boat ride?" Ending the call with a kindness that implies a question.

Behind the sheen of tourists, though, lies a community of boat captains and crew, a working class group of men (and a few women, although not many) who earn their living from the saltwater.

I walk the marina every chance I get; I revel in the smell of diesel coming in with the tang of low tide. I smile at the concrete stained white with pelican leavings around every fishing boat, and my heart lifts when I see boat captains cleaning their boats, beer in hand, after a charter trip.

I'm not particular about boats: I love to sail, but as long as I am on the water, I am happy. My walks at the marina aren't about boats so much as they are the community. Before the and parasailors, captains earned their living taking people on.

Before dolphins, men booked fishing charters. Before the tourists hunted tarpon, captains earned their day's pay with a haul of fish or crabs. The reason for the marina changes but the marina remains constant. Today's tourists allow yesterday's traditions to continue.

The showmanship of the sportfishing boats draws a crowd every afternoon, and not just people. Brown pelican, egret and other shorebirds wait eagerly as the captain throws down ice and lays out the day's catch on the sidewalk. He names each fish for the passers-by and  starts to clean the fish. A laugh bubbles up as I watch pelicans edge out toddlers, both watching with rapt interest.

Tourists eating ice cream and sipping coffee wind their way through the marina office, but in the folks who flew in from Tennessee or drove down from Georgia are people who sailed in from everywhere.

Cruisers stop in for supplies, fuel, and showers. They often see little, if any, of the city outside the marina, while many other visitors see little of the marina as they bike, walk, drive or past it on their vacation.

The carnie-like call of booth workers, the smell of fish and tides and fuel, and the winged beggars watching sun-bleached men cleaning fish all make the marina an excursion all its own. There’s no need to climb on a boat to feel the pulse of this estuarine community beating beneath the tourist trade that feeds it.

The marina is open to everyone. You don’t need one to go stroll the docks and people-and-pelican watch. I certainly don’t have one, except that I never really washed the smell of the salt and the wind off my skin.

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