Celi Voyage - Chasing History

I've had the good fortune to join a ten day boat trip with renowned painter Christopher Still and harbor pilot John Timmel on a quest to retrace the route of Spanish navigator Don Francisco Maria Celi who produced the first detailed map of Tampa Bay, below:

There were several articles exploring Celi's expedition to Tampa Bay in Florida Historical Quarterly between 1968 and 1972 by scholars Charles W. Arnade and Capt. John D. Ware. Like Capt. Timmel, Ware was a Tampa Bay Pilot. He had presented a study of Celi's 1757 Journal of Surveys to the Manatee County Historical Society in 1967.

Florida Historical Quarterly Articles by Arnade and Ware, 1968-1972

Manatee County Historical Society Presentation by Ware, 1967

Using references to Celi's journals, Capt. Timmel charted a course from Tampa Bay straight to the Dry Tortougas, 70 miles west of Key West, to intersect with Celi's northward journey from Havana. Our mission was to visit significant waypoints that Celi encountered, including the Marquesas, Boca Grande Pass (Florida Bay), Cape Sable, Shark River, Cape Romano and places in between so that Still capture their essence in paintings. I was invited to join the crew to make my contribution through photographs.

Our vessel was Timmel's 46' Grande Banks Trawler. The cruising speed of 8 knots provided a similar pace to a Spanish ship in decent sailing conditions. We would have to travel through several nights to cover our course. We also faced by strong southeasterly winds for much of our time at sea. The heavy waves were punishing at times, especially for me the first day. I was not able to fulfill my night watch duties because I spent my shift with my head over the gunnel on the aft deck, where I eventualy passed out. I awoke hours later, sickness abated, beneath moonless sky, stars so bright the heavens were swirling. We were a hundred miles from land in any direction, somewhere between Tampa and Havana.

By dawn I finally had the strength to find my camera. The gulf was still angry but beautiful in the morning light.

The high easterly waves prevented us from following a straight path toward the Dry Tortugas; we had to zigzag, like a sailboat tacking, at 45 degree angles to the swells, to ease the pitching an rolling that had ben hurling our gear across the cabin and deck. When we first spotted the Loggerhead Key Lighthouse like a mirage over the shimmering midday water, even seasoned Capt. Timmel was pleased by the promise of sheltered anchorage. He reminisced about the dozens of times over his career at sea that he looked east at the same lighthouse, the distant tip of America, visible to any ship moving from the Straights of Florida or Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico (countless Hurricanes including Katrina take the same path).

Had the Loggerhead Key lighthouse been standing in 1757, Celi would have seen it too, likely in his first day north of Havana. We'll explore his Cuban footsteps someday, but were excited to be arriving in the Dry Tortugas and ready to pick up his trail in the Florida Keys.

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