I have been a beach baby my whole life, in fact, I think I learned to swim before I could even walk. Growing up we’d spend the weekend, afternoons, shoot – any free hour on Pensacola Beach. As I grew older my dad started taking me fishing in both Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. He loved fishing and boating so much that he opened a marine electronics business in 2006. His business ended up exposing me to a whole new community. Whether it was a charter captain, a marina owner, someone selling beach equipment and even a few local chefs, they all cared about one thing. Water. What was the marine report for that day? Is the moon this weekend going to affect the tides? What was the bite like? Tell me, what was the salinity today?
In 2010 our community was shaken when the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded, spilling over 200 million gallons of crude oil into our Gulf. As tar balls quickly rolled onto our shores, the Pensacola Bay community joined together to take this disaster head on.
Woah. As I sit back in my chair and recall that day I feel tears in the back of my eyes. My first thought was terror, for the families missing loved ones and for my father and our family, how would this affect us? What was this going to do to our home?
On that day, I learned community pride and commitment. News reports flew around of overwhelming responses. Volunteers piping up left and right to be the eyes of officials working to spot oil sheens, distressed wildlife and to simply monitor what was happening. This all caused me to take a step back, think and ask myself the question, what is Pensacola without its waterways? The answer: nothing, Pensacola is nothing without it. We eat, sleep and breathe in that salty stuff, we brag about it and in fact, we may even be it (at least 70% anyway).
Today, over seven years after the devastation, our water is a clear emerald green and our beaches, sugary white. For the people that work in and around the water they’re still doing what they do but I think there’s a deeper appreciation for what it means.
This month we focus on the people that work in, on and around Pensacola’s surrounding bodies of water and just how wonderful of a thing that is.
Grenada, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, these are just a few of the destination I first saw photographs of when I stepped into Kathy and Mark Struken’s floating office (that’s right I said floating, it’s kind of like a house boat). Not only are the two partners in life but partners in business as well, they own Lanier Sailing Academy.
While the two have lived across the country and held many occupations sailing was the dream for them.
“We saw a movie called High Fidelity with John Cusack and it included all of these top five lists and Kathy asked me, “What would our dream job be,” and we said it would be living down here, running a sailing school.”
That single conversation was the beginning of a dream that is now in its 17th year. While the two were living and working in Atlanta, they set a meeting with the owner of Lanier Sailing Academy about a franchising opportunity. Following, they sold everything they owned and moved to Pensacola.
To date, Lanier sailing offers sunset and eco-cruises, certified American Sailing Association lessons and the Buccaneer Sailing Club.
“Sailing is one of those things that people always dream about,” expressed Kathy. “We wanted to make sailing more accessible.”
When I asked the two why they chose Pensacola as the landing place for their business out of all the places in the world that they had sailed, I was met with a glimmer of tranquility and complete appreciation.
“We are very spoiled at how much water we have and how few boats are out there. If you go other places in Florida, it’s wall to wall boats. Up here sometimes we’re the only boat out there. You can still go to places on the Gulf Islands National Seashore because it’s only accessible by boat, it makes it very special,” said Kathy.
John went on to explain to me how the seasons affect the water where we live and just how magical that is, he joked that he “always likes a sport where butterflies can pass you,” as the monarchs do in the fall. John expressed to me how each season has a life of its own; the butterflies and the sunsets owning the fall months, the cormorants of the winter and the sea turtles and dolphins moving through the late spring and summer.
At the end of our chat, when I was feeling good and ready to climb onto one of their several sailboats, they left me with one thing, “In the boating business, you’re not going to get rich, but we have million-dollar memories.”
Joe Patti’s Seafood
I’m sure everyone knows by now just how much I love markets (if not, see last month’s Live Local Pensacola blog here). The next market I want to introduce you to is Joe Patti’s Seafood, a local seafood market and community staple. The Patti family is considered somewhat of a Pensacola legend. In the 1930s the family made their way here to earn a living shrimping and fishing via New York from way of Sicily (there’s a rumor that they were fleeing the mob in New York, but I can neither confirm or deny that).
I always feel like I’m visiting some sort of a theme park when I enter the parking lot; a beignet truck is parked out front with children struggling to stay clean from the powdered sugar, a high school kid with tousled hair is usually under the tent selling produce and there are steel shrimping boats tasseled to the adjoining dock. The real fun begins when you step through the front doors.
Deck hands are zipping around in funky white rubber boots, Mr. Patti is situated on a stool in the corner yelling at his employees over the loud speaker and the smells, where do I begin? The smell of fresh bread and olive oil casual floats through the air, notes of sweetness waver through from the sticky rice from the sushi bar in the back and they’re all met at the center as the brininess of the fish and mollusks singe the air. As I make my way around the corner I find myself in uncharted territory on my way back to the offices.
As I sit down, Frank Patti Senior offers me a smoothie and I politely accept. He radios to one of his employees “Hey I need a strawberry smoothie in my office” and is quickly answered with a “yes sir”.
“I pay their payroll, they don’t have a choice,” said Patti. “I treat them good and they treat me good. When I say I need something done they know it needs to be done then. There’s a reason I said now. Get it done.”
He went on to explain to me that he and his family had humble beginnings and were no strangers to hard work.
“I was born in a fish market on Gordon and DeVilliers and my dad was fishing on a snapper boat that went to Mexico that’d be gone about 28 days at the time. When he’d come home my mother would always encourage him to find something closer to home,” Patti said. “My mama’s parents, they were a fishing family, but her father was a shrimper. He tried to teach my daddy how to shrimp instead of snapper fishing because that indeed was a long trip sailing to Mexico, no engines then.”
He continued to tell me about how well respected those that worked on the water were.
“In those days, it was something like a doctor, if you worked on the water, it was something that was taken seriously. There was no crap or bologna or anything like that. They did their job well, they brought all of that from the old country.”
To date, the Patti family all works together to keep the business up and running. At what started as just a tiny fish market on DeVilliers Street, now has turned into a dynasty. With Frank Sr. at the helm, his sister in the deli, his son running the shipyard and the rest sprinkled in-between, the Patti legacy continues to live on.
Pensacola Bay Oysters
When most folks think of farms they think of large expanses of land, livestock and crops, but for some on the Gulf Coast, their farms are only assessable by boat. That’s right, a boat. That’s how we met Donnie, on a boat, to visit his farm.
It was a warm summer morning and we were all excited to go visit Magnolia Bluff Farm, located in Pensacola Bay. We met up at The Marina Oyster Barn, boarded his boat and made our way . This wasn’t any ordinary farm, it was on oyster farm, and Donnie was glowing with excitement to introduce us to his passion, oysters.
“I grew up here and I just loved Pensacola and the water. I always wanted to contribute something back to the community. I never realized the impact people were excited to see it.”
We made our way out of Bayou Texar, a body of water that feeds into Pensacola Bay. The drive the farm was beautiful as we watched osprey, herons and other wildlife hunt for their morning meal.
On our way, we went past the dive sites where the University of West Florida researched the Tristan de Luna ship wrecks. Donnie had mentioned that oysters were a staple food for the early settlers, I guess some things haven’t changed much when it comes to food on the Gulf Coast.
As we floated up, I noticed the farm wasn’t surrounded by fences and feeding troughs that I was typically used to, even though it occupies about five acres of Pensacola Bay. The farm consists of floating cages which contain hundreds of oysters that were to be harvested for local restaurants.
Jackson’s Steakhouse is one of the local restaurants you can find Pensacola Bay Oysters in, celebrity Chef Irv Miller was on board to see the harvest and to discuss the importance of a local product.
“We have Don’s oysters and it’s exactly what we are looking for in the restaurants, and exactly what our customer clientele is looking for too, our local home grown ingredients,” Miller expressed.
At the farm, two young men tended cages where oysters were growing. They picked a few oysters, brought them over and local chef Irv Miller shucked and prepared a plate for tasting. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!
Have a favorite place on Pensacola’s coast? Let us know in the comments. Tune into our next Live Local Pensacola blog covering the variety of artists in our community.