Island daughter talks about how it was growing up in Boca Grande in second ‘History Bytes’ of the series
The loggia of the Fust Library was packed with history buffs, fishing lovers, long-time residents of Boca Grande and others who knew they would hear some good stories when Julie Jean Robertson took the microphone. Julie Jean was the speaker at the Wednesday, Feb. 8 session of History Bytes, put on by the Boca Grande Historical Society.
Julie Jean is the manager of Barnichol Hardware, located in the heart of Boca Grande. She is also the daughter of Captain Jimmy and Marjie Robertson and grew up in Boca Grande … and on the water surrounding it. The stories of her life with her beloved family allowed the audience to relive some of their own childhood memories.
Julie Jean’s dad was a fisherman from the day he was born, she said. He grew up in Clearwater, in or near the marina, loving the water before he could even walk. She said he first came to Boca Grande when he was 7, fishing with his father.
For many years he went back and forth between Clearwater and Boca Grande, but when Julie was born he believed Boca Grande was a better place to raise a child, so they moved permanently to the island.
He was a commercial fisherman for many years, so the family spent almost all their time on the boat, the Miss Ann, going about 150 miles offshore to do most of their fishing and running from the Keys to coastal Alabama.
“My mom was my dad’s deckhand,” she remembered, and Julie had free reign of the boat as long as the hydraulics were not running. When they were running, she stayed inside the cabin. She learned nearly every aspect of fishing and boating as a toddler.
For her delighted audience, Julie Jean ran through a litany of fishermen who worked for her dad, many of whom became captains, themselves, learning from the best. The story of how Jimmy transitioned to being a charter boat captain was a captivating one that included a very big storm.
In colorful fishing terms, which she smoothly translated into landlubber English, she told how the family and the single deckhand were trying to wait out the storm when an 18-foot rogue wave hit the boat. After the 18-footer, a 21-foot rogue wave hit them within minutes. That wave broke a 3/4 inch steel anchor chain, it was so powerful. They had enough power in their boat to make it to another boat in the area and call for help. The Coast Guard finally arrived and Julie Jean’s father told her she and her mother would be safe by getting into the Coast Guard basket that was attached to the Coast Guard helicopter. They climbed in and were almost immediately hit by a wave, then another. Then the helicopter was gone, leaving Marjie and 4-year-old Julie Jean in the water.
Marjie had a gash on her head. They were in 10 to 12 foot seas and they could see Jimmy’s boat, but they could not reach it. Marjie was going in and out of consciousness, and every time she would wake up, she and Julie Jean started swimming toward the boat, which had no power. Jimmy threw a rope to them and finally got them into the boat, despite the heavy current.
It turned out the Coast Guard crew was a rookie crew and cut the cable to the basket because of the heavy seas, leaving the mother and child to fend for themselves. There were court marshals and apologies and the crew did send a boat out to rescue them, but of course they had already had to rescue themselves.
They got the boat back to shore, managed to get it fixed and back in the water with a pretty good turn-around time. Then, about six months later it sank as a result of a rudder leak. This time the Coast Guard came, but because so many of the family’s good friends heard the call for help and came to Captain Jimmy’s rescue, he allowed the boat to sink.
“It was, honestly, a great turn of events,” Julie said, “because that’s when my dad became a charter boat captain.”
That is also when Julie became more of a “deck rat” and deckhand.
Julie gave credit to her mother for doing all the work, other than the fishing itself.
“My dad was the fisherman, my mom was the weather lady, the boat stocker, the entertainment,” she remembered fondly.
Julie’s life from that point on was focused largely on the fishing business. Even delaying kindergarten for a year, with the approval of the school leaders, who believed she would be learning more on the water than she would in the classroom. Her mother always had books for her and she was home-schooled in many respects.
“I got to see dolphins, and eat spiny oysters and turtles, I got to see an aircraft carrier doing tests in the Gulf and I saw the planes take off and land on the boat. There are so many great memories of being out on the water,” she said.
Many people ask if life on the boat was a lonely one, but she declared it was never lonely.
“There is so much life there!” she said. “It was peaceful; it was quiet; you saw ALL the stars.”
Her mother bought her astronomy books so she could learn about the stars she was seeing.
“If I could go back to it, I definitely would!”
She admired the hard work her parents put in their whole lives.
“I don’t know how my parents did it … raising a family and living that life style, because it is a LOT of work,” she said.
By age 7, though, Julie was into the formal education system, and attended schools nearby. She went to elementary school in Rotonda, since The Island School was not yet built when she was ready for school. Middle school was L.A. Ainger and high school was Lemon Bay. She graduated in 2000.
There were more stories of life on the boat, the fishing business, the camaraderie of it all – even about how the famous Marjie’s meatloaf sandwiches became a staple of the various fishing tournaments. She reminisced about Miller’s Marina, about which she said lovingly, “That was my home forever.” Her dad parked his boat there for years and both she and her mother worked at the Lighthouse Hole Restaurant.
“Downstairs was the marina and upstairs was the restaurant,” she recalled. She loved the smell of the food, the Friday fish fries, the tournaments and more.
“That’s where I spent the most time,” she said. “It was definitely ‘Old Florida’.”
As part of Julie Jean’s History Bytes presentation, she opened the floor to questions – and there were plenty. These brought out further details of stories already mentioned, and new stories that might not otherwise have been told. Julie brought a number of pictures of herself and her family at various points in her life.
Two more programs are planned in the History Bytes series. Next week’s program will feature Kathy Futch, sharing stories on the Futch family from 1876 to present. The last presentation will be Jim Blaha, director of the History Center, and Peg Kapustiak, genealogist, discussing the conclusion and aftermath of Joseph Spadero’s Boca Grande Hotel.
Each of the discussions will be at 11 a.m. in the library’s loggia. They are free, but donations are gratefully accepted.