Vero Beach boat-builder Mark Castlow has lived his life on the water. He has made his living making and selling boats, and spent his free time surfing and fishing. Now he is asking far more urgent questions than whether the redfish are running, or the waves are good.
Armed with little more than passion, he is wading into the battle for the Gulf of Mexico, as self-appointed commander of what he is calling the Dragonfly Environmental Army.
“I’d rather be telling you about my boats – they’re works of art,” he says, from his small factory off North U.S. 1 “Instead we’re talking about an underwater 9/11.”
Mustering the celebrity firepower of singer Jimmy Buffett, a longtime acquaintance and resident of Palm Beach, Castlow has begun customizing his flats-fishing boats, the namesake of his company, Dragonfly, for use in rescuing wildlife along the coast of the Gulf.
Last week, Castlow took one of the $40,000 boats, built with backing from Buffett, to the marshes of Mississippi, where a third partner and Buffet comrade, Alabaman Jimbo Meador was waiting with University of Southern Mississippi scientists. Meador is working on a PBS documentary on the spill.
But this past Monday, after trailering a second boat north to the Panhandle for an interview with CNN, he got word from the top: no one is allowed to rescue birds from the oil spill without a state or federal license in wildlife recovery or rehabilitation. Because BP is footing the bill, the two designated non-profits handling rescue aren’t even accepting donations for oil-spill wildlife victims.
“No one’s allowed to touch the birds, we’re not allowed to retrieve them,” he said, enraged at the stultifying bureaucracy thwarting the clean-up efforts of volunteers.
Castlow, a native of Coconut Grove, grew up an avid surfer, and remembers calling his buddy who ran the hot dog stand on South Beach to get his first-hand wave report for Biscayne Bay. When he got old enough to drive, he headed north to Fort Pierce, and in 1975, set up shop there building custom surfboards.
He was making up to 35 a week, sending them north to Rhode Island, when he decided to transpose his knowledge of fiberglass to a larger product: boats. With partners, he founded the company that would eventually spawn Maverick, Hewes and Pathfinder boats, from a factory between Fort Pierce and Vero Beach.
Ten years ago, he left that business to start staging fishing and boating shows around the country. The huge photographs on vinyl adorning Firefly’s walls, brilliant orange images of fly-fishing at sunset, are relics of those shows. They also left another image, this one in Castlow’s mind: that there was a need for boats customized for particular types of flats-fishing, depending on the region, its anglers and its fish.
Two years ago, Castlow began a business hand-building custom boats – he keeps a camera trained on the projects, so his customers can watch the progress on-line.
This time, his clients go beyond the boats’ bankroller: they are the birds, stranded in the gulf oil spill, if Castlow manages to sheer the red tape and get started with his waterlift to safety, with what he hopes will soon be a fleet of six Dragonfly avian ambulances. Indeed, Castlow’s boats are being built to accommodate not only flailing, oil-stricken animal life but humans as well.
Sketching out designs with an architect’s penmanship, he outfitted his minimalist, hand-wrought fiberglass flats boat with an eight-foot table, coated with a non-skid anti-microbial gel, and cooled by solar fans and a full-length folding canopy to shield stressed wildlife and workers alike from the brutal summer sun.
The canopy is rigged with a misting system that when it kicked in, brought a collective sigh of relief from the test crew of scientists last week, when it significantly dropped the temperature.
So far though, even those research scientists have been prevented from retrieving dying birds. If they get the OK, Castlow has mounted a camera on board to transmit the rescue activities over the web.
Media awareness is a large part of Castlow’s edge in the battle, thanks to Buffett, he says, as well as frustrated would-be activists who can’t figure out how else to help, and are tweeting and Facebooking contacts to recruit for the Dragonfly army.
They range from the strangers he chats up dropping off his boat in Alabama, to local Florida fishermen and boaters. All jump at the chance to join his effort, he says. Or at least wear the great T-shirt.
One voice in particular has sparked hope in Castlow’s view. Scott Holmes, a Fort Pierce building contractor and boat captain, believes spraying oil-eating bacteria is the way to go to clean residue off birds – and the marshes themselves.
Last week, the group, including Buffett, Meador, Castlow and wife Mary, and Holmes of Fort Pierce, converged on a research lab on the Mississippi’s coast, meeting with university scientists. “Everybody agreed this is what we need to be doing,” he says.
Castlow, who has a writer’s penchant for names, calls the boats by an acronym: S.W.A.T. , short for “Shallow Water Attention Terminal.” His “Dragonfly Environmental Army” gets a similarly intimidating short form, one that packs a punch on a baseball cap: D.E.A.
The idea came to Castlow (aptly surnamed himself, as it happened) as he was watching the news the day after Deepwater Horizon exploded into flames. “I know everything about those fisheries, and I started to get a really sick feeling in my stomach. I thought, my God, if this comes into the estuaries, it’s going to be horrific.”
The next day, his fishing buddy Buffett called. “Are you seeing this?” he asked.
By then, Castlow’s plan for modifying his Dragonfly boat was already taking shape. He ran it by Buffett, whom he knew from his days building powerboats in Fort Pierce.
When he saw that the first two successful rescues of the spill, a pelican and a northern gannet, a sleek handsome white bird that is the largest of the gannets, were being taken to the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge for release, Castlow saw his chance to confer with experts.
Dr. Sharon Taylor, a California-based environmental contaminants division chief for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and a wildlife veterinarian with experience in numerous oil-spill rescues, made suggestions to enhance Castlow’s original design, which had included a rinsing station and tanks of water. Taylor said the birds were typically so stressed after capture, hydration was not the priority.
Then there was the call from the lead scientist on the Mississippi team, making sure the boat’s canopy would work for him. “He’s 6-foot-eight,” says Castlow.
Castlow expects four more Dragonfly S.W.A.T.’s to be completed in time for the spreading disaster. In the meantime, he continues recruiting for his environmental army every chance he gets.
“We’re truly not taking ‘no’ for an answer, ” he says.