Replica sailboat at Historic Spanish Point launches visitors on a 45-minute cruise to the past.
OSPREY — Shoving off from the docks at the old Packing House at Historic Spanish Point launches visitors on a 45-minute cruise to the past.
The Magic is a replica of a sailboat used by the Webb family, pioneers who settled Spanish Point and renamed the area Osprey in the 1860s. The original Magic took two days to sail the 10 miles up to Siesta Key and Manatee County, with the sailors tacking their way slowly through then-open Midnight Pass into Sarasota Bay and up the Gulf Coast.
The Webbs removed the mast, and Osprey boat builder Frank Guptill converted the Magic to a gas engine in the early 1900s, which dramatically shortened travel time. It was like Magic, hence the name, docent John Drury said.
The Webbs arrived in 1867 from Utica, New York, and started growing sugar cane and citrus.
They were the first in the area to host visitors from the north at Webb’s Winter Resort, the White Cottage boarding house that was built in 1885 on the banks of Little Sarasota Bay.
Legend has it that one day when John Webb was raking in the yard, he unearthed a human skull, Drury said.
Archaeologists later descended on the site and discovered the area contained a shell midden with artifacts of ancient people from the Late Archaic period (5,900-3,200 years ago) through the Manasota and Late Woodland periods (3,200-1,000 years ago). A burial mound was also discovered on the property, making Spanish Point one of the most significant historical sites in Florida, according to the museum’s website.
Modern-day inhabitants represent merely a speck on the spectrum, because humans have been walking the shores and fishing the waters at Spanish Point for the past 5,000 years. The exhibit Windows of the Past shows what lies below ground in the middens where the ancient people deposited artifacts, shells, tools and fish bones.
On a recent chilly afternoon, Captain Dick Hooper and first mate/docent Drury welcomed visitors aboard the 24.5-foot, open-air Magic. Out on Little Sarasota Bay, ospreys sat on their nest atop Intracoastal Waterway marker 41. Pelicans roosted on a bird island offshore. “Sacred” and protected red mangroves lined the shorelines.
A few mullet jumped out of the water, braving the cool bay air. It was easy to imagine the frontier feel of the area from the viewpoint of the first settlers to what was then the wilderness of Florida.
Bertha Honore Palmer’s pergola and white house towered above the bay, and the seawall she built to protect the shoreline still stands. Chicago socialite Palmer bought 100,000 acres in Southwest Florida for $8 million in 1910 and later rented rooms in the boarding house to early snowbirds for $10 a month, Drury said.
Drury, who has been volunteering for four years, pointed out landmarks like The Oaks, Sarasota Crew’s boathouse and a few celebrity homes along the way as the 39-horsepower boat chugged its way slowly around the shallow bay.
The Magic replica was built in 2006 from cypress and mahogany wood and is powered by a Lyman 3-cylinder diesel engine. The original Magic was destroyed in 1921 by a massive hurricane that struck the area.
“Taking a trip on Magic is like going back in time almost 120 years to the days of Webb's Winter Resort, when a sailboat outfitted with a gasoline engine was indeed a very magical thing,” John McCarthy, executive director of Historic Spanish Point, wrote in an email. “To know that this educational boat was designed and built by volunteers, in the same boatyard where the original vessel was outfitted for power, is not only magical but represents an amazing cycle of life.”
Experienced sailors Mary and John Manning both volunteer at Historic Spanish Point. A recent voyage marked their first cruise on the little boat.
John Manning grew up on Nantucket, and the couple now live on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, six months of the year and in the Osprey area during winter. He said he has owned 65 boats during his life, but has recently culled his fleet down to nine.
Manning grilled the captain about the boat’s specs. He also volunteers in the boat-building program at the 30-acre museum, sharing his knowledge of all manner of maritime vessels.
Drury said more volunteers, particularly Coast Guard-certified captains, are needed. What a dream “job,” ferrying visitors back to a simpler time in Sarasota’s history.
Vicki Dean is a freelance writer based in Venice.