Down near Ponce Inlet, Fla., a sandbar magically appears when the tide of the Intracoastal Waterway recedes. Called Disappearing Island, the locals know they are going to have deal with pirate activity if they dare make their way down.
Luckily the resident pirate is 60-year-old Michael Nelson and he makes his living by selling ice cream off his pontoon instead of robbing and pillaging passing vessels.
Most weekends from April to October, Nelson hits the water in his 1989 20-foot Stardust pontoon, selling $3 to $4 treats.
Nelson refers to his customers as “creamies” and these loyal followers often describe the boat as “awesome” and he knows it isn’t such a bad setup. He cruises the pontoon for hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, stopping at the beach at Smyrna Dunes Park, Disappearing Island, the surrounding sandbars or just pulling up alongside boats.
’It’s a great way to make a living,” says Nelson with a laugh.
Unusual Path Taken
Openly admitting that he has his dream job, his journey didn’t start out that way. Before deciding to pursue life as an ice cream selling pirate, the Florida-native made a living printing a biker’s pocket guide for motorcycle events and worked as a mail machine mechanic. Destiny had other plans, though, when he picked up a Pennysaver newspaper and started browsing the ads back in 2006. He noticed a man was selling an ice cream truck and a 1989 Stardust 20-foot pontoon boat.
”My name was all over it and I had to have it. I just knew that was it,” recalls Nelson.
In the beginning, a co-worker ran the boat, while Nelson drove the ice cream truck. But about six months into driving the truck all week long, Nelson became sick and started sleeping anywhere from 18 to 23 hours a day.
Nelson was relying on medical professionals to try to solve his health crisis, until one morning he awoke from a vision that came to him in a dream on Christmas Eve.
”I realized my truck had an exhaust leak and was poisoning me with carbon monoxide,” says Nelson. “I ran out, jumped under the truck and sure enough there were all these holes in the exhaust pipe and with rusty floorboards, that’s how the carbon monoxide got in.”
Not wanting to expose himself to anymore risks, Nelson headed to the water for his first season aboard the pontoon, which is now where he spends every day living up to his pirate persona.
He’s sunburned, has a shaggy beard, ponytail, and a salty sense of humor. While he couldn’t have imagined he’d be driving the Ice Cream Boat, he remembers a ceramic statue he made back in 1974 of an old sea captain, hands in pocket, with a beard. On it, he scratched “Mikey.”
”How did I know 35 years ago that I was going to end up like this?” he says. “That’s me, the beard, the captain’s hat, sitting there looking over the ocean. It’s like it was almost supposed to happen.”
Ice Cream Patrol
Most days Nelson is scanning the water and sandbars, looking for excited waves from children and an acknowledging nod from parents. A typical scenario will be a child standing in the water, flailing both arms wildly.
But that’s not all Nelson is waiting for. “Aarrrrrrr,” the dad will bellow, throwing his fist in the air.
His regular customers know that when they see the pirate with the green hat, a pirate’s call will get his attention. From there, Nelson knows the deal.
”Arrrrrrg! Coming in,” he roars. “I’m here to rob and pillage!”
Once he steers his pirate-flag flapping red, white and blue Ice Cream Boat onto the sandbar, he will be immediately surrounded by children, parents and dogs.
Dogs at New Smyma Dunes Park know the drill. They hop aboard for free treats and stay a while.
”Of course, the dogs,” says Nelson. “They are worse than the kids, swimming out to my boat with one thing on their mind; ‘Gotta get on that boat!’ They don’t even give me a chance to park it.”
Ruby, an Ice Cream Boat regular, is a Weimaraner who hangs out on deck, while her human crosses through the water on her behalf.
”I think my dog wants to live with you,” says Beth Siyufy as she buys an ice cream sandwich.
For the children, Nelson carries an array of different frozen snacks. The treats are stored in battery powered freezers and are displayed on a photo menu that’s mounted to the pontoon. He caters to millionaires on yachts and average Joe’s on runabouts.
And it’s not as easy as some people would think.
“You have to know the ocean and the tides and how your boat works,” says Nelson. “As well as make sure you don’t hit anybody.”
Keeping his pontoon on salt water is a challenge of its own.
“Saltwater is tough on any metal equipment,” says Nelson. “But it never fails to make me smile, seeing the kids jumping up and down as I approach. They just can’t believe their luck.”
Nelson knows he’s a bit of a rarity, which helps pull in new customers. Kids are always excited when he shows up out of nowhere with a boat full of ice cream on a 90 degree day.
”Besides the ice cream, it also helps to have the gift of gab,” says Nelson.
Nelson is in the middle of creating a lasting legacy on the Florida beaches, all by steering his old ‘toon towards groups of children waving damp dollars and he wouldn’t have it any other way.