As the son of a Navy man, Tom Coppidge has always been on or around the water.
Now nearing his 61st birthday, the chief organizer of the Marathon Seafood Festival and proud member of the local chapter of Organized Fishermen of Florida is gearing up for one of his busiest weekends of the year.
The festival was established 33 years ago to celebrate the hard-working people that drove the Florida Keys’ primary industry in the 70s, and it has grown exponentially since its inception.
“I don’t think I want it to get any bigger,” Coppidge laughed.
His solitary existence as a commercial fisherman is one that he thoroughly enjoys, and the Seafood Festival serves as a time to get together with people from upstate New York as well as those who live just five miles away from him.
“I’m up at 3:30 in the morning and leave the dock around 4:30,” he explained.
Twelve hours each day are spent baiting, dropping and harvesting lobster and stone crab traps. He admits his catch used to be wider and more varied, but government regulations have restricted his harvest. With most of his friends in different lines of work on completely different schedules, there are several people he may only see once a year.
His son Matt, 29, works each day with his father and their handful of mates aboard the Pied Piper Too. Matt’s poised to take over the family business, and Tom, his complexion leathery and rutted from years on the water, can only hope for the best for his son’s future. His other son, Tommy, lives in Dallas and repairs computers.
Tom met his wife, Trudy, at Keys Fisheries in 1976. Originally from Cape Cod, Trudy took a job as a bookkeeper at the fish house where they first met, and she’s been there ever since.
In 1977, just prior to the second annual seafood festival, Tom was working on a boat that exploded and permanently damaged both of his feet. A gas leak resulted in the explosion that blew him “clear to the stern of the boat” and pointing to his left foot, he explains it was “turned all the way around.” A set of black boots with steel reinforcements and zippers up to his mid calf brace the hearty fisherman’s feet and ankles that he says he basically cannot bend at all.
Unless you ask him about, though, you’d never now.
Looking back through photos of the 1977 festival, Trudy points to a photo of Tom and said even though he had casts on both legs, he was there working and helping out the entire day. She laughs that, the following month in November, doctors finally removed his last cast on the very day of their wedding.
The pair symbolizes a small portion of the population left in the Florida Keys. Refugees, as it were, from colder climates and restricted, regimented lifestyles.
For 10 years of his life, Tom enjoyed the life aquatic as a professional surfer. He graduated from Winter Park High School, and was stationed in the Army in Oakland, Ca.
“I was on my way to Vietnam when Nixon came in to office,” Tom said.
He eventually made his way back to his home state and went to work for KFC corporate in Miami. When they relocated their base further inland, Tom was the head of construction for the new facility. He was offered a permanent salaried position, but upon meeting with corporate executives in suits, quickly changed his mind.
“I probably hadn’t cut my hair in about a year,” he laughed. “They offered me the job as the shipping and receiving clerk, but it wasn’t for me. I came down to visit a friend in Keys and just never went back.”
After the Seafood Festival wraps up this weekend, Tom can get back to his other passion – riding his motorcycle.
“Sometimes, I run for 350 miles before I stop,” Tom said, recounting a recent “Iron Butt Ride” from Marathon to Jacksonville and west to Lake City before returning home, all of which he did in the course of one weekend. He’s been on motorcycle rides as far as Alaska and Canada, and on every trip, he loves regaling newfound friends with stories of his little town back in the Florida Keys and the celebration of the annual seafood festival.
“For me, riding my motorcycle is the same as fishing. I enjoy the solitude.”