The black skimmer, a shorebird that looks like a toucan's distant cousin, nestles on Shona Carcary's lap, resting its large red and black bill in the crook of her arm as a little dog might do. He had survived the brutal winds of Hurricane Irma.
"He was so tired when we found him. He was just standing there. He let me pick him up," Shona, a petite blond with a tan that says she spends a lot of time outdoors, said as she looked at the photo on her phone.
She and her husband, Shaun, tried to get him to a bird sanctuary but, in Irma's wake, there would be no help. There were so many injured birds. The couple did the best they could to save him but he didn't make it.
"It was the first bird we lost," she said sadly.
Proud to be Americans
Shona and Shaun Carcary are South African immigrants who proudly became official U.S. citizens in 2012. They see — and save — plenty of birds from their home on the water, a 52-foot yacht that looks out over Tampa Bay from its dock at the Westshore Yacht Club, south of Gandy Boulevard in Tampa.
The empathy they have for their beleaguered winged neighbors seems to have roots that go deeper than a mere love of birds. It's almost as if the birds are ambassadors of the United States, the country to which they owe a debt of gratitude they will gladly spend the rest of their lives repaying.
The Carcarys' joy makes one wish everyone could see the United States through the eyes of foreigners who realize how lucky they are to have been given the chance at the American Dream.
They moved to the United States with two young daughters in 1997. Twenty years and several successful businesses later, Shona, 52, and Shaun, 53, are semiretired. They've traveled the world, visiting scores of countries and hundreds of cities. But nothing, they say, compares to the United States.
"I belong to America now," Shona said.
They recently celebrated the first-year anniversary of their first night on the boat. At the back of the boat, on a glass-top table made of a hollowed-out tree trunk through which you can see treasures they've gathered from the sea, sat a little cake with one candle.
"We celebrate everything," Shona said. "We couldn't celebrate in South Africa. You put out lights or flags for holidays and they would be stolen."
Landing in Florida
The couple's childhood dreams of moving to America remained even as they married in 1985 and built a successful life in East London, a city on the Indian Ocean on South Africa's Eastern Cape — he, an insurance broker; she, the owner of three nursery schools.
Memorable visits to Walt Disney World helped narrow down the search — Florida — for where they would like to live in the United States if ever given the chance.
Focused on their jobs and taking care of their two daughters, Tamara and Justine, who are now 31 and 29, the couple put their plans on hold.
"But, it became increasingly unsafe for us to live there due to high crime rate and bleak future for our kids," Shona said. "We had the closest house to the main beach in town, a stunning home, yet we couldn't let our girls walk across the road to enjoy it."
And then, in one of those moments in which all the stars seem to align, Shaun's partner offered to buy out his half of the brokerage and an unsolicited buyer offered to purchase Shona's nursery schools.
"All of a sudden, we looked at each other, both unemployed but, with the money, felt free to step out and take the chance to go," Shona said.
"We knew the timing was perfect — but went to my dad (a retired pastor) and mom (an author) to ask what we should do. 'Pack up,' they said. 'Sell everything and don't look back. We will always visit you and it will be the best thing for your girls.' "
It was Shaun's love of surfing, Shona's memories of Disney and family friends who had already moved to Tampa Palms that landed them here.
And so, in 1997, the family of four — the girls were 11 and 9 — packed up and moved 8,400 miles on what would become a 15-year, $50,000 (return trips, government and legal fees) road to U.S. citizenship.
"We decided that we would rather sit with a blanket on our knees one day in old age and say, 'Look what we did' rather than live with the regret of what may have been," Shona said.
Life in America begins
And, so, they took their life savings and opened bank accounts, bought a house in Tampa Palms, two used cars and a boat and enrolled the girls in school.
Despite Shona's fear that their daughters would not fit in or find friends, the opposite happened. They were the new kids with the funny accents that everyone wanted to be friends with.
Visa stipulations did not allow Shaun to work the first year he was here (Shona bought a nursery school), so he used the time to learn as much as he could about real estate.
"I studied as much as I could about the local market," he said.
He bought his first investment property in 1998. He and a friend did the remodeling work themselves.
"It was a very interesting experience as I could not figure out feet and inches, having come for a country that uses the metric system," said the man who never lost his surfer looks and who grew up with three hours of electricity a day at his grandparents' farm in Zimbabwe.
In the next few years, he would get his work visa, his real estate license and a "We Buy Ugly Houses " (HomeVestors) franchise.
The family moved to Lawn Avenue off Bayshore Drive in 2007. Shaun continued to flip homes, incorporating his Realty-Buy-Design business with both daughters and Shona, who also ran the personal training business "Go Body" out of their home, as partners. Their daughters grew up and had children of their own.
"We were sworn in as citizens on the 19th of November 2012," Shona said. "I cried the whole way through. It was so emotional and done so beautifully that I cannot tell you what a privilege that was. We are truly grateful for every single day we get to spend here."
Busy as they were building the American Dream, they never lost sight of their own dream: retiring on a boat on the water.
The simple life
Two years ago, Shaun and his wife were walking along the water's edge in downtown St. Petersburg.
He stopped, turned toward her and said, "I've figured out a way we can get our boat. We can do it."
We can sell everything and buy a boat that we can retire on someday.
That was the moment their dream became a reality. The instant they realized they could be more with less.
They traveled around Florida looking for a boat like a home buyer drives around a neighborhood looking for a house.
Finally, last year, they found the ideal boat for them: a 1975 Hatteras trawler docked in Fort Pierce. A live-aboard yacht that had good bones but needed some work.
They bought the boat for $130,000 and went right to work remodeling it. Eight weeks of 12-hour days and $70,000 later, the Happy Wife (as Shaun had named it) was done.
They fixed one engine, rebuilt their bed in the stateroom, redid countertops, installed new toilets, replaced all the canvas and repainted the exterior of the boat, which had been red.
They kept all the original wood inside the boat — floors, walls and cabinets — and as much as they could outside.
"We so want to keep the integrity of the boat while making it livable and updated," Shona said.
They haven't quite completely given up land-living. They own a small condo in South Tampa, too. But, they have sold everything that doesn't fit on their boat or in the condo.
"At first, we thought we'd spend the weeks in the condo and the weekends on the boat and travel a lot with it," Shona said.
But the more time they spend on it, the more they are convinced that someday it will be the only house they need.
"We have every comfort of a home in it — right down to the bathtub on the fly bridge," Shona said.
"We only have one life to live — one shot — and I want to accomplish as much as I can with the time I have on this earth," she said.
Shaun was reading a book in Key West a couple of years ago. It started with a widely copied story based on a parable written by the late German Nobel Prize-winning writer Heinrich Boll. The original version is set in Europe but the popular modern-day version is about an American businessman and a Mexican fisherman.
After reading it, the Carcarys realized they didn't want to be the American businesspeople that they were. They wanted to be the Mexican fisherman.
It goes like this:
An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large fish. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.
"How long it took you to catch them?" the American asked.
"Only a little while," the Mexican replied.
"Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" the American then asked.
"I have enough to support my family's immediate needs," the Mexican said.
"But," the American then asked, "what do you do with the rest of your time?"
The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, Señor."
The American scoffed. "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you," he said. "You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.
"Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."
The Mexican fisherman asked, "But Señor, how long will this all take?"
To which the American replied, "15 to 20 years."
"But what then, Señor?"
The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (initial public offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."
"Millions, Señor? Then what?"
The American said slowly, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."