Archive | October 2023

Having a Ball in Key West

“They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

– Confucius

“Go West, young man.”

– Attributed to Horace Greeley

After 15 months at Safe Harbor Marina Marathon–with just a few sailing excursions into Hawk Channel– we took our dock rug, hoses, and electrical cords and prepared to sail away. Our friends Guy and Pam were there to help with lines, and it was sad to say goodbye. Phil backed out of the slip that early Saturday morning while I put away the lines and fenders. We wouldn’t need those where we were going.

Day One: Marathon to Key Lois

It was still, calm and sunny with no wind as we motored past the familiar vessels in the marina for the last time. We passed the boat wreck where cormorants, pelicans and ibises had entertained us as we watched them preening or fishing, or just drying their wings. Last week we watched every other species scatter as a bald eagle landed on the wreck with his fish dinner. Soon, his partner swooped in to share the leftovers. The panicked cormorants swam away in a tight group of about 20 birds, safety in numbers. There was no doubt as to who rules the roost. (We will miss the roost.)

Phil at the wheel, leaving Marathon

The sea was as flat as it gets, so the boat moved smoothly through the morning. We saw dolphins for a few minutes, surprising since we hadn’t seen any in Marathon since around June. The smart ones must have moved on to cooler waters. Our poor seasick cat tossed her Friskees under the salon table and curled up under the aft bed. She is 19½ human years old, so we forgive her.

Maggie, complaining as usual

Phil had plotted a two-day course to Key West using paper charts and our Garmin chart plotter, so it was easy to navigate. We put Otto the autopilot on and with minor course corrections for the numerous crab pots, we made our way west to the first night’s anchorage at Key Lois (aka Loggerhead Key), arriving in early afternoon.

When we found a good spot to drop the anchor, I took the wheel and steered into the wind. However, I was not very good at keeping it there, and the boat kept turning. I’m working on that. We did manage to anchor in nine feet of water and turned off the engine. We were the only boat in the anchorage. A frigate bird, with its M-shaped wingspan and swallow tail, paid us a visit wheeling close to the mast on its way around the boat. We didn’t kill it and eat it, so I think it was a good omen.

When night came, we barbecued our veggie burgers and had celebratory gin and tonics. The half-moon lit up the sky, and the stars – so many stars – were brilliant. In the distance, we could see the glow coming from the lights of Key West, the only sizable community in the lower keys. The boat was rolling side to side, but we didn’t really notice until we went below. For such calm seas, we didn’t know why it was so roll-y. With the hatches open and a breeze blowing through, we slept like babies in a giant rocking cradle.

Day Two: Key Lois to Garrison Bight Mooring Field

Daybreak at Key Lois

I awoke before dawn and fed the meowing beast before settling outside to watch the sun rise. Phil made coffee in the French press, and we toasted bagels for breakfast. It was a sunny, cool morning with a better breeze, so we were anticipating a sailing day. Sure enough, as I motored into the wind and Phil pulled the anchor, we felt the rise of wind out of the east. The wind predictions (notoriously unreliable) were for northerly winds, but any wind that allowed us to raise the sails and head west was a blessing.

Sailing wing-on-wing

We sailed downwind with the mainsail pulled to the left side and the foresail to the right. This arrangement is called sailing “wing on wing,” as the two sails look like wings pulling the boat along. We occasionally hit 4.5 knots in a 10 or 12 knot breeze, but mostly cruised along dodging crab pots at 3 to 4 knots. It was peaceful and relaxing. We passed the keys we often traversed on our many trips down Route US1 from Marathon and saw the million-dollar mansions lining the beaches, which aren’t visible from the Overseas Highway. We sailed for more than ten nautical miles.

Million-dollar mansions along the southern coast of Sugarloaf Key

Welcome to Key West

When it was time to enter the Key West channel, I pointed into the wind and Phil dropped the sails. As usual, I couldn’t keep the boat from spinning too much, but I did a much better job this time. So that counts as progress. Phil got us back on course and we made the right turn at the end of Key West. That’s when the wind picked up and we saw wind speeds of 13 knots just when we didn’t need it. A narrow, busy channel is not a great place to rely on your sailing skills.

Look! Key West!

We motored through the channel between Tank Island and Key West. I made a little video of this passage as we tried to pick out the landmarks we knew: Galleon Resort, Southernmost Point, Mallory Square, Sunset Pier with strains of live music coming across the water.

We passed Wisteria Island (a much better island name than Tank, don’t you think?) and entered a narrow passage to make our way around the northern end of Fleming Island and south into our mooring field. A small motor boat pulled directly across our path as we made the turn, with no one onboard looking in our direction. (We didn’t sound the air horn. Phil is kinder than I am when it comes to inconsiderate boat captains.)

It was around 3 pm when we started searching for an empty mooring ball. The mooring field between Fleming and Sigsbee islands holds 149 mooring balls, chained securely to the bottom of the harbor. Boats hook their strongest lines to a ring at the top of the ball and hang on without anchoring. We were told there would be balls available, but we wandered through rows of moored boats and finally found one – but it was broken.

Late afternoon in our new neighborhood

Finally, at the far northeastern end of the field, we found two available balls. Phil drove up to one very slowly and left me at the helm to get him as close as possible to the ball. He had a boat hook to grab the line, a tricky maneuver even with his experience, and trickier still in the brisk wind. As I got too close to the ball, he yelled “neutral,” indicating that I should downshift. Only I couldn’t budge the shift lever and I panicked. “It won’t shift!” I said, as we drifted past the ball. Phil came to my rescue, and figured out that the engine was revving too fast to shift, so I relearned that important lesson.

Feeling like a mooring ball failure, I let Phil spin the boat around to approach the ball a second time. This time, I was driving so slowly, Phil was able to lasso the ball, muscle it up so he could reach the ring, and attach a mooring line. We were home.

Right away, the man in the adjacent boat introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Jack,” he yelled across the water. “Phil and Kay,” we answered and waved. He appears to be living alone on his boat (which I thought was named “Arrer-ten”) and maybe he was lonely and glad to have a neighbor. Phil chuckled when I asked him what Arrer ten means in French. “After Ten,” he said. The “f” and the “t” had worn off at the top.

Arrer-Ten, our mooring field neighbor

We had just a couple more things to do: check in with the dockmaster, and have dinner. The dockmaster was a half hour dinghy ride away, but we found the right channels in the unfamiliar harbor and caught him just in time. He introduced himself as Beaver and collected $424 for a month of mooring, showers, laundry, dinghy dock and pump-out service. “It’s the only affordable housing in Key West,” he said.

The blue dot is where we live now.

Thai Island Restaurant was open, so we headed up to the outdoor seating area and got acquainted with our server, Roger. He was another Key West character, the interesting and unusual people we keep finding in our new community. (Read more about “Quirky Key West“) Roger, self-described as “fabulous!”, somehow got us to tell him our whole history, and he learned our names. We ordered two plates of delicious Thai stir fry and he brought a selection of sauces. I mentioned that one sauce was way too hot and he said, “Maybe you’re just way too white.” I wasn’t offended; he was joking. I think if your food hurts you, maybe you shouldn’t eat it.

Sunset in the Garrison Bight Mooring Field

Back in the dinghy with my tiny take-out box, we made our way back to Catmandu before dark. As we rested in the cockpit and sunset approached, we heard strains of bugle or cornet music coming from the nearby naval base. They play a familiar tune five minutes before sunset, and then the trumpet sounds the “Retreat” at sunset, signaling that the workday is over. We sat quietly and listened to the trumpet from across the waters of our new home, a poignant ending to a very long day.

Guide to Tiki Bars of Marathon

Since Kay and I moved to Marathon, Florida, over a year ago, we have enjoyed exploring many of the tiki bars in the area by dinghy and by car. Why tiki bars? Tiki bars are bars in tiki huts. Tiki huts, in general, are magical. The Florida Keys are very hot in the summertime, and somehow the air under a tiki hut is always 5 – 10 degrees cooler than outside. Plus they look exotic and you feel like you are on vacation whenever you are hanging out in a tiki bar. Tiki bars do not have air conditioning, but they all have ample air circulation on all sides and fans are installed so they are comfortable all year around.

What defines a tiki hut? A tiki hut has a cypress log frame, open sides, and a palm thatched roof. Traditional, native American “chickee huts” are the same, except a chickee hut has a raised wooden floor. Fun fact: tiki huts or chickee huts built by Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee tribes are exempt from the Florida Building Code and can be built without building permits. 

Disclaimer: not all of the bars reviewed in this article are actual “tiki” bars, but they are still fun places to visit. Also, the list is not complete since there are so many of them and we have so little time. So please enjoy this article with a cold adult beverage in hand, and it will be okay. 

Here is our guide starting — roughly — with our favorite bars in Marathon that are close to Safe Harbor Marina / Boot Key Harbor, and then expanding outwardly. Look for the hyperlinks in this article and click on them to get more information, like their web addresses, street addresses, phone numbers, and menus. Note that every restaurant in the Keys seems to specialize in seafood since it is so abundant here. 

Sunset Grille. Located at the eastern end of the Seven Mile Bridge, Sunset Grille offers perfect sunset views, a huge menu of food and specialty drinks, its own pool, and a pool bar. The sturdy dinghy dock was rebuilt after Hurricane Ian last year, and is about a mile by dinghy from the marinas. The restaurant plays Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville in the background all day. Service is always fast and friendly. Sunset Grille is the perfect place to go with friends and family. 

Burdine’s WaterfrontBurdine’s is a smaller tiki bar restaurant with simpler fare on the second floor of a marina and fuel dock building. Burdine’s is best known for having the best french fries in the world. On the menu, they are “fresh hand-cut fries sprinkled with their special fry dust.” Burdine’s also has some tasty vegetarian entree options, and deep fried key lime pie. The restaurant is directly on the channel leading from the ocean to Boot Key Harbor, and boasts a floating dinghy dock. Sunset views are also amazing from this second floor tiki bar, and one can often see dolphins transiting the channel.

Castaway. Down one of the canals around the corner from Burdine’s is Castaway. To get there by water, you have to already know where it is, since you have to take some twisty turns. The restaurant is known for dishes made from lionfish, which is an invasive species. You are doing the Keys a favor if you take the lionfish out of the water and eat them. The dinghy dock at Castaway is sketchy, but it exists. Only the outdoor bar is decorated in the tiki bar motif. 

Dockside. Dockside is the dive bar where you go to become a local. Situated on the waterfront on the southern edge of Boot Key Harbor, Dockside has the perfect floating dinghy dock, happy hour from 3pm – 7pm, and live music seven days a week. During happy hour, Bud Lite is only $2.50, wine is $3.25, and well drinks are only $4. You can have rounds of drinks, happy hour appetizers, and live music, and be hard pressed to spend $20 apiece. I would know, I have tried many times! But Dockside is so low key that it doesn’t even have its own website. It can only be found online on Facebook. Dockside is not a true tiki bar, since it doesn’t have a thatched roof. However, Dockside scores high for its location, waterfront views, low prices, good music, and the Keys vibe. 

Lazy Days South. If your boat is docked at Safe Harbor Marina, you will surely patronize this tiki bar on a regular basis. Lazy Days is conveniently located only 60 feet from our boat and sits between the marina pool and the marina docks. In fact, bathers can get pool service by ringing a ship’s bell that the bar has installed outside. Lazy Days has a good happy hour, but is not a true tiki bar because it does not have a thatched roof. Also, their docks are not particularly dinghy-friendly since they are fixed rather high off the water.

TJ’s Tiki Bar. TJ’s Tiki Bar is an upscale tiki bar located on the bay side of Vaca Key and is a part of the Tranquility Bay Beach Resort. There are great sunset views that frame the famous lighthouse at the nearby Faro Blanco Marina. TJ’s is on the water, but the docks are for watercraft rental only. Most of the seating is on an uncovered patio, and there is often a singer / guitar player providing live music. TJ’s is not a true tiki bar because it does not have a thatched roof. It is also the most expensive tiki bar we have been to. I once got a $28 charge for a veggie burger. I thought it was mistake … and it wasn’t.

Porky’s Bayside BBQ. Like TJ’s, Porky’s is also on the bay side of Vaca Key, but is much more low key and affordable than TJ’s. Instead of specializing in seafood like the other restaurants in Marathon, Porky’s specializes in pork barbecue. However, they have good size menu to satisfy almost every palate. Porky’s is a true tiki bar that is easily identified from the Overseas Highway, and has several dock slips on the water. New for 2023, Porky’s just opened an 18-hole mini-golf course, the only mini-golf course in Marathon.

Barnacle Barney’s Tiki Bar. Hidden behind The Hammocks Resort on the bay side is Barnacle Barney’s, a hidden gem. It is a very cute bar on the water with friendly servers that is open to the public, but you cannot bring a boat here and it is not a true tiki bar because it does not have a thatched roof. No official website. Happy hour is 4 – 6 and the prices for drinks and appetizers are great. 

Keys Fisheries. A true tiki bar on the second floor of a fish market, Keys Fisheries is another favorite of the locals. It is walking distance from the City Marina, which is very handy if your boat is on a mooring ball there. It is also on the bay side. Enjoy adult beverages while watching the fishing boats bring in their catches at the marina below. 

Island Fish Co. Turning toward the north / east end of Marathon, Island Fish Co. is a true tiki bar on the bay side that is the only restaurant that can be reached by land, sea, and air. There is a helipad on the north end of the parking lot.

Sparky’s Landing. On the north / east end of Marathon is one of the best tiki bars in town. A true tiki bar on the ocean side, you can take your dinghy to their dock, but you would have to cross five miles of open ocean to get there. Sparky’s Landing has a very large menu that includes excellent brick oven pizzas. Their live music offerings are the best quality music acts in town, and include Marathon’s former mayor, singer/songwriter John Bartus. Like Sunset Grille, Sparky’s Landing is a great place for groups.