Archive by Author | Phil Decker

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. 

Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow

“Diesels have an unrivaled record of reliability in the marine environment.”

— Nigel Calder, “Marine Diesel Engines: Maintenance, Troubleshooting, and Repair”

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

— Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

As Kay wrote in her blog post Night Passage to Marathon, we limped in to our resort marina back in August with an engine pouring out white smoke and producing only low power on a twenty-hour overnight passage. It was an ordeal, but we had made it to our new home. After settling in at our marina, we started researching mechanics who could come and fix our engine. The closest Westerbeke reps were back in Miami and Fort Lauderdale who were not particularly interested in helping us when we were bobbing around on the anchor at No Name Harbor for five nights. I knew we could do better. We had to do better.

One morning, I chimed in on the Boot Key Harbor Cruisers’ Net that is broadcast every morning on VHF channel 80. I asked for help. The one mechanic that everyone recommended was the famous Diesel Don. I called him on the phone, and made an appointment to have him take a look.

Diesel engines, such as our Westerbeke 42B Four, are typically four-stroke internal combustion machines that operate according to four simple processes: suck, squeeze, bang, blow. If any of these processes do not occur, the engine does not run.

Suck: the piston sucks a mixture of air from the intake manifold and atomized diesel fuel from an injector.

Squeeze: the piston squeezes the diesel and air into a very small volume, on the order of 400 psi, which also heats them to a very high temperature.

Bang: when the temperature exceeds the self-ignition temperature, the mixture explodes with a bang, driving the piston downward with the expanding gas and rotating the crank shaft.

Blow: the piston blows the exhaust products out the exhaust manifold and toward the muffler.

Over a series of visits, Diesel Don tried all the less-expensive tests and fixes that could cause the white smoke and low power output conditions. First, he took off the valve cover and adjusted all the valves. Wasn’t that. (Please note, we are going to show some of the guts of the diesel engine below. If you are squeamish about engine guts, please avert your eyes.)

Valve cover removed exposing the rocker arms, valve tops, and springs

Next, we replaced all of the injectors. Wasn’t that.

One of the four new fuel injectors

Then, we decided to do a compression test of each cylinder. Cylinders 1 through 3 were in spec, but cylinder 4 had no compression whatsoever. That is, no squeeze.

There is a short list of conditions that could cause a lack of compression in one cylinder and not the others: blown head gasket, bad valves, bad piston rings, and broken piston connecting rod. Resolving any of these issues requires major engine surgery. Resolving some of them would require removing the 450-pound engine from the boat somehow and taking the engine apart in a machine shop. I hoped we could avoid having to remove the engine. That would mean towing the boat to a boatyard with a big crane to get the engine hoisted out, and then living in a hotel for week or two while the engine gets fixed.

Don and I rolled the dice and decided to remove the cylinder head at the marina, since maybe it could be fixed in place. The photos below showed the problem immediately: broken exhaust valve on the number four cylinder. The diesel fuel and air mixture was being pushed out the exhaust without being combusted, which created the white “smoke” we were seeing.

Underside of the cylinder head, showing a broken exhaust valve. See the missing edge?
Close-up of the broken exhaust valve showing a piece is missing

Don and I reviewed the parts manual for our engine, and he made me a long list of parts to order from Westerbeke. The list included replacing all of the valves, not just the broken one.

Two weeks and a thousand bucks later, the parts were in. Don had the engine back together and painted. We started it up, and it ran as good as new. No white smoke. Power to spare.

Cylinder head and upper assembly, painted like new and ready to install
Bottom of repaired and refinished cylinder head

“Are you happy?” asked Don.

“Yes, I’m happy!” I replied.

Servicing the Electric Anchor Windlass … Sort of!

This is how the electric anchor windlass is supposed to work

Phil here, with a tech update on servicing and maintaining our Catalina 380, 38-foot sailboat. Boats of our size and larger have anchors that weigh on the order of 35 pounds and above, and have anchor rodes (i.e. lines) that are all chain. They are heavy. Thanks to gravity, anchors and chains are usually easy to deploy. However, it is difficult to retrieve them when it is time to pick up the anchor and sail away. That is where the electric windlass comes in.

Catmandu came with a very nice Maxwell Freedom 800 electric windlass, that has worked flawlessly for the past three years. However, last July when Kay and I were testing the boat’s systems at the dock in preparation for sailing south, the anchor windlass would. not. deploy.

Freedom 800 electric anchor windlass

We contacted our dear friend Mike Dillon, an engineer for Maxwell in Fort Lauderdale, for help. A new windlass costs about $2000, and I hoped we could repair ours instead of replacing it.

When did you last service the windlass?” Mike asked when he came aboard with his bag of tools.

You have to service anchor windlasses?” I replied. I had no idea. I thought they were magical devices that just worked for years when you pushed the buttons. They have shiny, stainless steel turny things on top and magical whirring things that are invisible below the deck.

It turns out you have to service anchor windlasses periodically. #Sad. It appeared that the windlass had not been serviced in over 20 years. Mike took apart the top part of the windlass and found that the two clutch halves had seized together, and that had prevented the anchor chain from deploying. We pried them apart with hand tools and brute force, cleaned out some embedded dirt, and greased the clutch. Then the anchor and chain deployed normally once again. Note to self: the user manual says the clutch has to be greased every year or bad things can happen.

Mike opened an access panel below deck and inspected the gearbox and electric motor. The gear box was empty when it should have been at least half full of 90 weight gear oil. All the oil had leaked out. Left empty, the gears would have eventually ground each other to dust and the windlass would be ruined. Mike was able to throw some regular oil into the gearbox so that we could get underway, and it was good enough for our cruise from Hollywood to Marathon.

Change the scene to the present day. Catmandu has been at a slip in Marathon for seven months, and properly servicing the anchor windlass has finally come to the top of the to-do list. Servicing involves greasing the clutch, removing the gear box, replacing all the oil seals, and replacing the gear oil. I was able to grease the clutch again. I even installed a “pressure arm” that presses the anchor chain against the chain wheel of the windlass since it was missing on my unit. However, after accessing the rest of the windlass below deck, the gear box would not come off. It had seized to the shaft and I could not get it off, even after applying penetrating oil daily, banging on it with a hammer, and applying heat from a heat gun.

Worm wheel and gearbox cover would not come off the shaft, so I left them in place

The next best thing was to merely remove the bottom part of the gear box and the electric motor from the assembly while leaving the worm wheel and gear box cover on the shaft, as seen in the photo above. As you can see below, out of oil again.

Bottom of gear box with no oil

Then I turned the gearbox to the side, and identified an oil leak past one of the oil seals. Oil seals are partly rubber and partly metal, and must seal the gearbox and shaft precisely in order to keep the oil in.

Gearbox showing the oil leak. No bueno.

I bought a Maxwell rebuild kit for this windlass, which includes replacement oil seals, clips, o-rings, and a sight glass for the gear oil. I was able to get all the old seals out and replace them, except for the seal in the gearbox cover. Of course, there is a YouTube video for that.

Gearbox with overhaul kit, ready to install

I installed the new hardware and bolted the gearbox assembly back onto the windlass with fresh 90 weight gear oil. After applying anti-seize compound to the bolts, I secured the gearbox to the shaft and re-installed the electric motor.

Plenty of gear oil seen in the sight glass. Bueno.

To prove it works, I ran the anchor up and down at the dock a few times, and called it a success. Now, the anchor windlass has been completely serviced — except for greasing the worm wheel on the shaft and replacing the oil seal on the gearbox housing. Good enough, as long as they never have to come off.

Buying the Dinghy of Our Dreams

To cruisers, your sailboat is your “house” and your dinghy is your “car.” Think about anchoring the sailboat in a secluded bay surrounded by a white sandy beach and coconut palm trees for a week or a month. Once in awhile, you want to go ashore to buy food and fuel, buy more rum, go out to a restaurant, visit a tiki bar, or pick up guests. You also also want to visit that sandy beach, and explore the islands on day trips.

For that, you keep your sailboat at the anchorage and take your “car” to town, the beach, et cetera.

Kay and I bought our 1998 Catalina 380 — a 38-foot monohull sailboat — two years ago, and it came with an inflatable dinghy. It was a 9.5 foot long hypalon Achilles inflatable that had an inflatable keel and a wooden floor. Inflatable boats are made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabric or the more expensive hypalon. The boat could be disassembled and rolled up for storage, like we did during Hurricane Irma a couple of years ago. However, the Achilles was not the “dinghy of our dreams” (hereinafter referred to as the “DooD”).

The problems with the Achilles were myriad.

First, we could not get the boat titled and registered with the state because the previous owner messed up the transfer of title. Second, the wooden floor was disintegrating in the warm seawater environment of south Florida. Third, it would be difficult to get an inflatable boat to “plane,” which is boater-speak for “go fast.” Fourth, it would. not. hold. air.

Will. Not. Hold. Air.
Note I’m wearing a swimsuit

Oh, we tried and tried to find the leaks in the Achilles and patch them as best as we could. We watched YouTube videos and bought several tubes of hypalon adhesive at thirty bucks a pop. But, they never worked well and it leaked so badly that we had to pump up the boat while we were motoring around the back canals of Hollywood, Florida, where we are docked. Even though we are not cruising the islands yet, we decided that we still want to have a dinghy to use in the meantime and it was time to shop for the DooD.

First, Kay and I made a spreadsheet to study different boat sizes, materials, features, and prices. There are a handful of dinghy manufacturers, including Achilles, West Marine, AB, Caribe, Zodiac, and Highfield. Each has a different reputation for quality in the cruiser community. As for materials, we decided on the more expensive hypalon because it is resistant to ultraviolet light, which south Florida and the tropics has in spades.

There is a type of inflatable boat that Kay and I wanted that has a hard bottom (not wood) and inflatable side tubes called a RIB. RIB stands for “rigid inflatable boat.” There are few different types of bottoms you can get on a RIB. They include fiberglas, aluminum single layer, and aluminum double layer. Fiberglas bottoms can be cracked or punctured if you run the boat onto rocks at the beach, but fiberglas cracks are relatively easy to fix. On the other hand, aluminum hulls will dent if you hit a rock at the beach, and they are unlikely to be punctured. Single hull boats, whether fiberglas or aluminum, will doom the cruiser to having wet feet forever since there is no good way to get all of the water out of the bottom of the dinghy all of the time. Double hull aluminum boats are more expensive than single hull, but have other benefits.

We decided visit some dinghy dealers in area so we could see them in person before we made a decision. Like buying a car, we wanted to kick the tires. There are several specialty dinghy stores in the area, believe it or not. But when we did some research, most were not open outside of regular 9 – 5 business hours, Monday through Friday. Why aren’t they open when buyers were available? Did they only sell to people who are retired or unemployed? We called several stores and asked how we can see their dinghies before we buy. Mostly, none of them returned our calls. I finally reached a sales rep live and found the answer.

There are no dinghies!

Due to COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most popular ways to enjoy the outdoors in a safe and socially-distant way is to get out on the water in a boat. Therefore, there has been a run on boats of all kinds over the past year, and there is almost no inventory available anywhere. You can put in an order, sight unseen, pay your money, and hope to see a boat in six months or later.

Kay and I decided to just pick our DooD and put it on back order. We decided to pay some extra money for our DooD and placed an order for a Highfield Classic 290, a 9.5 foot long hypalon boat with a double aluminum floor. It has a lockable bow locker for a gas tank and an anchor, movable middle seat with big zipper pockets, AND A DRINK HOLDER. Yes, DooD has a drink holder. Many of the cruisers we follow on YouTube have Highfield dinghies, which speaks well about their quality I think.

We ordered our boat from Nautical Ventures, a specialty store, that actually answered our phone calls and e-mails. We signed the paperwork and made a big deposit, sight unseen, hoping that the DooD would be on a shipping container toward south Florida in four to six months. But, in two weeks, we got a call from Nautical Ventures saying that a sale of an identical boat fell through and that one was available right away, still in the crate! We accepted it immediately, and had them deliver it to the water’s edge at our marina in Hollywood.

Kay and I have been enjoying the new dinghy. We travel the canals of Hollywood to see the iguanas in the mangroves, and several kinds of herons and egrets. Our small electric outboard pushes the boat at its theoretical hull speed of about 3.5 knots. We want to buy a new outboard engine between ten and fifteen horsepower so we can plane and go to destinations further away. But when we look for new outboards, there aren’t any!

Moving Catmandu South for Vacation

Kay and I had planned to spend our one week vacation on Catamandu sailing the Keys for some time. We wanted to time our vacation with the Fantasy Fest celebration in Key West around Halloween. Since there are a lot of miles between Fort Lauderdale and Key West, we decided to move the boat weekend by weekend farther down the Keys and start our vacation in Marathon, which is more than half way down to Key West.


Our course from Gilbert’s on Key Largo to Boot Key Harbor

This post is about our first leg from Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo. On Thursday October 6, Hurricane Matthew blew by Fort Lauderdale. We were bracing for a direct hit. So, we removed ALL of the canvas from Catmandu, doubled all the lines, and set an anchor. Fortunately, the eye of Hurricane Matthew veered slightly to the east the day before it got here, so the eye was about 100 miles away from Fort Lauderdale at its closest. We only saw thirty knot winds at our marina.14563300_10155398465179199_4453886585925378428_n-1

We needed to leave Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, October 8, in order to move the boat down in time for our vacation plans. The winds from Matthew subsided enough by Saturday morning that we could put the sails and dodger back on, and that took several hours. We managed to leave the dock at 9:00 AM bound for Miami Marine Stadium.

Again, we sailed offshore, exiting the ICW at Port Everglades. The hurricane had left clear skies and a nice northwesterly breeze at 10 – 15 knots. We sailed more than half way to Government Cut on a reefed main and full jib, hitting a speed of six knots or better several times. Along the way, we saw a turtle in the ocean with shell that was three feet across and many more dolphins. Kay and I anchored Catmandu at Marine Stadium, went swimming, had a barbecue dinner, and saw a beautiful sunset.

After a calm, warm, and restful night, we motored out of Marine Stadium into Biscayne Bay, back into the Intra-Coastal Waterway. The wind finally picked up, so we motor-sailed on a full jib all the way to Jewfish Creek. The ICW route is well-marked but there were several places that were only six feet deep or less. Having a working chart plotter, which shows you exactly where you are on the chart, is very important.


Panorama of Gilbert’s Marina

After Jewfish Creek is Gilbert’s Resort and Marina on Key Largo. Gilbert’s is famous for its live music, tiki bar, and full service marina. We tied up Catmandu in a slip around the back and enjoyed dinner and rum drinks at the tiki bar before we drove back home to Fort Lauderdale.


Kay at Gilbert’s


This entry was posted on October 9, 2016. 1 Comment

Miami Marine Stadium for Labor Day Weekend


Catmandu at Marine Stadium

Kay and I were excited to join the Gulfstream Sailing Club on its yearly Labor Day trip to the Miami Marine Stadium. Last year when we tried to get there, Catmandu had two serious breakdowns in the first two miles. We had to be towed home by TowBoat US and we ended up driving down on Saturday to join the fleet.

Phil in a conniption fit

Why doesn’t the engine work?!?

This time was different. We left the marina at our apartment on Friday night after work and motored to Sunrise Lake where we anchored for the night. Kay brought Subway sandwiches for dinner, so we didn’t even have to cook.

On September 3, we got underway just after sunrise for the 35 mile trip to Marine Stadium. While motoring out to Port Everglades, we made coffee in our French press and enjoyed grilled bagels with cream cheese for breakfast. Since the wind was forecast to be on our nose all day, we motor-sailed with only the mainsail up.

The weather forecast called for a ten percent chance of precipitation. However, just as we rounded the red number 2 marker outside Port Everglades, it started raining hard. It rained so hard we could hardly see, and we had to rely on our auto-pilot Otto to keep us on a straight compass heading south. Kay and I crouched underneath our canvas dodger to protect us from the driving rain, and I popped my head up from time to time to check for traffic. They call that “prairie-dogging,” I think. We were towing our dinghy Catnip, which was filling with a significant amount of rain water, and that was slowing us down. However, we entered the Miami harbor at Government Cut and made good speed, even against the tide. Government cut is a wide and well-marked channel. However, markers 10 and 12 are in different locations than indicated on my one-year-old paper chart. The markers are in the right place according to my newer electronic chart on the chart plotter. I wonder if that might have been a factor in the recent boat crash involving Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins pitcher.

Catmandu was first boat to arrive. There were very few boats in this big anchorage on a holiday weekend. We drained Catnip and inflated our two-seater pool toy. Since our ice supply was low, I motored Catnip over to Rickenbacher Marina to resupply. I asked the clerk how much a bag of ice cost, and she said, “$5.34. Don’t stab me!” Funny. But, that’s a lot for a small bag of ice.


Catmandu panorama at Marine Stadium

Marine Stadium was built in 1963 as a venue to watch powerboat races held in the large, manufactured bay. The stadium was abandoned in 1992 due to hurricane damage, but the bay remains as a favorite anchorage.

Commodore Marvin and his friend Gary arrived on the second boat, Puff, an Island Packet 42. Kay and I went over and enjoyed food and adult beverages until late. We were waiting for Bleu Bayou to arrive, but gave up. They were towed in around 10:30 PM.img_3024


Miami in the evening from Puff


Puff being towed away

On Sunday, September 4, we spent the day swimming and enjoying a long lunch at Atlantica, at Marine Stadium Marina with our Gulfstream Sailing Club friends.


Ladies back up the musician at Atlantica

On Labor Day morning, we had to weigh anchor early and motor all the way home. The temperature was 85 degrees, seas were calm, and the south wind only blew about five knots. However, we were accompanied by dolphins for part of the trip! They played around our bow wave. They swim so fast that we could not get a good photo. But it was fun to see them.

A rain storm popped up as we approached Port Everglades. However, we were well inside the harbor before the heavy rains hit. We got home at the northern end of Fort Lauderdale around 3:30 PM after waiting for four bridges, very wet, and a little less sunburned than previous voyages.




Cruise to Stiltsville


Romantic. Historic. Remote. There are many ways to describe the set of seven Stiltsville houses literally on stilts and literally on Biscayne Bay, more than a mile out to sea from Miami Beach or any other piece of dry land. Kay and I are members of the Gulfstream Sailing Club, which for the past few years has has overnight access to one of the seven remaining houses for one night per year. The Club’s commodore has a connection at the house belonging to the Miami Springs Powerboat Club, that built its house in the 1950s. Of the 27 Stiltsville houses that used to be in the bay, only seven remain, and they cannot be rebuilt if they are more than 50% damaged by, for example, a Florida hurricane. The next Florida hurricane could wipe out the house, as hurricanes have wiped out the other lost houses, so when one has the opportunity to sail there and stay overnight, one must take advantage.


The Miami Springs Powerboat Club (“MSPC”) house is about 38 nautical miles from our marina at Port Royale Apartments in Fort Lauderdale. Since the MSPC is the sponsor of a historic place, I tried to find more information about them. However, the MSPC has absolutely no internet presence, which I find very suspicious. But then again, south Florida is full of things that are very suspicious.

Because of the 11 bridges we had to negotiate between Port Royale Apartments and Stiltsville, we decided to make it a two-day motor sail down and two-day motor sail back. Our first leg was from noonish on Saturday, April 9 to noonish on Sunday, April 10. We had to leave on Friday morning and return on Monday evening, but Kay could not get out of work on Friday.

Stiltsville PanoI prepped the boat with water, four home-made ice blocks, full tank of gas and two red gas cans tied up on deck, and motored by myself halfway down on Friday, April 8. (Yes, Mom, I had my life jacket on.) The current was very strong against me, and it was tough getting through the Dania Beach Boulevard Bridge against the current. Currents are always stronger around the bridges on the ICW because the water gets channelled into a small area. In addition, the bridge was being renovated and had only one span open, so boats going north or south could only go through one at a time. At full power with a 30 horsepower engine, I could only make about 1.5 knots. Afterwards, I tried to get gas at the Hollywood Municipal Marina. However, a larger sailboat had gone hard aground and blocked the whole fuel dock. They had to wait for the next high tide, which was after midnight.

I tied up Catmandu at the home of our dear friends Jim and Rosemary Mahon, who live on the Intracoastal Waterway in Hollywood, Florida. Kay met me there in her new (to her) white Toyota Prius, and we enjoyed a comfortable, and free, night at a secure slip. Kay brought our groceries and ice. Jim and Rosemary were not there because they sailed their 34 foot sailboat Alberta Rose down to No Name Harbor earlier in the day.

alberta rose

Alberta Rose

Saturday morning, with 18 miles to go, was exciting since we have never been south of Hollywood, Florida, on Catmandu and were relying on our chart plotter and Mark & Diana Doyle’s “Managing the Waterway Guide,” the same guide that led us down from Annapolis to Fort Lauderdale. We were able to get gas at Hollywood Marina for the main tank and two jerry jugs tied to the bard board. The ICW takes us past the west end of Dodge Island in Miami where all the cruise ship terminals are. Kay and I have sailed from there a few times. After a few more miles, we entered the wide expanse of Biscayne Bay and hoisted sail. We were sailing in the Keys!

We had a little trouble getting to the Stiltsville house since no one thought to publish the latitude and longitude of where the house actually is. One must approach a Stiltsville house a particular way because the depth of the water is only about three feet at high tide, except for the unmarked channels you need to take. They said to turn to port at the green number one buoy. Unfortunately, there are many green #1 cans, and the one I thought they meant was near the club’s staging area at No Name Harbor on Key Biscayne, over a mile from the Miami Springs Powerboat Club house. We went back and forth north and south and discussing the situation on the VHF marine radio for over an hour until we finally figured it out and found our way in.

How you transfer beers on the high seas

How you transfer beers on the high seas

There were eight sailboats at the house overnight! It was probably a record, since a police helicopter buzzed us on Sunday morning. Where two or three are gathered in his name, there are probably shenanigans going on, somebody wise once said.

A "raft-up" as viewed from inside the raft-up

A “raft-up” as viewed from inside the raft-up

What is a Stiltsville house like? It is literally on stilts, and they are concrete reinforced and tied together by steel rods to better survive hurricanes. The lower level is a foot over the water and has the docks, picnic tables, storage rooms, a rope swing, a water slide, propane barbeque, port-a-potty, rain barrel (large), a very quiet diesel generator, and a short staircase down to the water for swimming and snorkeling. Upstairs is like a modest suburban-like house. There is a kitchen with refrigerator, gas stove, and microwave oven, pool table, a few bunk beds, and a large screen TV. Last year when we caught a ride to Stiltsville, people were watching the Stanley Cup playoffs on TV. We enjoyed a fine dinner and drinks, listened to music, and talked until late, marveling at the beauty of the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Miami skyline at night on the other. And then we had a restful night sleeping on Catmandu. About forty people slept there overnight, either on their boats or on the floor in the house. It was breezy and about 75 degrees during the day.

inside house pool table

In the morning, a crew made pancakes for everyone and set up a bloody mary bar. No useful work can happen on a day that starts with a bloody mary bar. Fortunately, all we had to do was sit and steer to get home. Since Catmandu was the outermost boat in a particular three-boat raft attached to the dock, we had to leave first. Our friends Sheryl and Joe on Island Gal left after us. Island Gal is a larger boat, and briefly went aground trying to get back into the channel. Catmandu motored against the wind and the current through Miami water traffic, which is almost as bad as I-95. However, the scene at Baker’s Haulover Inlet included some wonderful kites flying above us, including a giant squid with its tentacles waving back and forth. We tied up Catmandu again at Rosemary and Jim’s place on the ICW and had a relaxing evening.

Kay and a live bird

Kay and a live bird

Great Egret

Great Egret

On Monday, we motored back to Port Royale together. The wind had picked up and it was too windy, and especially too gusty, to sail. When we arrived at our little man-made harbor at Port Royale Apartments, it took us three tries to get into our slip. As we would back up toward the dock, the wind would blow us sideways, and we had to abort the landing twice and try it again. Our icebox still had some solid ice left after three days on the water. We hope to go back to Stiltsville again next year.

Lessons Learned by a New Florida Sailor

Since Kay and I moved to Port Royale Apartments last August, we have been enjoying living in our little apartment and finally having Catmandu docked at the marina where we live. We have been active in the Gulfstream Sailing Club, of Fort Lauderdale, and I am now the Membership Chairman, and Kay is the Editor of its newsletter Tiller Tales. I had the opportunity (and obligation) to write an article for the latest issue of Tiller Tales, and here it is:

After cruising northern New England for a long time, Kay Harrison and I sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway (“ICW”) to Fort Lauderdale on Catmandu, our Catalina 27. We have cruised here for two summers so far. I have found there are huge differences between cruising up north and cruising south Florida. Here are my top three lessons learned.

1. Lightning! Florida is the lightning capital of the US, which I knew before I arrived. More people are killed by lightning in Florida than any other state. Now consider that the sport of sailing involves traveling along a very flat part of the country under a very tall metal pole, and one could reasonably conclude that sailors are just asking to get hit by lightning.

Lightning capital of the world - South florida
We had bad thunderstorms back in New England as well, but there were reliable ways to determine if a thunderstorm is headed your way. Checking the weather radar on a smart phone is the best way, since everyone knows which direction the weather comes from and it is easy to see if you are in its path. Another way is that the National Weather Service would send an alert that causes an alarm on the boat’s VHF radio which would then tune the radio to its thunderstorm warning on the WX channel. Also, in the old days, one could also turn on an AM radio and listen for crackling sounds that indicate lightning. Things are different in Florida.

In Florida, thunderstorms don’t just travel down to you from upwind in a predictable way like they do in New England. There is so much heat and moisture and energy in the atmosphere that thunderstorms actually form and grow over your head while you are sailing. Several times I have waited in port for a storm to pass, only to have another one sprout and emerge fully grown right on top of me. I have experienced many close calls of lightning strikes very close to me, but luckily I have never been hit.

What should one do to avoid being hit by lightning, or to survive being hit? I do not have the definitive answer, but I have some common sense practices, and have done some research that I try to follow on my boat. My first strategy is the “buddy system.” If I cannot get into port right away, travel with or anchor near a boat with a taller mast. My other strategy that I learned from online research is to go below, unplug all the antennae and electronic devices you can, and avoid metal objects by staying in the middle of the cabin.

adapter2. Bring your own pump-out adapter. Most cruising sailboats have a holding tank that should be pumped out regularly. Pump-out facilities at most marinas on the East Coast provide a hose that has a cone fitting at the end of their hose that will fit almost any size of deck fitting on a boat. But not in Florida. We have been pumped out at many different marinas, and most of them in Florida have no adapter at all at the end of their hose, and they expect boaters to provide their own. Since I did not have one when I arrived, I would have to improvise by making a cone out of neoprene or whatever material I have on hand and will not want to use again. I mean, when you gotta go, you gotta go! I shopped around and could not find the 1.5 inch diameter adapter that fits my deck fitting at West Marine, Sailorman, Defender, or other retailers. I got mine at the Walmart RV Department, and I treat it like treasure.

3. You cannot get block ice in South Florida. People, if there is one thing South Florida marinas and grocery stores could learn from the rest of the country, it is that block ice lasts a lot longer than cubes. Like most boats the size of Catmandu, we have an ice box and do not have powered refrigeration. Up north, we would get a block of ice and a bag of cubes every two or three days, which would be entirely sufficient. One cannot get block ice in South Florida, and a bag of ice cubes lasts less than a day in the Florida summer heat. I have given up searching, and have resorted to making my own block ice. I bought plastic storage bins and make ice blocks with them in my freezer at home. I have to start freezing them about a week before a cruise.

This entry was posted on April 22, 2016. 1 Comment