Tag Archive | Florida Keys sailing

Reasons for Moving

“In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.”

– Mark Strand, Keeping Things Whole

Our plan, to the extent that we had one, was to explore the quirky environs of Key West and take a week or so in the Dry Tortugas for some snorkeling and walks around the historic fort. Then, when the weather and wind were right, we would turn eastward and jump over to the Bahamas for a season. True to the cliché, “cruisers’ plans are written in the sand at low tide,” ours changed – for very good reason.

The trip to the Dry Tortugas required a favorable weather window, not only to get out to the remote site, but also to get back. The prevailing winds were from the east and north, so sailing there could be fairly easy but sailing back, beating our way into the wind and waves, could be a nightmare.

We had friends who got smacked down by a waterspout during a storm at the anchorage there, and we didn’t want to experience that firsthand. They were okay; they were able to turn the engine on and motor hard into the wind, avoiding being beached. Of the six boats anchored that night, three ended up on the sand.

Key West

As we waited for favorable weather, we survived more than four months in the Garrison Bight mooring field of Key West. It was a rough way to live; we were buffeted by north winds almost constantly, had infrequent pump outs, and often got soaking wet just crossing the mile of choppy water to the dinghy dock. Phil’s review of the location on Active Captain featured two stars:

Exposed and often uncomfortable

The mooring field is completely exposed to the prevailing winter winds from the north, which makes living on the ball often uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe in a north wind. Very windy and wavy. We were there for four months. I kept a spreadsheet and recorded that 1/3 of the days had small craft advisories. Dinghy travel to shore typically involves full foulies or a swimsuit since the salt spray is unavoidable. There was one fatality from a neighbor taking her dinghy to her boat while we were there. Pump out is supposed to be weekly, but could be delayed to two weeks or more due to weather. Very little communication from the marina office. The mooring balls have NO PENNANTS, making picking up the mooring ball difficult except in calm weather.

Hank’s Hair of the Dog Saloon, where their motto is, “In dog beers, I’ve only had one.”

Despite the difficulties, we enjoyed Key West’s unique vibe, its “fabulous” restaurants and bars, and the chance to be locals. We changed our drivers’ licenses to a made-up Key West address, since the mooring field itself was not acceptable for that purpose. (We used the address of the dinghy dock.) We started asking for the local discount at the bars after a bartender at the Harry’s Hair of the Dog Saloon told us most places take 10% off for locals.

Kay enjoying a Smoked Old Fashioned at the Hard Rock Cafe on Duval Street.

We climbed the Lighthouse, toured the Coast Guard ship and the Truman Little White House, marched in the locals parade before Fantasy Fest, and placed a few “Catmandu” stickers in our favorite bars. We ate and drank our way down Duval Street and then explored restaurants on the back streets and narrow walkways.

Phil and I marched in the locals’ parade during Fantasy Fest.
We climbed the lighthouse, across Whitehead Street from Hemingway’s house.

We found the best Italian place (Only Wood Pizzaria Trattoria down a brick-lined alleyway off Duval St.), the best Mexican (Old Town Mexican Café, open-air patio with a tree for a rooftop), best vegetarian (The Café, friendliest staff in town) and attended the Friday night sound checks at The Green Parrot. We bought the T-shirts.

Phil, exemplifying “happy hour” at Smokin’ Tuna.

Toward the end of our stay, we realized we were never going to get a good enough weather window to visit the Dry Tortugas. We decided to try again in another year, another season, sometime in the future. We had good reasons for not going.

We welcomed my son Anthony and his wife Maeghan for a February vacation, opting for a week at a dock instead of subjecting them to travel through the mooring field. (The week at the Key West Bight Marina was nearly $1,200.) We took them to the Brewery for lunch, and they presented me with a morse-coded gold bracelet. Phil whipped out his “decoder ring,” and it took two letters for me to start crying with joy: G-R. Grammy! They brought me a gift like no other: a grandchild on the way, my first.

My son, Anthony, and his wife, Maeghan.

When March came, it was time to move. We had spent all the fun chips Key West had to offer, and we were tired of the mooring field. We had other reasons for moving, and slowly, sadly, we were realizing our dream of a spring season in the Bahamas would have to wait.

Key West to Key Lois to Marathon

We set out for Marathon two days after dropping the “kids” at the bus station. We had just been sailing with them a few days earlier, so it was fast and easy to leave the dock. We followed our October course in reverse: out of Key West Bight, left to the channel, past the harborside resorts and bars, past Wisteria and Tank Islands, and into Hawk Channel.

Looking back at Key West, we saw a gigantic cruise ship docked across the island.

The winds were light from the ESE, so we motored the 21 miles to Lois Key. Along the way we kept our eyes out for wildlife and saw several Portuguese Man-of-Wars, the blue-tinged floating blobs you want to avoid while swimming. Although we were using the autopilot, we had to hand-steer around scores of annoying little crab-pots. At just after 1 pm, we saw Lois Key in the distance and at 1:45, we dropped anchor there in 10 feet of water.

The winds had died down to about one knot, and seas were calm. We saw one large turtle break the surface near the stern as we relaxed in the cockpit. He dove again a minute later. Just before sunset, four large dolphins appeared from the east and swam under the boat. They came up on the other side, close to the cockpit. We watched them as they swam off to the west together.

Sunset was little more than an orange-pink glow in the western sky, and when darkness fell, it was intense. There were so many bright stars, but the only man-made lights came from the keys to the northeast. We could still see a faint glow to the west from Key West, but it was still a very dark night. The next morning, we had coffee and breakfast bars at 7:30 and then tried to pull the anchor. The anchor windlass failed to turn on. “I guess it’s arm day on the boat again,” Phil said, and muscled the heavy chain and anchor onboard at 8:40.

The wind and waves were calm as we motored toward Marathon. The ocean was flat with tiny ripples that sounded like turtles breaking the surface, but when I looked, it was nothing but water. I was at the helm for most of the day, giving Phil a deserved rest. We recognized land features to our left, sailing by the Bahia Honda Bridge and then the Seven-Mile Bridge as we approached Marathon. Since there was a waitlist for the mooring field, we anchored along the west coast of Boot Key at around 1:45 in the afternoon.

First sunset in our new home in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon.

The next day, we boarded a bus for Key West, retrieved our car and closed our PO box. On the way back, we got a call from the city marina – our mooring ball was ready: Romeo 8. It was easy to grab the pennant this time, and we settled in to our new home in Boot Key Harbor, near the entrance to Sister Creek. Ospreys and bald eagles were calling overhead, and later that afternoon, dolphins came to meet us.

Enjoying live music at Dockside, a Boot Key Harbor waterside bar.

I have already written my Love Song to Marathon, and Phil wrote a tribute to its many tiki bars. Nothing in the next six weeks changed my mind about this worthy cruisers’ destination. On the mooring balls, a community of helpful, friendly, concerned citizens take to the radio every morning at 9 and share the news of the day: upcoming activities, people coming and going, people needing help, and truly corny “Dad” jokes. We met friends at the Friday night happy hour that we will reconnect with, down the line. But this is a sailing blog, and by mid-April, it was time again to go sailing.

Other Reasons

To explain our reasons for moving, for not going to the Bahamas, and for heading north, I have to go back a few months. While we were hanging on to the mooring ball in Key West, I had a few medical tests done that I had put off for too long. One of these was a mammogram, followed by a biopsy. Here is an excerpt from my journal:

Feb. 1, 2024: I guess I will remember this date for as long as I live. It’s the last day I woke up without cancer. 

The doctor called me and asked how I was, any soreness, swelling. Then she said, “The tests came back positive for malignancy. There are cancer cells in the breast and the lymph node.”

Pause. Breathe. 

“It’s invasive ductal carcinoma and it’s metastatic,” she says quietly.

Phil is listening so I stay quiet while she tells me to pick up a CD of my images at the doctor’s office and make an appointment right away with an oncologist. She recommended Baptist Hospital Breast Cancer Center in Miami.

“Okay,” I said. “Is it treatable?” Then Phil got up and put his arm around me.

“Yes,” she said, and added, “I was pretty sure this would be the result. Sometimes I hate being right.”

Phil held me while I explained what she had said. I cried a little. I guess I’m allowed. I have metastatic breast cancer.

So, instead of planning a crossing of the Gulf Stream and a season in the Bahamas, we were planning a way to get closer to my oncologist, my future treatments, and an affordable dock where we can spend the hot hurricane season with air conditioning.

Some treatments were available at Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon, so we headed for the mooring field there. Weekly treatments would start in mid-May in Miami, so we called our previous home, Loggerhead Marina in Hollywood, and asked about a slip.

“Your old slip will be available,” the manager said. “When will you be here?”

“Mid-April,” said Phil. It gave us six weeks in Marathon, where we could get some treatment, and it was closer to Miami, where we would be going for tests and appointments.

I am going to be a grandmother. Phil and I are sailing to the Bahamas next spring. Our plans have to be rewritten, in the sand, but these things will remain even after high tide.

We all have reasons for moving.

Kay, in her Easter bonnet, getting treatment at Fishermen’s Hospital on Easter Sunday.

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.