Tag Archive | south florida sailing

Love Song to Marathon

The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.

– Mark Twain, on Hawaii

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet,
and the winds long to play with your hair.”

– Khalil Gibran, The Wanderer

Some people don’t like visiting the Florida Keys. It is hot here in the summer, which stretches from May through October and brings temperatures in the 90s and high humidity. They don’t like the traffic, which is limited to one road that connects the tropical islands from Florida City to Key West. Route 1 does get clogged on Friday and Sunday afternoons when weekend visitors come and go. Crossing the busy highway is nearly impossible at times. To go left, you might have to turn right and find a place to take a U-turn.

The route is lined with strip malls housing sandal-and-t-shirt shops, dive stores, and bait and tackle sellers. There are seafood grills, tiki bars, and mom-and-pop breakfast cafes. Hotels and motels are expensive, even when they look like something out of the 1970s painted over with aqua blue gloss and decorated with pale starfish. The exclusive resorts along the coast are hidden by dense acres of mangrove trees and long shell-paved driveways. These luxury enclaves are even more expensive, and their waterfront restaurants feature $50 lobster dinners complete with conch salad and key lime pie.

Yes, it’s expensive, sometimes crowded, and oddly run down for a vacation paradise. But there is much to love here, too. Some of those strip malls include art galleries where local artisans sell their driftwood sculptures and sunset watercolors. The dive shops offer half-day snorkeling tours of a local reef just six miles out, where the pink, yellow, and striped fish swarm around your feet and the coral fans wave beneath you. We have done this once, and we will do it again. (See Phil’s photos, below.) Next door, we can rent kayaks and go paddling through the cool mangrove creeks in search of manatees.

Kay talking to the fishes: Our snorkeling excursion revealed a wild array of fish, some with delightful faces.
Phil dropped his Chapstick® when he jumped in the water, and the fish went after it.

Chickee” or Tiki bars are magical places where you might find the mayor of Marathon singing and playing his guitar. Local musicians can be heard in the waterfront tiki bars from early afternoon until closing time. It’s cool under the thatched palm fronds, a result of native Miccosukee (or Seminole) engineering. The steeply pitched roof draws heat upward and brings breezes in through the open walls. The drinks – what Jimmy Buffet calls tiki-pukey drinks – are made with fresh coconut, Florida orange juice, key limes, and island rum.

An example of a chickee hut sits in front of our marina office. Cool breezes flow through the space beneath this thatched-roof structure.

The food here is a problem for a vegetarian such as Phil. We can usually find veggie fare in Mexican restaurants and Italian or pizza places. The nearest Mexican place seems to be in Islamorada (a 20-mile drive). But for me, a seafood-eating pescatarian, options are plentiful. If the prices scare you, order appetizers. Last night I had a super delicious coconut shrimp appetizer at a fraction of the dinner cost. It was crunchy and light and came with a pina colada sauce that was dangerous to my blood sugar level. Other offerings at Porky’s BBQ and Marina were crab cakes, peel and eat shrimp, alligator bites, and of course, conch chowder. (They had a mediocre veggie burger for Phil.) Next time, we will arrive by dinghy and tie up at the restaurant’s dock.

We haven’t even started exploring all the entertainment venues here in Marathon. We went to see “Where the Crawdads Sing” at the local cinema, where patrons sit at tables and the concession stand sells beer, wine, award-winning popcorn, and nachos. It is only big enough for about 100 people, but shows first-run movies. They also have a community theater run by people who live in Boot Key Harbor. There is a turtle-rescue hospital just down the road that offers tours, and a dolphin encounter beyond that. (We encounter wild dolphins here in the harbor, so we might skip the captured dolphin show.)

Sunset over our shallow harbor.
Phil enjoying the sunset from the cockpit of Catmandu.

The natural wonders are the real draw for me. The sky is big here and the clouds are fascinating. Our boat’s cockpit faces the incredible sunsets and the frequent lightning storms. The bay to the west of Boot Key Harbor is very shallow, only 2 to 3 feet in most places, and features a rusting train engine that washed here from the 7-mile railroad bridge during a storm. (We call it “the little engine that couldn’t.”) It just sits there, hosting a party of birds until the tide comes in and hides all but a single spire. On that single spire, we will often see a lone anhinga bird drying its wings. This morning, we saw a great egret sitting there as two dolphins swam past.

The Little Engine that Couldn’t. The spire on the left sticks up above the water at high tide.

The road to Marathon goes through Key Largo, Islamorada, Lower Matecumbe, Long Key, Duck Key, and Grassy Key. Marathon, on Vaca Key, is a little more than halfway from Key Largo to Key West. All along the route there are expansive views of the shallow, light blue water on both sides of the road. State parks line Route 1 from John Pennekamp to Long Key, to Curry Hammock and Bahia Honda, with dense green mangroves protecting the narrow beachfront. When I was in college, I spent one spring break camping with two girlfriends along this stretch of wild tropical islands. I’m happy to say, it has not changed much in nearly 50 years.

We are more than halfway to Key West from Key Largo.

In coming months, we will wander westward by car or sailboat down to the next keys and on to Key West. Along the way, we may fall in love with this place. Eventually, we will sail to other islands and leave the Florida Keys behind. For now, we are explorers – by dinghy, kayak, or sailboat. We have a lovely fleet of tropical islands to discover beneath the expansive skies, anchored in aqua waters. Through the dense cool mangrove creeks, palm-studded beaches are waiting for our footprints.

The fuel dock at our marina at quittin’ time.

Finding Caretta and Bringing Her Home

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams,
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined,
he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
–Henry David Thoreau 

I am sitting on my boat in front of the laptop. It’s a bright summer day, and the sun is warm on my back where it shines down the companionway. Phil is at his office, but I was given a furlough from work and stay pretty close to our pier. Yes, we live on our boat now. We spent almost five years in a small apartment by the water, with our old 27-foot Catalina sailboat tied to a nearby dock. We built up our savings, made great friends, and lived our lives.

We shared a dream of moving aboard a sailboat and cruising through the Keys, the Bahamas and beyond. Of course, we needed a bigger boat. So, in 2019, we started shopping for a boat. We knew we wanted another Catalina, but would consider a comparable Jeanneau or Beneteau. Our search took us all over South Florida, from Marco Island to Port Charlotte to Port St. Lucie.

Mañana, a Catalina 380 for sale in Marco Island

In February we found Mañana in Marco Island on the west coast of Florida. She was a gorgeous, well-loved Catalina 380 that could have been ours. But in truth, we weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger and because of our delay, we lost it. I was heartbroken. It reminded me of losing the first car I tried to buy. I lost that, too, because I was too slow to offer a cash deposit. It was a 1971 Toyota Celica, teal with a white racing stripe. I’m still bitter.

In June we found Caretta, a Catalina 380 in sail-away condition that was almost, but not quite, in our price range. We would have missed it if we hadn’t loosened our pricing limits in the search engine on BoatTrader.com. At the same time, the seller dropped his price below $100,000. We drove to Stuart, met the owner and fell in love with the boat. Walking away from the dock that first afternoon, after a comprehensive tour of Caretta and all of her upgrades, I said to Phil, “I think that’s our boat.”

The original ad for Caretta in Boat Trader

What followed was a series of emailed negotiations that I found uncomfortable and embarrassing. Phil managed to get the price down to $89,500, which the seller called, “Close enough for government work.” To pick up the boat, we decided to drive to Stuart in my car, leaving Phil’s car at our apartment. We arranged for our good friends, Ben and Mari to accompany us on the trip south, so we would have extra hands on an unfamiliar vessel. It turned out to be a very good decision when trying to dock Caretta for the first time.

On Friday night, there was last-minute drama. We had booked a hotel room for one night and had dinner at the tiki bar. Other patrons at the tiki bar were in on the drama, as we waited for word. The owner did not have the money in his account and would not let us take the boat until he did. We couldn’t ask our friends to drive up from Fort Lauderdale if we weren’t sure the transaction would take place. On our end, we had the financing, but had to wait for the insurance binder. The finance company wouldn’t transfer the money until insurance was verified, so it was nearly 6 when we got the call from the owner. “Caretta is yours,” is all he said.

Phil, Kay, Ben, Steve Dublin, Mari – and Caretta at Steve’s dock.

There was applause all around the tiki bar when we announced our news. We called our friends and they offered to drive the 90 minutes right then. Two hours later, they arrived at the same hotel and found us still at the tiki bar, celebrating. Tomorrow was moving day.

Steve Dublin had owned Caretta since at least 2005, nearly 15 years. There’s a plaque in the salon that says the boat took second place in the 2005 Fort Lauderdale to Key West race, and Dublin had the same picture in his home office. So I know it was a sad day for him, even though we had given him about $10,000 more than the “blue book” value for the boat. When I remarked at how clean it was, he said, “It was my baby.” I could see the pride in his face and felt his loss.

He met us on the dock at 9 the next morning. Steve Dublin had belonged to our sailing club once upon a time, and Phil was the current commodore. We took pictures with the club burgee, and Steve and his wife handed off the lines. They stood for a long while on the deserted pier watching us motor toward the bridge.

Motoring toward our first bridge.

The trip from Stuart to our apartment near Pompano Beach took about 90 minutes by car, but it’s a two-day journey by sailboat. To make the trip even slower, there are around 23 bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway, and each one opens twice an hour. As we approached each bridge, we had to call the bridge tender on the VHF radio, then wait for the scheduled opening.

The first bridge was tricky because there was a train bridge close to the drawbridge, and a strong current. Since our mast is 62-feet high, and the highway bridges are 65 feet, it looks like a close call as we slide underneath. I’ve seen Phil doing the sign of the cross for extra assurance. We made it through just fine, and I took a turn steering on the other side.

Our route from the Dublins’ dock to the Intracoastal Waterway.

Just past Manatee Pocket, which is a popular anchorage opposite the St. Lucie Channel, we turned right to join the ICW. It would have been much faster to keep heading east and sail the boat on the open ocean down to Hillsboro Inlet. But we had never sailed such a large vessel, and even with extra hands on board, it was too risky to take that route.

Phil was driving as we turned into the waterway, and the boat grazed the bottom in a spot where the charts indicated we had 14 feet below us. It was just a quick brush through light sand, a momentary slowdown, and on we went. It was a reminder that our draft had increased from 4’6” on the old boat to 5’4” on the new one, and that shoaling was always a possibility near ocean inlets.

Mari, Phil and Ben, underway.

With six bridges behind us, we arrived at our marina for the first night. It was close to a couple of good anchorages near Peanut Island in West Palm Beach, but it was July in Florida, and we wanted the air conditioning that a marina could provide. Trying to pull into a narrow slip in reverse on an unfamiliar vessel was a challenge. With the help of Ben fending off the yacht next door, we managed to inch our way in and dock. Unfortunately, the air conditioning would not operate, and Phil had to call Steve, the former owner. With instructions on bleeding the water lines, Phil managed to get it going (while sweating buckets!) and we all headed to the outdoor bar for rum drinks and dinner.

Captain Phil at the helm.

The next day would bring us through 17 bridges, past wildlife refuges, two ocean inlets, and traffic jams of power boats. It was hot and sticky, but we had a steady breeze while we were moving. Waiting for bridges could be miserable, but we were lucky in most cases and motored right through. Occasionally, a bridge tender would hold the bridge open a minute or two as we caught up to the boat traffic going through. By late afternoon, we started to see familiar sights and approached our home port, Port Royale, just south of Pompano Beach. We arrived at cocktail time, but we still had a road trip in front of us, so no drinks for the moment.

Pulling into our slip, we could see the huge difference in size between our old Catmandu and Caretta. Catmandu, a Catalina 27, was parked in her slip next door, so Caretta – at 38 feet – looked like the big brother. Caretta’s mast towered about 20 feet above the mast of Catmandu. Despite the size difference, we had no problem docking, tying the lines and securing our new boat next to our old one.

Catmandu on the left, docked next to Caretta, on the right.

What I remember about our drive back to our cars in Stuart was both laughter and sadness. Laughter – because Phil’s Chrysler Sebring made hilarious croaking noises with every bump in the road; and sadness because I couldn’t forget the lonely figure of Steve Dublin standing at his empty dock watching Caretta cross under the bridge without him.