Sunday, April 17, 2011

Down through the Keys...

After a pretty nice trip down through the ICW from Daytona Beach, we arrived in No Name Harbor on Key Biscayne, just below Miami, on March 10th and spent a very nice evening.  The next morning, we arose for morning coffee and around 0900 weighed anchor and began our journey down into the Florida Keys.  Our route initially was almost east, and had we continued that path we would have found ourselves in Bimini and the Bahamas.  I think that would have suited me just fine, but that trip won't be done again for a while.  So, once we passed the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne and
Stiltsville, a cluster of houses built on stilts in very shallow water in Biscayne National Park (hurricane Andrew in 1993 reduced the number from twenty to a mere handful today), we turned south into what is called Hawk Channel.


Hawk Channel is the body of water between the Florida Keys on the west and off-shore reefs on the east, beyond which lies the Atlantic.  It varies in width from one quarter mile up to two miles at some points, and has an average depth of 15-20 feet.  Channel markers appear about every mile or so, making it rather easy to navigate, and with a chart plotter it is no problem at all.  We had a lovely downwind sail once we turned south, catching our first fish, a Southern Sennett, along the way.  By mid-afternoon we found the narrow channel into Caesar's Creek, at the
bottom of Elliot Key and sought out a place to anchor.  This is part of the Biscayne National Park, and we were the only boat to anchor there this night.  The mangroves were deliciously beautiful and in trying to get close to them we found the water shallowed out very quickly.  We actually pulled up anchor and moved a bit further out so we wouldn't go aground if we swung on the anchor.  The tidal current was very strong, but Alizee held her spot and we had a wonderful, peaceful night. 



The next day we motored out the narrow channel to Hawk Channel and turned south again to Rodriguez Key next to Key Largo.  The wind was lighter than the day before and out of the north east, making it another wonderful downwind sail on the genoa.  We had ordered a new spinnaker six weeks before we left, and it was promised us, but it did not arrive before we left nor did it appear while we were headed down the ICW.  To say I was irritated is truly understating my feelings.  I could have strangled the sail maker, despite the fact that I like him very much.  Anyway, the day was absolutely perfect for it, and we were quite jealous of another cruiser who was flying one.  As our trip went on, we could have flown the spinnaker several other times, which continued to be a frustration.  We finally heard from our sail maker as we were leaving Fort Meyers Beach on March 23rd, and we finally arranged for him to bring it to us in St. Petersburg.  That turned out not to quite work out, because a nasty storm system came through the day he was to drive over with it, so to date we still don't have the spinnaker.  If all works well, he'll deliver it to us in St. Petersburg on April 20th.

Griping aside, we anchored in good water on the northwest side of Rodriguez Key around 13:00, and I persuaded Penelope that we should take a dinghy ride into Lake Largo to find Calypso, a Cuban/Spanish restaurant recommended by our sailing friend Robyn Joiner. It turned out to be one hell of a long ride - probably two or three miles as we took a circular route in order not to be going right into the wind - and when we got into Lake Largo the first thing we saw as a Tiki Bar with no name.  We tied up, went in, ordered a beer and discovered we were at the Pilot House.  I asked where the Calypso was located and walked down to it, but we ended up eating lunch at the Pilot House anyway, since all the good specialties at the Calypso were on the dinner menu only.  Too bad.  After we ate, we took a fruitless though healthful mile plus long walk looking for a small grocery. Alas, the Keys are not the Bahamas where small stores are almost everywhere and the supermarket was another four miles round trip, so we returned to the dinghy for the long downwind ride to Alizee empty handed.  

For our third sailing day in the Keys, we decided to go under the Channel Five Bridge just south of Islamorada on Lower Matecumbe Key and follow the ICW route on the Florida Bay side of the Keys.  The water was 7' deep well outside the ICW channel, so we could sail the whole way and not be restricted to the narrow ICW channel.  Because we were late leaving Rodriguez Key, we decided to spend another night on the hook at Jewfish Key, just below the Channel Five Bridge on the west side.

The next morning, our fourth in the Keys, we took a a wonderful light air sail, coasting our way south to Vaca Key, the location of one of the Key's largest communities, Marathon.  Here is located Boot Key Harbor, which is home to over 250 moorings which are generally all occupied with boats anchoring wherever there is a bit of space left over.  It seems like a KOA campground for boaters to us, and we made a pretty early decision not to join the throngs of boaters already there.

Perhaps if we were up for a party and meeting lots of cruisers, we would have, but since we were not on the east side of Vaca Key in Hawk Channel, where we would have had to have been to easily get into the harbor, we decided to find a marina on the west side.  This turned out to be a lucky move, for we found a sweet little marina, the Black Fin, which was just a half-mile walk to Marathon's Publix grocery and was extremely peaceful.




We ended up spending two nights at the Black Fin, did our grocery shopping, showered twice (always a treat), and did laundry.  And on our first night, after showering and relaxing a bit, we took a $5 taxi ride down to the Sunset Grille and Rawbar at Seven Mile Bridge on lower end of Marathon.  Here they boast the best sunsets on the key, and we have to concur it was pretty nice.  There was a great local folk singer doing his thing in the bar, a happy crowd of people, and George, an old cruiser who pretty much had made Boot Harbor his home, sitting out front weaving all sorts of things out of palm fronds.  He gave Pen a fish on the end of a pole, which hangs proudly now in her berth on Alizee.

Our time at the Black Fin brought us some very sad news, though.  Our dear friend Neil Cowan, who had been fighting lung cancer for over a year, died.  It was really devastating, and we found ourselves thinking about him and Ruth constantly, remembering with tears in our eyes our race to get to Georgetown in the Bahamas last year to spend a week with them at the Emerald Bay marina and resort area, the week we spent with them at their house in Glen Cove, Long Island the end of summer in 2009, and all the other future plans we'd talked about.  We'd been talking with Neil on the phone whenever we got a chance, and while he knew it was coming and we knew it, too, it was such a painful experience for us.  When we left Vaca Key on March 15th, we took only three hours or so sail in light air to Horseshoe Keys, located in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

This could not have been a more perfect place to have been at the time.  I felt like I could see Neil in the clouds passing over and Pen captured this same feeling in a poem she wrote.  We could feel his spirit in the great white herons along the shore of Horseshoe Key, the ospreys hunting their dinners, the kingfishers, the manta rays in the shallow waters close to shore and the myriads of little white butterflies flitting about the mangroves.  We anchored and took the dinghy in and spent at least an hour exploring the shoreline and getting a close-up view of the life there.  We tried fishing and caught one tiny little fish, maybe a snapper or grunt ... I couldn't tell, which we threw back to live a longer life.  The little fish just nibbled away our squid bait as fast as we could get it on the hook.  Except for the Southern Sennett, we were not doing too well with our fishing.  We need to learn the techniques for Florida waters, I think.  Anyway, we loved Horseshoe Key so much and found it so peaceful that we decided to spend the next day at anchor there and another quiet night.  We were the only boat there, except for a couple of fishermen in small boats who stayed away from us.  It is a spot and an experience I know neither one of us will ever forget.

We left Horseshoe Key with some regret and wound our way through an unmarked channel to Florida Bay.  Here we turned south, winding our way through lobster pots (they were absolutely everywhere on the Florida Bay side of the Keys), and caught two fish along the way.  The first was a Blue Runner, which makes for wonderful sushi, and the next was a Crevalle Jack, a fighter on the hook but not the best eating.  Since we aren't big fish eaters, we threw it back.  But we had our Blue Runner, and so not long after we anchored at our next spot beside Tarpon Belly Key, still in the Great White Heron refuge, I made up some sushi rice and we enjoyed this wonderful treat as our appetizer that evening.

Tarpon Belly Key was a beautiful little key, but Cudjoe Channel, in which is is located, is easily accessible by small power boats from the settled area on Cudjoe Key and Summerland Key through which the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1) runs.  So we saw lots of day trippers as well as fishermen during the daytime hours.  Once the sun started setting, though, they all skedaddled for home and we were all by ourselves and that's when the place came alive.  Dozens of great white herons appeared in the mangroves, ospreys flew out to catch dinner for their nestlings, and the place was transformed.  When we awakened the next morning, some early bird fishermen were already about, but we weighed anchor and moved on before many more appeared.

Our next destination was Key West.  We had already decided that we'd take a slip at a marina there, so that we could spend time in the historic town and really see it and also so we could avoid what everyone said was a long and sometimes damp dinghy ride from the anchorages to the town.  We had a good sail and were joined by some dolphins part way.  It was a nice downwind coast until we hit the southwest channel into Key West and turned east, and then we had a beam reach all the way into the harbor, managing to hit over 7 knots, probably because the tide was with us.

As we neared the end of the channel, a couple of gaff rigged schooners carrying paying sightseers sailed by us, para-sails floated along pulled by power boats, and a massive Disney cruise ship dropped its lines, turned around and headed out toward the Caribbean.  Because of the ship traffic and not really having local knowledge of the waters and winds in the harbor, we lowered our sails and motored into our marina berth.

The Conch Harbor Marina is located in the heart of the historic port of Key West.  Originally named Cayo Hueso by the Spanish (Cayo is also thought to be the origin of the words "Cay" and "Key"), it was claimed by naval officer Matthew C. Perry in 1822 and within a year was the site of a custom house and a naval depot.  Over the past 190 years, Key West metamorphosed several times, hosting a variety of maritime activities, attracting a wide array of colorful figures from Hemingway to President Harry S. Truman and ultimately becoming a tourist-driven community.  The historic port walk starts at the Conch Harbor Marina and winds its way past waterfront restaurants and bars, shops, the docks for schooners taking out tourists and eventually around to Mallory Square, where tourists (and maybe a few confused locals) gather each night to watch the sunset.

After getting tied up, a DJ at the pool-restaurant at the head of the marina pier cranked up his rap so loud we found it really uncomfortable to sit out in the cockpit, so we gathered up things to take a shower.  Turns out we had to walk through the restaurant and hordes of 20- and 30-somethings debauching in the pool and at the bar.  I guess we're just not quite used to such overt public displays of affection.  Damn, getting old is weird.  Nevertheless, we discovered that at 18:00 the music would be finished, probably because there is another expensive restaurant right on the landing above the pool that had outdoor dinner seating.

Showers revived us, and we decided to walk down the historic waterfront and explore a bit.  Talk about crowded.  Wow!  It reminded me of Pier 39 and the Fisherman's Wharf area in San Francisco at the height of tourist season ... a place to be avoided for sure.  We finished our walk and sat in Alizee's cockpit with a drink, watched the pelicans assembling on the marina's dock posts and admired an enormous private motor yacht off our port stern.  The pelicans suddenly all flew off their posts and behind a charter fishing boat that was coming in to tie up down our pier near the pool-restaurant.  Since we were hungry we decided to go on back to eat dinner at Turtle Krall's, just a hundred yards down the historic boardwalk, but we stopped short at the fishing boat to watch the pelicans being fed the waste as a boat hand deftly fileted the catch for the paying customers.  It was a sight, indeed, and Pen truly admired how fast those fish were fileted.

Eventually, as the pelicans drifted away, we moseyed on down to Turtle Krall's, which was well recommended in our cruising guide.  Outside on the waterfront dock perhaps 60 or more dinghies were tied up, which was a good sign that other cruisers were afoot, either here at TK's or next door at the Half Shell Raw Bar, also highly recommended (and it turns out, operated by the same folks that run TK's.  Well, the food was okay, but nothing to write home about (so I won't describe it), and their band was almost as loud as the pool DJ, but still making every tune they played a rap tune.  After dinner we simply decided to retreat back to the comfort of Alizee, where we sat in the cockpit with a drink, watched the sunset and life slow down, and admired (and puzzled) the fact that the luxury yacht crew was still washing down the boat well after sunset (turns out the owners arrived at o-dark-thirty and the yacht was gone when we awakened.

In the morning we wandered over to Pepe's Cafe, which boasts that it is the oldest continuously operating cafe in Key West.  Boy did they live up to their reputation as having the best breakfasts in town.  Crowded it was, so we snagged two seats at the bar and supped on Bloody Mary's until it was clear our wait for a table was futile.  So, we ordered at the bar, and since it was almost noon, we had BLT's which were the best either of us had ever eaten.  If you ever find yourself in Key West, then eat here!  Period!  The best!  And, then, if you want a second meal at dinner time, go across the street to B.O.'s Fish Wagon, a dumpy looking little on the corner of Caroline and William streets.  We had a first-rate fried fish dinner there in the evening, and rate it also as a must-eat place.

Although this will sound tres touristy, we had a great afternoon taking the two-plus hour historic "train" tour of Key West.  The city is home to street after street of wonderful historic buildings representing almost any style of architecture you could imagine.  We saw Hemingway's house, past by Harry Truman's summer "white house" and saw a number of little spots we thought would be fun to visit again.  We also discovered why Key West seemed so damned crowded.  Spring Break!  Key West's best known avenue, Duval Street, was mobbed with dare I say thousands of party-animals, some literally climbing lamp posts, others pub-crawling and holding a late-St. Patrick's Day celebration.  Noisy, raucous, smokey (seems like everyone was smoking) and happy crowds filled Duval Street all day and well into the night (although we weren't there to see it after dark).



After our train ride, we walked through Mallory Square, had a cocktail at a hotel bar overlooking the anchorages to the west, and eventually found our way to the fish wagon and then home.  We decided that was enough, and laid our plans to get up the next morning, pump out the head, go out and anchor for a couple of hours in the anchorage, barbecue some chicken thighs for our crossing to west Florida and then leave sometime mid-afternoon.  All was accomplished as planned, and we departed the anchorage and Key West at 14:00 on March 20th.


Next post: "Last Leg to St. Petersburg..."

All the trip photos

1 Comments:

Blogger Erin said...

Nice blog! Looks like you guys had a nice trip. I enjoyed the pix! xo Erin

2:51 PM  

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