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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We left the Dry Tortugas on Saturday, December 18, 1999 at 0900 local. It was a beautiful sunny morning with the wind forecast to shift from Southeast to Southwest and then clock around from the West and eventually Northwest. It seemed like a good time to set sail toward the East - toward Key West. The first few miles were pleasant, but as we got into the relatively deeper water between the Dry Tortugas and the Marquesas Keys, the seas became very confused. After all, the wind had been from the Southeast for three days and the waves and swells were moving from that direction. Now the wind was shifting slowly to the opposite direction and the result was steep and irregular waves. We thought about turning around and heading back to the Dry Tortugas, but the forecast indicated that we would only have favorable winds for one day and then the Easterlies would start again. So we soldiered on, or I guess sailored on.
It was not a pleasant ride. Catamarans tend to "pound" in rough seas because the waves slap the bridge deck, the flat area between the hulls pretty hard. With the pounding and splashing of waves we had a colorful journey Eastward. Yours truly did not have one of the hatches over the settee battened down tight and a particularly obnoxious wave found its way inside, soaking all the cushions and magazines, a hand held calculator and our cable that connects our computer to our cell phone. The cable worked once after its saltwater bath and then went on to wherever dead cables go. The calculator got an immediate fresh water bath and it now works great. The magazines got real sticky. Lesson learned? Waves are very independent minded.
We arrived at the Marquesas Keys about 1500 local and the starboard propeller promptly picked up two lobster pot lines. So, armed with my trusty knife, I went over the side to cut them free. It's amazing how dragging a couple of wooden traps can slow down a sailboat. We went from 5 knots to 2 in about two seconds. We have a fresh water shower in the cockpit of the boat so after my saltwater "bath" I had a fresh water rinse and therefore satisfied my daily shower requirement. By this time, we had had enough sailing for one day and anchored in about seven feet of crystal clear water. Wouldn't you know as soon as the sun went down the seas got calm and flat as a mirror. Next morning was still totally calm. What had happened to the forecast Easterly winds? We were so comfortable at this anchorage that we spent the morning making fresh water and washing clothes. We have this neat hand crank plastic washer that will hold the equivalent of one double size bed sheet. It requires hot, fresh water, but it does a great job. After a couple of hours we had drying laundry hanging from every possible area on the boat. By 1500 local, the laundry was taken down and we weighed anchor and headed for Key West arriving at sunset.
West is an interesting place. This was our second visit and with the exception of more people and some improvements to the marina area, it looked the same. We stayed a week and anchored off Wisteria Island the whole time. Tying up to a marina at Key West is very chancy without a reservation, especially during the holidays. We found we liked anchoring better anyway. It is much more private and it is no trouble to use the "dink" or inflatable dinghy to motor in once or twice a day. The city marina even has a special place to tie up a dink. It is called imaginatively, the dinghy dock. For $20.00 a week, we had full use of it, sharing it with about 30 other dinks. Actually, it works great. Where else could you spend a week in paradise for less than $3.00 a day for parking? We were in Key West.
There were always at least two large cruise ships in port. At one time there were four, each disgorging about a thousand tourists. Cruisers and tourists can be identified easily. The tourists are the one's with non-stained clothes. Cruisers tend to get grease and oil spots and little rips in all their clothes, plus we don't bother so much with hairstyles and other fashionable "looks." The typical cruiser, and I guess us included, takes on a rather devil may care attitude about appearance. If it's relatively clean, doesn't smell and feels comfortable, it will do. We did however take in almost all the tourist attractions. We even took a tour bus. It was time well spent, because in addition to getting familiar with the general layout, and the typical sites, we also located places of special interest to cruisers. These included the hardware store, the marine supply store, drug store, grocery store and an internet café, where we were able to use our laptop to connect to the internet.
The tourist attractions are many, including the Hemingway house, the Audubon house, the Truman Annex, which is an area used by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, Fort Zachary Taylor and numerous other interesting houses and buildings. Then there are the watering holes. Duval Street is the main tourist attraction. In roughly a 15 block long street, there are 57 bars including Sloppy Joes, which was Hemingway's favorite (yes, sloppy joes were invented there) and one of the newest - Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, which is the official Parrothead headquarters. Of course, we had a cheeseburger in paradise while there.
Jimmy got his start in Key West and of course, his bar is filled with souvenirs and his music. In addition to Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost also used to live in Key West. Duvall Street is still a family acceptable area in that in addition to all the bars there are about an equal number of tee shirt outlets and other souvenir shops. There are even street vendors, who play guitars, juggle or do acrobatics, while passing a hat around. It's quite an experience. I also found the tourists a real attraction. The more memorable ones were the ones from Europe, who were mostly pasty white, the families with silly straw hats and cameras and of course the show offs including men and women who seem to enjoy wearing as little as they could get away with. We even had one woman on our tour bus wearing a string bikini. With her aboard, some of the tourist attractions came in second or less.
The weather was consistently great. We were able to walk every place we wanted to go without breaking a sweat and yet it was warm enough to swim and the evenings were delightfully cool. We never needed the air conditioner on the boat and always slept under a light blanket. After three days, we visited Sand Key, which is a very small island, with a light tower on it about four miles offshore. It is the most convenient area to visit a coral reef from Key West. The state has anchored mooring floats, to which boats can be tied temporarily while visiting the reef. This eliminates the damage that may be caused by individual boats dropping anchors. We spent several hours there snorkeling and enjoying the beautiful weather. Several large tourist boats came out while we were there and a time or two it got a little crowded, but the tourists didn't stay very long. We learned that boats are a real attraction for fish of various types. They seem to like the shadow under the boat. Maybe it makes them feel partially camouflaged. One time, I swam under the boat and encountered a five-foot barracuda. It just looked at me and I looked at it for what seemed like too long a time. I slowly backed away and went up for a breath of air. When I came back it was still there. I blew bubbles at it and waved my arms trying to get it to leave, but it won and I retreated to the boat.
The coral reef runs parallel to the keys for about 130 miles and is the third longest living coral reef in the world. There are also several dive sites for scuba people including some accidental and some deliberate wrecks to visit. So far we have been satisfied with snorkeling, but we may take scuba lessons yet. West is a favorite spot for more than just Americans. We met cruisers from Europe, the Caribbean and even South Africa. The weather is so nice, the water is so pretty and the life style is so laid back that it is as comfortable a place as we have ever been. But one week was enough. We spent Christmas there and wanted to leave before the expected 100,000 tourists arrived for New Years. Besides, now we are still willing to go back at any time. There is a sizable community of live aboard boaters in the Key West area, who live in all manner of sailboats, houseboats, motorboats and some indescribable contraptions. By and large, I suppose most of them have some retirement income, but some commute to the marina each day to work. There are even water taxis that make the rounds each day to pick up people or mail or even groceries. It is quite a sight and makes for interesting neighbors.
Of course, the nice thing about a boat is that if one doesn't care for a particular neighbor, one can
always move. But on the whole everyone is very friendly and supportive. One day we watched a newcomer run aground in a shallow area. We went to help, as did
three other nearby boaters. It's nice to see and experience a common bond and willingness to help a fellow boater. One time, on the way somewhere, while I was
over the side cutting away a lobster trap, a sailboat came by and asked if we were having any trouble and could they do anything to help us. We thought that was
right nice. Next stop is Marathon, on Vaca Key. There is a very good protected anchorage there where we can anchor for a week or so and do a little maintenance
that requires still water, like climbing the mast. We'll tell you all about it in the next chapter. Stay tuned.