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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Six

A funny thing happened on the way to Marathon. We were sailing East paralleling the keys thanks to a nice Northwest wind when a predicted front arrived sooner and more vigorously than predicted. The Coast Guard came on channel 16 on the VHF, which is the hailing frequency, and warned boaters that heavy rains and gusts up to 30 knots could be expected within the next hour. We were already aware of the front because we had been watching the cloudbank approaching us from the North for the last two hours. The Coast Guard warning was all the persuasion we needed to drop the sails and motor due North to the Bahia Honda Park, which is sheltered between the old railway bridge to Key West, built in 1908 by Henry M. Flagler and the new four lane bridge of the overseas highway. Gusty winds of up to 30 knots are not necessarily dangerous, but one needs to protect the sails from damage, which requires reducing the amount of sail being used. We had both the main and jib fully deployed and rather than reduce sail, we thought the approaching front presented a good opportunity to call it a day and seek a comfortable anchorage until the next day. So even though it was only mid-afternoon, I revved up both diesels and we moved out smartly at 7 knots for the park.

We reached the park in plenty of time and anchored securely before the gusts and rain started. What was funny about it all was that Jan had been trolling a lure for hours with no luck, but when she pulled in the line after we were anchored, there was a 26-inch Spanish mackerel on it. We dined well that night, and the next night. The next day we sailed into Boot Key Harbor in the town of Marathon on Vaca Key, which is arguably the best natural harbor in the Keys because it is completely surrounded by Vaca Key and Boot Key, providing complete protection from high winds and waves from any direction. In addition to its history as a safe harbor for Indians as early as 200 A.D., conquistadors in the 1500s and pirates later on, Marathon also is the beginning of the seven-mile bridge, the longest and highest, at 65 feet, in the keys. The bridge has been used as a backdrop for several TV shows and movies including the exciting conclusion of the movie "True Lies".

Marathon is a typical keys town. There is lots of traffic on the highway, mostly people coming from and going to Key West. But other than that it is kind of laid back but with an interesting mix of country and city folks, very few of whom have been residents for more than ten years. In fact, the population grows in the winter with all the snowbirds, who come South for the winter. We met several cruisers, who regularly spend the winter anchored in Boot Key Harbor. All kinds of accents are heard from Midwest to New York and Deep South. The grocery stores reflect this mix of cultures by offering everything from fine wines and bagels to tortillas and chitlins. One store even carries smoked ciscoes, which is a fish native to Lake Superior.

We took in a movie one day at the only theater in town and it was a wonderful experience. It was obviously built in a converted warehouse. The floor was flat; the chairs were individual, had arms and were nicely padded in addition to being on casters, which allowed each patron to roll around until a good view of the screen was obtained. There were four chairs per small round table on which snacks and drinks could be placed. Sharing a table with strangers was no problem and everyone seemed to enjoy the opportunity to visit before show time. In addition to the usual fare, wine and beer were also available. The movie didn't start until all 50 seats were filled and everyone had his or her refreshments. The projectionist then came out into the seating area and announced that smokers were invited outside through a special door if they couldn't make it through the movie without a smoke and that fresh popcorn would be available in a few minutes. With that the movie started. It was all very neighborly.

One day we were invited to attend a meeting of the Boot Key Harbor Residents Association. We decided to go and see what it was all about. It seemed that the County wanted to charge fees for anchoring in the harbor and of course those who anchor there were vehemently opposed. Membership requirements in the association seemed a little vague, the only requirement being a willingness to donate money toward the compensation of an attorney to fight city hall or in this case county hall. Since we are staunch believers in the philosophy that the best government is the one that governs least, we enthusiastically coughed up ten bucks and enjoyed the show. At times there was quite a cacophony of opinions, but eventually, the 75 or so folks in the room, who ranged from transients such as we who were retired or taking some time off to cruise in some comfortable fashion, to those cruising on a shoestring, to those living in tiny boats eking out a living at minimum wage, to those who owned businesses dependent on the boaters needs, all settled down to a common purpose. Some were articulate and some were not, but the meeting was orderly and decisions were made to launch a campaign to fight an obvious injustice. Ahh, democracy at work in the hinterland of America.

We hadn't planned to spend more than a few days at Boot Key Harbor, but we ended up staying a month, partly because we kept finding things we wanted to see and do and partly because we kept meeting such interesting people. After all, retirement is not supposed to be spent rushing from one tourist attraction to another. We are more like Charles Kuralt of "On the Road" fame. We have found that the people you meet are always the most interesting aspect of traveling. For example, we used to live in Lufkin, Texas, which is in the heart of the piney woods of East Texas. Its located North of Cut and Shoot, but South of Dime Box. Would you believe, we met a cruising couple from Lufkin? We played "who do you know" for a while and had a good visit and a lot of laughs about how good it is to be from Lufkin. We also met a couple from Kemah, Texas, which is a small community on Galveston Bay, just Southeast of Houston. We didn't have any friends in common, but it was fun to talk about all the changes that have occurred to that area over the years, especially since NASA moved in during the sixties. Meeting people on boats is very easy. If you see that a boat has an interesting home-port or the boat is of an interesting design, you just row or motor your dinghy alongside and introduce yourself. We have never been rebuffed and have always been invited aboard. We have met retired military people, retired business people and even a general surgeon on sabbatical as well as cruisers funding their travels by working along the way.

Names of boats are often a clue to the personalities aboard. A typical rather mundane name like Sojourner, Shenandoah or some woman's name usually means the occupants are conservative and don't party too loud in the evenings or mornings in some cases. However, there are the more creative types, who name their boats such as Sea Sea Rider, Winterlude, Sea Trek and such. Then there are the curious ones who manage to come up with such names as Women for Sail, or Yes Dear. There's always an interesting story behind the name of a boat. Then there are those who seem to have been premature at one time and now have names like Final Fling II. And finally there are the really bizarre names like Breaking Wind. The cast of characters in the cruising population is truly fascinating.

One of the jobs we chose to do while at anchor was to replace our batteries. The one's we had were getting old and were not holding a charge like they should. So we called a local business and had our batteries and entire charging system checked. The man who did the work for us was typically unique in that he was a semi-retired electrical engineer expatriate from Georgia. Not only was he very competent and did a great job for us, but also kept us entertained. It seems he did a bit of the electrical work for the movie "True Lies," and of course had stories to tell about the cast and special effects people. Marathon must have been a circus during the filming. He also informed us that his brother is the Chief of Police on Martha's Vineyard and knows all the celebrities who live and or vacation there. Naturally, he said to talk to his brother if we ever get there and he will show us around. Incredible.

The typical routine while visiting Marathon included being anchored in the harbor for four days or so and then sailing out beyond the coral reef, a distance of about five miles, to make fresh water and charge our batteries. We would also use these trips to snorkel around the reef, which sports Sombrero Reef Light, the tallest in the keys at 142 feet. It is made of steel and was constructed in 1858. Living on a boat, requires certain routine chores, like cleaning and changing filters on a pump or changing oil in the engines or generator, which is not quite as easy as doing a similar job on your car in the driveway. Everything has to be brought to the boat by dinghy and all waste products have to be disposed of ashore. Fortunately, the city/county has provided a marina with a large dinghy dock available to folks anchored in the harbor. For $15.00 a week one can have access to the dinghy dock, which includes use of restrooms, showers, washer and drier and city water. There is also a nice lounge with a TV tuned to the weather channel and a lending library well stocked with paperbacks. Most cruisers do a lot of reading. The routine is to bring in the books you have read and exchange them for books you haven't read. Although city water was available, we preferred to make our own for two reasons. Our water tastes better and the water maker works best if it is used at least weekly. Besides, it gives us a chance to sail, which is what cruising is all about. Stay tuned.

Dates: 1999-12-29,
Locations: Marathon, FL

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.