On To The Keys!

We leave the Florida mainland behind and cross over to the Keys, visiting Key West and Bahia Honda before an extended stay in Marathon.  Finally, we wrap up our island hopping in Key Largo as we start making our way back to Florida’s east coast.  

Click the Google Map button below to open the map  in a separate window.  There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.

Coming down the west coast of Florida, there is a major route decision point for The Loop around the Ft. Myers area.  You can turn left and go up the Caloosahatchee, taking the Okeechobee Waterway across the state as a shortcut to the Atlantic ICW.  Instead, along with our friends on Inconceivable, we opted to continue south down the entire west coast so we could do the Florida Keys.  We looked forward to the more consistent warmer temps and waters of the Keys, but also to enjoying them for extended stays.  It was time to relax a little from constantly being on the move.   

Newfound Harbor anchorage (Big Pine Key)

Jan 18, 2023

We left our anchorage at Cape Sable in the Everglades early for the 25 mile trip across the open water of the Gulf to get to the Atlantic side of the string of islands that makes up the Keys.  As soon as we hit the Everglades Park border it was crabpots everywhere!  These are typically laid in straight lines, so once you find one you can look to see the orientation of the line and maneuver to avoid. Except here the next guy had come along and laid his line at a 90º angle to the first.  Crabber #3 lays his crossing the other two in a direction of his choosing, then the next guy and the next. The result is a random crabpot minefield.  Even 15 miles out, when we thought it was far enough from shore that we would see fewer, they continued in a dense pattern.  Had to wonder about the cost effectiveness of fuel burn to get so far out to harvest your traps versus how much you made on your catch.  But in the end we made it through uneventfully thanks to four eyes and some good binoculars. 

Coming under the Seven Mile Bridge and turning west on the Atlantic side we got the expected 2-3’ swells and some surface chop now that we lost the protection from the southerly winds provided by land, making for a lumpy ride.  Roxy wasn’t very happy with the bouncing.  What we hadn’t anticipated was that the dang crabpots would still be criss-crossing everywhere, and now harder to see as they dipped into the troughs of the swells.   Dave took up the speed to 14 kn because with this chop we have a much smoother ride at higher speeds rather than just wallowing, but it did make dodging them a level higher in difficulty.  I’m thinking this would make a great video game, and we could call it Crabpot Slalom.

Fortunately it was only about an hour to our chosen anchorage and we were well protected from the swells by the barrier island.   Once we were both anchored, we (including Roxy) quickly dropped the dinghy and picked up the Inconceivable crew to head down a small channel and residential canal on Ramrod Key.  We found a place to tie up the dinghy, and walked the short distance to Boondocks Restaurant, where they were so dog friendly they even had a Pup Menu.  We did have to take our lives in our own feet crossing busy Hwy 1 to get there and back.

Pretty much the whole beach on Picnic Island. That's Lady 2, and the structure with all the flags in the background is Captain Jack's houseboat.

It was a relaxing evening on the hook with our first beautiful Keys sunset.  The next morning we dinghied a few hundred yards to tiny Picnic Key right in front of us so Roxy could avail herself of the beach.  This happens to be where Captain Jack had beached his flag-laden houseboat  — basically squatted –and became a fixture of the beach.  The Captain himself was sitting out making his breakfast, along with his dog Lady 2, the replacement for his previous dog Lady (kind of short on dog name creativity is our Captain Jack) and chatted with us.  Most definitely a Keys Character. 

Picnic Island is a popular day destination for small boats, and people have tacked up signs on the few trees. Definitely had that beach vibe for which the Keys are famous.

Key West

Jan 19-22

We waited a couple hours for winds and seas to die down a bit on the Atlantic side before departing.  Inconceivable had left early to take a route on the Gulf side to their marina in downtown Key West, while we were headed to the Naval Air Station Boca Chica marina via the Atlantic Crabpot Slalom Course.   The marina is a few miles east of downtown Key West, but the price was dirt cheap compared to every other marina.  And we got to hang out with some really nice fellow military types, including one Looper couple from St. Paul.  We also had a daily air show as the jets did exercises and flew low overhead.  It could get noisy, but well worth it. 

Sunset from the marina
Doin' her thing at Boca Chica Marina.

Key West is…well, Key West.   Chickens running all over, colorful characters on every corner, brightly painted weathered Victorian-style bungalows, motor scooters on the narrow roads, cigar lounges, key lime everything, and a contagious very laid-back vibe.  We skipped the cat-overrun Hemingway House in favor of the Truman Little White House, and stumbled on a Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden with dozens of busts of famous locals and visitors that bordered on the creepy with all those heads on pedestals.  We walked all along Duval St. and through neighborhoods, seeing a lot of Conch Republic flags on porches, which is an interesting story about Key West becoming an independent country in 1982 – for a few hours (read about it here). And of course, there were the magnificent Key West sunsets.  Key West culture is ‘what you see is what you get’ with everyone comfortable being whoever they are.   And by the way, everything is expensive.

Truman Little White House
Fort Taylor -- in service from 1840 to 1974 (with some breaks in there when it was in just caretaker status).
Fort Taylor was a communications base during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Key West everyone-has-to-do-it photo.
Conch Republic flag

Bahia Honda State Park

Jan 23-29

We backtracked east along the same Atlantic side, crabpot-laden route to Bahia Honda State Park, one of hte best kept secrets in the cruising world. By now Dave and I had a pretty good system as a team to spot them and so it was a little less stressful.   Another ‘lumpy’ day on the water, further disinfranchising Roxy from the whole cruising thing.  The very small ‘marina’ at Bahia Honda State Park is really more like a campground for boats;  vessels all tie along the basin perimeter wall, and each slip had a picnic table and gravel area where we could leave kayaks, scooters, etc.  We loved it.   Inconceivable rejoined us here for a couple days before they continued on to the Bahamas.  

View of Bahia Honda State Park from the top of the old railroad bridge.

One of the best parts was the wildlife.   There were two ‘resident’ manatees – we dubbed them Fred and Wilma — and we saw them almost every day.  Both had significant scars on backs and tails from boat strikes, driving home why there are all the ‘slow manatee zones’ along the ICW.  They like drinking fresh water, and we saw one pop up between the hulls of See Level when he heard the air conditioning outflow.  But after a couple sips he quickly realized it was recirculated salt water and rapidly departed.  There was a small footbridge by the boat that went over a tiny tidal inlet between the marina basin and another area where we regularly saw a couple of nurse sharks, schools of parrot fish, an eel, and many other fish.   Iguanas and geckos skittered into bushes, and herons, egrets, and other shore birds were all over.

The bridge where we could see all kinds of wildlife.
One of the resident manatees.

It was a week of just relaxing.  With nothing on the island but the state park, it was all about walks, scootering around the island, kayaking, and enjoying our surroundings.  We did take the $1 bus one Saturday to the Big Pine Key Flea Market, an enjoyable morning of checking out all the nautical, vintage, kitschy, random miscellany, and bad art. 

Fun with the kayak
There's a manatee right up by Dave's kayak.

The Overseas Railroad and highway

Henry Flagler played a key role in developing the Keys (pun is inadvertent, but I’m keeping it) in the early 1900s by having the vision and money to build the Overseas Railroad, running from the tip of mainland Florida all the way to Key West, thus opening up the Keys to tourism and trade.  It was an engineering marvel at the time, traveling 128 miles over land and water to connect all the islands.  A hurricane took out large sections of it in 1935, but by then cars were replacing railroads and the state built the Overseas Highway (US Route 1) using the remaining railbeds and even running a road on top of some of the railroad bridges.  The current Overseas Highway runs parallel to the old railroad, and you can still see the deteriorating sections of the old bridges.  The  missing span in the section of the railroad bridge by Bahia Honda makes for iconic sunset photos.

Inconceivable passing through the old Flagler railroad bridge.
That's the old railroad bridge in the background. The lower level was the railraod, the upper level was an automobile road added later.
Many of the Florida Parks have Webcams. My sister in California took these screenshots as we were departing Bahia Honda.
Another screenshot of us as we head under the Overseas Highway on our way to Marathon.
Those clouds are a squall moving in. Five minutes after this photo, the winds and seas kicked up and we were making a dash back to the boat.


Jan 30 - Feb 25

See Level at Marathon

Our week at Bahia Honda was the warm up for a whole month of staying in one place.  It was a short and uneventful trip to Banana Bay Marina on the Gulf side of Marathon.  The marina had assured us they could indeed accommodate our 18’ width in their 20’ slips.  As Dave spun around to back in, I was a bit skeptical and later found out that several Looper friends there on the dock to help us were also skeptical as our broad stern drew closer.  Turned out it was really only 18 feet.  But Dave did a superb job and with help from the dock we literally shoehorned in, ultimately with the rails of the boat midship against the pilings on each side.  I would say we were more snugly cradled than docked, without even a need for bow lines because we were not going anywhere.  Yeah, this was not going to work.  The only other option was the exposed face dock at the marina entrance which was right alongside the tiki bar.  So we uncradled the boat and moved.  Once secured across the way the dockmaster was very apologetic,  but Dave and I looked around and felt like we had won the Dock Lottery!  Yes, it could potentially get a little bouncy if strong winds were coming out of the northwest.  But we had a completely unobstructed view from our bow deck of the blue-green waters of the Gulf and sunsets, plus a large sandy Tiki Bar area complete with string lights in the swaying palm trees and hammocks as soon as we stepped off the boat!  The bar was only open from 5-9, and the rest of the time the area was virtually empty.  A month with a semi-private resort ambience?  Oh yeah!

We had a long list of boat projects to accomplish during this down time.  When on the Loop, getting parts and supplies can be difficult because so many things are not in stock, but you’re never in one place long enough or on a predictable schedule to order.  I have no idea how cruisers did it before Amazon.  As we find things we need, we put them in our Amazon cart and then submit the accumulated order when we get close to somewhere we know we will be for at least several days.  Knowing we were going to be in Marathon for a month, it was Chris-mazon!!!  Dave upgraded and installed new electronics, fixed a bunch of little broken things, changed every possible fluid in both engines, and did other routine maintenance.  I cleaned and polished on the interior and exterior, did some dinghy upkeep, sewed various covers and repairs, and touched up some spots with flaking paint from routine age and exposure. 

It wasn’t all work though, as we made sure to take time to play a little and enjoy our surroundings.  When it wasn’t too windy, our favorite activity was kayaking or exploratory dinghy rides.  Dave’s Hobe kayak has a sail, but when he tried it out in Bahia Honda any little gust nearly capsized it.  So for Chris-mazon he ordered a couple of inflatable outriggers for stability.  He had a blast tooling around in that, while I preferred paddling and looking for  sea turtles; I saw several, but they are even more camera shy than dolphins.  We also visited a nearby nature preserve, toured the Turtle Hospital, scootered from one end of the key to the other, and went to a movie at the nearby community theatre. 

Roxy's favorite -- and just about only -- patch of grass at Banana Bay marina in Marathon, regularly used for back scratches.

But the best part of our stay here were the people and the friendships we either made anew or deepened from previous.  Banana Bay is a small marina, but there was a great Looper community wintering here like us.  There were frequent group dinners at nearby restaurants, afternoons at the pool, helping each other out with boat projects, and sunset watching.  We drove to Key West with one couple to have lunch with mutual friends one day.  Weekly Looper Docktails included folks from the two nearby marinas, complete with the live music talents of a couple of the boaters.  Everyone had a dog, so we were always running into each other on daily doggie constitutionals and chatting.  It was a fun month with fun people – I called them the Banana Bunch.  

I did take the opportunity for a very nice trip to California to see family.  Remember when I said that our spot was great unless there were strong northwest winds?  Well, of course that happened while I was gone.  Dave and Roxy had a pretty bouncy 24 hours at the dock with the rollers coming straight at them, and he had to put on some extra lines and fenders, but they survived just fine.  And I didn’t feel too bad that I missed it. 

A mural of Touchdown Jesus, a statue someone placed at Pennekamp State Park as something you can snorkel/dive on.
Dave in his sailing kayak. Check out the cute little outriggers.

Key Largo

Feb 26 - 27

We were the first of the Banana Bunch to depart, and it was a little sad to say goodbye.  But it did feel good to be moving again, and the trip to our final Keys stop at Key Largo was remarkable only for the beautiful changes in the water colors through shades of green and blue —   until the approach to our destination of Marina Del Mar.  It was more of a canal than a channel, with boats docked on either side, and was shared by tour, dive, and fishing charter boats.  You must announce when you are entering the channel on the radio, and then again about halfway through approaching a blind 90° turn aptly called ‘Crash Corner.’  I decided that everyone is very good about announcing, but not very good at listening because after we announced and got no response, we start into the turn and suddenly a guy announces that he’s approaching the corner going the other way! Then a dive boat drops their lines and pulls out sideways right in front of us, and Dave had to give a five-blast danger warning which makes everyone within earsho look to see who’s doing stupid.  I’m thinking this might be another level on our Crabpot Slalom video game, but it doesn’t involve crabpots so we might need to consider a different name. 

This guy swam right under the boat and along the dock one morning.

The marina area was very nice, with two pools to enjoy and a couple of decent restaurants.  We scootered over to explore John Pennekamp State Park one afternoon, which was fun.  Had initially thought about brining our gear and going snorkeling, but the signs on the beaches warning about alligators reaffirmed that we didn’t want to do that.  My cousin Charlie drove down from Miami with his wife and daughter, and we really enjoyed the evening with them.  But if not for my cousin’s visit and some Looper friends here,  I think Key Largo would be a bit of a disappointment as a destination in itself.  Probably better by car and staying at one of the resorts than the limited access you have when on a boat.

Now used for tours, this is the actual boat used in the movie African Queen. Having it in Key Largo would seem to me to be conflating two different Bogart movies, but what do I know.
Nothing historic or famous, just a cute little house.

We are now very close to finishing The Great Loop.  From Key Largo we will head up the east coast of Florida in the Atlantic ICW, crossing our wake (completing the Loop) in St. Augustine.  Our extended time here in the Keys has been just what we needed to transition from the Looper lifestyle of constantly being on the move to more of a full-time cruising mentality.   We see more and more announcements of friends we have met along the way that have crossed their own wakes.  For many, the Loop completion announcement includes notice of their boat now being on the market; they were Loopers Who Did This Extended Cruise.  While they may be returning to previous lives and/or moving on to other adventures, I know we will stay in touch and see them again, for there is no better way to bond with people than shared experience. 

Others, like us, are more Cruisers Who Happen To Have Done The Loop as a part of their cruising adventure.   We can feel our mindset has changed over the last five plus weeks.  Freed from daily route planning, reservation-making, and frequent transits we have had more time for just living.  The Keys not only have this inherently in their culture, but for us the timing of this segment of the Loop as we approach completion feels perfect.  Reading, kayaking, movie watching, exploring places in more detail and at a slower pace, and the luxury of naps have become regular activities.  We are thinking longer term and bigger picture in our cruising plans, where we want to go, side trips and new stops along familiar routes, how to continue to ‘chase 70 degrees’ in our travels. 

And in the back of my mind I’m ruminating on this video game idea…

Pops’ Stats Corner*

This blog

  • No of Days: 37
  • Travel Days: 5
  • Miles Traveled:  187.9 (163.4 nm)
  • Anchorages: 1

Cumulative Great Loop

  • Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
  • Travel Days: 142
  • Miles Traveled:  5799 (5042.3 nm)
  • Anchorages: 24
  • States Visited: 18
  • Provinces Visited: 2

*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad.  He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked.  This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.

1 thought on “On To The Keys!”

  1. Florida Man's not here Man

    Sign reads “Dave’s not here Man!?!”
    He’s right there in front of the sign!

    You guys are amazing! You have visited more of the Keys than my family. And we’ve been in Florida since 1994. Hope to see you before you resume travels

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