Call For a Tow
November 1, 2003
No Name Harbor, Key Biscayne, Florida
25°o 41.191 North
080%deg; 10.536 West

Civilization And Its Malcontents

By Douglas Bernon

Our voyage north from Key West to Miami’s Biscayne Bay, 160 miles that we made in 27 hours, was a quick and easy ride in the Gulf Stream, and our arrival in the anchorage at No Name Harbor, in the middle of Key Biscayne, Florida, marked a full circle: a return to the metaphysical — although not geographic — point at which our cruising began. Here was a subtle reminder that there are oodles of instruments with which you can measure time and distance, but the most useful increments are calibrated in memories rather than miles or minutes.

No Name Harbor is a little hurricane hole tucked into a statec park in Key Biscayne, Florida
Back in December of 2000, when we first hunkered down in little No Name Harbor, a perfectly protected hurricane hole nestled in the ultra-tony island of Key Biscayne, we were among six boats waiting for the Christmas northers to die down so we could cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. Bernadette and I knew no one in that harbor when we arrived, and were mighty nervous about making the passage so late in the season. Daily we listened to weather reports. For 10 days the northers howled as our anxiety mounted. Still feeling psychologically close to our previous careers, we thought, “Oh no, we’re behind schedule. We’re losing so much time!”

Ithaka sails north from Key West toward Key Biscayne (photo courtesy of Zia Lucia)

On Christmas Eve, Diane and Harold on a 42-foot sailboat named Sea Camp invited everyone in the anchorage for carols, drinks and good cheer. That evening, having just heard a weather forecast that would’ve kept us in No Name another week, we tossed our schedule overboard, and decided to skip our anticipated whirlwind tour of the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean. We chose instead a leisurely pace to the Western Caribbean, starting with Cuba. The decision to unbuckle our watches, scrap our plans and go with wind, weather, and new friends, has always felt like the moment our cruise really began. We looked forward to seeing this little harbor again.

The lighthouse at Key Biscayne is a welcome landmark
To enter No Name harbor, coming north from Key West, there’s a marked route from deep water offshore. As we motored slowly from marker to marker across the skinny shallows of Biscayne Bay, in fact we saw a bit more water under Ithaka’s keel than the charts predicted -- a rare and good feeling. David and Shauna, following close behind us on Zia Lucia, a sailboat that draws 7.5 feet — which is a foot and a half more than Ithaka — were especially pleased. As we paralleled the coast of Key Biscayne and passed the 1825 Cape Florida lighthouse on our starboard side, I was paging through a mental scrapbook, half expecting to see again the boats we’d met three years before. I was sad to miss them, but at the same time Bernadette and I were thrilled to be returning with new friends who shared our cruising experiences and mindset, and with whom we’d commiserate and explore.

To find No Name Harbor from land, look for signs in Key Biscayne leading to the Bill Baggs State Park.
No Name Harbor sits smack dab in the middle of the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, which itself sits smack dab in the middle of Key Biscayne (check it out at Fifteen minutes by bus from downtown Miami, this odd little sanctuary in the midst of luxury sky-scraper-condos is a mini-paradise that’s visited regularly by manatees, loggerhead turtles and more than 170 species of birds. On weekdays there’s rarely more than a few boats there, but on weekends, No Name can become cramped with several dozen small, poorly-anchored sail and power boats. On Saturdays and Sundays, cruisers have learned to stay on board and keep a bow vigil, lest dragging vessels with drunken captains become lethal weapons. We were witness to all manner of mid-day collisions and several arrivals of the BoatUS towing service.

Dont say you werent warned!
No Name can be filled with so many armies of dive-bombing mosquitos around sundown, many of which are the size of Sikorsky helicopters, that some days, the park rangers at the entrance gate post a warning sign that states the obvious. Despite such problems, we loved this harbor, in part because we were there with Shauna and David, doing our projects together and trying to make sense of our place in America.

Bromeliads grow all around the library.
I’m not sure what it costs to anchor in this State Park. When we were there several years back, nailed to a prominent post, there was an honor system box and every morning Bernadette or I deposited our fee, which I recall was only a few bucks a day, and included unlimited hot showers in the stall adjoining the restaurant. Now there’s no honor system and no showers. Instead, there was a strange little man in his own sailboat, who wore a cap emblazoned with “Volunteer Harbor Master.” Every day he dinghied through the anchorage collecting $11 per boat. We heard that on some days a capricious largesse overcame him and he waived the fee, although we were not among his chosen people.

For returning cruisers, getting a mailing address is a big step in the re-entry process. David and Shauna show off their new post-office-box key.
In Miami we got word that a manufacturing company was interested in having us design and write a promotional brochure for them. One reason we’ve returned to the States for part of the year is to replenish the cruising kitty, so both of us were jazzed to land this paid gig. But from No Name Harbor, our re-activated cell phone had lousy reception, and whenever the marketing director called, I wasn’t sounding any too professional. My side of conversations were like this:

“Hang on one sec, while I climb up the mast a little higher, where sometimes the phone reception is better. Oh, sorry, you still can’t hear me? No problem, I’ll just call you right back, after I dinghy ashore, where it’s only about a 15- minute sprint to a payphone. Uh, no, sorry, we don’t have a fax, but that’s no problem at all. I saw one at a 7-11 only a couple of miles away from here… Sorry, what? Oh, that noise is just me slapping a few mosquitos. Nope, no problem whatsoever...”

On weekends around Key Biscayne, when hundreds of pleasure boaters look for places to anchor for the afternoon, TowBoatUS operators were pretty busy untangling boats, pulling boats off the shallows, and towing boats back to town.
We did find a nearby phone booth where the land-line reception was perfect, but it was located on the highway, so voices were intermittently drowned out by rumbling semis, their vibrations rattling the glass walls of the phone booth.

“Could you say that again, please?” I asked. “Uh, sorry, but that was just a VERY big truck going by, to be honest with you. I think it was a Peterbilt, but it could have been a Kenilworth or a Mack… How’s that? Oh, no problem. I’ll find another phone that’s quieter and call you back in an hour.”

Along with the usual contents in my backpack —a paperback novel, change purse, note book, pocket knife, toilet tissue, and a water bottle — I started carrying masking tape so I could secure paper to the inside of phone booths, making it easier to cradle the phone, talk, and take notes on the wall while standing up. There was no way to camouflage the noises, or to sound responsible, until I was granted asylum in the local branch of the public library, an exquisite facility surrounded by an orchid and bromeliad garden along side a duck pond. Inside there were good computers, a fast internet, high quality copy machines, a secluded pay phone, and I was in business.

Cruisers are connoisseurs of libraries up and down the American coasts, as often these are the best places where we can go online. The Key Biscayne Public Library is a beauty.

In Miami, even for this little project, my re-introduction to the work world was a series of shocks. Instead of jumping in my car to run an errand in 20 minutes, or going online anytime during the day and night, every task was a gauntlet-strewn path that devoured half the day. Just delivering a roll of film to the only photo lab in town that could offer something quicker than seven-day turn-around for developing slides, required either a ridiculously expensive cab ride, or taking two buses, a subway, and a sweaty 15-minute walk -- a round-trip journey of more than three hours.

Orchids find the perfect climate in Key Biscayne, and the grounds around the library are exquisite.
On my third trip to the photo lab, I opted for the early-morning run, so it wouldn’t eat up the center of my day. I dinghied in from Ithaka at 5:30 a.m., walked to the bus stop, rode into Miami, and transferred to the train, recalling an assignment I used to give to psychiatric residents when I taught at Brown Medical School. Each year I required these young doctors to take public transportation from wherever they were living to whatever facility they were rotating through. They only had to do it once, but I wanted them to feel how impressive it is when a poorer patient shows up for a psychotherapy session. And I wanted these budding physicians to demonstrate their own respect by meeting their patients on time.

Zia Lucia sailed up from Key West with us. David and Shauna, whod been living in Sausalito, California, before going cruising, now hope to call the Miami area home for awhile.
As I rode along that morning, I looked at the people on the train with me. These were not your basic yachties. Mostly they were maids going to work, their uniforms pressed, their white shoes polished. Some were dozing off, their heads nodding or snapping back as we rolled in and out of stations. None of them were carrying Anne Taylor bags or Starbucks cups. Many had the thousand-yard stare. Part of the trip was along elevated tracks, our train racing through the tree tops of ritzy Coconut Grove. I mused over the ironies of this temporary, physical reversal. Those who are so often looked down upon were having these few moments when, high in the sky, the perspective is reversed, but exhaustion was stealing their view.

Bernadette and I finished the brochure on time. It came out well. The client liked it, and we were briefly back in the work world, contending with over-worked, high-pressure executives and their impatient expectations of boot-licking subservience and rapid response.

The Key Biscayne Library, our office off the boat, is home to a gaggle of colorful and well-fed ducks.

Sitting on a bench outside the library one day during the project, I remember waiting to make the third phone call that afternoon to my contact on the promotional project, a self-anointed, Very Important Man. Each time I called in for the phone appointment he’d scheduled, his secretary told me he was too busy to talk, but to ring him back in “exactly 30 minutes.” Given all the waiting and hassles, as I sat there, I figured my hourly rate on this project was now at about 35 cents. I watched ducks waddle by, and was serenaded by a song that wafted up from my unconscious jukebox. It was Simon and Garfunkel: “Slow down, you move too fast…got to make the moment last…”