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December 16, 2004

You have to pay to go ashore in Marathon

We first visited Marathon, Florida, in the summer of 1998 after having spent four years circling the Caribbean. "Little Gidding" was a little worse for the wear and we needed an inexpensive, secure spot to catch up on some overdue maintenance and repair projects. Marathon fit the bill perfectly: Boot Key Harbor on the south side of town is the best all-weather anchorage in the Keys; there's a wide selection of boating stores and marine businesses serving the many boats that call Marathon home; all the essential amenities are close by -- supermarket, post office, library, hardware store, restaurants, bars (LOTS of bars).

We hung around Marathon for over a month. We did some engine work, replaced the standing rigging, fixed the plumbing, recoated the wood. Eileen lined up some regular gigs at a couple of the local resorts. We got to know a few of the locals; "colourful" is probably the best way to describe them.

Boot Key Harbor was filled with the most amazing collection of floating habitats -- "boat" is not a term that could be applied to some of them. "Raft", maybe; but not "boat". One of these derelict homes distinctly resembled a huge bleach bottle. Weather-beaten, barnacle-encrusted, covered with tattered tarps and sporting various plywood additions, many of these craft clearly weren't going anywhere. Neither were their owners. The two hangouts of choice were the TV lounge in Pat & Kelly's marina on the north side of the harbour; and the bar at Dockside marina on the south side. The patrons were definitely not the blue-blazer-and-white-flannels yachting crowd.

Some of the anchored boats are permanent fixtures...

... others add colour to the harbour

We returned to Marathon a week ago. This time we needed a convenient location to wait for weather to make a passage to the western Caribbean. We arrived in Boot Key Harbor just before a strong cold front blew through; the weather's been cold and blustery ever since. We've had plenty of time to reacquaint ourselves with the place.

A lot of the boating facilities on both coasts of Florida were damaged by the series of hurricanes that pummelled the state back in August and September. The Keys were largely spared. Given the limited dockage and anchoring choices elsewhere, we expected Marathon to be crammed full of transient boats. It turned out not to be that bad. On the morning we arrived, we passed through the bascule bridge at the west entrance to the harbour and immediately saw a few open spaces in front of us. We didn't bother motoring any further east since we figured all the prime anchoring spots closer to the landing docks would be claimed.

"Let's drop the anchor on the other side of that red-hulled boat," David called from the bow. The boat in question had its mast lying on its starboard side-deck, lashed to the toe rail; two open runabouts were tied to the port side, one with an outboard motor, one without. Next to it was a bare wooden ketch with a six foot diameter peace symbol suspended on its forestay. Eileen maneuvered "Little Gidding" between the two boats and David released the anchor on the bow
roller. "Doesn't look like Marathon has changed much," he said.

"Look at the colour of the water," Eileen responded. "it's changed." Six years ago, Boot Key Harbor was murky brown. David still has nightmares from when he forgot the lifelines were being replaced and took an early morning unexpected plunge over the side. For days, no one approached within ten feet of him. Now the water was murky turquoise; not exactly pristine, but not life-threatening either. We were still setting the anchor when a mobile pumpout station on a pontoon boat motored by. The driver Sean called out, "Give the city marina a call on channel 16 when you need a pumpout; it costs five dollars."

Within a couple of minutes, Steve on "Loose Change", a Morgan 41 sailboat anchored a hundred yards away, came over in his dinghy to introduce himself. We asked him if shore access had changed since we were last in Marathon. "No," Steve said, "you still have only two choices. The city has taken over operation of what used to be Pat & Kelly's. You can land your dinghy there or at Dockside. They charge four bucks per day at either place."

Eileen shook her head. "That's a hard one to figure. Every time we go ashore, we hemorrhage money at the hardware store, supermarket, or boat store; you'd think they'd make it easier for us to land."

Steve told us a few things had changed for the better. A year ago, a boaters' radio net started up on VHF channel 68, every morning at 0900. "It's a good way to find out what's going on," he said. We discussed various options for Internet access. Rumour had it that there was a free wireless Internet connection at Dockside.

Committed e-mail junkies, we piled into the dinghy and headed for Dockside. Halfway there, we found ourselves in the middle of a mooring field. It wasn't there the last time we were in Marathon. We spotted "Soggy Paws", a CSY 44 ketch, tied to one of the buoys. "Hey, it looks like Dave and Stacy are back here again," David observed. We met Dave and Stacy during our first visit to Marathon when they were outfitting "Soggy Paws" to go cruising. Since then they've cruised most of the Caribbean and we've crossed paths a few times.

We pulled up alongside "Soggy Paws" and called out to our friends. "Great to see you guys," Stacy exclaimed. "We're getting ready to go to the western Caribbean as well, but Dave's got a few boat projects he wants to finish before we leave." We recall that Dave ALWAYS had a few boat projects to finish.

Dave said, "You might want to hang around here a bit longer yourselves. You can get on the city's waiting list for one of these moorings, it's a pretty good deal. The harbour's improved a lot since the city put in the moorings and started the pumpout service. Some of the abandoned boats are gone and the water quality is better."

We agreed to get together with Dave and Stacy later to compare cruising plans; we pushed on to Dockside. "I think we just entered a time warp," David said. We were pretty certain some of the folks parked on the bar stools hadn't moved since 1998. Eileen checked the posted entertainment schedule. "Tommy Tune, Joe Mama, and Michael J are still playing here every week."

A couple of days later, we headed in to the city marina with a load of laundry. Between wash cycles, dockmaster Richard Tanner explained to us the city's plans for the mooring field. To date, sixty-four moorings have been installed; about two-thirds of them are occupied by year-round liveaboards, the others are occupied by transient boats. A year ago, only ten of the moorings were taken. "It took a while to catch on," Richard explained. "Some people didn't like the idea of fixed moorings; they didn't want to pay. Not everyone welcomes change, I guess."

Soon all of the boats will be in orderly rows

More changes are on the horizon. The marina has another 166 mooring in storage ready to install as soon as the city completes negotiations with the state over leasing the harbour bottom. Once they're in place (bringing the total to 230 buoys), only a relatively small area in the southwest corner of the harbour will be available for anchoring. The anchorage area will be restricted to short term transients.

What about all the liveaboards, like our immediate neighbours, who are now anchored out? "Current resident liveaboards will have priority when we assign the new moorings," Richard said. "We're asking everyone to complete a survey so we know how many of the moorings we should set aside for year-round liveaboards. The remaining ones will have a six month limit. To be honest, we don't know how many of the boats anchored out there at the moment are liveaboards and how many are unoccupied and in wet storage. That's the point of the survey."

Last night we joined a few other cruisers on "Loose Change" for dessert and coffee. The conversation got around to the new mooring field. Not everyone was happy with the changes. Montreal single hander Kamo has lived at anchor in Marathon for 11 months on his 20 foot sloop. He works as an artist and actively participates on the morning radio net. "I always anchor," he said. We asked him what he'll do if long term anchoring is no longer an option. He shrugged. "I think there will be a lot of boats leaving Marathon".

We don't know when we'll return to Marathon, but on our next visit we expect to see the harbour filled with orderly rows of well-tended boats. Some familiar faces will be missing from the bar, replaced by people who look more like us. Everything should be neat and clean ... and boring.

David & Eileen