They day we pulled into this crowded anchorage flanked by 300 or so boats in the mooring fields, tied off in rows, resembling a nice, floating trailer park, I was concerned. I knew we would be dropping the anchor and staying for a while and being in a harbor with this many boats could only mean nasty water, too many humans, and unhealthy underwater ecosystems.
We arrived pretty exhausted after an overnight passage from West Palm Beach and had not been off the boat in almost 4 days because of being anchored for 2 days, waiting out a big blow, and not taking the dinghy off the boat to go to shore during that time. I had no fresh veggies left, and had seen there were two large grocery stores in the town we had anchored by. It was going to be ok, even if I couldn’t swim; fresh salads were in my future.
Our first night on the hook, as the crew and I were sleeping deeply, we were awakened by a pounding on the hull. A man in a dinghy was beside our boat trying to rouse us. We had clearly not let out enough chain for the soft, clay-like muck to hold us steady. We were slowly dragging towards the boat behind us.
By the time I was dressed and on deck, another neighbor, the friend of my captain’s, who had escorted us in to the anchorage and helped us secure a spot earlier, was also tied up alongside the boat and climbing aboard. I made my way up to the bow to get ready to pull the anchor up and reset it, when I realized that the human on the bow was not my crewmate, but the young man who had come to wake us up. I perked up and helped direct the activity with the anchor chain as Ed drove us away from the potential of disaster. We managed to get the anchor reset and everyone eventually went back to sleep. Thanks to the camaraderie and kindness of our cruiser neighbors all was resolved with ease.
The next afternoon we cleaned up the dinghy and finally hoisted it off the bow of the boat and into the water. The motor had to be reattached, fuel tank filled, and back up oars attached. With each move forward fresh food was coming into the realm of possibilities. We took our first trip in to the designated dinghy dock at the main marina and took our parking spot in the side labeled “soft”, since “hard” and “soft” were segregated here.
A friend of Ed’s met us and showed us around the incredible facility. Spending all my time living aboard and cruising in foreign countries and off small islands, I had never seen a situation so organized and accommodating for cruisers. Marathon City Marina has a giant mailroom, complete with a huge lending library, a workroom for boat projects, a well cared for community garden, laundry, bathrooms, showers, and parking for cars and bikes. It’s also located right next to a fabulous, large park with excellent facilities for multiple sports and recreation. I was excited by the possibility of being able to meet cruisers in my anchorage, without having to go into the local dive bar and feeling like I have to order something much less than stellar to stick around. I found the whole set-up here surprisingly wonderful.
To add to my joy, Captain Ed’s friend jumped in the dinghy with us and toured us through the mooring field and to the East side of the anchorage, where my crewmate and I were dropped off to walk to the grocery store. Little did I know at the time, Dockside (where I was dropped off) would become my local hub for fantastic times with my new pod of friends.
It took me less than 2 weeks of living in this harbor to realize we weren’t going anywhere fast, and if I wanted to keep sailing and getting out on fishing, swimming, and snorkeling adventures, I was going to have to make friends.
I took on the challenge of networking my way in and found my people quickly. Within a week I was teaching a regular yoga class in a park on a grand platform in an outdoor amphitheater; I had put out a FB post in the harbor group and as a result, had been out to the local reef on a fabulous old wooden ketch with a man and his twin 10-year-old sons. I had an invite to go lobster hunting in the Atlantic, taking a dinghy ride up the creek leading to the sea. And I got to sail with a lovely southern gentleman, who is working, saving, and prepping to take his 28’ Pearson Triton on a circumnavigation. I also was invited to kayak on a several-mile tour through small paths in the mangroves.
I figured out how to ride the free local bus and went to the farmer’s market in Key Colony and adopted a fabulous, Italian vendor as my new friend. Little did I know he was a talented, trained musician and we began to meet weekly for ukulele lessons at his market booth and on the beach afterwards. I discovered a lovely community unfolding before me and by New Years, I had a group of friends that felt like family to celebrate the end of 2020 with by making music on boats, sailing, singing, and dancing together.
As for the swimming, well, it’s certainly not been as epic as the Caribbean, but I’m not complaining. There is a steady flow of water though the harbor, as it is open to the Atlantic on two sides and the tides and currents keep the water moving. There is a mandatory holding tank pump-out for the boats, keeping the water more sanitary. The water temps hover in the low 70’s, but it’s still possible for me to swim without a wetsuit for up to an hour without getting numb. We are anchored along a nice long stretch of mangroves and I can swim safely to the “bridge to nowhere” and back, which is a mile long swim.
The sea life is certainly lacking, but not completely void. There are thousands of upside down jellyfish lining the bottom - beautiful, yet somewhat disturbing, as they are an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific. The visibility varies, but usually isn’t more than 5 feet.
One day I came up upon 3 resting manatees. Each time I approached them from behind and they didn’t notice me. As I drifted close to them, I could see the barnacles and algae growing on their sloughing, dead skin. Then with a swift pulse of their massive tails they disappeared leaving me in a cloud of beige slit. After doing this swim many times now I can tell you where the hose, the office chair, the mop head, the school of snapper, and the old cushion are. I am rebuilding health, strength, endurance, and feeling better in my skin than I have in a long time with these daily swims, and I am grateful.
I’m on the nicest boat I’ve ever crewed on – a 2017 Bavaria C51. I have my own berth and head and a gorgeous swim platform for yoga and meditation so close to the water. Often dolphins swim by the boat and occasionally a manatee or two surfaces for air. I’ve had many game nights with my crewmates, and have easy access to everything I could need. I even have a mailing address and was offered a job as a server at a local restaurant. I can see why this is called a port with a “sticky bottom.” It’s the kind of place where it’s really easy to stay for a long time. Many boats in this harbor haven’t even been on day sails in months or years; they truly have become the solid members of the floating trailer park.
I am making the best of catching a small case of “Keys Disease”. It’s quite a struggle to get myself to leave the anchorage, or even go very far to explore the other Keys by land. I have been slowly falling in love with this little sheltered community of friends and the safety and kindness that exists here. Watching sunsets and sunrises is the cornerstone of my daily routine. I’m living this chapter of my life celebrating each new day, filled with unknown adventures, community, and time for self-care. The gratitude that I have for finding loving friends, natural beauty, gentle creatures, fresh food, a beautiful boat to live on, and live music is overflowing.
The waters unite us here and will also be what carry us away on our vessels at some point in many of our futures. I promise I will not get a permanent case of the “Keys Disease” and you won’t find me living on a sailboat without a mast, working as a waitress, and playing music at the local bar for the rest of my days. I’m still a sea gypsy at heart and as much as I cherish my love affairs with lovely places and new friends, I won’t get too attached. I will find a way to keep sailing, allowing the winds to blow me towards the next place to fall in love with.