Saturday, July 30, 2011

Finding the Perfect Marina in the Fl Keys–06/27-07/01/11

This adventure was unusual as it did not involve use of my boat, Alto.  Instead, my friend Larry and I flew to Ft. Lauderdale and picked up a rental car to spend four days visiting nearly every marina from Key Largo to Key West, about 150 miles of keys over 113 miles of road with 44 bridges–one of which was seven miles long!  Our hope was to find an affordable long-term storage solution for Alto in the Keys for the Winter.  I planned to ship Alto from Cape Cod in Massachusetts directly to the Keys in the early Winter, and then move her back to Sanford, FL towards the end of the Winter to hang with our friends we made there from previous trips.  Of course, if we had the problem of "too much fun" on Alto while traveling the keys, we could just keep the boat in the Keys.  So first we had to find a place (the "perfect" marina) to bring Alto somewhere in the Keys.  Our goal here was "frugal" travel, and as you read on you will see we discovered it is cheaper to keep a boat than an RV in the Keys, often by more than a $1000 per month, if you do your due diligence.

We learned a lot about cruising the Keys and I'll offer my advice on transient marina stops in this post.  First up is getting there, if you decide not to haul your boat by trailer and take her there by water.  In such a case, you'll need to take the Intra-Coastal Waterway or ICW.  This is part of the "Great Loop" that cruisers often take years to complete in stages.  You can come through the Gulf of Mexico, or more commonly, down the East coast; there is a lot of information from Loopers who blog about their trips as they travel in real time, and about 200 are "doing the loop" at any one time.  If you plan to spend a few weeks or months doing the loop you'll wind up joining a group of other boats going in the same direction, which means new friends and help when you run into problems.  While some loopers cut the corner and cross Florida at the Okeechobee Waterway (canal), to do the full  6,000 mile, or great loop, you need to include going around the Keys.  Here's the American Great Loop Cruisers' Association (AGLCA) map of the Loop:

Anyway, Alto is trailerable and as I ain't retired yet, we plan to hire a professional mover to get her down there, as we did for our prior trips to Sanford, FL to explore the St. Johns river. It would be cool to put the boat in at St. Augustine or in Jacksonville at the upper northwest corner of Florida on the Georgia line (where the St. Johns river flows to) and bring her down the coast to the Keys. You'd use the ICW to do this, and once you get to Miami you have to plan for some open water cruising since the ICW is not protected by barrier reef islands further south than Miami.  So some planning is called for.

My favorite resource is Cruising the Florida Keys, Second Edition by Claiborne Young & Morgan Stinemetz published by Pelican most recently in 2006.  It's $76 in paperback, but Amazon has used copies for around $20.  It offers Hurricane Data information about problems caused by past hurricanes and whether they have been fixed yet.  Traveling by water from Miami Beach south, there is nothing to speak of on the coast until you reach Key Largo in the way of marinas or diesel fuel so load up your bunkers.  Around Florida City you'll begin to think about crossing Biscayne Bay over to the northern most end of the Keys, which is all national park.  The first thing to know about the Keys is whether you will be heading, by water, down the "inside" protected waterway or down the "outside" exposed oceanside route.  

The ocean side is referred to as the Hawk Channel and is used by most boats traveling to Key West that have more than a 3-4 foot draft.  With a Ranger Tug like mine drawing about 2 feet, you can stay on the shallow inside waterway which is the ICW.  The ICW is well marked the whole way to KW, but you'll want to check websites like ActiveCaptain or Dozier's Waterway Guide for local updates.  There are more marinas on the Hawk's Channel, but then there are many anchorages on the protected west side.  The good news is there are lots of points on the 150 mile journey from North Key Largo to Key West where you can cross over to the opposite side of the keys whenever you feel like it.

Well Larry and I travelled by rental car and we spent 4 days in June 2011 visiting most marinas in the Keys and we report our suggestions below.  Locations along the Overseas Highway, which is the only road going the whole way to Key West,  are noted  by the highway Mile Marker at which they are found.  These are signs every mile along the road starting at Mile Marker "0" when you drive onto Key Largo, the first Key.  There's a map of the entire approx 150 miles of the Keys below.  If you came south from Miami by boat through the Biscayne Bay, you'd come to Biscayne National Park where there are two national parks open year-round for camping on land.  They are typically accessed by ferries from the mainland, but you can stop over in your own vessel. Neither have laundry facilities, food, or dump stations.  You use automated registration machines on the islands at kiosks near the harbors.  They are noted as being buggy at times.

Boca Chita Key Docks are located–see "A" on the map below.  There is a nifty bulkhead against which you can dock, rafting up to two boats maximum.  Use of a campsite (if available) is included.  The fee is $15 per for staying over 6 PM to 6 AM, of 50% less with a National Parks Golden Age Pass (Information).  There are no showers, electric, trash pickup, nor is there fresh water (bring your own drinking and cooking water) but you do get a camp site with a grill and picnic tables.  Pets are not allowed, even on vessels anchored in shallow (≤3 feet) around the island.  There are rest rooms.  Maximum draft is 3.5 feet.  This is a pretty neat place to tie up with good protection for an overnight stay on your way to the Keys.  Again, there can be bugs.

Between Boca Chita Key and Elliott Key is Sands Key which offer anchorage sites.  Also, there is Adams Key which was originally developed as the Cocolobo hideaway resort where many presidents stayed.  Now its occupied by rangers.

Elliott Key Park Marina is four miles further south of Boca Chita (see B).   There was extensive damage here due to Hurricane Sandy.  Due to that and other weird issues the Harbor and the campground are closed for now (as of 02/06/13).  Day time access is allowed at University Dock, which is north of the harbor.

There is a visitor center, free drinking water, showers, trails and (when open) 40 ($10 per night) camp sites which are first come first serve as no reservations are accepted; docking at their 36 slips costs $20 if you you overnight (i.e., are there between 6 pm and 6 am).  Like at Boca you get use of a campsite if you dock, which presumably accommodates open boats.   Pets on leashes are allowed.  ActiveCaptain advises no more than a 2' draft to enter, so you might best anchor and use a dinghy to come in.  The official park website quotes 2.5 feet of draft at low tide.  All these keys are buggy at dusk, but good for hiking.  Just above the label "Islandia" is Caesar Creek  which crosses over between the ICW and Hawk's channel; depths are around 10'.  Good anchorage is available.  Just above the label "Card Sound" is Angelfish Creek which is well marked for crossover with a controlling depth of about 5'.  

If you cross over from the ICW (Florida side) to Hawk's Channel (ocean side), midway between the labels for "Card Sound" and "North Key Largo" is the Ocean Reef Club (near the "North Key Largo" notation on the map, below) which is the Club where Nixon used to hang out and go fishing with Bebe Rebozo...  Great marina but only for owners and guests, and costs are exorbitant.  When I mention prices, add 7.5% to prices noted for tax.

If you stay on the ICW and continue south, you'll come into Card Sound and then into a long 3500 yard marked channel that takes you into Little Card Sound on the west side; see it to the right of the #1 on the map below.  

This brings you under the tolled Card Sound Road ($1, also known as County Rd 905A, it's one of only two vehicle access roads to the Keys.  It brings you to North Key Largo, see the map below.  At the #13 is the famous Ocean Reef Club harbor entrance.  #1 and #5 are landmark restaurants.  Alabama Jacks has 3' of water under it's dock–its a favorite with motorcyclists who ride in packs to the Keys.  Also, there is Fred's Place which is pictured above.  Fred's is known as the Tilton Hilton.

You can see the long channel to get under the high fixed bridge to go south into Barne's Sound.  #16 on the map below belongs to Gilbert's Resort Marina, which will be described later.  Larry and I stopped there for an emergency Mai Tai as it is the first Tiki Bar you come to on the Keys.  #6 is the Garden Cove Marina which is home to the Buzzard's Roost Restaurant, which has great food and became a favorite of ours.  They offer a few slips, but mostly dry storage (you boat is kept on a rack and put in and out of the water by a fork life) and boat-on-trailer storage.  Larry and I missed this marina, but you can watch the Buzz Movie about the place on their web site to get a feel for it.  It wasn't a good choice for Alto.
If you head westerly in Barnes Sound, you will come across two or three tiny marinas which double as camp grounds (see #15 on the above map).  There are pretty anchorages around that area, but zero services like stores or gas.  No one uses the marinas and there are boats moored/anchored there that haven't seemed to move in years.  We visited in June and got slammed by biting insects, and found some of marinas pretty decrepit.  By the way, Rt 1 is called the Overseas Highway and from here on most marinas, restaurants, motels, etc. are marked by the distance down the keys they are with the signs called Mile Markers along the highway, they start in Key West at the end of the Keys, so Key West is at MM 1.  Thus, you can pretty well figure the location to locate themselves.  The Overseas Highway is 113 miles long and crosses 42 bridges (one is seven miles long!

We found Pelican Cay Harbor on Manatee Bay again under the #15 on the above map.  The price was tempting and the marina has two houseboats you can rent for about $60/day, but they looked very old and not so great.  But, I'm not sure we even had the right marina as there were no visible signs.  The owner gets rave reviews from campers who stay there on her web site.  Maybe our negative experience was due to visiting out-of-season, but we'll never know. 

Off the same exit on the Overseas Highway (aptly named,) at #15 above map (or, right under the Route 1 badge on the map below) is a lovely condo dock association called the Manatee Bay Club.  Owners tie up to their own wall and own a bit of land as well with your own tiki hut on it.  Prices are coming down as low as $85,000 to buy (look on Craig's List).  Or, and you can rent in there for $350/month + utilities.  They have a pool, lovely surroundings and you are in the keys for cheap.  You'll need a car to move about, as it completely isolated.  There are rules limiting liveaboards to less than 12 months per year.  It is a quiet spot and worth checking out.

Well, we have a long way to go!  About 115 miles to get to Key West and we are still on Rt 1 on the causeway, not having even hit Key Largo yet.  Traveling by water, the first full service marina you will come to with fuel is Gilbert's (360º images) which is on the ICW on its own tiny island, right under the Rt 1 sign on the above map, before the road comes to Key Largo proper.  Remember, I mentioned we stopped there for our first drinks on the Keys–Gilbert's has two large tiki hut bars, lots of action, is affordable but a little more dumpy then funky.  The marina shares its bathrooms with the two tiki bars--well, you can imagine, and they get gross.  For in water storage its among the cheapest marinas in the Keys; for Alto (25 feet) for ≥3 months, it would be $312+ $65 for 30 amp electric per month, although you'll see Key West's town docks compete with this. I'd deflate my dingy or add davits as they want $200/month additional for dinghy dockage.  Add $100/month surcharge for liveaboard–usually defined as more than 15 days per month– and $50/month for trailer storage.  Seasonal rates are cheaper.  Still, it was not a place Gail (my wife) would enjoy, I think.  Nice anchorages are near there though and boats hang out for weeks/months on the hook using the dinghy docks (and the bar) and parking, to come ashore to drink and maybe even eat once in a while.  They keys are about alcohol consumption.

On ActiveCaptain on the ICW or inside of north Key Largo, you'll see interesting marinas on Key Largo like Rowell's and Hobo's, but clicking on reviews will reveal they are closed or have been made private for condo developments.  I leave out marinas that are part of condo associations, or used only for resorts, as they are not practical options for the traveler or liveaboard.

Keep heading South down the ICW through the Jewfish Creek channel into Blackwater Sound and consider crossing over to Hawk's Channel via the little known Marvin D Adams Waterway.  It goes from blackwater Sound into Largo Sound from which there is a long southerly exit channel to the Hawk's Channel.  After we did put Alto in the Keys I navigated through this narrow (homes with docks on both sides) channel and would advise doing it at slack tide, it rock and rolled with a strong current. It is marked by the orange marker below.  It is within the Pennekamp Coral Reef Park which goes from Garden Cove down to and including the Largo Sound, which is like a big rectangular salt water lake.
Here's a shot of the 6' deep Adams Waterway at the red marker in the pictures above and below, which I could just clear in Alto (12' high) as overpass at the Overseas Highway bridge at 14' at low tide, I had to put my antenna down.  BTW there's a West Marine store right there on the Overseas Hwy.  You want slack tide, as I mentioned, as the current can roar through this narrow channel with homes and boats on their docks on both sides, so passing another vessel is scary.

Largo Sound is part of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where the visitor center is in the lower left corner of the Largo Sound, as pictured above.  You can just make out three white mooring balls in the photo above.  You can reserve stay for $26 per night on the docks shown below, or pay $18 for a mooring ball as shown above: (details). Its well sheltered as you can see below. The long channel leading south to get out of the Sound to Hawk's Channel is pictured with one of their famous glass bottom boats coming in, below.
The actual 25 mile-long park is underwater a mile or two out to sea east of these docks.  There are boats leaving from these docks which head out sea to the Park with snorkle cruises.  Or, you can take your own boat out to the park to snorkel and pick up a free mooring for the day, but not overnight.
You can't anchor in the coral-if you do expect many thousands of dollars in fines.  That's why they provide the free mooring balls throughout the park.  You can snorkle the 15-20' deep reef, but you can't spend the night on a mooring there.  Visiting the park is worth a couple of days on your trip to Key West.  In a bigger boat you can reach it more easily going down the ocean side the whole way from Miami in a single day, at great fuel expense.  Largo Sound is like a huge tidal lake in the middle of Key Largo.  Check it out on ActiveCaptain.

Maybe 3 miles south of J. Pennekamp is an interesting and busy marina which will set you back $100 per night: Key Largo Resorts Marina  Monthly rates are $550 + a $160 facility use fee for single 30 amp hook up.  Weekly rate for ≤45' is $450 + $50 facility use fee.  Facility use includes the electric, continental breakfast, pools, fitness center, trailer storage, tennis etc.  So $710 for a month (including trailer storage, electric and breakfast, etc.) is not all that bad, and you're located in the thick of things.  However, ActiveCaptain reviews suggest the place has changed from a "pit" in 2007 to "inflated prices" in 2011, so buyer beware.  It also is down a long channel cut into the Key's corral with a 90º dog leg turn.  On channel 16 you can hear captains announcing their approach as "heading south through crash corners!" or north as the case may be.  There is a favorite Tiki Bar of mine there, and Skippers Dockside is an ancient restaurant nearby on the dock.  We were there on the last day a waitress was working, as she was retiring that afternoon after decades of working there.  She was in a good mood, but the service was a little erratic as her mind was elsewhere!  But that is they Keys, you can't sweat stuff there: 

A little further down, on the Hawk side and only about 4 miles south of the Adam's Waterway and the J. Pennekamp docks is the  Pilot House Marina at MM 100, remember the mile markers start in Key West and end at the causeway going to the mainland.  PH is $2.25 per foot transient rate, on a floating dock with a nice restaurants dockside. It's rated #1 (very, very few are) on ActiveCaptain and this is where Larry and I stopped for lunch and had crab chowder.  Spoiler Alert!  After all is said and done on our four day journey to Key West, this is the marina where I decided to put Alto for the coming winter on a rack for $418/month.  That rate included tax, use a slip and free electric for one week per month, although they were fine with it if I skipped a month and  spent 2 weeks on the slip the next month.  They would just stick me on an empty slip somewhere when I came down. Since I was still working on Cape Cod, my goal was to fly down and be on the boat one week per month in the winter, then bring the boat back to Cape Cod for the summer, just before hurricane season was starting in Florida, which my insurance required.  Compare that to $1800 per month to park an RV and visit it monthly!

At the Pilot House, the crew were the best, the bathrooms brand new and cleaned constantly and the restaurant was terrific.  They stored my trailer at a lot they owned a few miles down the road for $25/month and even that was included in the $418!  What a deal. I liked it so much that a couple years later (in 12/13) I installed a new three bedroom, two bath houseboat in the marina, which we rented with partners as a business venture: Calypso Houseboat Rental.

I looked at RV parks (many have basic marinas) where it can cost $1800/month to leave a rig as I've said.  Pilot House has new floating concrete docks which are rare in the Keys.  Consider, the houseboat mentioned above survived Hurricane Irma (which destroyed like 25% of the homes on the Keys) as she floated up with the dock seven feet during the surge.  The marina wooden, fixed docks, the restaurant and bar were all submerged and wrecked. For Alto, the fixed docks were fine, after all when I wasn't there she resided on a rack, high and dry.   Pilot House even has a glass floored bar out on pilings to see fish going by under you.  You can see a live feed of who is (or isn't) playing at the glass bottom bar at the marina: Glass Bottom Bar.  Anyway, Larry and I didn't know at that time that Pilot House was going to be the choice, so we continued on towards Key West.

A bit further south is the Bluefin Rock Harbor Marina on the Hawk's side which I could not find by car.  I guess it is easier to find by water.  It's a well protected but tough to get into little harbor.  You MUST evacuate your boat when a hurricane is called which turned me off as a potential once a month visitor.  There's not much on it on the internet: Bluefin Rock Harbor Marina.

By now you're on Tavernier which is the next key after Key Largo.  Key Largo is a little bit tacky with highway-side gift shops and a few motels until you get to the Pilot House a few miles down the Overseas Highway  which way less dumpy.  Tavernier seems a little classier.  First up is Blue Waters Marina which is, maybe, 4 miles south of the Pilot House marina off the Hawk's Channel down a long narrow way.  It's a very protected liveaboard place with aft end in parked boats tied to a concrete wall with little finger docks (which you can't tie to, you run lines to big pylons emerging from the water instead).  The nice owner/manager showed us around the tidy marina which blends into Curtis Marine which has the same setup without little finger docks to get into your boat.  They share referrals when one is full up.  Figure $600/month which includes tax, water and liveaboard privileges, with metered electric being extra.  The problem is they have very few open slots, so when I leave for the summer I'd have to continue renting the dock if I wanted it back in the winter. That won't work, I only want to pay for 6 months per year.  Good place, though, if you want year round in-water dockage.

Next, 1/3 of a mile further south, is Snug Harbor Marina on the ICW.  We didn't notice it and there is little to nothing on the internet about it.  So we missed it.   Just past where Snug Harbor is supposed to be, is Boatman's Mangrove Marina at milemarker 91.7 which is also on the ICW side.  It welcomes liveaboards who want to do their own work.  They didn't respond to my emails, so you better call or visit.  I showed up after hours and found the concrete docks aging and crumbling in places.  They do have racks as an alternative.  I don't know what their rates are, but its well thought of on ActiveCaptain.  It seemed at bit old and tired to me.  No romance!  They did have a bunch of little houseboats they were renting, and after five years of maintaining our houseboat, Calypso, at Pilot House we had to sell her when the marina decided to stop any commercial businesses.  So Mangrove bought it and now she is the queen of their fleet, and you'll have to go there to rent her.

At the southern most tip of Tavernier is Tavernier Creek Marina on the ICW side which has several large sheds with rack storage ranging from $16-$20/ft (as low as $432/month for me as they measure everything from anchor pulpit to swim platform adding 2+ feet to my boat).  Use of their docks & electric (of which there are only a few) is free but first come first serve, so each time you motor out you don't know if there will be space upon your return.  The biggest problems was Larry's assessment that the place was "charmless."  There is a grungy snack bar on site, but the environment is pavement and sheds with forklifts running around. BTW, trailer storage is $75/month extra.
Right at the marina is the next (since leaving the Adams Waterway) crossover opportunity from Hawk's Channel to the ICW and vice versa via by passing under the Tavernier Creek Bridge (15' clearance at high tide) which is 8 miles south of the Pilot House marina. Drive over the bridge and you are now on Plantation Key which is part of Islamarado.  Head south 3 miles to Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina which is also called Founder's Park, as its now owned by the town.  Its a huge complex which allows liveaboards in a harbor adjacent to a band shell, and park with a huge pool and tennis courts.  Its $21/foot, for me that's $525 per month and cable and electric are extra.  The nearby park is nice and then it's not so nice, as the marina is pretty exposed to passersby who wander the docks and cause who knows what kind of trouble.  Some of the docks seem more private.
1500 yards south on the Hawk's Channel is Treasure Harbor which is a charter boat place catering to day fishing trippers; however, Pam tells me they have dockage for $465/month which includes water and parking.  Trailer is $60/month for storage.  Then comes the Ragged Edge Marina.  This seems to provide docks mostly for just their resort guests and for a few smaller boats.  Next is Pelican Cove Resort and Marina which serves only ≤22' boats.  1500 feet further south is the Snake Creek pass between the ICW and Hawk's Channel which has a bascule bridge 27' above the water when closed, which is fine for Ranger Tugs.  On either side of the creek is Smuggler's Cove marina with ranges from $15/ft to $18/ft depending on which side you are on for in water storage; that's $375 to $450/ mo.  If I read their website right its $230 to store a trailer for a month.  Wow!  I came back and they re-built all their docks, but they are fixed and pretty exposed to wind and current.  Also, they have a bar/restaurant at the end of the dock with entertainment that could do rather late, given that they cater to weddings (they have a next door hotel)–didn't seem right for Alto.

Next up (or down the Keys) is Snake Creek Marina is a big ultra modern dry storage place which failed the "charm" test by Larry who hated it.  Its pretty far down, so to give you an idea where we are at this point, see marker "A" on the map below:
As we progressed, Larry's taste developed and he became more particular– I started to use the Larry approval rating on a scale of 1-10.  I'm not positive, but I think Snake Creek Marina was once called Abel's Marina, it's confusing.
Neither appears to be on ActiveCaptain.  One thing about Snake Creek is its immediate proximity to a bar called Hog Heaven which advertises itself as a sport bar "known throughout South Florida for throwing the best parties around."  It was a 2 on the Larry Scale, of course we're both just a hog's breath away from being 60 years old, so what do we know about parties anymore...  Still, we could appreciate the Pimp & Ho Party in June and the Weekly Thong Contest, and don't forget that Hog Heaven caters to bikers!  Maybe not a good marina neighbor and our wives might not approve.   We moved on.

Coconut Cove Marina follows, but seems to be entirely a wedding destination.  Then comes a tiny place: Estes Watersports Marina which has no website and we passed on by.  Whale Harbor Charters is just that, only fishing boat charters in the marina.  Next up (or down) was a pretty place called the Lorelie Yacht Basin & Restaurant.  Larry liked it and I think his rating was an 8.24321 out of 10.  I liked it, too.  Laid back folks.  Long-term boat storage was along the key shown below.  The Lorelie restaurant and bar is at the bottom of the picture and the large tiki bar is on the key next to the boat with blue highlights.  You can see lots of white chairs along the beach on the left bottom side of the key.
The restaurant is at the bottom right of the picture with a pale blue roof, and you can see exposed beach along the dockage (must be a very low tide) along its front for tying up.  And the joint is lively, although you can get away from the tiki bar and entertainment and have a quiet dinner there too for reasonable cost: Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar.  They are adding more docks and a shower to the bathrooms. At $16/ft ($400/month for my boat) + utilities and $25/mo for trailer storage it seemed like a pretty good deal, once they get those showers in.  Most likely, I'd use this as a destination as you can tie up at the restaurant and eat or drop an anchor nearby; I noticed many boats anchored off the restaurant with boaters who dinghied in.  As its on the ICW side there's good protection for anchoring.  I've been back to this place in 2018 and now they are selling their docks for big bucks, but they will rent them for you while you are away–a dockuminium!

A few hundred feet further south is the Coral Bay Marina which we found a bit old and tired.  It's aft on docking to fixed docks.  No website or email we could find.  ActiveCaptain recently notes its weekly rate is $1/foot including 50 amp electric in 01/2011–you can't beat that! You can motor dinghy to the Lorelei. Right next door is Caribee Boats which is all rack storage in very tight quarters.  They has a few side-on docks to store boats just put into the water, but I doubt if you could stay on them.  They are new and nice docks, but the noise from the two nearby working forklifts could be bothersome if you tried to stay on the docks which are just feet away.  Then comes the mighty World Wide Sportman which has docks, restaurants and actually is a huge Bass Pro shop: 
Here are shots inside the Bass Pro store which has a replica of Hemingway's boat (the real one is in Cuba).  I looked at Hawaiian shirts for $80 guaranteed to make me look skinny!  Emphasis on the "looked at" part, my beauty level is on the order of $8 T-shirts.  Remember, this is a frugal guy's web site!  The following winter, after I wrote this blog about Larry and my 4 day exploratory trip, as I've said, I put Alto at Pilot House marina in Key Largo.  Gail and I came down for 10 days and we motored from Pilot House to this marina (Bayside) which is the only marina owned by a Bass Pro Shop (of which there are 100+), which I'll detail in a future blog.  Look at the boat pointing out to the harbor just to the left of the opening into the docks, that's where we stayed for a couple of days.  right behind us was a gorgeous Hinckley Picnic Boat which has been based there for about 7 years.  The couple that own it were from Newport, RI and were liveaboards.  We had a great time in that marina which is quite affordable at $2/ft $50/nite + tax for us) which included electric.  Cost would be about $16.50/ft or $444 to keep the boat in the water here by the month.  There are several bars and three bands playing around the marina at any time.  The music overlapped, but we really enjoyed the place.  The building in the lower left corner is a commercial fish place owned by the Bass Pro Shop where their own boats delivered fresh fish to the restaurants and a fish market right there.  One can also anchor in the bay or just outside the enclosed bay (near the Lorelie) for free and dinghy in.  Very shallow but enough for maybe a 3 foot draft.  This is a gorgeous place and lots of fun.  The owner of all the Bass Pro Shops reportedly lives nearby, and that's why this one has a marina.  Bass Pro Shops bought all the Cabela's (for nearly $5 billion); although, I think the original owner of Bass Pro is out.  However, the word is he kept this one store.

Continue south and come to The Watermark Marina which is brand new and still under construction.  There are racks and finger docks.  Next came La Siesta Resort which has facilities on both the ICW and Hawk's Channel.  On the ICW it has a new marina carved out of no where:
For my boat, in water storage was $550 but there is almost no availability for space.  Great bathrooms.  A good deal was the ability to store my boat on its trailer for $250 per month and then pay $1/foot transient rates if I tied up to a dock (assuming availability) at the marina.  The problem is that I would not be allowed to hire someone to come with their truck to put it in or take it out due to insurance issues.  That means I'd have to leave my F350 there full time. Since I must use a rental car to get there, that's a waste of the truck except for putting the boat in and out.  The $250 did include resort privileges and even the daily continental breakfast.  If you can drive to and from the marina in your own truck, that's not a bad deal.  Or, if you drive down with your boat on a trailer to stay a month or so, its reasonable although in water storage may not be available for bigger boats on the ICW side.   Its a hefty walk to the other side of Islamorada to use the resort facilities which look like this, and there's a small boat marina there too:

Next down is Breezy Palms Resort on the Hawk's side which had no slips.  Papa Joe's Marina was interesting, but there's only a few slips for smaller boats and it's a huge tourist trap.
Robbie's Marina is well known, but seems mostly dedicated to fishermen. This place is famous as you can pay to watch them feed giant fish each evening.  But, you can watch them for free at Bud n' Mary's (described below) when the fisherman clean their catches and throw the dregs in the water.  They have a huge working marina on Stock Island just before Key West, as well.  It's easy to confuse them, as I did.  I still don't much care for aft tie-ups:

Robbie's has a dozen little shacks scattered over its campus selling all kinds of stuff.  They have a great restaurant which is all open and pretty tacky.  I didn't realize it, but there is a lagoon behind Robbie's with a dozen docks on canals, where the staff lives.  I went there years later (2018) looking for a place to put our houseboat, when Pilot House told us we had to move, and I wound up getting friendly with the folks at Robbie's.  If they like you they would consider renting to you, and you'd instantly be in a community which I liked.  I may go back with Alto someday.

And a little further south, we come to the end of Islamorada where the famous Bud n' Mary's Marina is located.  This is a working charter fishing boat marina which is interesting.  Huge fish of all types circle the docks, especially when people are cleaning their catch.
Larry and I stayed two nights in the above shown houseboat at the Bud 'n Mary's right at the end of Islamorada which was neat– $150/nite.  Pictures from the houseboat are shown below, left and right.  They have a tiny hotel, which is plain, but they also rent a cool room with deck above their tack shop for $120/night, see the middle picture below of the deck.  Huge fish are right in the marina.  Some transient boat space is available and the marina is next to one of the best restaurants in the Keys–Lazy Days.  The giant fish (tarpon) swimming around the houseboat were endlessly entertaining to Larry and me.

Since we are not primarily fishermen, Bud n' Mary's would not work well for in-water boat storage for us.  Also, rack storage inside was $650/month and another $12/foot for the dinghy.  They did have a secret patio for workers and liveaboards at the marina.  You pull a fishing rod mounted to a wooden fence-like wall and a secret gate opened! Pretty cool.  I came back in 2018, and the place was demolished by Hurricane Irma which hit the Keys right about there.  Its all rebuilt now.

Well, now we're on Upper Metecumbe Key getting ready to move south to Lower Matecumbe Key and they cross lots of water to get to Long Key.  We're just about half way to Key West at this point:
Next up on the frugal tour is the Fiesta Key KOA campground which has sort of a marina on Long Key.  We skipped it as we did not have the energy to deal with the gate and guard at the campground.  On to the Sea Bird Marina where people appear to store boats on their trailers moreso than using slips.

There is nothing much now untill you get to Duck Key which is a weird, expensive place of homes on a pre-planned Key all crammed up to one another.  Tiny bridges designed mostly for golf carts go over a myriad of canals on this Key.  There are two marinas, Hawks Cay which depending on the season ranges from $3.00/ft + a $25/night resort fee so its at least $100/night for us, and Turnkey Marina which we did not stop at.  We drove all over the key using Zillow application on our cell phone to tell us prices of the homes.  Not cheap.  I'd hate to have to get off this key during a bad storm in a hurry, there is only one causeway.  There were a couple of shops on a boardwalk near the Hawks Cay marina, and a restaurant which opened too late for us to have lunch.  There appeared to be clubs for residents, which is what the Key is really geared to serving.

When you come to Marathon, there are many options like Coconut Palms Marina and Grassy Key Marina which looks bare and mostly like rack storage:
An interesting option is the Floating Sea Cove Resort & Marina that advertises on Craig's List in Key West.  Its on Marathon and for $500/mo you get 2 car parking, wifi, showers, and all utilities.  Its also a boatel with houseboats for rent at reasonable cost per day, but they stay on the dock.
Next down was Shelter Bay Marine Boat Storage with $140 dry and $400 wet monthly fees.  Most interesting was the Boot Key Harbor City Marina, which is the town owned marina.  Its plastic floating docks are a little run down, but they have lots of mooring balls and a huge dinghy dock, check it out: Boot Key Harbor City Marina.  I love their live camera feed that moves all around the harbor: Camera Feed.  

Monthly dockage ran $19.75 per foot+$35 electric.  For the dock, I rated it a 4 on the Larry Scale, Larry rated it a bit better.  On the other hand, the mooring field is great, and look at the public dinghy docks above and the public recreation room, which is huge.  For mooring, this is a great place.  Someone at the City Marina took this picture off their aft end; it is exactly what none of us ever want to see up front and close from our boat or anywhere:

This just in!  Fellow tug boaters on Island Ranger are planning to spend a month or two at Marathon Marina, which looks great.  Daily rates are $2.25 per foot and monthly is $18.50 ($462/month) which includes electric, water, cable, wifi, and a weekly pump out right at the slip.  That restaurant we liked on Islamorada (Lazy Days) has a branch right at the marina.  I can't tell if it has floating docks, but it looks newer; as depicted below:

Gail, my wife, and I had opportunity to visit this marina at a later date to visit the good folks on Island Ranger, and it's very nice.  Our fellow tugboaters enjoyed it and spent an entire winter there.

There's a ton of marinas on Marathon.  Marathon is described as having the least charm of the keys as its the most like the main land.  There is a Home Depot, super markets, etc.  This adds up to convenience in many ways.  Frankly, it came down to varying degrees of tacky on many of the other keys vs. the more cosmopolitan appearance of Marathon.  For the liveaboard, the appearance downtown matters little since we are in the bays and marinas. But, having stuff nearby like laundromat and shopping often outweighs any lack of charm.

Next up was Little Torch Key; staying on Little Palm Island is $350/day at the Marina!  The Dolphin Marina and Cottages is only $1.50/foot including electricity but I believe you have to rent a cottage to get transient dock use:  Dolphin Marina and Cottages.

There's not much on Cudjoe Key or Sugar Loaf Key.  If its not busy you might find transient storage at these places, although they don't advertise it:  Cudjoe Gardens Marina (305) 745-2352 or  Sugar Loaf Lodge.

Next up is the last key before Key West, which is called Stock Island which has several marinas.   I was especially hopeful about Geiger Key Marina which advertises at $275/month along a sea wall.  It looks great in the picture and is on the Hawk's Channel side of the island.  But those are RV's lined up against the sea wall, with a restaurant to the the right side:
It turned out to be a campground with tie-on room against its sea wall.  There is no electric or pumpout at the seawall for boats, only for the RV's, so the wall is just a place for the RV people to store their small boats.  Interestingly, it ran around $1800 per month to leave an RV there so the boat storage costs I've been describing sound pretty good.  There are other marinas like Robbie's on Stock Island and a condo complex that rents out (Sunset Marina), but you might as well push on to Key West since it the next and last Key and is where all the action is.

In KW visit the City Marina at Garrison Bight (see the marker "A" below) on the north side of KW.  It's about 20 blocks or 1.2 miles down Truman Avenue to the famed Duval street, which is a good bike ride in the hot summer.  Even if you have a car, forget driving in Key West.  Parking is expensive if you find it.  However, parking is included at Garrison Bight marina and you can leave your car there and the travel by bike or bus into town.
Just below the red square on the chart below is one of the liveaboard docks, it's close to the street so there is noise, but the concrete floating dock with tie-on fingers is great.  The T-shaped docks without fingers to its left are where the house barges are all attached, aft on to the docks.   If you can get under the 18' bridge to the inner harbor at the bottom of the page, the two shortest (of the three) docks displaying fingers are also for liveaboard boats at the same rate.  There are buses into town.
This great place has concrete floating docks and serves large barge style houseboats on the T-docks to the right of the word "Bight"; they pay around $600 per month including 2 parking spots which is a valuable thing in KW.  They have three floating docks for liveaboard boats like Ranger Tugs and as of 06/28/11 the "monthly pleasure lease" cost is $10.52/foot with a 30' minimum or $315 + $33 for utilities, or about $350/mo plus tax.  There is a liveaboard higher cost of $11.18 per foot if you claim your boat as your primary residence.  Walking down the dock in the inner harbor (page bottom), there is a floating Thai restaurant just before the three finger docks.  Cool!  See it below.

There are mooring balls for $18.28 per day or $304.58 per month both with a 50' max. with a free weekly pumpout.  Dinghy storage in the water next to the boat on the dock is free if under 12'.  Trailer storage is $6/day for transients, but might be free or less for monthly renters, I forgot to check.

If you can tolerate the long and expensive flights into KW (saves a 1.5 hour drive down the keys) then living here starts to make sense.  Renting a car in KW would be costly, but you can leave your own clunker there.  Or, there is transportation to get you the mile or so to downtown.  Most of the liveaboards had bikes.  There are complaints about bold thefts of dinghies, as you are in a city environment. I'd deflate my dinghy and store it inside if I left for any length of time.  Transient rates by the day with electric, water, showers, and even parking spaces are $1.90 per foot +$6.25 in utilities, minus 30% in the off season.  The floating concrete docks are a huge plus.  There are no trees for shade, like in most marinas in the Key, and the docks are near the road which makes for some contstant ambient noise.  But you can live here for low bucks.

There are also marinas right downtown in KW for $3/ft during the winter, that include everything:  A & B Marina is a nice place and the price isn't bad if you're just visiting for a few days.  You'll pay a lot more for a motel even off season in KW.  The town owns another marina right in the thick of KW called Key West Bight City Marina but they are also pricey for long-term stays at $44/ft/month in 2009, short-term is $2.75 per foot which is doable for a few days. The docks are high and fixed; the ferry to the Dry Tortugas leaves from one of their docks.  This is also the location for the dinghy dock for those you who anchor out or moor.  Be aware there is a $6 per day, $80/month fee for your dinghy to use the dinghy dock!  There are lots of rules like being able to stay on a mooring for more than 3 days ONLY if you have holding tanks.  The harbor master at Garrison Bight was informed and knowledgable about my composting toilet which was a good sign.  For my money, I'd stay long-term at Garrison, but short-term at A & B.

Summary:  Allthough Jet Blue goes into KW, it takes at least two transfers to get there.  When I've looked, it's an average six hour trip each way for about $500/round trip from Boston.  My goal, for one week per month vacations, is to be within two hours of the boat once I'm off a plane–and I want to spend as little time on the plane as possible; i.e., no transfers.  I've discovered that its better, cheaper, with more car rental options, more flight options, etc. to fly into Ft. Lauderdale (about $190 round trip and 3.5 hours from Boston) as opposed to Miami.  This adds 45 minutes on to the road trip by rental car to get to the Keys as compared to Miami which is closer to the keys.  So I need to look for dockage in Key Largo or, maybe, the upper part of Tavernier.  This is a big reason we settle on Pilot House Marina just about six miles down the first key, Key Largo, from where the causeway ends and the Keys begin.  I'm on the boat in less than two hours from arriving at Ft. Lauderdale airport.  In realty, I do it quicker, because I was able to leave all my clothing on the boat (T-shirts and shorts are useless on Cape Cod in the winter anyway), and thus no time spent waiting for luggage, or paying for it or losing it.  Just a carry on and my computer is all I needed.

Sometimes there are deals to Miami from Boston (certainly there are from NYC) and I could do nonstop flights, grab a rental car, and be on the boat within an hour of getting into the airport.  As I'm walking from the jetway to the rental car place, I phone the marina and they take the boat off the rack and have it in the water and waiting for me when I arrive.  I've arrived late at night, and just hopped on the boat on the bulkhead in front of the fork lift drop, and the moved it into an available slip the next morning.

I like the idea of floating docks, when available, at the Pilot House with dry storage (racks) to keep the boat out of the salt water the 3 weeks out of 4 when it is not being used.  The nice folks at the Pilot House marina were willing plug the boat in to maintain its batteries while I'm away while the boat is on the rack; however, with two big solar panels Alto is self sufficient.  At $418 per month at Pilot House it sounded good and was ultimately the choice I made for the next winter.  If I could get away for two weeks at a time I think staying in Key West in Garrison Bite would be the way to go, and I'd suffer the longer, expensive plane rides (a transfer is necessary) directly into Key West, but then I would not need a rental car.  I could maybe do Garrison Bight for $350 per month, which is the cost of a day in a hotel on Duval Street.  Of course, the boat would be in the water full time, and I'd need to find a local guy to keep an eye on it.  Again, I wound up having the boat professionally hauled on its own trailer, right to Pilot House.  We timed it so I arrived by plane and rental car within a couple hours that the boat did.

Next time I would let the hauler use his own trailer next time, its more expensive but its their preference and probably safer.  I've had overheated hubs and had to pay for the hauler's motel while he left the boat and trailer at a shop to redo the brakes.  Now, I never put the trailer in the salt water.  With a fork life the guys use slings to remove and install the boat from a trailer never needed to dunk it.

I was figuring close to $2000 each way for haulage (turned out to be $2400 the next winter), but if I used a diesel pickup truck fuel would cost about $1000 at 6 miles to the gallon.  Of course you save wear and tear on you truck and three days of motel fees, although hauling a Ranger Tug means you can stay in camp grounds or truck stops and use a ladder to live in the boat. Then I could leave the truck at the marina and use it, but I'd still have to get a ride from the airport to the marina...  You can go nuts comparing the options, but since my Ford F350 pickup is gas, its moot.  I can haul the boat a hundred miles, but you got to have a diesel rig to pull her any distance–Ranger Tugs are heavy on the trailer.   I'll continue renting cars, which I have gotten for as low as $80/wk everything included, except watch out for Spring break when a car rental can be $1000+ for a week!  That happened to me, and I found a $300/week rental during Spring break by going off the airport into town to rent a vehicle.  The bus schedule goes hourly from the airports to the Keys, but its almost as expensive as renting a car (except during Spring break) and takes forever with lots of stops.

I have a hard dinghy for use on Cape Cod, but it stays on the Cape when the boat is trailered down to Florida.  I have an Achilles LT-2 little 7'3" inflatable that weighs 37 lbs when folded up.  I bought a Coleman rechargeable air pump that not only can inflate it, but also can suck the air out of it to make a small enough package to fit on the floor under the V-berth.  That saves me lots of hassle and cost for dinghy storage.  I can inflate it and deflate in ten minutes each time I go to FL.  It's Hypalon so it can tolerate the sun if I found a place to leave it inflated for a while.  I also have a Honda 2 hp motor that fits in the floor lazarette in the cockpit and helps offset the starboard list Ranger Tugs get from the batteries and generator being on the port side.  I'd hope to use transient dockage (maybe free in exchange for dinner) at restaurants as everyone loves the salty look of these tugs, and anchor out during trips.

Its possible to be comfortable a week a month on my 25' Tug in the Keys for reasonable money.  BTW, you could do the same with an old Sea Ray 27' or one of the traditional looking Chris Craft boats from the 1970s ad 80s–you don't need to spend a lot of money on the boat.  The advice here is aimed at staying inexpensively in the Keys whenever you feel like it without paying $2500/month for a little apartment, or leaving a big expensive RV in a lot for $1800/month.  On top of having a place to stay, then you can tool around the keys, especially on the inner side, and drop hooks.  There are free mooring balls in places on the nine ICW side where you can spend days or weeks (like I did).  

Hope to see you in the Keys!  Well, I'll have to do a blog because I did follow through and put the boat at Pilot House in Key Largo for 6 months starting in the winter of 2011.  It turned out to be fun and affordable as noted above.  As stated above, $418 including electric, trailer storage, etc. per month.  As fuel prices rose my costs in trailering the boat went from $1700 to Sanford, FL to $2400 to Key Largo (which is further south), but also flights went up as did car rental costs.  Also, I make no money when I'm in Florida, so I'm not taking the boat down for the winter of 2012.  I hope I can afford to go in 2013, and then maybe every other year.  In the meantime I'm looking at Ranger 29s, Oh No!

Here are some useful websites:
All Florida Keys Anchorage Directory N to S with separate listings for ICW vs Hawk