Saturday, July 30, 2011

Florida Keys Cruising Guide–06/27-07/01/11

This trip 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.  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 directly to the Keys in the early Winter, and then move her back to Sanford towards the end of the Winter to hang with our friends.  Of course, if we have the problem of "too much fun" we might just keep the boat in the Keys.  The goal here was "frugal" travel, and as you read 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. One way is going past Florida on 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 information from Loopers whom blog about their trips on the internet, and some include the Keys for the Full Monty of the 6,000 mile loop.  Here's the American Great Loop Cruisers' Association (AGLCA) season map of the Loop:

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.

Larry and I spent 4 days in June 2011 visiting most marinas in the Keys and we report our suggestions below.  Locations along the Overseas Highway 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.  There's a map of the entire approx 150 miles of the Keys below.  Coming south from Miami by boat through Biscayne Bay, you'll 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.

Boca Chita Key Docks are located–see "A" on the map below.  There is a bulkhead against which you can dock, rafting up to two.  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 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.

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.  No 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 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 (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.  #6 is the Garden Cove Marina which is home to the Buzzard's Roost Restaurant, which has great food.  They offer wet and dry storage and boat-on-trailer storage.  I admit we missed this marina, but you can watch the Buzz Movie about the place on their web site to get a feel for it.
If you head westerly in Barnes Sound, you there are 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.  We visited in June and got slammed by biting insects, and found some of marinas pretty decrepit.  The area is called Manatee Bay and lays right under where Rt 1 (the only other vehicle route to the Keys) leaves the mainland.  Rt 1 is usually called the Overseas Highway and from here on most marinas, restaurants, motels, etc. are use the signs posted as Mile Markers along the highway to locate themselves.

We think 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.  

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.  Prices are coming down as low as $85,000 to buy (look on Craig's List) which includes a bit of land along side the side on docks.  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.  I believe there are rules limiting liveaboards to less than 12 months per year.

Well, we have a long way to go!  About 140 miles or so to get to Key West and we are still on Rt 1 not having even hit Key Largo yet.  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.  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 do 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 on the hook using the dinghy docks (and the bar) and parking, I suspect.

On ActiveCaptain on the ICW side 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:
Here's a shot of the 6' deep Adams Waterway at the red marker above and below, which I can just clear the non-opening overpass at the Overseas Highway bridge at 14' at low tide if I put my antenna down.  BTW there's a West Marine store right there on the Overseas Hwy.  You want slack tide as the current can roar through this narrow channel with homes and boats on their docks on both sides.
This will take you into Largo Sound, heading to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park where you can see the darker/deeper water in the lowest 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 at $26 per night on the docks shown below or $18 for a mooring ball in the area 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 the famous glass bottom boat coming in, below.
The actual 25 mile-long park is underwater a mile or two out to sea east of these docks.  There are commercial boats leaving from the these docks which head out sea to the Park with snorkle cruises.  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.  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 of 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: 

Also, 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 which 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 is where I finally decided to keep Alto over 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 if I skipped a month but spent 2 weeks on the slip the next month.  My goal was to be on the boat one week per month in the winter, and bring the boat back to Cape Cod in the winter just when hurricane season was starting, as my insurance required.

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 (12/13 as I update this) I installed a houseboat in the marina: Calypso Houseboat Rental.

I looked at RV parks (many have basic marinas) where it can cost $1800/month to leave a rig.  Pilot House has new floating concrete docks, and floating docks are rare in the Keys.  The fixed docks use the  back-in method with tie-ups to pylons in front is a bit of pain, but there are closer to the bathrooms.  We wound up staying on the fixed docks with no problem.  You can see a live feed of who is (or isn't) playing at the glass bottom bar at the marina: Glass Bottom Bar.

A bit further south is the Bluefin Rock Harbor Marina on the Hawk's side which I could not find by car.  Evidently, you turn at the Boats & Tires Boat Yard & Tire Store.  Its 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 distant 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 part of Key Largo (I think).  Key Largo is a bit tacky and old with highway side gift shops and a few motels until you get to the Pilot House area which has lots of services and is 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, use big pylons instead) in between.  The nice owner/manager showed us around the tidy marina which blends into Curtis Marine which is the same setup without the finger docks.  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.  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!

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 place; 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 mostly for guests at their resort and for smaller boats.  Next is Pelican Cove Resort and Marina which serves only ≤22' boats.  1500 feet 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!  We didn't stop to check it out as we wanted to keep moving, and the "charm" factor, again, seemed missing.  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, his taste became more particular and 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 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 specifically caters to bikers!  Maybe not a good marina neighbor...  We move 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 charters in the marina.  Next up (or down) is 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.  They are planning to insert docks in the harbor, soon, somehow.  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 from a marina like the Pilot House as you can tie up at the restaurant and eat; 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.

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 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, I did wind up moving the boat to Pilot House marina in Key Largo.  Gail and I came down for 10 days and motored from Pilot House to this marina (Bayside) which is the only marina owned by a Bass Pro Shop, 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.

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:

And, 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.
We stayed two nights in the above houseboat at the Bud 'n Mary's right at the end of Islamorada which was neat– $150/nite.  They have 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 space is available and the marina is next to one of the best restaurants in the Keys–Lazy Days.  Here's more pictures of the houseboat and its view. The picture of the deck is for the tack shop room mentioned above:

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.  Well 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 till you get to Duck Key which is a weird, expensive place of homes on a pre-planned Key all crammed up to one another.  High, tiny bridges designed mostly for golf carts go over 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 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 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 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.
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 and I had opportunity to visit this marina at a later date, 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, in town.

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 I found 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 and looks great, along the sea wall 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's 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 and you can leave your car there and travel by bike or bus.
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 an 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 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 includes 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:  I don't want to hassle with multiple planes although Jet Blue goes into KW.  With a transfer it's an average six hour trip for about $500 round trip from Boston.  My goal, for one week vacations, is to be within two hours of the boat once I'm off a plane.  I've discovered that its better, cheaper, more car rental options, more flight options, etc. to fly into Ft. Lauderdale (about $190 round trip and 3.5 hours each way to Boston) as opposed to Miami.  This adds 45 minutes on to the trip to get to the Keys, so I need to look for dockage in Key Largo or, maybe, the upper part of Tavernier.  But, I'm still on the boat in less than two hours from arriving at the air port.  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.

I like the idea of floating docks, when available, at the Pilot House and I'd like to try dry storage 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 are willing to fresh water flush my sea water cooling system and even plug the boat in to maintain its batteries while I'm away and the boat is on the rack.  At $418 per month 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) but then I'd 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.

I may let the hauler use his own trailer next time, its more expensive but its their preference and probably safer.  I won't have to store the trailer in the Keys, that way.  I'm figuring close to $2000 each way for haulage (turned out to be $2400 the next winter), but fuel will cost about $1000 at 6 miles to the gallon in a diesel truck, and I save wear and tear on my Ford gas truck (which really isn't up  to such a long haul compared to a diesel with an Allison transmission) and the time and costs of travel.  I'll continue renting cars, which I get for as low as $80/wk everything included, except watch out for Spring break when a car rental can be $1000+ for a week–watch out!  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 can suck 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, although I'd then get a cover for it.  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) and anchor out during trips.  I think its possible to be comfortable a week a month on my Tug in the Keys for reasonable money.  The advice here is aimed at examining long or frequent stays on a boat in the Keys, but also might help a visitor seek transient stays while traveling the keys either by boat or trailering the boat all the way to KW.  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!  I did find free mooring balls at parks in the Keys, which I'll describe if I ever get around to updating this blog.  It is doable to boat in the Keys at affordable rates, even a third of what the RV crowd spends.  Amazing!
Here are some useful websites:
All Florida Keys Anchorage Directory N to S with separate listings for ICW vs Hawk

Sunday, June 5, 2011

St. Johns–3rd Trip (05/07-05/14/11) Art & Jerry's Big Adventure!

My friend, Art Bence, accompanies me to Sanford, FL to spend a week  aboard Alto and explore the St. Johns River and local business venues for a week.  Before we go anywhere, I have to pour sugar into the "liquids" bottle which attaches to our composting head.  The thing holds 3 gallons of pee and the sugar, weirdly, seems to ameliorate the smell.  I use a coffee filter as a funnel.  Art filmed the whole thing, but the file is too large to upload to this blog.  Damn, you missed some good stuff!  It's especially exciting when I carefully carry the bucket up to a marina's bathroom to dump it–don't want to spill that.

Alto is berthed in the Sanford Marina & Boat Works Marina–at southernmost end of the St. John's River's navigable waters.   See my previous posts for more information.  This is a wonderful place, tucked away in Sanford.  Yes, that town sadly due to the killing of Trayvon Martin.  We were there a year before that event, and I can only say it is a great town that worked hard to improve its appearance and relations with all its citizens.  Please visit if you can, it's a beautiful spot with nice folks everywhere.

Anyway, while I attend to the pee bottle, Art visits the pool at the Indian Mound Yacht Club (he was accorded temporary membership) at Sanford Marina & Boat Works, Alto's homeport on the St. Johns River.  We were there to do some laundry, as the machines are kept there:

Art took most of the pictures along our adventure.  Here's the sort of thing that interests him; the menu at the local diner we had breakfast at.  He's fascinating company, most of the time:

Luckily, I'm editing this blog so I can pick the better pictures from his repertoire.  Here's an excellent picture Art took of me at Alto's helm while we were underway.   I am in my favorite, stylish boating shirt concentrating deeply:

We're heading for Hontoon State Park to spend the night and then go down river (north) as far as we can.  Remember, the St. Johns flows north so we go down river by going in that direction.

We pass a beach where folks congregate on weekends.  There are not many beaches on the river, they are typically thin strips of sand along a deserted shoreline.  People group together to feel safer, as the alligators avoid all the noise and activity–usually.

Here we are on the dock at Hontoon.  $25 for any size boats per day/overnight, which includes electric and water, and nice bathrooms.  You can see the electric ferry (white square boat in the distance) in its island berth where we are.  It goes just a little ways across the river to the mainland where the parking lot for the park is located.  So visitors by car use it to get to the park.  You can see Alto's slight list to port, as though there is some extra weight on that side (?).

Art relaxing after the stress of a day of yachting.  BTW, I think this is why we list to port.

Another of Art's tasteful photographs.  The park has serious rules for appropriate behavior:

It was foggy the next morning:

Being courageous (and we have radar), we left anyway and the fog burned off soon thereafter.  A few hours latter we make it to Lake George, maybe a third of the way down the St. John's river from Sanford to Jacksonville.  In Jacksonville the river empties into the Atlantic ocean and boaters can continue up or down the intracoastal water way.  Lake George is second only to Lake Okeechobee in size in Florida. It's shallow but vast as you can see below.

Off Lake George is a small river leading to Silver Glen Springs, a fresh water source for the St. John's that pumps out crystal clear water into the lake.  We found it too shallow to enter, so we turned around when we could see the bottom in just a couple of feet of water.

We continued across Lake George.  At 10 knots it took over an hour to cross the lake which is about 12 miles long.  We were heading for the Georgetown Marina which had been described to us as a "funky" place to stay.  It's really a camp ground with RV's where folks store their fishing boats.  This kind of setup is called a "fish camp" on the St. Johns, and on may southern waterways, too.  We pulled right in to a slip and tied up.

Nice folks at the marina, and the price was $20 + tax with electric and water for any size boat which worked out to $25 for the night.  Art and I had rented the smallest car we could in Orlando for about $100 for a week.  Even with the cost of Southwest airline tickets, parking in Providence, gas to get there and back to Cape Cod (our home base), boat provisions (chocolate donuts and beer), diesel fuel for the boat, some of our meals out, etc. the week cost us $480 each.  Not bad for an entire week in Florida!  Of course that doesn't include the cost of the boat–oh well.

Georgetown Marina has both diesel and gas, with good prices on both.  There are only 3 places to get diesel fuel south of Jacksonville, the other two are in Astor (which we passed on the way here) and at our marina in Sanford at the extreme southern end of the St. Johns navigable waters.  Most of the slips at Georgetown Marina are covered with lifts to keep the small fishing boats out of the water when not in use:

A fish cleaning station is essential in a fish camp.  Folks from the campground and marina sit around outdoor easy chairs under a canopy and don't do much.  The decor is all about the river:

Here's the center of everything for miles around.  A tiny store, the bathrooms and gas pump.  The bathroom was a little small but useable.

  This ("Smell Good Spray") was sitting on the toilet tank, it sort of says it all:

We left the marina and Art took this movie back out on Lake George which was hazy and the water placid and warm as bathwater.  I know because I went into the water at the marina to see if anything had caught on our prop, skeg or bottom since we noticed a drop in speed on the way in.  No problems.  I didn't linger in the water (alligators and such) but it was warm.  Here's a movie and, I'm ashamed to say, we are making fun of the marina–which was, after all, a fish camp.  For $25 a day and the friendly folks I'd go back for another visit, but it was "funky" and Art did wear his sandals in the shower...

This was bizarre.  We passed a floating Tiki Hut under power towing a canoe.  This guy apparently lives in this thing when he's on the river.  Very cool.

On the river its traditional to stop and eat at elegant waterfront establishments.  We picked this one in Astor since the famous Blackwater Inn was closed.  Not so elegant, but it had (boat) parking.

At times we are allowed to speed up, as we're often in Manatee zones traveling at idle speed.  Here's Alto moving at "ludicrous speed" (cf. the movie Space Balls for details) throwing out enormous wake behind her!

We're back in our marina in Sanford watching the sun go down over the aft-end of our neighbor's house boat.  The weather for the whole week was hot but perfect.

We have a beer at Gator's, which is an outdoor bar at our marina right on the river, as you can see.

Hanging around the bar was this guy:

We're out for dinner!  Art craves German food, something to do with his French, Slovakian or whatever ancestry...  But, then maybe its the German beer he craves.  He discusses this at length and obtains samples before selecting a true German draft from the taps displayed below.  I drink only water, of course.

Of course, he's captivated again by another menu.  I like the Veggie Platter that features pickles.  Then there's the Eggalamickle, too!

Here we are!

That's a real big beer stein the bartender thought appropriate to stick in the picture (above) he took of us.  Is that what's called a "selfie."  Here's another of us "suffering" in Sanford.  Ok, I didn't always drink water.

After enjoying the once-per-week evening in Sanford where they close of the main street and vendors give away food samples, we wander down to the town docks off the River Walk.  Sanford invested a fortune re-inventing itself along the waterfront and fixing up the old section of town, and its all pretty neat.  We wind up at Wolfy's at the entrance to the North boat basin at their huge marina, note the blue roof.  Just behind it is a motel and to the right you can see the roof of Efe's Turkish restaurant where we also ate and is truly a cool place.  That's all Lake Monroe in the background.

Here's a spot where you can park your boat and walk up to Wolfy's bar; they said we could even spend the night for free right there.

Wolfy's is comprised of easy going people at what is considered a Key West style bar.  I drank water and ate celery, of course to maintain my health.  Sanford is famous for celery, in fact our Marina is off Celery Avenue.  Art drank lots of beer and ate stuff like this (see below), it was gross to watch.

The view from Wolfys is stunning, right on Lake Monroe.

We went back to Wolfy's later that evening as Art did not want to miss kareoke nite.  They were pretty good singers, I must say!  He took movies but they are too big to load on this server.  He sang, but again I can't upload the movie of his many performances.  Drove me to drink more water and eat more celery.

On another night I approach Efe's turkish restaurant with trepidation:

The food, like everything in Sanford, was great as always.  Art drank Turkish beer, and I had more water.  Sitting at the bar, this was our view looking out over the tables on the screened porch.

On the way home Art found this cogent commentary on our work:

We visited another amazing bar in Sanford built like an olde English pub on the way home to Alto.  There was a "woman of the night" there who, according to Art who was listening, was told by the bar tender not to bother with us old tourists!  We were insulted.  So we went home to bed.

The next day we packed up Alto in preparation for her transport from Sanford, FL to Cape Cod to spend the summer.  She get's trailered back and forth with the seasons. I hope to have more adventures in Cape Cod waters to share with you soon!