Marathon - (Not so) Great Expectations
Before arriving in Marathon, we had heard lots of stories about the harbor – none of them neutral. People either loved it or hated it, but no one’s opinion was lukewarm.
There seemed to be more negative talk than anything else. A composite of the stories went something like this: From the moment they entered the harbor, people had trouble – the Boot Key lift bridge opened only once an hour and the bridge tender was completely unresponsive. After navigating the bridge, the harbor itself was dirty and full of too many anchored boats, including a lot of abandoned derelicts, to find a comfortable spot. There were a few mooring balls in place, but rarely were any available. Dockage at a marina was expensive. The community of live-aboards were hostile to the transient boaters -- and sometimes to each other – as evidenced by the sometimes abrasive talk among the participants on the morning radio net.
So what would we find when we arrived?
Our first concern before making our way to the harbor was that a mooring ball would be available when we got there. We were leery about anchoring in such a crowded harbor, if we found none. After checking with Joy on Slow Dancin’ who was already in the harbor, she confirmed that the number of available moorings was dwindling, but there were some available. We tried to have one reserved by calling the City Marina. They told us that there were a number available but said they couldn’t reserve any. We plowed ahead trying to stay confident that we would make it on one of them despite what we had heard from earlier visitors. Sure enough, before even entering the harbor, we had our mooring assignment and breathed a sigh of relief. (Within a day or so, the mooring balls became completely filled and people had to wait for them to free up. We were glad we came when we did.)
Now we just had to navigate that bridge.
Since we would have had to time our arrival carefully for a bridge that opened once an hour, we tried calling the bridge by phone to confirm its schedule. Unfortunately, the only number we had took us to the local Sheriff’s office. They said firmly that the bridge was closed. Cathy took this to be a sign that she should not be asking the Sheriff’s office about bridge schedules. When we were within a VHF range communication, we called the bridge and, to our relief, discovered that the bridge opened on request. That took the pressure off the schedule. Now we just had to get by the bridge tender. As we monitored communication with other boats, the operator seemed to be pleasant enough, but you never know. Bracing for one more of a long line of unresponsive and/or surly bridge operators along our route, Cathy called the bridge as we made our approach. We were both pleasantly surprised to hear a cordial hello, along with a chat about our boat’s name, which was one of 3 in the harbor named Orion, which included his. He opened the bridge well before we approached, let us know how to navigate the harbor and finished our conversation by welcoming us to “Paradise”. We couldn’t have asked for more responsiveness than that.
We proceeded into the harbor and continued to have one after another of the negative accounts of the harbor contradicted. The mooring fee included free dinghy dockage at a large, safe dinghy dock, access to showers, laundry, and a visit by the pump-out boat once a week. (The latter was easily increased to 2 pump-outs a week based on the small size of our holding tank.) The free pump-outs are part of a number of efforts to help clean up the harbor, which included a large trash bin and several recycling bins for everything from plastics to used diesel. We were given a nice canvas bag filled with literature about the surrounding community. The next morning’s radio net could not have been more polite, welcoming boaters, saying goodbyes, and providing the typical information exchange / trading mart that these things usually are. They went out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome, sponsoring events in the marina, such as a Super Bowl party, a flea market one Saturday and a weekly Meet ‘n’ Greet. Far from being nasty to each other, one net anchor would end the net by encouraging everyone to be nice to other boaters and to lend them a hand. We even won a free lunch at the Overseas Bar and Grill in one of the trivia contests.
Dave learned a little more firsthand about the evolution of Boot Key Harbor from purgatory to paradise as he talked to one of the live-aboard boaters at the Super Bowl party. At the event, Dave offered to help grill hamburgers and hot dogs, which pleasantly surprised Larry, a local boater. In the course of their conversation, Dave learned the high turnout at the Super Bowl party, which included many live-aboards and transients, had shocked the locals. This was because all the negative stuff that what we had heard from the past was true.
Now you know why we’re still here.
We enjoyed reconnecting with Joy and Rusty on Slow Dancin’, Tom and Cathie on Interlude, and Dave and Barb on Fortunate, who had all arrived together near the early part of January. They helped orient us to the harbor, including showing us the tricky “dinghy shortcut”, which is a more direct route to the dinghy dock, but requires some navigation to avoid a seriously large shoal. We met them ashore for pizza on our first night there and then joined them in a series of shore excursions.
We also discovered several restaurants ashore, including Keys Fisheries, a seafood eatery on the gulf side of the island, with a great lobster reuben, and Hurricanes, a sports bar with 25 cent wing night on Thursdays.
After spending time snorkeling at Sombrero Reef, Dave became even more obsessed with finding a way to clean the bottom of Orion after seeing the stuff growing on it. He was interested in a system like the one Rusty and Joy used on Slow Dancin’. Called a “hooka” system, it provides compressed air using a compressor that feeds a line down to the person underwater, who breathes using a regulator, common to any standard scuba gear. This eliminates the need for tanks of compressed air, which would have to be refilled. After looking for this kind of system in various dive shops and through a local guy with a small business selling them, Dave realized he could use a simple compressor sold at the nearby Home Depot. This was actually part of some of the systems he had seen advertised. He just needed the rest of the kit – hose, regulator, belt -- and he could make it work.
On a rather rainy day, we made our way into shore to get the final instructions on using the new equipment. Unfortunately, the compressor, which had worked so well when Wayne was testing it the day before, failed to hold pressure due to a faulty regulator knob. Wayne then drove us to Home Depot to exchange it, only to discover they had no more in stock. Since there were some in Key West, we paid for one there and had them hold it for us to pick it up the next day. In the meantime, Wayne took us back to his shop, where he could demonstrate the regulator on some of his equipment, so we would know how to use it – both the person in the water and the person watching the system on deck. He was a great instructor and our experience working with him couldn’t have been more positive.
Getting a working compressor proved to be a bigger challenge. Moving something this big around is its own headache. Since it must stay dry, we have to cover the box with a plastic bag and put it in the dinghy without any other passengers or stuff. It takes a solo trip across the harbor to (or from) the dock. Then we load it on a cart and haul it to its destination. Since we had to travel to Key West to get the replacement, this added the dimension of loading it on and off the bus.
Dave proceeded to use it immediately, diving down to clean a lot of the growth off the bottom, cleaning the thru-hulls as well. It worked like a charm. This unit will likely see a lot of use while we are here in the warmer -- and clearer -- water.
Where to now?
We still have more to see in Marathon before moving on, so it’s not clear when that move will take place. We’re still thinking about going to Key West and the Dry Tortugas before we turn around to head north again. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy this sojourn in “Paradise”.