Saturday, March 14, 2015

Calling All Parrotheads! We Made it to the Keys


One constant about cruising is that plans must be flexible. From Fort Myers to Naples? Never mind; let's go on to Marco Island.  On Monday, February 9th, after one of our smoothest ever undockings (including a 270 degree rotation to port), we turned southwest on the Caloosahatchee River and back into the Gulf, heading for Marco Island. Several boaters had recommended we check it out, and we found a good anchorage on Active Captain. To reach Smokehouse Bay, we had to navigate very carefully through a narrow channel to an area surrounded by very, very nice homes, most with boat docks and screened pools.  There's a marina there, part of the Esplanade complex of upscale retail shops, restaurants, and offices, but after our week in Fort Meyers, the budget said "anchor out."  We set the anchor and dinghied ashore, where one of the marina dockhands met us at the dinghy dock and helped us tie up. This dinghy dock is complimentary, with the understanding that boaters using it will eat at the restaurants and patronize the shops.  We enjoyed a beer (Mike), a glass of wine (Marian), and several puppy cookies (Midas) at CJ's of the Bay's outdoor bar, then had a late lunch/early dinner of upside down nachos.  This appetizer was big enough for a full meal for both of us.
Tuesday morning, Marian's birthday, we gathered up the laptop, packed a bag with Midas supplies, and dinghied ashore.  After a visit to the Verizon store to figure out why we were both receiving text messages sent to Mike (turned out to be an easy fix, if you know what you're doing), we were enjoying a birthday lunch when Mike's phone rang.  Sergeant Diaz of the Marco Island Police 
department wanted to know if we owned a trawler. We quickly settled the bill and rushed back to the dinghy. 

It's a good thing that Smokehouse Bay is small and enclosed.  In high winds, the anchor had not held, and Midas Touch had drifted over to a condo's seawall. Sergeant Diaz, also a boater, had set bumpers and tied the boat securely.  The anchor was still in the mud at the bottom of the bay, and with help from two other boaters, we were able to free it and bring it in.  Several condo residents were relaxing around the pool; one of them happened to be the president of the condo association, and he graciously gave us permission to tie to the seawall overnight.  The wind was simply too strong to get off the dock.  
With much calmer winds the next morning, we made a quick trip to McDonald's for breakfast, then back to the boat to move back into the harbor.  This time, with more strong winds predicted, we made sure the anchor was set, put out a second one, and stayed in Smokehouse Bay until Sunday, waiting for the winds to die down.  By Sunday, it was time for laundry, so we made the one hour trip from our anchorage to Rose Marina on the east side of the island, where we spent a couple of pleasant days connected to shore power and doing boat chores, then moved back to Smokehouse Bay because the winds were still too strong for smooth cruising.

We've said it before:  it's a boat.  This time, after another four days anchored in Smokehouse Bay, still waiting for the winds to drop, we returned to the boat after a day ashore on Friday and smelled something strange. The two starboard 
house batteries were cooked! Back to Rose Marina and shore power on Saturday, February 21st.  Midas made a new friend, a younger Golden on a center console boat that stopped across the dock from us for fuel.
After several phone calls, we learned that the local NAPA store could deliver two new ones by noon on Monday. We took advantage of the time to do laundry, fill the water tank, and pump out. The batteries finally arrived about 2:00, and by 3:30, Mike had them hooked up.  We cast off our lines at 4:10 for a short cruise down the east side of Marco Island, watching the channel markers carefully, to Goodland, a small "old Florida" town on the southeast corner of the island. It's separated from the densely developed part of the island by a mangrove swamp, and most folks live in permanently set mobile homes, many with docks behind them.  Goodland is colorful, laid back, and friendly, with several good bars and restaurants.                          

We forgot the camera on all of our trips ashore in Goodland, something we already regret. We hope you'll enjoy these pictures of sunshine through the clouds.

One of the Loop refrains is "the best part is all the great people you meet along the way," and this proved true as we reached our Goodland anchorage. There was Gran Vida, a Mainship from Georgian Bay. We had first met Jeff and Susan on Beckwith Island in July, connected with them again at Hoppie's on the Mississippi, and then at Green Turtle Bay in Barkley Lake, Kentucky in October.
We were thrilled to see them again and to share an adult beverage before we dinghied ashore for dinner at Marker 8 1/4 Restaurant.  They had also met Gary and Pat on Dancing Iguana, and we all went to Stan's on Tuesday night. Mike, Midas and I had wandered around town for several hours on Tuesday, dinghied over to Walker's Coon Key Marina to fill the dinghy tank with gas, and generally took in the sights of Goodland. 

Left, Gran Vida at sunset near Bahia Honda State Park.
We had talked with boaters and marina employees on Marco Island about where we should go from there.  Two Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission rangers at Rose Marina urged us to skip Marathon and go to the Dry Tortugas. Another couple told us to avoid Marathon because of thefts from boats. Several people said not to bother with the side trip to Everglades City because "there's nothing there." After some discussion over several beers at Stan's, the three couples decided to go to Everglades City, and we're glad we did. This is truly "old Florida," with the historic Rod and Gun Club and the fascinating Everglades Museum. We left Goodland at 7:40 to take advantage of the tides, traveled cautiously through sometimes dense and sometimes not so dense fog, and found Indian Key Pass at 10:25. On our way, we heard Melinda Kay hailing TowBoatUS to ask how dense the fog was between Indian Key Pass and Marco Island; Jeff on Gran Vida responded with their location, and we heard two trawlers leaving Everglades City, also proceeding cautiously through the fog.  We finally spotted the trawlers when we were less than 100 yards away. We dropped anchor and waited for the rest of the group to catch up; since they draw only about three feet of water compared to our four, they had pulled anchor about an hour after we did.  Instead of continuing through fog, we dropped anchor to wait, and in about 30 minutes, most of the fog was gone.
We spent two nights at the Rod and Gun Club, bicycled to dinner one evening, and visited the Museum of the Everglades, where we found the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Festival in progress. One of the highlights was a presentation by Otter John, a naturalist who brought a baby alligator, baby crocodile, several species of snakes, a turkey vulture, an owl, and two pygmy owls. Back to the boat and on to the second marina in Everglades City, where we tied up briefly to fill our water tank and have lunch. We also purchased stone crabs for dinner that night, then moved on to join our friends who had anchored in Russell Pass. (Anchoring out, especially in the Everglades, is much easier for boaters who don't have a dog. We believe Midas is well worth the extra effort.) 

The Historic Rod and Gun Club, with the Everglades River behind it.
 Museum of the Everglades; Marian at left, Pat on the porch with two museum staffers, and Jeff and Susan in the center.
 Otter John warned us about alligators in the waters around Everglades City, but this is the only one we saw.
 One of several waterfront restaurants at the north end of the waterfront area. This is where we bought stone crabs.

Saturday, Ross and Cindy on Ladybug, Gold Loopers also anchored in Russell Pass with Gran Vida and Dancing Iguana, joined our group for a dinghy trip through a canal that eventually narrows to a tunnel through the mangroves. From there, we crossed Chokoloskee Bay to visit historic Smallwood's Store, then had a great lunch at Havana Cafe. Mike says the half dozen raw oysters, with chef Carlos' special sauce and cilantro, were the best he's ever had. 

After lunch, we returned to Everglades City - trying to beat a looming thunderstorm but meeting it head on. We had our rain gear jackets but not our pants, so we found shelter under a dock with a boat in its lift. By tying the dinghy to the overhead joists, we were able to stay reasonably dry for the half hour shower. Once the rain stopped, we went back by the museum in time to catch the last half of a presentation by an Ivy Stranahan re-enactor.  Ivy and her husband Frank were founders of Fort Lauderdale, and we'll make a stop at the Stranahan House there to learn more about this remarkable couple.
On the left, Pat and Gary in blue; on the right, Jeff in yellow and Susan in black, as we began our cruise through the canal leading to the mangrove tunnel.

 Farther along the canal, it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere.
 Unspoiled beauty among the mangroves.

 Just as our museum guide had promised, the mangroves eventually form a tunnel. At some points, we had to duck.
 Unlike many boat dogs we've met, Midas does NOT want to perch on the bow; he almost always stays on the floor.
 Did you know that crabs can climb trees?  Neither did we, until we spotted this guy.  A park ranger was leading several canoeists through the canal, and he identified this critter.
 The mangrove tunnel, with one of our dinghies just visible.
 Left to right: Mike, Pat, Gary, Cindy, Ross, Susan, and Jeff.
 Bougainvillea surrounded the Havana Cafe's patio.  

We stepped back to the early days of the 20th century when we visited Smallwood's store.
Learn more at 

Life size replica of Ted Smallwood

Marian and Midas wait in the dinghy for Mike to finish taking pictures of Smallwood Store.

Our first evening at the Rod and Gun Club, we met Bonnie, a vivacious woman who looks 20 years younger than 75.  As we walked past the entry to the screened porch dining area to meet Jeff/Susan and Gary/Pat for a drink and game of pool, she called out to us to ask about Midas Touch. We chatted a few minutes, then went on to the beautiful old pool table.  Bonnie saw our group as she headed to her cabin and stopped to talk.  The conversation turned into an interview of sorts as she quizzed all of us about our boating adventures. When we learned that she spends her summers on Manitoulin Island, Marian mentioned that we had spent several days in Little Current and had attended a live broadcast of the Cruisers' Net, hosted by Roy Eaton. It turns out that she knows Roy, and that conversation led to this mention in the column she writes for the Sunbury Star:
And when I drive south to visit friends in Everglades City,deep in the heart of the Everglades, and stay at the at the historic Olde Rod and Gun CLub, of course I meet boaters.
"Yup," said Marian and Mike Warlick on Midas Touch, from Georgia, doing the famous "loop"and having dinner with friends off Yacht Granvida. "You were at the Little Current Rendezvous!  We love stopping into Little Current and we depend on hearing Roy Eaton's  broadcast when we're on the North Shore." 
From Russell Pass, Gran Vida and Midas Touch cruised southeast to anchor Sunday night in the Little Snake River, last stop before our jump to the Keys. We spotted dolphins as we entered the river, and while Mike was on the bow trying to get pictures, Marian almost hit a marker.  Inattention! It's hard not to watch the dolphins instead of where your boat is when they are frolicking close by. Wildlife abounds in the Everglades, and the lowlight of Sunday night was the swarm of mosquitoes. We spent as little time outside the cabin as possible.  
We found an oyster shell beach not far from our anchorage in Russell Pass. Midas was skeptical at first, but decided it would have to do. It sure beats having to wash the mud off his feet.

Monday, March 2nd: after finding a small area of relatively dry land for Midas among the mangoes not far from Gran Vida, we cranked faithful "Betty" at 6:47 and were off anchor by 6:49 for a six-hour cruise across Florida Bay to Marathon. Marathon and the Keys in general are always packed with boats at this time of year. We really needed to do laundry, so we splurged on the only marina where we could find space. 

As we approached the dock, with Marian on the bow to toss lines to the dockhands, Mike called out, "There's a Golden!" That got Midas's attention, and he left the upper helm to check out a potential new friend and cousin.  We invited Buddy and his sidekick Charlie, a miniature Schnauzer, to come aboard, and they readily accepted.  Buddy spotted the rawhide chew bone that Midas had guarded for months, grabbed it, and jumped ashore in the blink of an eye. 
Midas followed, and after a few minutes of play, Buddy settled down to work on his treasure. Buddy's owner, the dockmaster, scolded him, but we told him to let Buddy keep it; we have several more on board. 
Eddy Johnsen, who publishes Eddy's Weather Wag in the AGLCA Forum's Daily Digest, came over to our boat to introduce himself and welcome us.  Later, we met another Looper couple who are spending a month or so in Marathon. We enjoyed the very nice showers and laundry at Faro Blanco (Spanish for white lighthouse) and took advantage of the excellent wifi to catch up on email and Facebook.
Gran Vida leading the way from Little Shark River to Marathon. We got an early morning start and had a smooth crossing. It's about 41 knots (nautical miles) or 47 statute miles across from 15 knots north of the southwest tip of the mainland, part of Everglades National Park, to Marathon.
Below left, the Faro Blanco Marina lighthouse, now used as the operations center for the dock staff.  Below right, Midas and his new BFF and chewbone thief Buddy. Can you tell which is which?


The old saying "time and tide wait for no man" is true, but boaters often have to wait for the tide to cast off the lines. That was the case on Tuesday. We called Bahia Honda State Park to ask about depth in the channel from the small bay into the harbor.  "It can be tricky if you draw four feet or more; wait for high tide. That will be about 8:00 tonight." We took advantage of a day at the dock to clean the boat inside and out - vacuum, dust, wash the decks, fill the water tank. Marian got this done while Mike, despite the beginnings of a cold,  biked the two miles to Publix for provisions. Then we waited for the rising tide to travel west to the other end of the Seven Mile Bridge, where Gran Vida was already anchored. The cruise through choppy water, even with a strong east wind, took about two hours, and at nearly 7:00 PM, it was too dark to try the narrow channel. We anchored near Jeff and Susan, then dinghied in to the harbor for Midas's evening "get busy" trip.  But first, we took a few minutes to capture a spectacular sunset.

The next morning, planning to take the Key West Transit bus to the land of Jimmy Buffet and Earnest Hemingway, we pulled the anchor at 6:30 and eased our way into the harbor, where several boaters came out to catch our lines and help us secure the boat. We were at the bus stop about 10 minutes before the scheduled 8:25 arrival time, but we were at the wrong bus stop. We saw a man sitting in the shelter on the opposite side of the road - busy Overseas Highway - and we saw a bus stop to pick him up. We had stayed at the shelter on the park side of the highway, but the harbor side of the park is on the eastbound side of the road. Yep, we missed the bus, but now we had a day to explore the park, relax, give Midas a badly needed bath on the dock, see two manatees up close and personal, and take advantage of the showers. 

 Midas, fresh from his bath, was fascinated by the manatees and stared intently into the water. If the dock had been lower, he just might have jumped in.  Manatees drink fresh water, and the water flowing off the dock from Midas's shower brought them right to our boat. They rolled over on their backs to lap up the water, and Mike captured the fun on video.

To watch the manatees, gentle giants of the sea, follow this link:
Thursday, we were up early and waiting on the westbound side of the highway when Key West Transit arrived. As usual, Midas was a perfect gentleman throughout the hour-plus long ride, and we passed the time chatting with two other boater couples who are staying somewhere in Marathon.
Mike had been to Key West years ago; since then, it's become more colorful and more crowded. We took an Old Town Trolley tour, had lunch at Pepe's (not El Meson de Pepe, which was the original plan), meandered along Duval Street, and toured the Truman Little White House. We agreed that this was the highlight of the day, partly because our guide Jimmy, who had grown up in Key West, had personal recollections of Truman's visits, including selling him a newspaper. Unfortunately, photos of the inside of the home are prohibited. The house has been preserved much as it was in Truman's day, with original furniture. We admired a large poker table which could be covered when its primary use needed to be concealed. In the downstairs living room, Truman had a small desk, perhaps three by five feet, and it was from there that he ran the country during his visits to Key West. One of his aides told him he could have a larger desk, but when Truman learned it would cost $650, he decided to use the one that was already there. When John Kennedy stayed at the home during his presidency, he was overwhelmed at the number of books Truman owned - and had read. According to Jimmy, Truman read history while his wife Bess favored fiction, especially Agatha Christie mysteries.
By the end of the tour, we were all tired and ready to catch the next bus back to Bahia Honda. No, we didn't stay to watch the sunset in Mallory Square, and no, we didn't visit Hemingway's home. We didn't get off the trolley at the Southernmost point in the continental U.S. to take a picture, but we did buy two Conch Republic flags, one to fly from our radio antenna and one for Mike's brother Phil.  During our trolley tour, we learned about the Florida Keys' brief attempt to secede from the United States.  Here's the story:
The bus trip back from Key West to Bahia Honda takes longer as it makes more stops along the way. Finally, more than two hours after boarding the bus at 6:25, one very tired dog and two equally tired humans made our way from the bus stop back to our boat.  
The next day, after filling the water tank, we untied the lines, stopped briefly for a pump out, then turned east toward Marathon and Boot Key Harbor.  At 12:45, we had found an anchorage in Sisters Creek.  Active Captain recommends tying stern lines to the mangrove trees that line the creek across from four Voice of American radio towers. Fellow Looper Charles, whom we had last seen at Hoppie's on the Mississippi, hailed us, then seeing that Mike was having a tough time getting the lines secured, launched his dinghy to help. We had already set a second bow anchor, but with a strong tidal current, we needed the stern line, too.  Once it was secured, we loaded the dinghy and found our way through the huge mooring field to the City Marina. Unlike most marinas, this one has only a few dock spaces available for transients, and there's a waiting list. The same is true for the 226 mooring balls, and boaters must come to the marina in person to put their names on the waiting list. While we're anchored in Sisters Creek, we can use the marina's laundry, restrooms, and showers, and we've spent the better part of each day hanging out in the large common room, where the wi-fi is usually good, the tables are reasonably comfortable, and there's the largest book exchange we've ever seen - four bookshelves with six shelves each, and books arranged alphabetically by author, just like a library. Three roll-up garage doors keep the air moving through, assisted by a large ceiling fan in the center, and even when it's hot and muggy outside, it's pleasant inside. Two TV alcoves have six old theater seats each, and there's always another boater to talk to. 

To reach the mooring field, we went through the old trestle bridge. The lift span has been removed, and the bridge is no longer used.
 Unlike many of the marinas in Georgian Bay, the North Channel, and along the rivers, sailboats dominate in Marathon. This one is not typical, but we it's one of the most interesting we've seen.  Most of the sailboats in the mooring field are white, with a few dark blue, dark green, red or yellow hulls for variety. There are even two very small houseboats.

Between the inside dinghy dock and the parking lot, we found small fish. Under one of the
sailboats tied alongside the wall, we've seen larger fish, but no fishing is permitted in the 
marina area. 
Mike spotted crabs and mussels hiding among the mangrove roots. Can you?

Tuesday evening as we dinghied from shore back to the boat, we spotted dolphins in the channel along the south side of Boot Key Harbor, heading our way. We slowed the dinghy as they approached and told Midas, "Look, dolphins!" He'd always enjoyed watching them from the deck of our 21' AquaSport when we explored the Georgia coast, and he's seen a few during our Loop, too.  But this time, they were truly up close and personal. Before we knew it, he was standing with all four feet on the port tube of the dinghy, ready to jump in to play. Mike grabbed his tail, and Marian quickly re-attached his leash.
Soon soon realized that we were in a pod of at least a dozen dolphins, and they were definitely "frolicking."  If we'd been on a survey with The Dolphin Project of Georgia (, we could have recorded that sighting as "mating," because we definitely saw the "pinkie," Dr. Charles Potter's term for a male dolphin's reproductive organ. We watched the fun for about 15 minutes, along with one boater on a nearby trawler and another couple in a dinghy who live in Manistee, MI (one of our favorites stops on the Loop).
We've attended two potlucks since we arrived, one with music provided by our friend Miami, whom we first met back at Fort McAllister Marina before we began our trip, and the second featuring Miami's interview of Marina resident and local legend Captain Jack, who just celebrated his 94th birthday. He's led an amazing life, serving in the Coast Guard during World War II "because I didn't want to join the Army," working in a men's clothing store, driving an 18-wheeler, learning to sail in Tampa Bay at age 28, and giving flowers to pretty girls. Marian was the lucky recipient of a flower at the potluck, and we are now the proud owners of one of his painted shells. 

Pelicans are everywhere in southern Florida. We've seen them from the Panhandle to the Keys, and watching them set up for a landing is a lesson in aerodynamics. Iguanas are also common, and they're a constant challenge to Midas as we walk past shrubs. He hears them or smells them - or both - and does his best to catch one. So far: iguanas 10 or so, Midas 0.                                         

The Stuffed Pig, a short walk from the marina, is a great breakfast spot. We've been twice, and breakfast lasts through lunch to dinner. Like most places in south Florida, there's outdoor dining, under a tiki hut or on a deck, and most restaurants are pet friendly. 

Key West is full of color and characters.

Good news/not quite as bad as it could have been news: on Thursday, we moved from Sisters Creek to mooring ball R-2, closer to the marina; what we thought was a faulty alternator turned out to be a bad cable. Thanks to our Looper friend Charley's help - and hours he and Mike spent in the hot engine room on Friday - we know what to do to keep the batteries charged, and it's an easier fix than we had feared.
On Sunday, we moved on to Tavernier in the Upper Keys for a day of boat cleaning, provisioning, laundry, and a little fun.  One of the employees here at Mangrove Marina owns a small sandy stretch within an easy dinghy ride, and when our work is done, we'll head to Ed's Beach to let Midas swim. The next stop on the way to cross our wake and finish our Great Loop adventure?  We'll figure that out this evening.