Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Newfound Harbor, Looe Key, & Marathon, Florida

To all of our friends and family who've been keeping up with our blog... thank you! We're really sorry that we haven't updated it in awhile. We've been enjoying the lazy side of retirement. :-) For grins, let's wave our magic wands and pretend it's still April...

We've arrived in Newfound Harbor on Tuesday, April 21st, direct from Key West. The harbor is wide and open, but remains shallow pretty far from shore. We've anchored in the middle of the harbor to stay in 7' depths. Unlike some of our previous anchorages, there really isn't anything out here - no homes or businesses on our nearest shore, and only a few homes on the opposite side. Add to that the fact that tonight we're the only boat out here, and it feels pretty isolated! We've decided to spend two nights here; Newfound Harbor is about 4.5 miles from Looe Key, a marine sanctuary that boasts fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving. We'll spend tomorrow doing a few boat projects & prepping the dive gear, and will dive Looe Key on the way to our next stop.

The next morning, we discover that our brand new air compressor has a defective hose. Rene spent the morning trying to fill our two scuba tanks, but they would only fill to 1200psi (out of 3000psi) before the hose blew off. Rene spoke to the manufacturer, and the compressor needs a new hose that will be shipped to us in Marathon. We won't be able to do full dives at Looe Key, but we should have plenty of air for a check dive to test our new gear (we bought new BCDs, masks, regulators, and a new computer for Rene before leaving Kemah). After getting the dive gear ready for tomorrow's outing, we make dinner on the boat and are joined by a catamaran and a lovely old sloop, both of which anchor near us. We enjoy a great sunset, an even better bottle of wine, and head to bed early. Tomorrow it's time to "dive, dive, dive!!!"

Thursday morning we get an early start out to Looe Key. All of the marine sanctuaries in Florida have mooring buoys set up for boats to use to protect the coral from anchor damage. Since this is our first stop at a Florida dive spot, we aren't sure how many moorings will be available or how busy it'll be. Fortunately we arrive at Looe Key and find that we have nothing to worry about. There are 30 moorings, plenty for us, the dive boats, and other cruisers in the area. We moor in 15' of water, don our gear, and head down. We can't stay down long, but are happy to test the new gear. It's been 2 years since our last dive trip, and the first thing we notice is that we've underestimated our weight requirements. Stacy has a hard time getting to the bottom; Rene makes it down, but could use an extra pound or two to stay there. Guess it's time to cut down on those sundowners!

After the check dive, we head to Marathon, which is about 4 hours away. The seas are 4-6' and are pretty rough; the kitties definitely aren't happy, and we aren't too crazy about it ourselves. As tempting as it is to tuck into Bahia Honda for the night and save ourselves the extra 2 hours, we can see Marathon far in the distance and decide to keep going. En route, we're passed by 10-12 "super-boats", cigarette-type boats complete with massive rooster tails. As rough as we may have it, we can't imagine how those guys must feel slamming into the waves at 60+ MPH! We arrive in Marathon at 5pm, having reserved the last mooring available for a boat our size. We hook our mooring ball on the first try (woo hoo!), and find ourselves next to a motor cruiser with a tiki bar set up on the back deck. It must be a sign. :-) We mix a couple of rum and pink lemonades in honor of Jim and Kitty Kenworthy, our friends in Kemah who loved Marathon so much that their 2-week stay turned into 11 months. We toast our friends back in TX and settle in for a month-long stay in Marathon, Florida. We're finally here!

Over the next few days we realize how lucky we were to get a mooring ball on our first day here. We had called before leaving Newfound Harbor, and were told that we'd have to tie to a mooring intended for boats up to 60' long. There are 226 balls in the mooring field, but 211 of those are for boats up to 45' and all of the larger spaces were full when we called. Pipe Muh Bligh is only 45' in length, but the dinghy davits extend 2-4' beyond that. It turns out that the winds are 25+ knots and are expected to stay that way for 4-5 days, so many boats that wanted to leave are stuck until the winds die down. The harbormaster was very helpful, and said that if something didn't come available by the time we arrived, he'd try to find us a 45' mooring ball near the big boats until a 60' mooring became available. Fortunately, a big boat left the day we arrived, and we were able to snag mooring "W6" on the west side of Boot Key Harbor.

We've heard great things about Marathon and how much the city caters to cruisers, and we aren't disappointed. There's a cruisers' net on VHF channel 68 every morning at 9am, which welcomes new boats to Boot Key Harbor, says goodbye to boats leaving, and connects cruisers to others who can help with boat questions or information about shoreside services and deals; "Treasures from the Bilge" covers buy-sell-giveaway opportunities - anything from wind generators to outboard motors to drums; cruisers can even offer up trivia to try to "stump the harbor". There's also a dinghy dock at the marina office, one dock for hard-sided dinghies and another for inflatables. Next to the dinghy docks is the new shower facility, which has 12 individual heads/showers plus laundry facilities. Washers and dryers are operated using a cash card (similar to a hotel key card), which is much preferred over having to hoard quarters! On our first Wednesday night in Marathon, we went to a meet and greet potluck in the marina office and had a great time with the folks from "Blackfoot" & "Simplicity", both of whom are leaving in the next few days. Many people have stayed a month already and are ready to leave. Some are heading back up the east coast, while others are going to Belize and places south. Surprisingly, many cruisers are even leaving for the Bahamas even though we're getting close to the start of hurricane season.

Our month in Marathon is divided into days of extreme relaxation and extreme productivity. We have a page and a half of boat projects, but still manage to read about 15 novels apiece (thank goodness the marina has a huge book exchange). We don't get all of our boat projects done, but manage to cross these off our list:

  • Boat bottom cleaning
  • Replace prop zincs
  • Install BBQ grill
  • Fix air compressor
  • Cut Rene's hair (see "after" picture, right)
  • Mount navigation lights on dinghy
  • Mount hook on head door (cat's room) to prevent swinging during crossings
  • Clean A/C strainers
  • Clean water pump strainer
  • Inventory/rearrange vacuum clothing bags
  • Replace water hose fittings with hose clamps
  • Reinstall regulator hoses on BCDs
  • Get 1-lb trim weights for BCDs
  • Re-bag/restore spare sails
  • Install anchor sail
  • Re-tighten all lifelines & tape ends
  • Put sail tape on jib sunbrella (repair)
  • Remove/dry forward berth starboard foothold (water flows behind board from forward head porthole)
  • Replace sink plugs
  • Reorganize guest room storage shelf & lockers (Tawny was especially helpful with this project)
  • Install tarp
  • Reorganize lazarette
  • Apply mold treatment to dodger/bimini
  • Apply rain-proofing to dodger/bimini
  • Genset oil change & check belt tension
  • Replace Velcro on couch headrest
  • Install scuba tank storage in cockpit
  • Replace fuse on sweet tank air
  • Repair man overboard pole
  • Clean/repair walkie-talkies
  • Bundle/tie rap wires on guest room shelf
  • Yanmar oil change
  • Install inline water filter (completed, but broke on day 2; alternate solution required)
We also get to experience something we've never seen before: Dragon Boat races! Two weeks into our stay, we dinghied through Sisters Creek to Sombrero Beach to watch the "Battle in the Bay Dragon Boat Festival". It's difficult to explain, so we'll leave that to the Florida Keys official tourism website:

"The legend of dragon boat racing dates back to the fourth century B.C. during the Ch’u dynasty in China. The emperor’s personal advisor, Qu Yuan, drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in defiance of the ruler’s corrupt and indulgent lifestyle. Local fishermen, in an effort to keep the river’s water dragons and fish from consuming Qu Yuan’s earthly body, beat drums and vigorously splashed the water with their paddles.

The modern dragon boat race is a re-enactment of these fishermen in the race to save their martyr Qu Yuan from the creatures of the deep. The dragons are a strong and powerful symbol of spring rains and growth in Chinese culture."

18 teams competed in the races, and each team consisted of 20 paddlers maneuvering a 40-foot-long race boat. Drummers sat at the front of each boat and kept the paddlers in sync; we could actually hear the races long before we ever left Pipe Muh Bligh to watch them in person. It was a gorgeous day, and we saw dolphins and even a manatee off the beach.

The next day is Mother's Day, and the marina celebrates with a get-together at the tiki hut. There are quite a few musicians in the harbor, and they often have impromptu "jam sessions". The party was announced on the cruisers' net, and the whole harbor was invited to come join in the fun. There's a lot of talent in the harbor!

Admittedly, there aren't a ton of things to do ashore in Marathon. It's a laid back place, and you won't find touristy areas like Duval Street or Sunset Pier in Key West. Our great ventures ashore tend to involve groceries and mail. Publix, the UPS Store, CVS, & Winn Dixie are just over a mile away from the marina. We usually ride our bikes to go shopping, but you can dinghy over and tie up to a barge across from the Publix ($5 landing fee). We've also found some great spots for dining and drinks around town. Dockside is our favorite - it's an open-air restaurant/bar on the southeast side of Boot Key Harbor. They have good food and drinks, and their prime rib on Wednesdays and Saturdays is to die for. Keys Fisheries Restaurant & Seafood Market is another fave. It's across US1 from the marina on the Gulf side; it has a great selection of fresh and affordable seafood in the market, and its restaurant is famous for their lobster Reuben sandwiches (over 100K sold). The Brass Monkey is a great dive bar; it's full of locals and tourists alike (of course, after spending a couple of weeks in Marathon, the tourists become honorary locals). On Saturdays, Freddy Day's band plays at the Monkey. Freddy seems to be a local celebrity, and international musicians sometimes stop by to play with him. The first Saturday that we spent in the Monkey, they had a guest drummer/singer - the ex-drummer for '80s hair band, Whitesnake. The guy has a heck of a voice, and can he wail on the drums!

A huge part of the cruising lifestyle involves spending time with friends, both old and new. We met some fantastic people in Marathon. Our first boat guests were Dave & Barbara from the boat "Shearwater" (Stacy loved the boat at first sight - it was registered in Seattle!). Unfortunately they'd already spent a month in Marathon and left a few days after we arrived, but we were able to get them onboard for a glass of wine before they headed to Boca Chica. Next up were Barry and Tabitha, who rescued us with a tow one day when our dinghy outboard ran out of fuel half-way to the dock. It turns out they were moored right behind us on their Hunter 460, "Naked Sail". We ended up spending a lot of time with them before they headed out to the Bahamas, and we hope to see them again someday on our travels. We also got a great surprise when our friend from Kemah paid us a visit. Steve had been in Key West to help his friends take their 52' boat from Key West to San Juan, Puerto Rico. After waiting for four days for a weather window (and knowing it would be a couple of more before they could leave), Steve rented a car and came to Marathon. We spent the afternoon catching up on the boat, and had dinner and too many pitchers of beer at Dockside that night. Wouldn't you know, the lightning and thunder made an appearance while we were enjoying the band, and the heavens opened around 9:30pm. Not wanting to get soaked on the dinghy ride back, we decided to wait it out at Dockside...with another pitcher, of course. The weather broke an hour later, so we made a mad dash back to the boat. We managed to get home mostly dry, and ended the night with a toast of our old marina's favorite rum, Zaya. (That requires a whole other story...suffice it to say, if you've never tried Zaya, it's a wonderful sipping rum - definitely not to be wasted with mixers.) Not surprisingly, we were all a bit fragile the next morning. Needing a good greasy breakfast, we headed to a local favorite, the Seven Mile Grill. The food was excellent and our waiter was entertaining, to say the least. Steve didn't need to get back to Key West until sunset, and was kind enough to play chauffeur to our tour guide. What a difference having a car makes! We started our road trip at Bahia Honda State Park, which has a beautiful beach and great views of the original Miami-Key West railroad bridge. The bridge is no longer in use, and a portion has been removed to allow for sailboats to enter the harbor. Next up was an early dinner at No Name Pub on No Name Key. Stacy had seen this place mentioned in a cruising guide; it looked like a funky place, with dollar bills stapled to every conceivable surface and allegedly the best pizza in the Keys (we have to agree!). If you ever go to No Name Pub, look up the address ahead of time and print out directions or have GPS with you. It really is one of those hidden gems that you'd never stumble upon unless you actively search for it. It's hard to find, but well worth the trip. As we left the Pub, we saw Key deer in a couple of yards across the street from the bar. These deer are endangered and are only found in the Keys; they're related to white-tailed deer, but are much smaller and relatively tame. The guys took a few pictures of the deer, and then it was time to head home. After dropping us at the marina, Steve drove back to Key West. The weather finally looked good for a morning departure. It was so good to see Steve, and we loved hearing about everyone back at the marina. Steve and his friends were finally able to get underway the next morning, but Steve had to change his San Juan flight to the Dominican Republic. Having lost nearly a week to weather, he and his friends couldn't make it to San Juan in time for his flight.

During our "last week"in Marathon (we'd paid up through May 23rd), we decided to extend our trip by a few days. There were a few more boat projects and some provisioning that we wanted to do, and the weather looked good to leave the following week. Locals and cruisers alike joke about the "Velcro effect" of Marathon - people intend to leave, but never quite manage to let go. As tempting as it was to stay, we left Boot Key Harbor on Thursday, May 28 - just 5 days longer than planned. We'll make a few stops up the Keys for overnights and scuba diving, and hope to get to Ft. Lauderdale early next week. Stay tuned!

The pictures for this chapter:

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