Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Headed for the Conch Republic

We are under way in the Hawk Channel, bound for Man of War Harbor in Key West. We're just passing Boca Chica and I can see the control tower, radome, and hangars of the Naval Air Station. We'll be hunting for a spot to drop the hook, since all the marinas in town are sold out, and we'll probably have a few sporty tender rides to shore through the choppy harbor in our future.

Saturday evening we dropped the hook south of Rodriguez Key, as close to shore as we could tuck (map). It was a bit bouncy through dinner but we had a comfortable night. Sunday morning we weighed anchor and have an uneventful cruise to Boot Key in Marathon, where we dropped the hook in a familiar spot southwest of the harbor entrance (map), amid a small flotilla of sailboats.

The area west of Boot Key Harbor is a customary stop for us on our way through the Keys, because there are not a lot of other options, but it is seldom comfortable, and we usually stay one night, run ashore for dinner, and leave first thing in the morning. In addition to being open to swell from any direction from S through WSW, all the traffic coming and going at Boot Key passes fairly close aboard, and the wakes are non-stop and miserable all day long.

On this stop, we wanted to visit some friends staying in the harbor, and so I called the marina an hour or so out to see if they had a mooring ball available. That's worked for us exactly once, in the shoulder season, and we stayed for several days, but with only 14 balls that fit Vector, seldom is one available, and this time was no exception. Not that picking up a ball without the thruster would have been a picnic, but at least we could have spent a few comfortable nights.

Rodriguez Key is a popular anchorage, as evidence by this bit of old line we brought up with the anchor.

It's legal to anchor inside the harbor, too, outside of the moorings and the channel that runs around them, but we know from experience that if the balls are full, there will not be any spots for Vector to anchor. We resigned ourselves to a bumpy evening; our friends were unavailable for dinner, and we agreed to meet up for lunch on Monday instead. It was too chilly Sunday to want to run in to Sunset Grill and eat on the patio, so we just had leftovers on board. By bedtime, the wakes had subsided, and we were left with just some swell from the south.

Yesterday morning we awoke to the swell increasing. We knew yesterday would not be a good travel day, but it was also not a great day to be anchored in this spot. I got a little work done in the morning, and just before noon we tendered in to Castaways to meet Julie and Glen for lunch on the patio. In all our times coming to Boot Key (nine or ten, last I counted), we never even knew this place was here, tucked away down a long side channel.

The food was decent, they had some nice drafts, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours catching up. Glen and Julie are long-time Red Cross friends, and I last saw Glen, briefly, in St Thomas on a hurricane relief operation there. They are also accomplished sailors, having been all over the world, and Julie has written a couple of best-selling books on their travels.

They are newcomers, however, to power cruising and the inland waters of the US, and much has changed in the cruising world since they sold their sailboat. We enjoyed sharing some of our more recent cruising (mis)adventures with them, and catching up on life in general. With any luck, we will see them again as we both travel up the coast and the Hudson to start our respective loops this year, us to the Down East Circle loop, and them to the Great Loop.

By the time we got back to Vector the swell out of the south was nearly intolerable, and with some effort we decked the tender and got back under way, on a day we had earmarked as unsuitable for pleasant travel. I could see on the chart that we had just enough daylight to make the three-hour trek around the west end of Munyon Island and into Newfound Harbor, which would be protected from the south.

Under way in the Hawk Channel we needed a photo to accompany our application to join a yacht club. That's pandemic hair -- neither of us has had a professional cut since February.

Sure enough, as soon as we rounded the end of the islands and past the tony Palm Island Resort, the water blissfully flattened out. My NOAA chart showed a narrow channel that carried 7-8' all the way to the inner harbor, and we arrived at a tide of +1.4' on the NOAA tables, which should have been a very comfortable run. Nevertheless, we ran out of water before reaching even the turnoff to the outer anchorages.

We made an about-face, and proceeded back to a spot where the "deep" (7'+) area was 650' wide, and much wider than that for shallower draft, and dropped the hook (map). Even though it is permitted, it's never my first choice to anchor in a spot where boats might normally be navigating at high speed, so we left our "cruise ship lights" on all night for safety. We had a very calm and comfortable night, even with the handful of wakes from passing fishing boats.

Had we been able to make it all the way into the harbor, we might have spent another night or two. There are a couple of waterfront eateries around Big Pine Key, and there's a hardware store and some other services in walking distance from a place to land the dinghy. That was less appealing with a 2.5 mile tender ride, and anchored in a high-speed thoroughfare, and so this morning we weighed anchor with the outgoing tide to make our way to Key West.

How long we remain in Key West will depend, in large part, on whether we can find a comfortable spot to anchor with a fairly easy tender ride to town. Hardware, marine parts, groceries, and, of course, plenty of outdoor dining, are all easily available in Key West, mostly a short walk from the dock. And, we're clandestine Conchs, so we get a discount all over town.


  1. I was going to have you look for the stolen tiki bar when navigating hawk, but they already found it.

  2. Is it my imagination or do you post less often than you used to when staying in one location for a long time?

    I'm kind of curious about the challenges of anchoring off Key West for a few weeks at a time. How do you manage pumpouts? How much fuel do you burn keeping the electricity going? What about just straight up boredom? Its one thing to be off Key West when you can tender in and enjoy it in normal times, but with the pandemic your options are limited.

  3. Lots to answer here, as I catch up on comments. Re frequency of posts: that varies up and down according to how busy I am, and, frankly, how much "interesting" stuff I have for inclusion. Interesting is, of course, subjective, and since we have many categories of readers, what is interesting to some will be superfluous to others. I try to strike a balance. That said, when we were much newer at all this, lots of things made it into the blog that I simply no longer include, because long-time readers will have heard it all already. There's only so many times that you can hear that the party boat passed us close aboard, with the band playing the same song every night. But, of course, it did.

    Re pumpouts: Key West has a free pumpout boat. When you arrive in the anchorage, if planning to stay a while, you go to the web site and sign up. They put you on the schedule and they come around maybe once a week and pump you out; you don't even need to be aboard. That said, we have over three weeks of capacity, so we only signed up after our second week, and we had them come just a single time. They came by again a week later just as we were getting ready to leave, and we waved them off.

    Regarding energy: We burn about two gallons of diesel a day keeping everything running; that's around three hours of generator run time. At today's prices that's less than four bucks, but you also need to add in oil, filters, impellers, and other wear-and-tear on the generator; I use $2/hour as a rule of thumb, or about $6 per day. That's less than most marinas charge us for shore power (which is on top of dockage), but of course we don't run the gen in marinas. And we run longer than three hours on days where we have significant air conditioning or heating needs (not needed in KW).

    And lastly, boredom: While we've gone through the gamut of feelings on board throughout the pandemic, we're never bored. The boat keeps me busy full-time. And in KW, other than the two days where it was too choppy to want to tender ashore, we did go ashore daily, usually for an early dinner (5:30ish), before the crowds picked up and when we could easily score a nicely spaced outdoor table. We enjoyed strolling the town in less crowded spots or at less crowded times, and I also got out and about to run errands. That said, it was not the "usual" KW experience, and I missed taking in some nightlife and some of the other aspects of life there. It met our needs for food and entertainment while being far away from the more intense surges in Miami/Dade and Broward counties.


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