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Into the Keys

Travelogue - March 16, 2007

Gulf Cruise to Florida Bay

We departed Everglades City on Friday, March 2. Our southbound cruise that day covered 42 nautical miles and lasted just over seven hours; it was our longest day underway this year.

Several hours into the cruise Gary radioed us to see how things were going out in the Gulf; he said the south winds were rocking Little Mick on Everglades City's Mystery Condo Dock (described in the previous Travelogue). But we were fairly comfortable as we were bow-first to the winds and waves.

Pat and Goldie in the Gulf Midway through the day Goldie ventured out from her berth atop the PFDs to visit us, which is unusual. She was unsettled and clambered around between a chair and a bench and my lap, but she didn't seem concerned. Just restless. I stroked her fur and she was calmed.

(You'll be wondering why we cruise with blue painter's tape around our cabinet frames and deck trim and with cardboard stuck in the cabinets. Even though it DOES match our color scheme nicely, the tape is temporary to protect "brightwork" STILL in progress. Sheesh.)

We were all a bit weary and windburned when we changed course to landward, heading toward the Little Shark River. Just inside the mouth of the River we found a sheltered cove and anchored in for the night.

Because we arrived at dusk and departed bright and early the next morning, I have no photos of the anchorage. Except that the banks were undisturbed, it looked very different from the shorelines we'd seen so far. There were no mangroves - the dominant vegetation appeared to be deciduous trees that had dropped their leaves. It was kind of eerie. It reminded me of Yellowstone in the years immediately following the 1988 fires.

Saturday, March 3, was another full day of cruising. We covered 43 nautical miles in 6.5 hours. We made better time because we didn't have the slow River miles tacked on to the beginning and end of the cruise as we had the previous day. We motored south, then rounded Cape Sable and headed southeast toward the Middle Keys.

Geographical note: You can't go straight east to the Upper Keys even though you've rounded the Cape, because the extremely shallow (1' - 5' at low tide) waters of Florida Bay extend south almost as far as the Middle Keys. Meanwhile the Keys are a string of islands stretching southwest from their side of the mainland, so Florida Bay forms a triangle poking down from the bottom of the state. It's a neat thing to see from a distance. Almost all of Florida Bay is part of the Everglades National Park.

Just outside of the Park boundary there were hundreds and hundreds of crab pots, and we saw fishing boats here and there, and we watched the waters grow progressively clearer as we neared the Keys.

Under Attack

When we saw another trawler approaching us northbound we were prepared to wave. From several miles away he looked like a big boat. As he got nearer he appeared to be a strangely shaped boat.

Rick looked through the binoculars and saw that he was covered with flapping birds. Odd - must be a fishing boat, we mused, surrounded by hopeful gulls or pelicans. The boat came closer and our radio rattled to life: "To the southbound trawler near marker 10..." We responded to the hail prepared for a simple 'hello'.

But the trawler announced, "I'm under attack by turkey vultures!"

Vulture Trawler Then we could make it out: his boat - from bow to stern and atop the bimini and boat platform - was completely covered in huge, flapping black birds. It was straight out of a Hitchcock movie. There must have been 30 of the monsters. A human figure emerged from the mass, shirtless, waving its arms and yelling. The birds were not deterred - they'd startle away then immediately come right back where they were.

We could do nothing to assist as he passed us in the opposite direction, except send over some words of encouragement. Finally he said, "I think you need some birds, too." We looked back toward his boat and here came two low-flying black shapes. They grew quickly in size then flapped and bumped and slammed into our boat. I immediately began the arm-waving we'd seen our fellow-boater attempt, and to as little effect.

Vulture Finally I got hold of the boathook. I didn't want to hurt them. Much. They glared at me with beady black eyes and gaping beaks. About this time Goldie decided to make an appearance - she poked her head up out of her PFD locker like a rabbit from its burrow, wondering what all the fuss was about. She looked so small and soft and mammalian compared to the monstrous birds. I scooted her back into the safety of her hutch.

Meanwhile, the birds tromped around Bump Head. Here is one of them, yikes (look off to the right in this photo; there is the Mother Ship of Horrors, complete with buzzard in pursuit). They were only deterred when I started scooping their nasty bald feet out from under them. Even then they'd flap away only to return. One swooped in onto the sundeck; I was afraid he'd march right down into the cabin and help himself.

Finally I chased away the last bird, and - unfortunately - he flew off in the direction of his companions.

Like the Ancient Mariner, the suffering trawler disappeared into the haze of distance, surrounded by a cloud of black birds like billowing smoke.

Crab Pots

Throughout Florida Bay we dodged crab pots. They appear as round styrofoam floats and they are attached with lines to their traps below. In some places they formed a continuous cover over the sea, floats spaced on about a 30-foot grid. We didn't want to mess up anyone's traps, nor get our prop entangled with line, so it was a constant effort to weave in and out. We found relief by slipping just inside the posted boundary of the Park where boating is allowed but crabbing is not.

Rick in Florida BayImagine the poor Vulture Trawler, fending off scavengers while weaving among crab pots and avoiding the shoals. If anyone knows how the poor fellow made out please let us know.

After all that work you can bet we were determined to eat some crab cakes the first chance we got.

Here is Rick relaxing in a rare, relatively crab pot-free zone, with a sailboat in the background.

Long Key Bight

Long Key Bight is a very large bay enclosed on all but the east-southeast. We set our anchor at 2:30 in the afternoon, after a pleasant cruise (except for the vultures). And it was HOT, in the 80s. I took advantage of the calm waters to add yet another coat of varnish to our brightwork.

And after dodging crab pots all day we DID have Crab Cakes for dinner - Mickey had showed us how to make them and they were good.

We expected the wind to pick up on Sunday (15-20 mph winds predicted) so we stuck around the boat. It stayed calm until late Sunday evening and then it blew continually 20-30 knots with gusts well above 30. It was unpleasant and didn't let up. The wind finally died down enough that we could sleep by late evening Tuesday.

Sea Gator handled it with aplomb. She didn't seem to mind the waves kicking her like an enormous booted foot (that's what it sounds like from inside). But I was too stressed to take a single picture of the anchorage, oops, oh well.

By the way, knots x 1.1508 = mph.

The good news is, no-see-ums and mosquitos can't find you when it's blowing 25 knots.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

We had known in advance that cruising the Keys keeps you on your toes. There are shallows all over the place. You can't just take a heading across open water and expect to arrive anywhere - shoals and shallows lurk between you and just about any destination.

Merely getting stuck would be the least of your problems.

Keys in the Keys All of the waters surrounding the Keys are protected as part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary - read all about it at www.floridakeys.noaa.gov. Ecologically important plants and animals are also protected. So driving through the shallows or running aground are nasty errors because of the consequent destruction of seagrasses and/or corals.

We've learned that the seagrass meadows are critical for stabilizing the seabed, trapping silt and sediment which maintains the clarity of the water, providing food and shelter for juveniles of almost all Bay and Atlantic fish and shellfish, and providing a prime source of food for adult sea turtles and manatees, both of which are endangered.

And we learned that seagrasses are rhizomatous and, of course, grow towards light. Therefore when a propeller or keel leaves a gouged scar it can take up to ten years to heal because the roots don't like to head down into the gap.

If you run aground on coral or seagrass you're supposed to radio or phone the Fish and Wildlife Service so that they can carefully remove you - one enforcement officer told me that most damage occurs on the dismount rather than the initial impact - and assess the damage. If the mess you made is aggregious they will levy stiff fines which will go towards reclamation of the disaster.

So, we are VERY careful where we tread.

Threading the Channels

Wednesday winds were down to 10-15k and had shifted from north to east-northeast. We were out of there. We headed toward a well-known anchorage with more protection.

Bowlegs Cut As we said above, there can be shallows in unexpected places. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere we had to pick our way through these channel markers, which mark the "Bowlegs Cut" of the Peterson Key Bank.

Less than four miles later we threaded the "Steamboat Channel". In both passes you could see the ground surging up to just beneath the surface on both sides - no doubt much of the shoals are exposed at low water.

Rick said it appeared to him as though he were driving down, down inside the channel as the banks rose up on the sides. It was a powerful optical illusion.

Thank goodness the channels are indeed marked and charted. Even so, some boats obviously run astray. In the shallows on both sides you could see huge divits in the seabeds - scars by errant props or keels.

Geometric Birds We also saw this strange sight, just to the right of the channel markers shown in the photo above: birds lined up geometrically. It was a phenomenon! What amazing avian intellect was at work here? Well, as we got closer we saw that they were standing upon what appeared to be dozens of stubby reflector posts. And what were those doing there? It was an odd thing indeed... That mystery wouldn't be solved for another week, stay tuned.

Islamorada Anchorage

After a two-hour cruise we arrived at the anchorage in the lee of Upper Matecumbe Key. This is one of several islands which together make up the "Village of Islands" - Islamorada.

There were several other boats anchored there, including some that look like they didn't move too much. More boats came in over the next several days, seeking more protection from the east- northeastern winds in the lee of Islamorada, just as we had.

Nautilimo When you looked at this photo you probably thought, "Wow, they weren't exaggerating! The water really IS shallow in the Keys!" Well, yes, but that's not what's going on here.

This is the Nautilimo, formerly a white Lincoln and now a lawn-flamingo pink convertible barge. When we arrived the guy had it rafted to his sailboat near us, but after he drove it to town we didn't see it again. He must have had a gig. Check out his chauffeur service at www.nautilimo.com.

A quick dinghy ride to shore the next day brought us to breakfast at Lor-e-lei Restaurant, Cabana Bar and Marina, but you can call it Lor-e-lei's. We had breakfast on the patio under umbrellas, and it was our first step upon land since we'd been at Everglades City seven days previously.

Heron Later, I spent a serene hour in the company of friendly strangers discussing common problems and common solutions, while Rick went exploring. He found this lovely heron at a bay-side marina, and an egret soon after.

This photo reminds me yet again that, however I may prefer to view wildlife in a setting of natural scenic splendor, the wildlife being viewed doesn't seem to have the same aesthetic preference. Food, water, shelter, thank you very much.

We went to the highly-recommended World Wide Sportsman. It's not just a bait and tackle shop, folks, it's a fisherman's dream come true.

Pilar Inside the store, we kid you not, is a large wooden boat. It is the sister ship to Ernest Hemingway's Pilar (Hemingway's real Pilar is in Cuba). This boat has been restored and rechristened Pilar and it is the boat that was used in the Bogart and Bacal film "Key Largo".

It is a beautiful thing; you can go aboard and hear the creaking of the planks. I treated it as sacred ground, but a couple who came up behind me sniffed and scoffed at the boat's primitive fittings. Which was nice because they left quickly, so I had an uninterupted moment to look at the settee, the dining table and sleeping berths.

Temple to fishing To one side of Pilar, taking more than half the store, is the creme de la creme of fishing gear. Rows upon rows of rods and reels and lures and flies. There is even a huge salt-water aquarium with all sorts of game fish that you can ogle while you plan their downfall.

After this shopping extravaganza (we bought SPF shirts and shorts) we had lunch at the on-site Islamorada Fish Company. We tried a grouper reuben, which was really good.

Gumbo Limbo decor Other sites and sights of Islamorada included some fun landscape decorating ideas - here, crab floats festoon a beautiful Gumbo Limbo tree...

Limestone Hurricane monument Here is an impressive memorial to hurricane victims. The large platform in front of the monument holds a map of the Keys rendered in glass tiles. The stones are huge slabs of local limestone. You can see the ancient corals and fossils embedded in the limestone. We understand it's from an old quarry in Key Largo which is now a state park.

Lignumvitae Key State Park

After a day or two we motored back south several miles. During the cruise I saw a large roundish blob with flippers swimming past the boat - turtle! Later I saw a smaller roundish blob with flippers, but this fellow popped his head up for a breath before diving below again.

In the lee of Lignumvitae Key we tied to one of three mooring buoys provided by the State. After a quick lunch we took Bump Head around to the other side of the island where there is a dock and entrance to the Park. We arrived in time for the 2:00 ranger-led tour.

Lignumvitae Key historic residence This protected island is a botanical preserve. It is the only remaining hardwood island in the Keys. It was purchased in the early part of this century by a wealthy individual who had other properties to visit, so the one building on the island was inhabited solely by his caretakers. The owner didn't make other changes.

The house (exterior, above right; interior, below left) was really interesting: wood frame with limestone rubble veneer, high ceilings, wood floors, beadboard paneling. There is a separate adjacent building which is the cistern. All rainwater that fell on the roof was captured in gutters and piped into the cistern building. The pool inside was full when I peeked in through the layers of screens.

In the photo above, here is one side of the house - it's elevated to protect it from storm surges and so far it's been safe. The building on the right is the cistern. On the left see Rick and the ranger in his mosquito-net-shirt.

Tropical house, interior In the 1970s the island came to the simultaneous attention of condo developers and botanists. Fortunately, the botanists' far-sighted vision was realized and the family transferred the island to the State for protection.

This island has reserves of fresh water: there are naturally occurring depressions which hold rainwater for a long duration. Prehistoric people used those depressions for farming, and the technique is still used in some areas of the Caribbean. Therefore:

The island is also well-known for its mosquitoes. They are not noticeable in the clearing near the house, or in the breeze off the water. But step into the shady calm woods and look out! We wore long pants and long sleeves, and received bites on our ankles and wrists. The ranger - who was cranking out the CO2 and attracting 'skeeters from miles around - wore a net shirt and hood over his ranger clothes. Even so, he told us proudly that he had been the second Nile Virus victim in the State, his one brief claim to fame.

Ray No photos of the woods because I didn't want to expose my hands long enough to snap a shot. Sorry!

Rick at Sunset Back at the dock we saw a ray scouting for lunch in the seagrass.

We returned to Sea Gator and donned our snorkel gear for a swim. It was warm and calm. Goldie watched intently but didn't have the panic attack she'd had last year when Rick dove under the water. Maybe she remembers that all was well?

Finally, we were treated to a beautiful sunset over relatively calm waters, and turned in for a peaceful night.

During the night the wind picked up yet again, so on Sunday, March 11, we set our sights on the very protected Boot Key Harbor mooring field on Marathon.

But first...

More about FKNMS and Geometric Bird Perches

Before leaving this Travelogue, Millie wanted to see the old railroad bridge, upon which the original railroad through the Keys was built. Here it is, below. Behind the old bridge is the new Highway 1, elevated so tall ships can pass beneath.

Also, we will tell you the first thing we did at Marathon: we went to the annual Seafood Festival.

Railroad bridge & Hwy 1 We arrived late so we didn't have much time to explore. There were carnival booths set up for little kids, and vendors of seafood and jewelry, and lots of local interests represented. Seafood, too, probably.

We stopped at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) info booth. The two officers were willing and able to answer all of our myriad questions, such as: how the heck are cruisers supposed to know what areas to avoid when they are not marked on the NOAA charts? The answer: call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (1-800-dial-fmp) if we have any questions.

There are many sources of confusion. For example, areas are designated "Ecological Reserves" designed to encompass large contiguous diverse habitats; "Sanctuary Preservation Areas" focused on the protection of shallow reefs where concentrated visitor activity leads to resource degradation; "Special-Use Areas" set aside for scientific research; "Wildlife Management Areas" to protect critical habitats, and "Existing Management Areas" with additional pre-Sanctuary regulations.

Each use area has its own set of regulations as the result of intense negotiation among various user groups.

The FKNMS is fairly new so some administrative bugs remain to be worked out among the numerous agencies with jurisdiction - the Sanctuary encompasses municipal, State and Federal lands.

Anyway, we learned several things:

Geometric birds (1) Regarding the clever birds: bird droppings encourage re-growth of seagrass in damaged areas, so the FWS installs short capped perches in damaged areas and the birdies do their thing for reclamation. Mystery solved!

(2) The "backcountry" ICW route that we had hoped to follow along the north side of the Lower Keys is now even more shallow and mysterious than the charts would indicate because five hurricanes in one season created significant and uncharted shoaling. We've determined not to go there in Sea Gator with her 4' draft. We will stick to the well-traveled Hawk Channel route, south of the lower Keys all the way to Key West.

(3) I guess we are on the right track. One officer congratulated our environmental consciousness and said he wished more people were like us. I blush. I thought ALL people were like us, or that we were like them.

That's it for today. We are waiting out even more winds and exploring Marathon from our buoy at the Boot Key Harbor City Marina ("Where mooring is a ball!") and we'll tell you all about it next Travelogue.

Meanwhile, our house is telling Rick that it's thawing and warming in Bondo. I hope you all are keeping warm and dry, and getting your bikes ready to ride in the Park pretty soon.

Thanks for listening -

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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