Marathon: "Heart of the Florida Keys"

Travelogue - March 30, 2007

Boot Key Harbor City Marina

Here we linger, Sea Gator secured to a mooring buoy in Boot Key Harbor and we three mammals content to wait out the weather. We arrived here safely from Lignumvitae Key on Sunday, March 11, and we stayed on. The winds continued unabated and although the noise of the wind is constant we are safe and comfortable here.

This harbor is a legendary haven for cruisers of all descriptions. Many await a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, others to continue to the Upper Keys or Lower Keys and beyond, many more stay on a permanent or semi-permanent basis.

Boot Key Harbor There are over 100 mooring buoys in service now and another 100 slated for installation this spring - a good thing because there is frequently a waiting list, like right now for example. This photo shows just a portion of the anchorage. If there is one square inch where a boat is not, that's because it's too shallow. Look at all the masts! Remember that this photo doesn't show trawlers or other boats without masts. It is quite a fleet.

Buoys may be had on a first-come/ first-served basis, so I phoned the Boot Key Harbor City Marina (BKHCM) while we were still several hours out. Fortunately they had room for us; anchoring in the non-buoyed areas is crowded as you can see.

We tied to our assigned buoy with no problems - all the parts and pieces were present and accounted for! - then we Bump Headed in to the Dockmaster's office to register and there we met Austin M., Assistant Harbormaster. He was very friendly and helpful.

Dingy dock These folks sure know their business: here are the spacious and well-maintained dinghy docks, for example. Hard-sided and soft-sided dinghies are separated and there are lots of cleats available. It can be a bit crowded but we've always found a place.

Water is available on the honor system at $0.05 per gallon. At the seawall just off the photo above is a pressurized hose at water-level; you idle alongside in your dinghy and fill your jerrycans right there. No lifting or grunting required (until you get back to the boat).

The Dockmaster's office, laundry, library, restrooms and showers, workshops for boat projects, etc., are all in one large building and it's easy to get around. Common materials may be recycled, and they accept used motor oil and antifreeze and oily rags for safe disposal. Bike parking and car parking are nearby, and a pump-out boat comes to empty your boat's holding tank once a week.

Heritage of Miami The marina is also home to the Boy Scout's ship, Heritage of Miami (right). Is that cool or what? I wish I were a boy scout.

Austin gave us an introductory "Cruiser's Guide" and sold us a town map with his favorite restaurants penciled in so we were off to a good start.

We immediately went to the Seafood Festival, as we told you at the end of the last Travelogue - it was held at the huge and beautiful Community Park next door to the marina. Then we walked across Highway 1 and onward a few blocks to the Keys Fisheries Restaurant for a fine unpretentious dinner overlooking Florida Bay.

Everything is certainly handy here: the Home Depot is several blocks away, the Publix grocery store is a few blocks after that; there is a Boaters World and a West Marine both within biking distance. And, hallelujia, a bike path to get you to all those places in safety.

It is not a wilderness anchorage by any means - although a manatee cruised past our boat one morning! - but that's OK, we are accomplishing many projects and lots of sightseeing.

Brief History of the Overseas Railroad

Wherever you go in the Keys it's hard to miss the remains and the influence of the old railroad. The rails linked the islands in the chain of the Florida Keys and presented the first alternative to boat travel. The following is compiled from informative blurbs presented at Bahia Honda State Park and Crane Point Museum of Natural History:

Traveling the Florida Keys offers a chance to see one of the most extraordinary engineering feats of the early 20th Century: the Overseas Railway, once called "the Eighth Wonder of the World."

Henry Flagler Henry Flagler retired from Standard Oil, a wealthy man at age 50 when he set his sights on Florida. He purchased his first railroad in St. Augustine in the 1880s, and extended his new railroad down the east coast from Jacksonville to Miami, building lavish Flagler hotels along the way.

In 1905, Flagler envisioned his railroad opening up trade routes to Cuba and the Caribbean, and he believed that Key West's deep port was perfectly located to accept trade from the new Panama Canal. Despite what many called "Flagler's Folly", he began the project that would consume the rest of his life: the 156-mile Key West Extension of his Florida East Coast Railway.

The eight-year construction saga is filled with astonishing engineering feats, human endurance and tragedy. Lack of fresh water, heat, disease, relentless insects, isolation, and the hurricanes of 1906, 1909 and 1910 made the railroad work a hazardous undertaking. Over 200 people lost their lives on the project.

Finally, on January 22, 1912, the 83-year-old Flagler rode the first train into Key West. He built another hotel at the end of the line, known today as the Wyndham Casa Marina. Flagler died on May 20, 1913, just 16 months after he rode that first train into Key West.

The End of the Line

Labor Day, September 2, 1935, a powerful hurricane bore down on the Keys. Hurricane memorial A rescue train - delayed by bureaucratic bungling - finally left Miami for Islamorada, but by the time it arrived winds were gusting to nearly 200 miles per hour. With heroic effort, the train's engineer backed into the storm and hundreds of people climbed aboard. Tragically, a huge 17 foot tidal surge engulfed the train, knocking it from the track.

Over 500 people lost their lives as the hurricane plowed through the Upper and Middle Keys (left, see a detail of Islamorada's memorial to hurricane victims).

This storm was the end of the Overseas Railroad. 40 miles of track were destroyed and although the bridges and viaducts survived, the Great Depression made the cost of rebuilding impractical.

Long Key Viaduct Eventually, the state bought the rail line. In 1938 the bridges and railroad right-of-way were used to build the Overseas Highway (parts of which are still in use). A few of the prominent old bridges, including the Long Key viaduct (shown at right) and the Seven Mile Bridge have been converted into fishing piers.

Not only did the state build ON the railroad bed, they built ON TOP OF the top of the bridge at Bahia Honda, and salvaged rails were used as guardrails at Pidgeon Key (photos, below). More recently, new bridges have been constructed adjacent to the old structures, and you'll sometimes see that in the background of photos.


Modern-day Marathon lies halfway between Key Largo and Key West. Navigating on land around the islands is pretty easy. There seems to be the one main street - Highway 1 - running the length of the islands we've visited so far, and side streets where there is width enough to accommodate them. The highway is posted at every mile starting with "Mile Marker 0" at the Courthouse in Key West.

The Boot Key Harbor City Marina is at MM 49, Publix is at MM 50, West Marine is at MM 48. Then you specify "Ocean" or "Bay" side of the island. Unfortunately, Marathon side streets and street addresses are not numbered relative to the mile markers, but once you've found your first address it's pretty simple.

Boaters World mural When we were at Islamorada I heard a fellow asking for a lift, saying "I need to get to 83 after lunch." Someone told him, "I'm going to 85, I'll drop you off." It's enough information.

Artist Yoslan O'Farrill Highway 1 is no scenic wonder, it's pretty much a strip mall. But Marathon does have a bike path and sidewalks to get you where you need to go.

I learned quickly to cross Highway 1 at the first light and travel on the north side bike path. There the pathway parallels the Crane Point natural area and the Marathon Airport, so side traffic is minimal and you get to see some nice plants and cool airplanes (above right). For off-island travel there is a bus service.

And in Marathon many buildings have scenic murals. I spotted a Wyland, it may have been on the KMart.

Boater's World had a new mural in progress (above left, and right). The artist let me take his photo, and later we read about him in the local paper: Yoslan O'Farrill, a 2002 graduate of Marathon High School, "has been contracted to complete ten murals throughout the Keys that bring awareness of our endangered species. Marathon is number one and then it is off to Key West this weekend." Young Yoslan showed this same sunny smile and thumbs up on the front page of the newspaper. Local boy makes very good. You go, Yoslan.

Pigeon Key

Our first destination as happy tourists was the Pigeon Key Visitors Center at MM 47. Visitors Center The Center is an old railroad car, which is fun (there it is, with the goofy little engine which takes tours out). Unfortunately tours end mid-afternoon and we were too late. Undaunted, we rode our bikes on the original railroad bridge (now a fishing pier) two miles south of Marathon to Pigeon Key. This tiny island hosted the construction camp for the Seven-Mile Bridge.

By 1908 the track had reached Marathon, but stalled there for the next four years so preparations could be made for building the "Seven Mile Bridge".

Pigeon Key The island is less than 5 acres in area, but during the construction heyday it housed over 400 people in barracks and tents.

The buildings we see today (left) came later to house the bridge tenders, maintenance workers and supervisors. It's a beautiful spot.

Bridge The bridge tenders' job was to operate the turnstile on the bridge, which would swing open to allow sailing ships to pass through in the deep Moser Channel. Now the old bridge section over the Channel is removed and the new highway has a high arched span - see the new highway in the background of the photos with its high arch. This maintains one of the five passes between the Ocean and Bay - other bridges are too low for boats even as tall as ours.

The bridge did not lose any elevation when it crossed the Key. Instead there is a steep ramp that cuts sharply off the bridge and drops down to the island; today it's built of railroad ties. And when the highway was built they used the old steel rails for guardrails. You can see both of those noteworthy elements in the photo, above left.

Just beyond the ramp down onto Pigeon Key they've cut a chunk out of the old railroad/highway. Here is a very convenient view of the whole construct in section. Remember this began as a railroad bridge and the concrete roadway was poured on top of it.

It was a really nice bike ride, but the return trip into the wind took considerably longer than the trip outbound.

Crane Point

The next day we rode our bikes to Crane Point, MM 50 Bayside. Flowering tree It's a quiet 63-acre enclave, preserving one of the world's last remaining thatch palm hammocks, in the midst of housing developments and shopping centers. The visitor's center has a tree with goofy blossoms (right) that reminded Rick of Troll dolls (remember those?), beautiful bronze doors (below left), a Natural History Museum, nature trails and a historic site.

Sculpted door A museum favorite was a relief map of the entire state of Florida, including the offshore reefs. It clearly illustrated the shallow "river of grass" through the Everglades to the Bay, and the parallel ridges of reefs which make up the sweeping band of the existing living reefs and the elevated Keys, clear out to the Tortugas.

Golden spider The most significant wildlife we saw were these huge Golden Spiders. Later we would learn that there were no-see-ums present as well, but until the bites became inflamed we were blissfully unaware.

Then we stumbled into the Wild Bird Center, where volunteers and professionals receive rescued birds from throughout the Keys for care and rehabilitation. Displays and photos documented the many injured birds rescued and later released. There was one arresting photo of a little girl feeding several small flamingo chicks. The caption said she comes often with her parents who volunteer, and she wears pink so the flamingo chicks feel at home with her. She is their surrogate mamma. Very creative.

The historic interest is in the form of the Adderley House. It was the homestead of George Adderly, a black Bahamian pioneer and community-builder who lived here with his family in the late 1800s. The house is the oldest in the Keys outside of Key West; it was built of 'tabby', a cement-like mix composed mainly of burnt seashells - a very labor-intensive process.

Adderly House Adderly and his wife Olivia built the house while raising a family, farming, fishing, making charcoal, and delivering the products for sale in Key West by boat. Soon a small community of Bahamians clustered in the area (although their stick-built homes do not survive to this day). When the railroad came through and Mr. Flagler's operatives requested an easement the canny pioneers agreed, on the condition that a siding and station be built where the line crossed the property. This must have simplified the trading business considerably.

The homestead was later purchased by the Cranes who left all of it virtually untouched, except for their homesite on the Bay where they raised show dogs. That home is an example of 1950s Miami Modern architecture; unfortunately we couldn't go inside. But we sat for a long time at the edge of the swimming pond, looking at the Gulf and enjoying the quiet (and being surreptitiously munched by no-see-ums).

Rick on the trail The Florida Keys Land Trust purchased the property in 1989. Rick marveled that such a place was miraculously preserved among the rampant chaos of growth in Marathon. Here he is on the trail back to the Museum

The most amusing part of the day happened when we first arrived: we were getting our site map from the docent at the front desk when a kid, eleven or twelve, ran in all out of breath requesting the key to one of the exhibit houses. The lady said, "Does your mom know you're here?" He nodded and babbled about a family that wanted to learn about the exhibit but it was locked, and he was "basically giving them the tour." She handed over the key and he scampered out the back door.

We said, "Um, does he work here?" She laughed and said, no, he lives nearby and spends all his time at the Site. By now I guess he knows as much as anyone, but there was trouble one day when his mother didn't know where he was, so now the employees make sure he's not on the lam before handing over keys.

Some day, that kid will be director of that facility, or of the Smithsonian. Who knows? And the little girl in the pink dress may be a talented avian biologist. It was a nice, friendly, hands-on park.

Friendly Folks and Fun Music

We received an email from Deb, saying that she and Tom are anchored at Boot Key Harbor in their beautiful 41' Hunter sailboat, Heart's Desire. We had met them at the infamous meeting-place-of-the-world, Matanzas Inn's laundry room, while we were all at the Ft. Myers Beach mooring field (Travelogue February 8, 2007). Deb invited us to join them and some of their friends for an evening of music and entertainment.

Accordingly, Rick and I Bump Headed just over a mile through the harbor to Burdine's Waterfront Marina. It was a tough maneuver, climbing up to the top of the seawall from the dinghy at low tide; I had to invent a modified "Jump & Flop & Flop & Flop & Roll" to get beyond the perilous situation where gravity favors the dangling legs rather than the landed torso.

Tom and Deb But I'm glad we made the effort for we met a friendly crowd on the upstairs deck of the marina's Chiki Tiki Bar and Grill. We rendezvoused with Deb and Tom (left) and met their friends from neighboring boats. Most of the folks gathered were sailors and they have had some great experiences. And the setting was perfect: up above the water, sheltered from too much breeze, beautiful sunset, good music, friendly people. But, I observed to Rick, there was a lot of booze there. "Yes," he agreed. Paused. "It's a bar."

A bar with fine live entertainment. We enjoyed our first introduction to Eric Stone, the sailing troubador. Stone's bass player, Kyle, had just won a blues guitar contest in Miami. They were excellent: it was perfect bar music for the setting, the sunset, the sea.

Rick appreciated the lyrics of one song in particular:

Eric Stone and Kyle "...I knew a man he used to say
He wanted to live on a boat
Took his time but woke up one day
Realized he was old.
He waited too long to live out his dream
To sail the Seven Seas
Now he's in an old folks home
In a rocking chair
Watches American's Cup on TV..."

Just here for a little while.
Loving every new mile.
Always underway to the very last day,
Never stationary.
Enjoy life before it passes you by
Because it's permanently temporary..."

You can hear a sample of the music on their website, Boatsongs Music.

Bahia Honda

Rick has been disappointed because he had hoped to anchor near the legendary beach at Bahia Honda. Alas, this is not to be, it's too windy to go to a place where the holding is reported as sketchy. We'll stay here with Sea Gator on a buoy for the time being. So instead, on Saturday, we took the Keys Shuttle bus to MM 37 and Bahia Honda State Park.

Bahia Honda Bridge The bridges were the biggest challenge, with Bahia Honda Bridge proving hardest of all. The bridge had to stretch 5,055 feet across fast-moving waters 35 feet in depth.

The arched steel truss spans were considered monsters for their day. The concrete pilings were made using a newly invented German cement that could be hardened in salt water. One piling near the center of the bridge required an entire shipload of sand, gravel, and cement, only to be displaced by the hurricane of 1910.

Bridge The Bahia Honda bridge is amazing and quite beautiful in its way. Here it crosses the channel. The interior of the bridge, where the tracks ran, was just wide enough for the train's passenger car to squeak through:

When crossing the channel, passengers were warned to keep their heads and hands inside the cars to avoid hitting the bridge trusses.

Left, here's looking at the bridge construction in section where they've sliced it through to allow boats into the space between the old railroad bridge and the new highway bridge, in the lee of Bahia Honda island. It also prevents people from going too far out, since clearly no one is maintaining these isolated sections (on the bus ride down, we saw trees and shrubs growing through the deteriorating pavement of the old Seven-Mile Bridge. You can see the chunks of steel and concrete here as well).

Here's an amazing thing: when the state converted the railroad bed into a road, they built the road ON TOP of the bridge, because the trusses were too narrow for two lanes inside. This is a HIGH bridge! Look how the road humps over the center arch, then flies down to grade at the other end like a roller coaster.

Bahia Honda From on top of the bridge, we watched the current whip through and became dizzy from the motion and the height. Finally, here is the view of Bahia Honda far below. You can see the new Highway just disappearing off the left side of the photo. There is Marathon in the distance. We had considered riding our bikes, round trip it would have equaled the Jenny Lake Loop, twice. But no bike path and 20 mph headwinds? No thank you.

Enough of that, let's go to the beach! Beach We spent the afternoon reading and sunning (Rick) and hiding in the shade (me). The sand was white and soft, it was nice.

We even broke out the snorkel gear. Because of the wind whipping up silt the visibility in the water wasn't good, but we paddled around the stones of the breakwater and saw some fun fish and interesting seaweed, and it was nice to be out and about.

We caught the bus back in plenty of time for dinner with Goldie.

More Visiting

At MM 53 I found a place where I could visit for an hour with a group of fine women, discussing common problems and common solutions. I rode the bike there three times a week, and here's the fact about the wind: It took me 30 minutes to ride TO and 15 minutes to ride BACK! One day Ann invited me to her home for lunch afterward - it was a great one-on-one afternoon. I'm hoping she and another friend will visit Jackson this summer!

Rick's Birthday!

Dan Sullivan To celebrate the big day, after work we returned to a harbor-side bar that Rick liked. Sombrero Marina's Dockside Bar & Grill has happy hour and live music, so we had hors d'ouvres, then dinner, and listened to Dan Sullivan on guitar. He sang everything from Janis Joplin to John Cougar to Willie Nelson to Neil Young to Tennessee Headhunters, and took requests. It was a lot of fun; real toe-tappers, but we didn't dance.

A carefully calculated balance must be achieved between crowd density and Rick's level of intoxication (both subjective quantities) to arrive at what we refer to as his "baseline anonymity quotient" which allows public dancing. We both have high hopes for Key West.

Later, I got to chauffeur Rick home in Bump Head, so the excitement lasted a good long while.

Sombrero Beach

This is the advantage of staying over several weekends: we had another beach day! We packed the beach gear on our bikes and, at MM 50, we turned south on Sombrero Beach Rd. After another two miles on a smooth, separate bike lane we arrived at Sombrero Beach. We found a well-designed, nicely landscaped city park with a sandy white beach and swaying palm trees - the works.

Rick reminds me that when we visited Key West in 2002, we rented a car for one day so we could visit Bob and Margy B. on Cudjoe Key. Before we went to their house we came as far north as Marathon, and the most notable memory we have of that visit is of an octogenarian strolling the beach in a thong. And that's all I could recall about Marathon on that trip.

Sombrero Beach In any case, we had an excellent beach day at Sombrero Beach, and then we stopped at Publix on the way home. We just needed a few things: apples, microwave pizza, Chips Ahoy - the basics.

The lady in line behind us was buying basics, too: a chilled bottle of white Zinfandel and an entire quart of Haagen Daaz "Almond Fudge". While waiting in line she added a decorating magazine to the lineup. She caught me laughing and I had to ask, "Rough day?" She smiled, "I'm glad someone understands." She said my hopes for her bubblebath wouldn't play out because she only had a shower, but she was going to enjoy her private party with a view of the beach. Yep, folks are the same everywhere you go.

We enjoyed a safe ride back to the dinghy dock and thence to Sea Gator in plenty of time to turn on the anchor light and feed Goldie.

Cruise to Key West

Thursday, March 29, provided a brief "weather window" to leave Boot Key Harbor. We cast off from our mooring ball at 8:00 am, dithered for an hour at the fuel dock near the harbor's mouth, then headed south. We experienced pretty rough beam seas most of the distance. It settled down some as the afternoon wore on but by then it was too late, we were both green around the gills from having to make necessary forays belowdecks for galley runs and engine room checks. This is the closest either of us has come to tossing our cookies.

Majesty of the Seas Goldie, of course, emerged from her hutch looking calm and cool as a cucumber, well-rested and not a hair out of place.

While approaching Key West we listened on the VHF radio as captains announced their intention to scoot around the protruding bow of Majesty of the Seas into the sheltered harbor behind her. Here she is, waiting for her passengers to return from sightseeing. Note her mooring lines crossing far off to the left, holding her against the wind. There is a fishing boat passing beneath her bow.

We grabbed a mooring ball at the City's Garrison Bight mooring field. This field is exposed to a huge fetch, just as we'd been warned. Note to cruisers: this was no easy feat, as not one of the balls has a tether. We backed onto a ball and I leaned out from the swim platform and slipped a temporary line through the loop. Just then neighbors came over - they'd seen us and hopped in their dinghy to offer assistance. Very thoughtful. With their help we were soon tied up bow-first.

This morning we dinghied in to register, and then we walked down to the Key West Bight where we had a nice lunch and checked with the City Marina to confirm our upcoming reservation and to see where we'll be berthed. We'll move over there on Sunday.

Next Travelogue: Key West.

Thanks for listening -

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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