While still living in the somewhat
middle latitudes of Florida’s west coast, Don and I took a long weekend jaunt down to the southernmost island
via the Key West Express. “Why not take your boat there?” one unfamiliar with
our pace might enquire. Because Key West was very, very, very far away.
To fully appreciate the geography,
Key West to Miami, the closest metropolitan city in which most people are familiar, is 160 miles. The entire
length of the Florida Keys is over 100 miles long, excluding Dry Tortugas at a further 66 miles
out to sea. From Clearwater, where we were living at the time, it was a 500 mile road trip; though a much
shorter 260 miles away as the pelican flies. Basically, Cuba was closer than we were.
Under sail, we averaged around 4.5 knots, which was equivalent to just over 5 miles per hour. That translated
to roughly 57 hours at the helm - one way; not doable for a 3 day get-away. But once we engaged with that
quirky little paradise that punctuates the continental U.S. we immediately knew that someday we would make
The winter of 2008 brought record low temperatures to the Tampa Bay area,
just the migration catalyst we needed to commit to that long voyage south. Our initial intention
was to leisurely pass through the archipelago while I responded to job offers on Florida's east coast.
Before January elapsed, we'd dropped the hook outside of Key West Bight and immediately fell in with the ‘Anything
Goes’ ethos of the islanders.
Soon, our old life back on the mainland seemed artificial,
limited, dull, and distant. Then one fine vernal morning, I realized we’d anchored for the week –
Two Months Ago! In the blur of an eye, Key West had put us into a delirious
coma. That brief moment of clarity prodded us to pull anchor before an entire decade imperceptibly slipped
We made it as far as the Middle Keys before succumbing to another bout of hypnotic
immobility. For nearly two years, we lived in Marathon under the influence of the Vortex, otherwise known
as a merry band of mates who pulled us into some of the most memorable escapades (and many more that I can’t recall)
of our lives.
There was an ‘end-of-the-road’ remoteness to the Florida Keys that made life
upon them so vastly unique from any other area in the U.S. Having lived and played there long enough to be
counted as a Conch, the best description I could apply to that tropicality would be ‘Cool’. In
fact, the establishment of The Conch Republic was effected with, in my opinion, unprecedented audacity and composure – the very definition
In 1982, a Border Patrol blockade was setup on the only land artery to and from the
mainland whereupon every northbound vehicle was stopped and searched. The hardships caused to island-side
residents and tourist-centric businesses were soundly ignored when a Federal injunction was dismissed, pushing
the plaintiffs to protest. But they did so with a great deal of aplomb.
To the citizens
of the Keys, that checkpoint essentially insinuated that the government had drawn a border between U.S. soil
and foreign territory, so the mayor of Key West made it official. He declared secession from the Union and
proclaimed The Conch Republic a sovereign nation!
Of course the laid-back inclinations
of the new republic’s inhabitants resulted in only one minute of civil rebellion before a surrender
was offered. Though their plea for 1 billion dollars in War Relief went unanswered, the publicity succeeded
in getting the roadblock removed.
This sort of rakish independence from the expected, along
with a live-and-let-live attitude permeated the very behavior of most Conchs. Don and I settled in
easy Keysie. For us, life in the Keys was ‘cool’ because it was a place where,
at any time, the most unique, offbeat, inimitable, and amazing things happened – and everyone was included
in the merriment.
For us, Keysie was dining on the luscious delicacies of stone crab and spiny lobster –
the claws from a gallon-sized Ziploc, the tails from off the barbie – our feet dangling from the
It was skimming over 20’ of water so clear we could see all the way to the
bottom of the reef – in moonlight – going 35 knots.
It was deep deliberation over the best
location to have our picnic – on the back deck of the boat or on the sandbar – in February.
It was sitting at the tiki bar of a waterfront restaurant chatting with a friend – who’s
only wearing swim trunks – and has a spear gun strapped to his back.
It was 7 mates and one big
dog making a surprise appearance at a holiday party – and stealing the host’s lit-up
Christmas tree – to decorate the bow of our Boat Parade participant.
It was riding
down US1 to the gas station – 7 mates and one big dog on the tailgate of a pickup – to get the
best fried chicken in town.
For us, Keysie was diving from a ketch – crabbing from a power cat –
fishing from a center-console – lobstering from a runabout – snorkeling from a
sloop – stargazing from a dinghy – gunkholing from a kayak – partying on a yacht –
parading in a trawler – wading from a trimaran – soaking on a sandbar – and lots and lots
Keysie was flying fish, swimming birds, wild chickens, dog-sized deer, 6-toed cats,
feral iguanas, and a turtle ambulance. It was copper clad gumbo-limbo trees, sea grapes and sea oats, saltwater-loving mangroves, mighty little
limes, fuel dock pineapples, coral gardens, seashell lawns, and a random tree growing on the old 7 Mile Bridge. It was sandominiums, shruburbs, conchitecture, chiki-huts, miles of bridges, bugged blimps, and one unoccupied bat tower.
For us, the coolness quotient of the Keys was huge, because in that fleeting moment of
our lives, we’d made so many lifelong memories and so many lifelong friends.