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Marathon, Fla.

Dropping the hook

If you read Soundings regularly, you will have noted the continuing conflict over anchoring rights in Florida waters. Cruising boats are resented by landlubbing condo owners who, having paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a view, begrudge anyone who would enjoy it for free. A more legitimate concern is Florida’s historical problem with abandoned and derelict vessels, a circumstance that usually begins with the dropping of a hook. Municipalities have responded by enacting restrictions and bans on anchoring, which are then enforced by police in patrol boats. To many cruisers, that treatment smacks of harassment.

Some communities, such as Marco Island, tried taking a hard line and by doing so found themselves in violation of state or federal laws. Others chose a more clever approach. Vero Beach and Marathon are the most often cited examples of the latter and are being studied by coastal communities wrestling with the same issues. In Marathon, the “cleanup” was not always easy, however.

Bruce Popham, who bought Marathon Boat Yard in 1998, was among the local businessmen and government officials who worked to transform Marathon into a more upscale boating destination. “When I came here, Boot Key Harbor was like the last frontier — a lot of liveaboards, a lot of crime, a lot of drugs. The harbor was dirty,” he says. “And after Hurricane Georges in 1998, there were over 250 damaged vessels that had to be removed.”

Burdines is a popular watering hole and eatery at the entrance to Boot Key Harbor.The city went on to establish a well-regulated mooring field, beginning with 25 rental balls in 2003, eventually expanding to 220. The mooring field dramatically reduced the area where one could anchor for free. At the same time, no-discharge restrictions were enacted and enforced by police; officers came aboard to ensure that effluent was not being pumped into the harbor. The effect of these measures was to drive away the outlaw element in the harbor. Popham says the city’s pumpout boat handles 16,000 to 20,000 gallons of sewage a month that would otherwise have been discharged into the harbor during peak season.

Gregory Absten, an Ohio snowbird, has also been in Marathon since the ’90s, having served as commander of the local Power Squadron and port captain for the Marathon Yacht Club, which is on the city’s bay side. Absten contends that authorities behaved like bullies during their Boot Key Harbor initiatives. Absten operates a Web site (www.bootkey harbor.com) that he describes as an online cruising guide for the Florida Keys and Cuba. In 2003, he used his site as a pulpit to denounce the campaign:

“You must refrain from overregulating this harbor. Yes, a cleanup of some of the derelict vessels is highly desired, and current marine and local laws on discharge should be reasonably enforced. Turning the harbor into a shiny, but superficial tourist ornament is a gross disservice to the long-term well-being of our community. It should grow as a REAL maritime harbor for REAL cruisers as a crossroads to Cuba, the Bahamas, Leeward Islands and Central and South America. Do NOT make the harbor mostly moorings, and do NOT turn up the heat with local law enforcement on unnecessary and harassing boardings, whose sole purpose is only to make it such a nuisance to be in the harbor that the locals will be driven out. This will leave the harbor sterilized of its character and open only for the transient tourists.”

Absten, speaking in December, was a little more sanguine, admitting that the idea of a mooring field was perhaps not the disaster he had once thought it would be. He insists, however, that many good boaters were driven out along with the bad. He stuck by his contention that the condo crowd cannot distinguish between derelict vessels and a character boat or circumnavigation-capable cruiser. Absten was also critical of new city plans to expand the municipal marina by extending its docks into the harbor.

The biggest proponent of such an expansion is city councilor and vice mayor Don Vasil, a retired manufacturing executive and former liveaboard who came to Marathon 10 years ago. Vasil recently proposed that the city obtain the permits to install floating docks for 90 vessels. When his fellow councilors balked and reduced the number of slips to 20, Vasil said, “I’ll take the 20, but I’ll be back for more soon.”

“It is inevitable that the harbor, which is unique in the Keys, become the center of Marathon’s economic life,” Vasil tells Soundings. “Each boat that enters the city brings a lot of money that is spent within the city limits for every service imaginable. By developing the harbor to its capacity, we would make the most of it.”

Several private marinas already offer hundreds of slips, both on the bay and ocean sides of the city, and Vasil says another 200 slips will be available once the docks of the Faro Blanco Resort and Marina are rebuilt, having been wiped out by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.

“That, along with a first-class city marina, will be a boon for the city and make a great destination for the cruising yachtsman,” Vasil says. “The permitting process takes so long, I floated the idea of 90 slips so we would have flexibility. We should proceed with the permitting and with the engineering to fulfill a vision of a future world-class harbor, while proceeding with construction only as economics allow.”




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