Recession aside, Marathon is now anticipating a boost from President Obama’s pledge to re-examine U.S. policy toward Cuba and possibly scrap the embargo that has prevented Americans from visiting the island nation by boat. Whatever their differences about development, Popham, Absten and Vasil agree that the Keys in general, and Marathon in particular, are poised to benefit from improved relations with Cuba.
A 1994 Florida Sea Grant study predicted that lifting the embargo would have a profound effect: “U.S. boating to Cuba will boom, probably overwhelming facilities in Cuba and Florida.” In 2000 another study was undertaken by Keys business and government leaders anticipating better Cuban relations. They recommended that Marathon be established as a port of entry to share the job of processing the paperwork with the office at Key West.
Regardless of whether a Cuba-bound vessel comes from the east or west coast of Florida, Marathon is ideally suited as a jumping-off point. Nestled between Vaca and Boot keys, its harbor offers 360-degree shelter and a place to wait for weather. Key West may be closer to Cuba, but it is primarily a party town, lacking Marathon’s centralized service sector. Within walking distance of the Boot Key Harbor dinghy landing are supermarkets, pharmacies, delicatessens, hardware stores, marine supply stores, department stores, marine services, a good bookstore, a hospital, sandwich shops, breakfast haunts, dinner venues and a few good saloons.
When I asked anyone which pub was most popular among the harbor crowd, Dockside Lounge was mentioned every time. The owners of Tides Forever had left, so I took the tender across the harbor to Sombrero Marina, home of the Dockside. I struck up a conversation with the fellow on the next barstool, who has been coming to Boot Key Harbor for more than 20 years, most recently on Trident, his Willard 36.
Forrest Myers has settled into a snowbird pattern of summers at home in Tennessee and winters in Marathon. He pointed out a long table known as the “The Table of Knowledge,” where the salty sages of the harbor like to gather to swap Happy Hour wisdom and lies. That night, it was occupied by tourists, as it is more often than not nowadays.
“The reason I like Marathon and Boot Key Harbor is that it is the farthest-south, affordable place to spend the winter on a boat in the United States,” Myers says. “I’ve been going here for so long that I have a lot of friends here and consider it almost home. Anything you need for boating and to live is within walking distance of the City Marina.”
Another local I met was Ed Bortree, a retired ironworker from Connecticut. Bortree was welding dinghy davits onto his 50-foot Tom Colvin-designed steel schooner, Crystal Dawn, as she lay alongside the bulkhead behind Tides Forever. Bortree pointed out a tree over by the dinghy docks called “The Tree of Knowledge.” No tourists this time, just a coven of salty guys lounged in its shade, no doubt swapping wisdom and damnable lies.
Bortree and his wife, Patty, a retired schoolteacher, brought me along to a neighborhood Thanksgiving Day celebration overlooking the harbor. There must have been 50 people there from throughout the eastern United States. When I asked the Bortrees why they had moved to Marathon, they echo what Myers says about the sense of community in the harbor and praise the friendly staff of the city marina.
That night, I drove a rental car to Miami International Airport to collect the rest of the delivery crew, Barry Terry and David Hakin, two British ex-pats living in the Dominican Republic. We spent the next day provisioning the boat, which included Terry and Hakin doing their Christmas shopping. We collected an EPIRB we had ordered at the local West Marine and new ship’s inverter at one of the local marine electronics dealerships.
Elvis and turkey
With a Saturday morning departure, there was only one more thing for three sailors to do on a Friday night: go out on the town. Marathon’s most notorious drinking venue is the Brass Monkey, a funky, smoke-filled haunt at a nearby shopping plaza. We probably would have gone there, except for one thing.
“Free Elvis Tonite,” read the sign outside the American Legion Hall. No Englishman born can resist a night of Elvis Presley on his native turf, so to the American Legion we went, accompanied by the Bortrees. Not only was Elvis fully costumed and singing for tips only, but the turkey dinner buffet was free, too. My Brits got to enjoy a belated Thanksgiving dinner.
Of the two, Hakin had never been to the States before. As Tides Forever was crossing the Gulf Stream, he confessed he had harbored ill will toward the United States. “The problem with the States,” he had reckoned, “was that it’s filled with Americans.”
Bear in mind Hakin had arrived in Miami in darkness; the Overseas Highway and 32 hours of Marathon would constitute 100 percent of his firsthand experience with the United States. Hakin says he had been touched when the clerk at Kmart complimented him on his shopping acumen. Everyone was so friendly. He had celebrated the best of American holidays and shot billiards with the vets at the Legion hall. What a difference a day of shopping and a night of free Elvis can make! America, Hakin now admits, may not be so bad after all. Thanks to Marathon.
This story originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.