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Marathon, Fla.

In “Where Have All the Pirates Gone,” singer Eileen Quinn captures Boot Key Harbor in Marathon at a period in its history some sailors remember fondly, but others would happily forget.

He’ll bluff about the beaches,

Approaching the entrance to Boot Key Harbor, there is a much more orderly mooring field than cruisers from years ago will remember.

The bikini babes, the boats,

And the endless sea of overproof

On which this whole myth floats.

Where have all the pirates gone?

They’re pumping gas in Marathon.

Living in some trailer park,

They sail their dreams out after dark.

A witty chronicler of the cruising lifestyle, Quinn used to introduce her pirate song with a commentary about this small city in the Florida Keys. “I liked to describe Marathon as the American Dream destination for folks without a lot of financial resources, who climbed into their decrepit cars and headed south to paradise,” Quinn says. “When their cars broke down in Marathon, that’s where they stayed — some of them still living in those cars.”

Of course, that was before Marathon’s great cleansing, which came quickly after the new millennium. “These days I think I’d be tempted to mention how cleaning up Marathon has meant that they now have to bus all the service workers in from Homestead,” she says, referring to Miami’s southern suburb.

Most of Marathon’s pirates have scattered to the wind, at least those with cars and boats capable of getting under way. But they and like-minded brethren are still out there, reminders of those old days. Should you ever find yourself down-island, you can get an earful of the old Marathon by visiting the nearest sailor bar, then listening for the loudest mouth in the place. “Crusty” or “scruffy” will describe the man behind the mouth, usually (dare I say it) a native of Florida boasting about some future accomplishment or some big score. For a sense of precleanup Marathon, take Scruffy the Sailor, multiply him mentally, seat one copy at every table in the place, and turn up the volume.

But that was not the Marathon I found when I arrived there shortly before Thanksgiving last year. My purpose was to deliver a 2006 Island Packet 440 from Bradenton, Fla., to the south coast of the Dominican Republic. Her new owners were on board for the Bradenton-to-Marathon leg, after which the other two members of the delivery crew would fly in to finish the trip with me. We chose Marathon as the best place to assemble the gear and provisions we would need for an 11-day voyage to the D.R. As a bonus, the three-day layover would allow me to investigate the harbor’s notorious past and speculate about its future.

From Bradenton, we had sailed overnight to Marco Island. Under way early the next morning, we made Little Shark River at Everglades National Park in time to drop the hook to a sherbet and strawberry sunset. From there to Marathon was an easy 37-nautical-mile run across Florida Bay. You get the idea — with an average speed between 6.5 and 7 knots, Tampa Bay to Marathon makes for a leisurely three-day cruise for sailboats and trawlers. Urban South Florida is closer. Transiting from Florida’s East Coast via Hawk Channel, Marathon is about 90 nautical miles from Miami, while Key West lies about 45 miles farther down the archipelago.

A staff member with the Marathon Turtle Hospital shows visitors a recovering female green sea turtle.

As we entered Boot Key Harbor, Thanksgiving was still two days away, so the mooring field was half empty, still awaiting the flocking snowbirds. A few shabby vessels lay at anchor — and a few character boats that we photographed — but most of the vessels were conventional and reasonably well-maintained, between 30 and 45 feet. The neat rows of mooring balls made a good first impression, and the water looked clean. We brought Tides Forever alongside the bulkhead at the Boot Key Harbor Municipal Marina, whose primary mission is administering the mooring field from its headquarters in a former fish processing plant.

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.”

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.

Burdines is a popular watering hole and eatery at the entrance to Boot Key Harbor.

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 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.”

Why Marathon?

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.



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