Self-sufficiency rules on No Name Key

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What cruiser doesn’t dream of escaping to a tropical island? An island where residents enjoy unspoiled beauty, excellent boating and a modern lifestyle, with amenities provided by their own ingenuity, the wind, sun and rain, not “the system.”

What cruiser doesn’t dream of escaping to a tropical island? An island where residents enjoy unspoiled beauty, excellent boating and a modern lifestyle, with amenities provided by their own ingenuity, the wind, sun and rain, not “the system.”

Such an island exists 70 miles down the Florida Keys — 1-1/2-by-2-mile No Name Key. Though a bridge connects to Big Pine Key and therefore to U.S. 1, No Name has no stores, public water or electric system. Telephone service only began in 1991 and mail delivery in 1994. Seventeen of the island’s 42 homes, almost all the year-round ones, are solar-powered.

“No Name Key is the only place between Marathon and Key West [some 60 miles apart] where I can keep my 5-foot draft sailboat in front of my house and easily get out to both the [Atlantic] Ocean and the Gulf [of Mexico],” says Frank Atwell, 75, a retired software engineer and former U.S. Naval Academy sailing coach. Atwell sailed his 35-foot Hallberg-Rassy sloop down from Annapolis and back annually for six years while building his solar-powered home. “It’s an interesting challenge to be self-sufficient on the edge of the wilderness. Most neighbors are boat people — some world cruisers, some fishermen.”

After the Civil War, No Name Key boasted the largest settlement in the Lower Keys. Forty-five farmers, fishermen, spongers and their families occupied 23 homes and sent their products to Key West by sailboat, and later by rail. The isolation and harsh conditions drove most settlers away before the 1920s when a car ferry from the Upper Keys landed on No Name Key, connecting to the road from Key West. Completion of the Overseas Highway on the defunct railroad bed in 1938 ended ferry service, and No Name slipped into oblivion.

During the 1960s land boom the island was platted and three canals dug before environmental regulations stopped dredge-and-fill development. “More people lived on No Name Key in 1870 than in 1990,” says historian John Viele of Cudjoe Key.

Today, 85 percent of the mangrove-fringed limestone island is federally owned, part of the National Key Deer Refuge. The waist-high Key deer foraging among the yards and scrubby woods are more numerous than the human inhabitants. So are mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

For those who cruised in the 1970s, a typical No Name Key house and its large roof (for solar panels and collecting rain for a 12,000-plus gallon cistern under the porch) means no fuel bills and more amenities than those available aboard the average cruising sailboat of that time (a 35- to 40-footer).

“Our self-sufficient solar community [along the two north-south canals] shows how things must be done in the future,” says Mick Putney, 77, a retired sociology professor who lived aboard sailboats for 21 years before designing and building a solar home on No Name Key. “People here really value the quiet, the absence of convenience stores and the natural beauty unspoiled by utility poles.”

The solar community gathers at frequent potlucks: Frank and Kimi Atwell, (She‘s a former Fulbright scholar); Putney, who with his wife Alicia, (a sociologist and land-use activist), sailed their 8 Meter sailboat from California to No Name Key; John and Lenore Lohr, who made the same voyage in their 43-foot sloop. (Lohr earlier rounded Cape Horn 13 times and made several trans-

Atlantic cruises. Lenore was a nurse in the African bush and aboard cruise ships); Hallett Douvelle, a charter skipper and trimaran cruiser; Don and Nancy Brett, who use their No Name Key lot as a land base while they live aboard their moored sloop or cruising with their two sons; and others — at least five holding advanced degrees.

The neighborhood’s solar-powered houses are as varied as their owners. Those from the 1970s are small simple homes, like the one environmental educator Jeanette Gato and her husband built. Douvelle built a geodesic dome; the Lohrs a hexagonal house. The Putneys’ 2,400-square-foot home might be the largest; the Atwells’ 6-year-old concrete home is the latest, and probably the last, for regulations prohibit utilities and development.

Successful solar homes enhance natural air flow, so they share many characteristics. They are elevated to meet flood plain regulations and to catch cooling breezes. A radiant barrier insulates the roof. Wide roof overhangs shade the windows. Screened porches with sliding glass doors direct prevailing southeast breezes through the house. Ceiling fans circulate air. A central stairway or open floor plans, often with interior walls solid only to the eaves, allow convection currents to draw hot air out through a central cupola.

“A house designed for solar power means keeping conservation in mind,” says Putney. “You can have everything — dishwasher, garbage disposal, computers, electric boat davits, [room air conditioners] — everything except central air. [To me], the inconveniences are trivial.”

These days, many homes have solar photovoltaic systems like Paul and Vicky Andrews’. Their 1,800 watts of solar collection cells charge a 1,050-amp/hour bank of 6-volt deep cycle batteries. An inverter changes the solar-produced 24-volt direct current to standard 120-volt AC.

When hurricanes damage utilities, solar homes shine.

“After Hurricane Georges [in 1998] we lived as if nothing had happened,” says Vicky. “For almost a month we housed six friends from other islands who had lost their power and water. Many others stopped by for a hot shower, warm meal or to do their laundry.”

Though four hurricanes skirted the Keys in 2005, most damage on No Name Key was vegetation killed by Wilma’s storm surge.

Once considered a backwater for hippies and environmental fanatics, No Name Key is now experiencing the Keys’ skyrocketing home prices. Its isolated-yet-accessible location, about four miles from Big Pine’s retail district, is luring new buyers unfamiliar with self-sufficiency.

“If you come from the affluent suburbs [or a modern full-powered cruising boat with a water maker and all the comforts of shoreside living] you have quite a different perspective than if you came from a boat, even if your income level is the same,” says Putney. To them, life on No Name Key might seems less appealing.

Some recent buyers, who own generator-dependent, non-solar vacation homes on isolated lots or on the single east-west canal across the island, have sought changes in the law to allow electrical service.

The solar community fights to retain No Name’s character by keeping out public electricity and water. They follow Putney’s “old-fashioned ideals of self-sufficiency and reducing a person’s impact upon the planet.”

Gato speaks for the solar community when she says, “I take great pride in living in an energy efficient house.”