Key West Retreat
Nothing puts a damper on winter sailing plans along the eastern coast of Florida like a norther. When a cold front rolls off the coast, blustery 20- and 30-knot winds fill in, the chop builds, anchors drag, and the Gulf Stream gets all bent out of shape, keeping northbound boats either in port or motoring through crab-pot-infested waters behind the offshore reef.
It was that very weather that grounded me in February in Key West. I'd been dispatched there to test-sail a boat headed for Strictly Sail Miami, but as I drove toward our rendezvous point, with Mile Marker 0 just 30 miles down Route 1, the call came from the skipper: They'd be leaving before dawn, motoring all the way, and there were three cabins for four crewmembers. I asked myself, did I really want to make it five and listen to an engine whine for 18 hours?
After much soul-searching, I declined. Instead, I set out the next morning to see what cruisers in Margaritaville do in these dire circumstances.
When David Nance and Babi Smith heard the forecast, they decided to weigh anchor off nearby Fleming Key Cut and move Hark the Sound, Dave's Morgan 43, to a slip behind the breakwater. Babi hails from Charlotte, North Carolina; Dave is from just across the border, in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Dave, a lifelong sailor, was a builder and volunteer E.M.T. until a change in life prompted him to go to school to earn a nursing degree. He spent a dozen years working in a cardiac catheterization lab, but he finally bought himself a gold watch and retired.
"I dreamed of cruising all my life, and finally, it came to a point where I had to do it or give it up," says Dave.
Babi adds that she "just quit" to head to sea.
Dave bought Hark the Sound three years ago, and their first cruise was up Chesapeake Bay, through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, and down the Delaware River to Cape May, New Jersey, where boat and crew shook hands with Hurricane Ernesto while sitting on a mooring.
The next year, they sailed to Lake Worth, Florida, and made the jump across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. They cruised in the Abacos all winter and spring and then, because of insurance restrictions, headed home to beat the June 1 start of hurricane season.
While their previous two years of cruising were relatively free of scheduling, this year's sail saw them marching down the coast to reach the Keys in time for a post-Christmas rendezvous to surprise a friend. Babi and Dave turned the bow south in December, cruising down the Intracoastal Waterway and sailing outside as much as weather would allow. Just north of Miami, they were forced to leave the Ditch because their mast was one foot too high for the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a bridge, according to Dave, that's notorious for being one foot lower than what's printed on the chart. From there, Hark headed to sea and the Keys, where Dave and Babi spent Christmas with friends in Marathon.
They've been in Key West ever since.
"Love it," says Babi, as she and Dave tick off "English, American money, and hospitality" as among Key West's attributes. And then there are the people. In their travels now, they re-encounter cruisers they met during their summer on the Chesapeake and winter in the Bahamas, and they're meeting new folks all the time.
Hitting a roadblock with her knitting, Babi paid a visit to Knit Wits and met its proprietor, Maxine, who not only helped her with her project but also introduced Babi and Dave to her rabbi, who just happened to have a deep-water dock where Hark could be tied up so Dave and Babi could fly home for a wedding.
Down the dock aboard True North, a Catalina 28 Mark II, Tom and Patsy Conrad have lots to say about sailors helping sailors along the way. Tom's a retired stained-glass maker, and Patsy's a nurse who's "temporarily" put her career on hold to go sailing. And on hold it is: The pair have logged some 16,000 freshwater and saltwater miles under the keel since Tom bought the boat and they got married a decade ago.
"I won her heart saying I'd show her the world," jokes Tom. "I just didn't tell her it'd be at five knots."
After spending a couple of years getting True North to their liking (custom cabinets, the stove that couldn't possibly store another gourmet cooking utensil, the V-berth converted to a storeroom), they cast off in 2002 and headed south, across Florida via Lake Okeechobee, up the U.S. East Coast to the Hudson River, then through the Erie Canal to cross three of the Great Lakes. They visited Canada and Chicago, motored south on the Mississippi, and eventually took the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway back to the Gulf of Mexico.
It was on that trip that they discovered the America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association, and the Conrads have remained active with the group; Tom's a frequent speaker at the A.G.L.C.A.'s three annual regional gatherings, and Patsy participates in the women's seminars.
Though they live on the Gulf, they like to cruise on rivers. After returning from their Great Loop, they took time off, and in 2006, they headed inland again, this time to the headwaters of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The towboat captains, says Tom, are the friendliest people, and the waterways often cut long slices through the backcountry of America that most people don't get to see.
When they're aboard their cozy and homey little boat, they abide by a fairly modest schedule, says Tom. "We leave on the day that we plan, get home on the day that we plan, and everything else is pure luck." The only rule: If someone's grumpy, he or she has to ride in the dinghy.
The goal of this year's cruise, Tom says, is to explore the Keys and see the southern coast of Florida up to Stuart, which they missed last time. Then their wanderings will likely take them to the Bahamas because current water levels have made Lake Okeechobee impassable.
I ran into Richard Clay on shore by the dinghy dock, where he was waiting for his wife, Eden, to return with provisions. They're in Key West for the winter aboard Sea Walker, a 61-foot David Pedrick-designed sailboat of which he's captain and she's crew.
Richard admits that the past few seasons in St. Martin have spoiled him; still, Key West living isn't too rough, except when a 25-knot north wind blows against the current that courses through the anchorage. Given her size and weight, Sea Walker fares fine with an 85-pound Delta anchor and lots of chain, but some of the smaller boats bounce around quite a bit, and a few fetch up on the hard.
Richard, a Kiwi, was working on boats in New Zealand when an owner asked him to go to Newport, Rhode Island, to join a boat there. Somewhere along the way and 14 years ago, he and Eden met, and they lived on his Cavalier 36 for their first three years together. He worked for a stint as an offshore-sailing instructor in the Florida Keys, but he and Eden have been aboard the Chesapeake Bay-based Sea Walker for the past several years, sailing north to Newport and Maine in the summer and to the Caribbean in the winter. This year, Sea Walker's owner decided to try the Keys.
After a long day of walking the docks and investigative reporting, I retreated to the shade of a nearby establishment. My feet were sore, my throat was parched, and I was lured in by the doleful tones of a woman singing the blues. I could reach but one conclusion: If a north wind has to blow, there are worse places to be stuck in than Key West.
Mark Pillsbury is CW's senior editor.