Category Archives: Nautical

Indian Key

july2016-keys-8951
View from the tower on Indian Key

With the prospect of a three- to four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, flying directly to the southernmost point in the US offers a convenient, if costly, option for those travelers on tight schedules. But the balmy, flat, and winding 110 miles of the Overseas Highway that run from the Florida mainland to the bottom of US-1 will yield wild and weird corners for those able (or willing) to take the time.

july2016-keys-1866
Paddling up to Indian Key

From the geological wonders of Devil’s Milhopper to the picturesque sands of Bahia Honda, Florida has a varied and truly amazing state park system. One of its most distinctive parks is also one all too easily overlooked on a drive through the Keys. Located a half-mile, ocean-side, off Islamorada lies the lush but unassuming Indian Key Historic State Park. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited 11-acre island was, two centuries ago, the original county seat for Dade County.

july2016-keys-1800
The old streets are still evident.

But that simple historical fact doesn’t begin to belie the tranquil key’s colorful and, at times, lurid history. From here, Jacob Housman built a formidable “wrecking” business in the early 19th century, salvaging valuable cargoes from ships that met their ends on the treacherous reefs in the surrounding waters. In 1838, the Philadelphia botanist Dr. Henry Perrine moved to the island, bringing with him a host of non-indigenous flora, including agave (used in the manufacturing of sisal), tamarind, and large yucca plants. By the close of that decade, the island boasted a population of about 60, and even a nationally advertised resort hotel. Later, Henry Flagler would use the key as a base for dredging operations during the construction of his Overseas Railroad.

july2016-keys-1799
Cochineal insects – the red dye carmine is made from them

But Indian Key’s golden heyday drew its last breaths in the wee hours of August 7, 1840, when an invasion force of more than 130 Spanish-speaking Seminoles descended upon the island from nearby Lower Matecumbe Key. Twelve hours later, six people were dead (including Perrine) and much of the looted settlement laid in smoldering ruins. The United States Navy subsequently used Indian Key as a base of operations for the Second Seminole War, but the island’s halcyon days as a thriving, self-sustaining commercial center were effectively done.

july2016-keys-8950
Brad Bertelli and WPT

Today, visitors may rent canoes and kayaks from Robbie’s of Islamorada and paddle out to Indian Key. Make the most of the trip by enlisting the services of historian, author, and tour guide Brad Bertelli of Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours to bring the island’s crumbling foundations and crunching gravel streets back to bustling life. If you appreciate vivid detail, humor, and a healthy overdose of enthusiasm for esoterica in your docent, then the affable Bertelli – who, with co-author David Sloan, recently published Bloodline: A Local’s Guide to 50 Famous Film Locations in the Florida Keys, an indispensable, trivia-packed self-guided tour for fans of the Netflix Original Series Bloodline – is your man.

Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore
Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore

Back in Islamorada, at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, where Bertelli also serves as the Curator/Historian, a fine scale model of Housman-era Indian Key provides additional perspective.

july2016-keys-4
Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center
july2016-keys-2
Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

It is worth noting that there are no restroom facilities, nor fresh water, nor trash cans on Indian Key. But there is some decent snorkeling off its craggy northeastern shore. So any which way, plan accordingly.

july2016-keys
Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

Fort De Soto Park and Egmont Key

july2016-0244

Way down at the mouth of Tampa Bay sits Fort De Soto Park. Within that park is access to Egmont Key, a state park. Fort De Soto is a large county park offering beaches, camping, a dog beach, a historic fort, trails, and multiples of habitats for Florida’s flora and fauna. It has been named a #1 beach by places that rank such things. It is also a nesting spot for many kinds of turtles and birds. I’ve now visited twice, once in winter and once in summer, and it is a truly lovely spot. The entrance fee is nominal.

july2016-2196

At the Fort De Soto Bay Pier you’ll find a concession stand, bathrooms with showers, a postcard-worthy beach, and the ferry to Egmont Key. Only accessible by boat, Egmont Key is a wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary. The lighthouse there has stood since 1858 and Fort Dade was founded on the island in 1923. Now mostly ruins, the island is cordoned off for nesting birds and sea turtles, but there are swimming beaches and trails. I visited Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas two weeks prior and Egmont Key reminded me of Fort Jefferson, but the trip cost about 90% less and the ferry ride over to the Egmont Key took 20-30 minutes instead of 2 1/2 hours.

july2016-9338 july2016-9331

After the excitement of the car accident the night before, Garnet and I were looking forward to a peaceful day of swimming and adventuring. We took the first ferry over and while onboard, he met Jackson, a boy his age who was visiting with his grandparents. We exited the ferry and within three about minutes we excitedly found a gopher tortoise near the lighthouse. There is a large population of the tortoises on the island.

 

july2016-9313 july2016-0275 july2016-0255

The ruins of the old gun batteries were fun to explore. We walked out to the beach on the west side of the island. The water was ideal and boaters had anchored near shore. With the boys safely splashing around, I went exploring and blundered into a nesting area for skimmers. The birds told me I was intruding even before I spotted the signs. The chicks were running around being absurdly adorable.

july2016-9314

july2016-0332 july2016-0317 july2016-0313

The ferry offers an optional snorkel tour and Garnet, Jackson, and I went off to do that for a bit. They took us to an area of sea grasses, but the water was a bit murky in the shallows. It was fun watching the boys claiming to see fish and rays that weren’t really there. Once you are on the island, you are free to stay and take whichever afternoon ferry works for you and the boats sell snacks and water. Pay heed to the warnings about dehydration, especially in summer.

july2016-2207 july2016-2216

Overall, Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park are well worth exploring. Having been twice, I feel like I have another 5-6 visits ahead of me to get a true feel for the place and intend to return.

july2016-0343

Floating Amid Stars: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

july2016-keys-2046

Birdwatching is a globally popular hobby and continues to grow. I’m a huge fan of birds and enjoy watching them, but I love to fishwatch even more. Somehow, that hobby has never taken hold like birdwatching. I don’t get it. I mean, you have to stand there on a ground like a lump watching the aerial dynamics with birds. With fish you can actually join in and swim among them. When was the last time you got to fly with a flock of starlings or glide with an eagle?

july2016-keys-1774

I love the Florida Keys because they meet so many travel wants and needs. My greatest want, the one that I daydream about and that pushes me to return repeatedly, is the water. More specifically, the fish and other wildlife that inhabit the waters off the Florida Keys. I don’t visit captive animal attractions – I prefer to watch animals in their natural environments.

july2016-keys-2063

At some point, I lucked into snorkel gear (mask, fins, snorkel) at a yard sale and later upgraded to a better snorkel with a valve. The fins are small enough that I can pack them in my carry-on luggage. Over the years, my kit has expanded to rubber-soled water shoes, a point-and-shoot underwater camera, DIY defogger spray, and many ziplock bags. If you are going to snorkel more than a handful of times it is worth having your own equipment and it also means you can check out offshore spots spontaneously. Some of the best spots I’ve found have been just offshore and do not require a boat ride. While boat rides are part of the fun, they add up if you are traveling on a budget. Snorkeling is one of those things that can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it.

july2016-keys-1947

I like to go to the Keys in summer because it is off-season, the crowds are smaller, and unless there are storms afoot the winds tend to be calmer, which means the waves are smaller and the water is clearer. I learned the hard way that going in the winter can make for terrible snorkeling.

july2016-keys-2018

I feel I should note that I am a snorkeler, not a diver. My ears let me freedive about 8-10 feet and that is it. Diving is also expensive and there are restrictions about diving and flying within 24 hours. I’m quite happy bobbing along the surface, suspended between worlds.

july2016-keys-2074

These are spots I checked out in July. I also read Snorkeling the Florida Keys by Brad Bertelli before we left and found it very helpful.

july2016-keys-1780

Cheeca Rocks

We took the 3:00 p.m. Happy Cat Snorkel Boat out from Robbie’s in Islamorada the day we arrived. The boat took us a few miles offshore to Cheeca Rocks. It was hot and the water was very clear. We saw several sea turtles and huge schools of small silverfish. Unfortunately, this charter attracted the kind of people I want to smack the shit out of. I watched a young woman “petting” the coral. You don’t “pet” coral. When she bobbed up for air I yelled at her to stop and she claimed she didn’t know any better. EVERY SINGLE snorkel charter I have ever gone on tells you this will kill the coral. Look, don’t touch. Then someone else with extra-long dive fins started treading water near the coral heads. They did decades’ worth of damage in seconds. I get that you have fancy-ass dive gear and are proud of it, but you don’t need long fins in calm, shallow waters.

july2016-keys-1855

Indian Key State Park

The next day we went back to Robbie’s and rented kayaks to go out to Indian Key. We were given a tour of the island by Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, run by the aforementioned Brad Bertelli (that will be a post of its own shortly). Afterward, we entered the water on the northeast side of the island. The waters around the island are very shallow and we saw conch, starfish, baby sharks, parrotfish, and watched nesting ospreys from the water. It was a nice little spot.

july2016-keys-2145

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor is one of my all-time favorite snorkel spots. There are rock formations just off the beach and while the action is often there, I’ve seen a school of cuttlefish in the shallows. It was crowded the afternoon we went and the winds and tide had the water rather turbid. Overall, it was lackluster this trip. You can snorkel the same place 10 times and never experience the same conditions.

july2016-keys-2155

Key West Marine Park

Another offshore snorkel spot in Key West is the Key West Marine Park, located on the east side of the island. The pilings and debris make for great fishwatching, as they are ideal for juvenile fish and invertebrates, but the morning we went the tide was moving and the winds had kicked up. The water was so turbid that it was almost disorienting. I will definitely go back next time and hopefully the conditions will be better.

july2016-keys-2071

Sand Key

We sailed with Captain Dennis on his boat Breezin out to Sand Key. Again, there was some wind up, so we moored on the rubble side of the key. Snorkeling can be very different depending on where you moor and the wind/water conditions, even within 100 yards. In this case, we were in an area that would be easier to swim in, but the rubble zone belied the health of the reef on the opposite side. The water was bath temperature. I watched and listened as a school of parrotfish munched loudly.

 

july2016-keys-1935

Dry Tortugas National Park

By far, the best snorkeling this trip was out at Fort Jefferson. It is in my top five snorkeling spots, period. Fort Jefferson has been on our list for years, but the tickets aren’t cheap. This was finally the year. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are in the middle of nowhere, but the fort is rich in history. There are two decaying docks, which offer ideal food and shelter for the tropical fish that surround the island. You can put your head down and watch 10-15 species of fish swirling below and then look up to see nesting brown noddies at the tops of the dock pilings. The clarity of the water was amazing and it was a pleasant swim around the exterior of the fort. The height of day was blistering, but the ferry we took out to the island put out a delicious spread and made sure everyone had enough water.

july2016-keys-1993

july2016-keys-1955

Turtles, rays, and larger fish are great, but I am just as happy seeing common nursery fish and invertebrates. If you are willing to take your time and look into crevices and among the sea grasses you’ll be rewarded. I still haven’t seen an octopus in the wild, but I’ll keep trying until I do. Swimming with huge schools of small silverfish is like floating amid the stars.

july2016-keys-1921 july2016-keys-1943

Breezin Charters

13669847_10157106853055702_1711600339449912319_nShortly after clearing Key West Harbor, bound for the reef at Sand Key Lighthouse some six or seven miles offshore, came that most cherished moment when, with sails full and neatly trimmed, you kill the diesel grumbling beneath your feet and, like 300 generations of your forebears, give yourself over to the power of the wind.

sand-key

Unlike today’s hard-chine powerboats, the sailboat’s traditionally curved hull rides the waves like a duck, and one momentarily reverts to that evolutionary stage when mankind pursued its own ends by harnessing the forces of nature rather than trying to dominate them.

13754342_10157106852945702_8921155845293474025_nOf course, modern sailboats offer amenities your ancestors never could have foreseen – global positioning systems (GPS), refrigeration, roller furling, autopilot, self-tailing winches, and satellite radio, to name a few – but the tried-and-true fundamentals of sailing remain the same. And sea-legged visitors to Key West can enjoy the best of both worlds aboard Breezin, a 42-foot Catalina sloop that offers full- (seven hours) and half-day (four hours) charters on the balmy surrounding waters.

13754315_10157106852975702_6447348835843015028_n

But what really sets Breezin apart from the competition is her skipper, Dennis Krinitt. We first met “Captain Dees” about a decade ago, when he worked for a nearby sailing charter company. While that all-day snorkel excursion was everything we’d hoped for, it was the smart, good-natured, soft-spoken Krinitt – whose conversation shifted from jazz standards to Tom Robbins to basic seamanship as naturally as the changing tide – that really shone. And despite his credentialed profession, the native Californian may well be the most productive-yet-chill human being I’ve ever met: calm, collected, unflappable.

13669582_10157106852715702_6081864903626404459_n

So impressed were we by Captain Dees that we went out with him again before that trip was up. And thereafter, on each return to Key West, we made a point of booking only those trips he was scheduled to helm, including one sunset cruise on which Captain Dees – also a licensed notary – officiated our renewed wedding vows.

13770506_10157106852855702_3524670513713263382_n

Eventually, Captain Dees landed Breezin a slip in the Key West Bight Marina, at the foot of William Street, where he now offers sailing charters, lessons, sunset cruises, and more. (And those modern amenities also include the ability to book your reservation online.) On your way there, stop by the nearby Cuban Coffee Queen for a café con leche and pan cubano, or anything from their extensive menu. But get there early, as the line quickly builds – and you don’t want to miss the boat!

Breezin Charters

Historic Seaport Walk

Key West Bight Marina, Slip E-7

201 William Street

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 797-1561

13567499_10157060997420702_297360344945816414_n

Cuban Coffee Queen

284 Margaret Street

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 292-4747

Downtown Location

5 Key Lime Square

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 294-7787

Out and Back

IMG_3621

The official motto of the United States Coast Guard is “Semper Paratus,” or “Always Ready.” But, since the heyday of the United States Life-Saving Service (which merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to form our modern USCG), at least, another phrase has adorned the flipside of that figurative coin: “The rules say you have to go out, but they do not say you have to come back.”

IMG_3595

On February 18, 1952, four young men with those words in mind set out from the Chatham (Massachusetts) Lifeboat Station in a 36-foot self-righting, self-bailing wooden motor lifeboat – clinically named CG36500 – into a hellish nor’easter, and the annals of lifesaving lore. In what has since been considered the greatest small-boat rescue in USCG history, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber and his crew of three – Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske – battled at-times hurricane-force winds and frigid, 60-foot seas to rescue the crew of the S.S. Pendleton, a 500-foot World War II-era tanker which had broken in half several miles offshore.

CapeCodApril2016-0049

En route, the CG36500’s engine briefly quit, and the angry seas smashed the boat’s windshield and tore away her compass. Yet, somehow, Webber and his crew successfully reached the stern of the mortally wounded Pendleton, and despite the odds, successfully rescued 32 of the ship’s crew in a boat designed to hold a maximum of 12 (including its own crew).

IMG_3643

Not surprisingly, this seemingly impossible feat became the stuff of Coast Guard legend, yet Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey, and Maske did not consider themselves “heroes”, per se; rather, they regarded their actions simply as a fulfillment of duty. By the late 1960s, the old 36-footers, including CG36500, had been decommissioned, and the slick, new 44-foot motor lifeboat became the Coast Guard’s standby.

CapeCodApril2016-0039

The CG36500 languished in dry-dock, neglected, for more than a decade, until a collective of intrepid locals, recognizing her historical value, set about painstakingly restoring her. Today, the fully restored and operational CG36500 is maintained under the auspices of the Orleans Historical Society and Museum, which features an impressive exhibit on the famed rescue in its nearby museum. As the son of a career Coast Guardsman, having the opportunity to visit the boat was a borderline spiritual experience. The 2016 movie The Finest Hours – based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2009 book of the same name – faithfully recreates the Pendleton rescue. While the film was not a commercial success, in this era of hyperbolic action movies that inexorably seek inspiration through the spilling of blood, it is good to see the four lifesavers from Chatham Station – and, by proxy, all who have come before or since – finally get their due.

CapeCodApril2016-8551

CapeCodApril2016-8552

Orleans Historical Society and Museum
3 River Rd, Orleans, MA 02653
http://www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org/
orleanshs@verizon.net
call 508-240-1329

Hours:
Tuesdays and Wednesdays 9:00 – noon and 1:00 – 5:00 or by appointment

The boat moves seasonally, so please visit the website to check on its location.

Book Review: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

4452

I love planning trips. I search the internet and use a few specific apps, but nothing beats sitting down with a book to begin imagining and shaping an itinerary. I’ve read countless travel guides and Brad Bertelli’s Snorkeling the Florida Keys is my new favorite. Published by the University Press of Florida, it is the perfect union of history, nature, and logistics, complete with an enthusiastic tour guide.

The book covers Biscayne National Park, Carysfort Reef, John D. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Molasses Reef, Pickles Reef, Alligator Reef, Indian Key, Coffins Patch Reef, Sombrero Reef, Bahia Honda State Park, Looe Key, Key West Marine Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park. I’ve snorkeled along the Keys, from Pennekamp to Sand Key Light, and this book gave me so many new places to try. I learned that I’ve snorkeled beaches that had better, hidden sports. Bertelli describes not just the reef locations and structures, but the history behind their names (many are named for shipwrecks). I came for the travel tips, but stayed for the history lessons. For example, I have known the name John Pennekamp since I was a child, but what I didn’t know was that he was personally responsible for protecting huge swaths of Florida’s coral reefs.

There were two sections in particular that endeared me:

“In reality, the reef had been known as Pickle’s Reef for a long time before the barrels ever came to rest at the bottom. In fact, Pickles Reef began to appear in the record books as early as 1828, decades before the first shots of the Civil War were ever fired. The odds must have been astronomical that a load of mortar-filled pickle barrels would sink at a reef already known as Pickles Reef!” It is that kind of geeky enthusiasm that gets me every time.

The second section has Bertelli trashing Peter Benchley and the movie Jaws. “To put the whole shark scare into perspective, statistically speaking it is a far more dangerous proposition to drive a car – for any distance – than to snorkel in Florida waters. In fact, snorkelers are much more likely to be mauled by a dog, swarmed by bees, or win the lottery than have a negative encounter with a shark.

                Instead of worrying about sharks, snorkelers would be much better off making sure they have applied a suitable sunscreen to their exposed flesh. While shark attacks are rare events in the Florida Keys, horrible sunburns are not.” He then goes on to warn people about the real bullies of the sea, the wee damselfish. I love this guy.

I plan to use this guide to check out several spots that are accessible from the shoreline, as well as one chartered trip. Whether you are new to snorkeling the Florida Keys or are an old-timer, this book should be essential reading.

A Few Hours in Seattle

SeattleApril2016-8359
These blue skies are photographic a lie. It was a mostly overcast day.

Work conferences often mean making the most of the spartan free time. I finished up a meeting at El Borracho, a Mexican restaurant near Pikes Place Market, and found myself free for the rest of the day. It was about 2 p.m. I decided to see how far I could explore on foot. I made it fairly far. I took a look at Metsker Maps, a traveler’s dream, Left Bank Books, which seemed out of place being anti-authoritarian and pro-anarchist in the middle of a tourist Mecca, and a few other shops outside the market.

SeattleApril2016-8329
This place causes the travel version of mouthwatering.
SeattleApril2016-8335
Left Bank Books
SeattleApril2016-8336
Left Bank Books

I wandered inside Pikes Place Market. Nope, nope, nope. I’m 5’2” and pressing crowds make me claustrophobic. All I could see were armpits and there were a lot of other unpleasant smells. I left the busy sections of the market as quickly as possible and descended to the lower levels. I remembered a kind of cool store from a prior visit that I wanted to look for.

SeattleApril2016-0017
Pikes Place Market. What you can’t see are the pushing crowds to the left.

Inside Orange Dracula, “the dime store for those with unusual tastes,” I found an even larger selection of pop culture and horror kitsch than I remembered. I couldn’t afford the rare Lego Hogwarts set, but I found Italian Harry Potter stickers, swamp soap, vampire incense, and veterinarian warning stickers. I wandered the lower levels for a while, where few tourists seemed to stray. I found a junk shop and left with a $2 scarf. I continued winding my way down through the market and on outside. I walked amid the construction over to the shops and tourist stops down near the water.

SeattleApril2016-0019
Orange Dracula has all the random shit you never knew you needed.

I had hoped I would have the time to check out the ferry over to Bainbridge Island. The weather cooperated and I eventually found the ferry terminal. I bought a ticket, just $8.20 roundtrip, and waited for the next crossing. The terminal filled with daily commuters and sightseers. It was a cool, gray crossing, but rather pleasant.

SeattleApril2016-8339
Ferry terminal entrance.
SeattleApril2016-0023-2
Ferry ride across to Bainbridge Island.
SeattleApril2016-8342
Ferry ride across to Bainbridge Island.
SeattleApril2016-8347
I felt welcomed.

The commuters bolted off the ship and to their cars, bikes, and buses, some actually running down the gangway to the terminal. I wandered into town and along the main street. I found the Eagle Harbor Book Co., which had a decent local section and nature guides. From there I threw myself at Emmy’s Vege House, an all-vegan food kiosk in the center of town. I had a decent lunch but made room for some summer rolls and a Thai ice tea. Refreshed (meaning caffeinated and sugared), I continued exploring. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a custom of finding Garnet stuffed animals when we travel. I hadn’t found one yet, but Calico Toy Shoppe had a perfect stuffed gnome.

SeattleApril2016-0057
Eagle Harbor Book Co.
SeattleApril2016-8348
Emmy’s Vege House – all vegan
SeattleApril2016-8351
Second lunch.

At Millstream, I found a gift for one of Garnet’s teachers and about 20 things I wanted but couldn’t justify. Across the street, Backstreet Beat Books and Record offered a small but well-cultivated selection of books. I found Patrick a Graham Green paperback he didn’t have. From there I hit up the local grocery store for snacks. In their parking lot, I found artichokes growing. I saw a sign for a waterfront trail when I got off the ferry and decided to try and find it.

SeattleApril2016-8353
Backstreet Beat Books and Records
SeattleApril2016-0059
Random artichokes at the grocery store.

Instead, I found a couple out walking their goats. I asked them about the trail, which was really an excuse to meet the goats. They were young brothers who would butt heads occasionally. They were also working goats and helped clear brush and grass for paying customers. This was the type of commonplace, practical eccentricity that existed in Seattle proper until all the young programmers and online corporations took over. They pointed me toward the trail, where I found two chickens out enjoying a good hunt and peck.

SeattleApril2016-0066
Goats!
SeattleApril2016-0064
Adorable goats!
SeattleApril2016-0069
Chickens having a pleasant evening on Bainbridge Island.
SeattleApril2016-8354
Waterfront trail, Bainbridge Island

I was thinking about waiting to take the ferry back over to Seattle until sunset, but my legs ached and I was getting tired. I also knew I had a few more uphill miles to walk to get back to the hotel. It was close enough to sunset that I got some good long light.

SeattleApril2016-0133
Sunset. Sort of. Almost.

I remembered that the Seattle Mystery Bookshop was close to where I got off the ferry and walked to the store. They had closed already, but I recommend their selection from a prior visit. I trudged up to the Veggie Grill around the block from the hotel and ordered take-out. I was beat. In what amounted to six hours, I had walked well over five miles, took a ferry, met two goats, and was able to sate my post-conference wanderlust. At least until the next morning.

SeattleApril2016-0091
Seagull having his moment in the sun.