Cruising in the Keys
We just arrived back from our second summer cruising season. We opted to go cruising in the Keys because we didn’t want the additional immigration hassles testing for COVID-19 in the Caribbean. In 2021, we motored and sailed south from Jacksonville to Key West, back up to Stuart, and finally landing back in Jacksonville. As usual, we took away lessons from our trip that we will use to inform future cruise planning.
Our 2nd Season, Cruising in the Keys
We’ve learned we have officially aged out of Key West. We owned a timeshare there for over a decade and gave it up before buying Star Stuff. It’s a good thing we did because we have officially gotten above the age limit for cruising Duval Street and drinking the night away. (It’s like the rider safety boards at Six Flags. “Your liver must be this —- young to ride these rides.”) Plus, Key West marinas are so expensive. We choked, even more than when we got the bill from Bert Jabin’s in Annapolis – and I called them to see if they made a billing mistake!
Case in point: we had to make an emergency haul-out to replace a leaking thru-hull at Stock Island. I know what you’re thinking, “weren’t you just on the hard for ten weeks in December?” Yes, yes we were. Moving on.
The yard there charged us double what we have previously paid for a haul and block in north Florida. The entire cost of the haul and glassing in one new thru-hull cost as much as our entire new refrigeration system and the installation of it.
Thankfully, our lovely friends on Aboard Aeon let us crash with them on their Gulfstar trawler for a few days while we waited for the glass to set. I can’t even fathom what a hotel in Key West would have cost!
Take my advice: don’t have any boat emergencies in the Keys.
Cruising in the Keys for the Rest of us: Boot Key Harbor
Now, if you want to hang out in Marathon instead, Boot Key Harbor is an acceptable place to chill for a while. The Cruiser’s Net in Boot Key was especially memorable. One morning, a woman offered to pay for a dinghy bail-out with a pound of bacon! We somehow managed to get the contact information for a canvas maker to make dinghy chaps for us. He came right out to the boat to take the measurements for the dinghy storage cover too. The Cruiser’s Net each morning is a fun and invaluable resource, especially if you are new and unfamiliar with the area.
There are lots of little restaurants to dinghy to and a friendly contingent of cruisers. It is relatively convenient to a Home Depot and a Publix grocery store. The marina also has plenty of washers and dryers as well as a huge workshop, cruiser’s lounge, and two massive dinghy docks.
As with everything in boat life, it comes with plenty of trade-offs.
1) We found we could not make water at all in the mooring field – the water is just too dirty. The pre-filter would clog up after only one or two uses, so we ended up jerry-jugging water from the marina tap. 2) There are still a lot of sunk boats and derelicts in the anchorage. This may or may not be affecting water quality, but it seems unlikely to help. 3) The water outside the harbor is wholly unprotected, so if you go out to one of the nearby reefs, make sure the forecast is for glass. And I mean GLASS. Not 1–2-foot seas. Definitely not 3-4. On our way down from Rodriguez Key, we attempted to stop and check out the snorkeling. Our boat hobby-horsed so violently, we decided to skip it and go on to the harbor.
My best advice for cruising in the Keys is to find some nice little pockets of mangroves and just anchor on the Gulf side. You can find a little more protection from fetch and wind and, of course, beautiful vignettes for sunsets. I really loved Lower Matecumbe Key. Anchoring out in the smaller keys around the mangroves is just a more enjoyable experience than being tied up to a dock or in a stuffy harbor all the time. The Keys has a lot to offer on the Gulf side if you prefer a low-key, relaxed cruising experience.
Keep your mast height in mind. As a sailboat, you’ll need to use your charts to mark access points to the north side of A1A. If memory serves, the only place in the Lower Keys we could access the inside was the Channel 5 bridge. So, if you don’t want to go all the way around Key West, plan your access accordingly!
Stuart’s Pretty Nice
After ditching the Keys, we wandered back up north to Stuart. Much more affordable and with a higher standard of living. We spent the hottest part of the summer at Sunset Bay Marina. We found it well-protected and shockingly wake-free. It boasts an on-site restaurant, coffee shop, and the nicest laundry facilities we’ve seen so far. In addition to a huge mooring field, they also have nice, new Tyvek docks and easy access to shore with a dinghy dock. We frequently walked the two miles to a nearby Publix, though West Marine was an Uber ride away. A nearby park makes for pleasant walks every day along the waterfront.
As a bonus for our cruise this year, we played host to an adorable Beagle/Jack Russell/Estonian hound-mutt mix. Luna was a highlight of the cruise and gave us a reason to walk – a lot – around the marina grounds. She chased all of the squirrels in the park and terrorized all the long-nosed chickens she could find. It was nice to have a dog aboard Star Stuff again, even if temporarily.
We spent plenty of time on the patio at the on-premise restaurant, Sailor’s Return, and only walked around the old town area once, right after we arrived. The old town center has plenty of quaint ambiance, clothing, coffee shops, restaurants, and even a shoe store where you can replace your worn-out Tevas.
Because we spent our entire stay in Stuart hooked up to the dock to hunker down in the air conditioning, I regret to say I have no other insight into the area. It is just too hot in south Florida to play tourist in August!
Back to Jacksonville
As a cruiser, you cannot beat Jacksonville for convenience and cost in Florida. Our home marina, Marina at Ortega Landing, is not only swanky and chock-full of amenities, but it’s a 5-minute walk to a West Marine, a Publix, a park, good sushi, and more to come in an expanding shopping center. Plus, it’s about a 10-minute boat ride to a haul-out facility and boasts lots of nearby marine professionals…without a kick-in-the-gut price tag.
So, we’ve landed back in the home territory where we spent the last five years undergoing our refit. We decided to spend the winter here, doing odd jobs on the boat and finally addressing some of the cosmetic chores we’ve blindered ourselves to.
Up first: a cockpit overhaul. We discovered our teak cockpit had been overrun by termites, so we pulled it up the week we got back. And, I know the minute we fix that teak cockpit coaming and it gleams like the day it was installed, a bunch more brightwork is in my future!
Stay tuned for a future post on Greg’s plan to chase 75° Fahrenheit (24° C) next season!
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