Going Back in Time on a Catalina 22
A brief narration of our wonderful stay at the Key Lime Sailing Club in Key Largo, Florida.
By G.T Kittrel
We had read the reviews. Most were good. A few less so. The latter we chalked up to people who were out of their element or the one percent that is never happy. I had lived in Key West forty years ago. That was before the cruise ships, before the hucksters shilling time shares on every corner, before all the Christmas Trees on Christmas Tree Island were replaced by soulless condos. I was hoping to find that Bohemian atmosphere again; just one more time.
We turned off the Overseas Highway (U.S.1, or “Useless One” to the locals) and indeed, as written in the reviews, there was a lot of stuff. Many called it a junkyard. I wouldn’t. There are boats and masts and all manner of machinery in various states of repair, rehab, or decay. There is indeed some sort of round, flying saucer looking boat thing that I make a mental note to inquire about and investigate. There is a skull on the gate, and as we drive up to the office, a skeleton chained to a palm tree. There is a pony tailed man wearing a bush hat standing in front of the office. I roll down the window. “Checking in?” he asks. I reply in the affirmative. “Welcome! Park her right over there and we’ll get you taken care of”. I do as directed and we are very quickly joined at the car by another pony tailed man who at first I think is the man by the door, but isn’t. A brother I (incorrectly) assume. This one greets us and introduces himself as Paul, the owner. He is all smiles and energy as he welcomes us to his resort. He welcomes us and leads us on a tour of the property. Along the way we see hand painted signs – “Tiki Bar This Way”, “Cuba 189 Mi.”, “Slow, Adult Children Playing”. He shows us the water toys – canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, sunfish, rowing dories, even inner tubes. He shows us the fishing gear and dive flags. All of this, we learn, is here for our use any time we want; no extra charge. He leads us across the beach to the waterfront tiki hut, where, since we are sailors, we are to meet tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM with “The Captain” who will provide an area familiarization and assign us to a sailboat. Paul walks us out to the end on one of the docks and points out restaurants a few docks down. He gives us information on other places to eat within walking distance, where to get groceries, and a quick rundown of other activities in the area. The place is older; built in the 50’s for the most part. This dock has seen its share of storms. I look down and see the bottom. That doesn’t happen where we live. It felt good. Paul took us up to our accommodations. We had booked the Owners Cottage. We walk up onto a nice private deck with a table and chairs, then into the front room. The entire front of the cottage is glass and we have a remarkable view of the beach, docks, and Sound. The front room has black leather overstuffed furniture and a large TV that sits atop a real honest to goodness Bacardi Rum barrel. The kitchen is large, and feels new, but not modern. There is a large wood burning fireplace against the brick wall. Our host explains that the bricks were made on site, and then used to construct the cottage. It’s clean and comfortable and I’m starting to get that feeling. Paul bids us good night. It’s clear he loves what he does.
That evening we got to the Tiki Hut to watch the sunset. There are eight or so other guests there. Introductions all around and we settle in with our wine for sunset and some very pleasant conversation. Some, like us, were recent arrivals. Some had been here for a few days. One couple was leaving the following morning and the female half was clearly sad to be going. She said it had been the most relaxing vacation she’d ever had. We ask about the sailing and the condition of the boats. It’s unanimous that they loved the area for sailing and each said the boats they had, while not new, were in fine condition. One told us that he had pointed out a broken wire on a shroud to the captain when they returned from a sail and when they went to the boat the next morning, the shroud had already been replaced. A gentleman from New York said he thought that given the boats were underway almost every day, they were in remarkably good shape. Just don’t expect showroom condition. I then noticed that while we were talking, someone had apparently lighted two dozen or so tiki torches around the property. Getting that feeling. Life is good. We had some more fine conversation, some wine and some fine cheese and crackers one of the other guests had brought to share. It had been a long day traveling and we said goodnight to our new friends, since we had to meet the Captain at nine in the morning. “Oh yeah, don’t wanna miss that” said the guest from Maine is his down east accent, “That guy’s a wicked pissah!” I sort of remembered that phrase from a Stephen King novel I read, and believed it was a good thing, hoping it had nothing to do with urinary incontinence.
We slept well that night. The only sounds that came through the brick walls of our cottage were from a 2 AM thunderstorm with torrential rain beating down on the roof. It somehow added to the atmosphere. The feeling is getting stronger.
Next morning we are up early and walk next door to Mrs. Macs Kitchen for breakfast. We both order the breakfast special which costs about seven bucks and comes with, oh yeah, champagne or a mimosa. I am definitely back in the Keys. We finish breakfast and walk back to the resort. I stop and look at the flying saucer thing. It’s about fifteen feet in diameter and looking through the glass it appears to have a sink, head, and bed – like the innards of a sailboat but round. Hmm. Next to it is an Adirondack chair that stands about eight feet high and is labeled “Big Ass Chair”. There is a lot of cool stuff up here that any boater would pay money to just root around in. We stop at our cottage for a quick head break and then head for the tiki hut. Pony tail # 1 is standing there looking at the boats anchored in the sound as if taking inventory. He extends a hand and welcomes us. I introduce myself and my wife. “G” he says. “Gene?” I answer. “G. Like Gee Whiz”. Getting it, I reply “OK – G. Is there more to it than that?” “Yeah, but it’s all that I can spell; have a seat”. Two other couples join us. One asks if he’s the Captain. “yessir, G.” I am not the only one who hears Gene. While we are waiting, I ask G about the flying saucer looking thing out in front. “Oh that. That’s how Paul got here from his home planet.” He’s very matter of fact as if he believes this and has me wondering if I should too. After a beat, he smiles and explains that it’s like a floating hotel room with clear panels in the bottom and an eight foot wide deck that goes around it. “One of the things Paul collects” he says. I say that Paul seems to have a very large collection. “Yeah, he’s a bit of a hoarder, but at least he hoards cool stuff.” I ask if they are brothers. “Only existentially”. I am definitely back in the keys.
Once all of the new sailors are settled in, G, the Captain, passes out chartlets of the area that they have photo shopped to show areas of interest, places to go, and places to avoid. His orientation is part military briefing and part stand-up comedy routine. He has one woman in stiches and all of us not just entertained but very much informed. We are briefed on the sailboats, the water toys, local wildlife, state and federal law, how to find our way home, and who to call if we have problems. We are told about the shallow water in Florida Bay and how to partially raise our keels if we sail out that far. One of the other guests asks if that will affect the performance of the boat. The Captain tells him that yes, it will move the center of lateral resistance aft a bit but wouldn’t radically affect the helm in the weather we would be sailing in. I nod like I understand and make a mental note to Google what the hell a center of lateral resistance is. I notice on the Captain’s hat he has on one side a gold anchor with a silver shield over it, and on the other what looks to be a miniature badge with “U.S. Special Agent” on it. I can’t quite make out what’s in the center of it. When he finishes his presentation, he asks if there are any questions. I ask “What’s that stuff on your hat?” Rubbing his hand over the crown he says “I dunno, prolly bird crap. Damn Cormorants. Anybody else?” Hmmm.
We are joined by Jeff, who the Captain introduces as the dockmaster. Jeff will help with the actual boat checkouts to speed things along. He’s a young (30ish) man with a thin build and blond hair done in dreads. Jeff leads us down the dock to what will be our boat for the duration of our stay. A Catalina 22 named Latin Princess. We’re told it’s named for Irene, who is the woman we spoke to when we made our reservations. Jeff tells us that all of her running rigging has been replaced within the last three months and the standing rigging is tuned about once a month so she should handle really well for us. He then gave us a thorough indoctrination on the motor, running rigging, reefing, and deck hardware. We went below and made sure all the gear we needed was there (it was) and in good condition (it was). During the check-out we learn that Jeff lives aboard his boat there in the sound and commutes to the resort by dinghy. When we are satisfied that we know all we need to know about the boat, and Jeff is, I suspect, satisfied that we can operate it without destroying it, we sign on the dotted line and Latin Princess is ours for the remainder of the week.
This is where I should stop and explain that we are relatively new sailors. We’re Baby Boomers whose kids have finally moved out. Sailing is something we always talked about. So about six months before this trip we took an ASA Basic Keelboat Class and have been practicing with a friend a few weekends a month. An hour after our check out, we were underway on Buttonwood Sound. This is a beautiful chunk of water; shallow and crystal clear. The water temperature is 88 degrees. The wind is from the southeast at a steady 15 knots. We are in heaven. The boat handles beautifully. We take about a two hour shakedown cruise and return to the dock for lunch. When we dock the Captain is there asking if everything worked and if we noticed anything that needed attention. We tell him she performed beautifully. After lunch we head for what the Captain described as the Mangrove Jungle Tour. We sail to Tarpon Basin, bringing two one person kayaks with us. Once anchored in Tarpon Basin, we Kayak through the canals laid out on the chart we were given during orientation. This is truly a National Geographic photo op. We paddle through mangrove tunnels painted by the hand of God. Manatee and tarpon swim past us. In the mangroves, all sorts of critters make all sorts of noises. We are in heaven.
Later that evening we were back at the tiki hut, discussing the days events with our fellow sailors. We all chat and then someone notices that the sun is almost to the horizon. We all get quiet and just watch as it disappears, turning the sky into an indescribable light show. A guest raises a glass, “to life”. “To life” we all answer and drink in our wine and companionship. This is what I came for. This is the old Keys. I sit and wonder how did time manage to pass this place by.
On day three there is a note on the weather board in the tiki hut: Sunset Sail Tonight! Around 4:00 PM the Captain brought a Jeanneau Lagoon 47 catamaran to the dock. At 7:15 we all met at the tiki hut (which I now believe to be the center of the Universe) for a safety brief with the Captain. This is another great infotainment session that lasts only about five minutes. He explains that “Endless Summer” is a total electric boat. It has two 144 volt propulsion motors charged by solar panels over the doghouse. Paul, the resort owner, comes to skipper this trip. You can tell this is something he truly loves. We board and are very quickly backing away from the dock. There is no noise. The boat is completely quiet. It’s spooky and very cool. Paul takes us all out to watch the sunset from offshore. Did I mention this is free? We listen to some music, sip some refreshments (BYOB) and watch a beautiful sunset. There are two kids on board and Paul has them hoist a pirate flag up to the spreader while we all sing the pirate song. This is the pirate song, it’s not very long, arrrgh! He gets anyone who wants it a turn at the helm, and takes pics for them while they steer. When we get back to the dock, the tiki torches are lit and there is a bonfire burning on the beach. We all sit around it and have a marvelous time late into the night.
The next morning I sneak out of bed early and walk down to the dock. The Captain is looking out like a shepherd counting his flock. I learned during the week that almost all of the twenty or so boats anchored there belong to the resort. There is a young man I haven’t seen before raking the beach and picking up after our fire side chat last night. Jeff is pulling up to the dock in a dinghy. Paul is walking toward the beach, smelling some flowers that have fallen of a tree on the property. He offers them to me and says to give them to my wife. They smell wonderful.
This is the Old Keys my friends. It has nothing to do with geography or time. It’s the people. Paul, who is clearly the soul of this place. The Captain, the Dockmaster, and all the folks who work to make this place different from anyplace else. They don’t seem to much care about what goes on outside the gate, much less half way around the world. Their focus seems to be keeping his little piece of Paradise stuck in time, to be shared by those who come here. Almost all of the guests we met here were repeat guests. We will be too. The flux capacitor isn’t in a DeLorean. It’s in the sail of a Catalina 22 at the Key Lime Sailing Club.