Key Lime Sailing Club
A Charter Alternative in the Florida Keys
This is an article submitted by our dear guest Tommy Barnes and originally published on Small Craft Advisor last 2019.
Some destination sailing is always in the mix when it comes to coping with northern winters as a sailor. Historically I’ve welcomed this for the most part as it meant hitchhiking boats around the Caribbean and jumping in to crew deliveries, regattas and the like. But as one gets older (read: married) this can become increasingly less feasible. Although my mate enjoys both sailing and travelling, that format just wasn’t going to cut it and so this past winter presented a new challenge. Luckily though, it resulted in an exciting new discovery.
Gazing at the winter calendar, my first thought was naturally to look into bareboat charters. We have friends who know their way around a sailboat; I get my sailing fix; my loving wife gets to experience a whole new (more luxurious) side of sailing; we sail at our own leisurely pace, not that of the owner when crewing deliveries. It has its perks, but at a price – a steep one. Then I considered hauling the old sailing dinghy down to Florida instead for the class’ mid-winter regatta. I get my fix and spend time off of the water vacationing with my better half. This too wasn’t an altogether terrible option.
Some time passed, along with the holidays without anything pencilled in on the calendar when a work trip conveniently had me in southern Florida for a week. While there, I ventured down to Key Largo in my spare time to escape the madness of Miami. Having dinner one evening overlooking Buttonwood Sound I was delighted to see so many boats sailing to and from a nearby mooring field and inquired with some locals. As it turns out, we were just a few doors down from a quaint little sailing retreat that came highly recommended. “Key Lime Sailing Club“, they said. “Authentic spot”, “as bohemian as the Keys themselves”, “for sailors you know, not ordinary tourists”, “old Keys bungalows that come with a sailboat” they continued as I began revising regatta plans in my head. Considering the unsolicited recommendations, I thought the place was worth looking into and wandered over. After a brief walk around the unpretentious grounds of Key Lime Sailing Club (KLSC) with their brightly painted cottages, hammocks and tiki torches leading to a waterfront palm thatch hut, docks and mooring field, I sensed something special about the place. KLSC is not a yacht club or a charter base. This is a family friendly small boat sailor’s hide-away. A sailing retreat without the price tag or headaches of 50+ feet polished bareboats. The type of place most of my small boat sailing friends would turn their own sliver of waterfront property into if they had the chance.
Back home, I corresponded with the friendly folks operating KLSC and booked a cottage. Before long I was on a flight back to Miami which is quick and easy compared to most other Caribbean destinations which normally involve a lay-over, customs, ferry, taxi, etc., not to mention the significantly more expensive price tag. By 11am, an hour after landing, four hours after taking off we were in the Keys provisioning at a Publix conveniently located within walking distance to KLSC.
The cottage was just right in its own unique way. Again, this place is, by design, not for everyone. There’s a Marriot down the street for those seeking a resort experience. This place is for the rest of us. The cottage, although dated, was well thought out so as to be useful unlike so many rentals we’ve travelled through. For instance, they come with coolers to take sailing, a toaster, real coffee maker, and other non-essential items that make life easy. Outside we had a hammock, grill, picnic table, and clothes line. Alas, KLSC is not about the lodging. It’s about time in, on, and around the water. I threw the bags down, changed into trunks and began rigging up a Sunfish.
A Catalina 22 was later assigned to us (all cottage rentals come with one) for the duration of our stay. KLSC, being an ASA sailing school as well, provided a thorough briefing on the boat and cruising grounds, safety gear, chart, etc. To compliment the large fleet of Catalina 22s, KLSC offers paddle boards, kayaks, Sunfish, a Hobie Cat, snorkeling gear and more all included in cottage rental cost. Buttonwood Sound is part of the Florida Bay, between mainland Florida and the Upper Keys, and extends west to the Gulf of Mexico. These are shallow and relatively protected waters which makes the swing-keel Catalina 22s an ideal pocket cruiser and/or day sailor. Once out past Porjoe and Whaleback Keys, the sandy bottom creates a beautiful sea-foam turquoise setting which among other things, reminded me very much of the Bahama’s Abaco Islands: line of sight navigation, shallow water, gentle sea state, and moderate winds all easy to manage in comparison to some other Caribbean destinations with ocean swells, deep water, and strong trades blowing through.
A typical day would start with coffee while rigging the Sunfish on the small beach and watching for ripples to form on the glassy water. Once the wind was up, I’d reach back and forth across the sound at first light to ease my way into the day catching the attention of anchored cruisers who would give a thumbs up as I passed astern, hiking out as the Sunfish got up on a plane, grinning I imagine, ear to ear. Back in for a light breakfast and to pick up sleeping beauty, then out again on the Catalina with some destination in mind. Within day sail range are a number of small uninhabited keys, some of which you can anchor at and even launch kayaks to explore water trails through mangroves and spy on manatee. The wind cooperated daily in the 10-15 knot range. By early afternoon we would head in to avoid the afternoon heat and do some land-based exploring by car or bike. KLSC also provides free bicycles. Later in the day we might sail again making it back just in time to tie up to a mooring ball and watch the sunset with a rum punch in privacy. Or walk a short distance to one of the numerous waterfront restaurants. Upon our return after dark, we normally found like-minded guests gathered around the fire pit, some of whom have been returning to KLSC for well over a decade. Everyone had an interesting story about their discovery of KLSC and agreed it was something of a hidden gem.
And so it continued day after day much like this. Two to three sails a day, breakfast and lunch on the boat, site seeing elsewhere, and seeking out the local spots for dinner and drinks. We made side trips to Key West, Bahia Honda State Park, and John Pennecamp State Park which are all feasible if you rent a car. This isn’t necessary of course, but worthwhile if you want to see more of the Keys which do offer plenty to do and see.
On the return flight, it was hard to hide my glee in finding a way to combine sailing and vacationing in such a manner that was as enjoyable for my wife as it was for me, and arguably better even than chartering or crewing a larger boat in a more high-profile regatta or cruising ground. So much so that the following day I was back on the line with KLSC booking a trip back. I hadn’t even washed the salt out of my hair yet. There was, after all, another month of winter to cope with. In fact, I’m reminded just now that I ought to examine the winter 2020 calendar and pick a few long weekends to escape again to the Key Lime Sailing Club. – Thomas C. Barnes