To say I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries about how Boot Key Harbor is doing post-Irma and whether boaters should come here this winter would be an understatement.
I originally wrote this November 12, 2017 — two months after BKH was hit by the nasty NE eyewall of Category 4 Hurricane Irma and have now updated it through December 30, 2017. All info is to the best of my knowledge.
THE HARBOR IS OPEN
Yes, Boot Key Harbor is open for new boats. Mooring balls have been inspected and repaired where necessary, however, there is one part (the downline) that cannot be inspected and the office says you “use them at your own risk.” We’re on the same mooring ball we were on during the storm; it’s blown 25+ several times since the storm and I haven’t heard of anyone having a problem with their mooring. But no guarantees!
As of January 20, 2018, the the mooring field is full with a very short waiting list (less than usual for this time of year). Anchoring is available; most boats are only having to wait a day or two for a mooring ball (it depends on weather windows for boats heading to the Bahamas — every time a window opens, a number of balls open up.
CONTACTING THE OFFICE
The marina phone is finally working as of December 1 — 305-289-8877. If you are in VHF range, call them on channel 16; you can also email the office at [email protected]
Both the west entrance channel and Sister’s Creek are open, but both are missing some markers. For the west entrance, hug the greens (used to be hug the reds, so this is a change).
In general, for either entrance, it’s best to come in near high tide, while it is still rising. Go slowly and watch the depth sounder closely. If you draw close to 6 foot, call any of the tow operators — Tow Boat US, Sea Tow or Tow Boat One — on VHF 16 to get more specific up-to-date info (things change as more and more debris is removed).
Anywhere that you see a fender floating or a pink/red marker, assume it’s marking underwater debris and steer clear. Also, please don’t pull these up as “trash.”
As always at this time of year, there are a lot of crab and lobster traps out across all of Florida Bay and in Hawk Channel. Keep a sharp lookout!
INSIDE THE HARBOR
The mooring field is pretty well clear of debris and sunken boats but always watch out for “floating fenders” and pink/red markers — these are put out whenever anything new is found.
Check out the diagram of the shoals in my previous post on Things to Know Before Entering BKH. They’re still in the same locations and still not marked as well as they could be!
City Marina (the official name of the Boot Key Harbor mooring field) is up and running pretty normally. The only big change is that the outer dinghy dock no longer exists (well, the pieces can be found strewn around) and the floating dock is now entirely for dinghies.
Important: treat the entire harbor area as a no-wake slow speed zone and the area near the dinghy dock as idle speed only. This is not only courteous to other boaters but critically important to the manatees in the harbor (yes, they’re back!) who can’t move very fast to get out of your way.
All marina services are up:
- Shower rooms
- Workshop is open
- Credit cards are accepted
- Mail delivery (and all parcel services such as UPS, Fed Ex, DHL)
- Vehicle parking
- Bike parking
- Wifi at the office is finally back up as of mid-January, 2018
Most businesses are open, some with limited hours or services. To name a few things important to cruisers:
- Buses are running on schedule, as is Keys Shuttle to the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale airports.
- Taxis are available — $5 will take you anywhere on the island. Bob Narley taxi did not re-open after the storm; the other local companies are.
- Publix is open; Winn-Dixie is not.
- West Marine, Home Depot, Specialty Hardware and NAPA are all open and well-stocked.
- Sea-Tek (aka “Alex”) and SALT marine services are open.
- Most restaurants and bars are open. As of January 24, most are now serving their full menus but service might be slow. Most of the city’s “affordable housing” was wiped out in the storm, pre-Irma employees moved away when they couldn’t find housing, almost no one is moving here right now because of the housing crunch and consequently many places are short-staffed. (The upside to this is if you’re looking to refill the cruising kitty and have a boat to live on, there are plenty of opportunities.)
- Yoga in the Park (amphitheater) next door is happening one day a week, on Wednesdays. Sue’s Yoga in the park pavilion on Tuesdays and Fridays has also restarted.
- The hospital had the roof ripped off in the storm; it is open for emergency services only. Most patients get transported to Mariner’s Hospital in Tavernier or to one of the Miami hospitals for treatment.
- Doctors’, dentists’, and clinics can be found but it’s sometimes easier (and faster to get an appointment) to go to Key Largo or Key West for services (this is one area that is changing almost daily as to what is and isn’t open).
- Both local vets are open and able to process pets’ paperwork for the Bahamas as well as regular and emergency care.
- All cell phone services are up.
- Snorkel, dive and fishing charters are generally up and running.
- Boatyards are pretty full but again, things change daily. Call before assuming you can arrange a haulout here.
Okay, the storm hit the local workers disproportionately hard. Most didn’t live in new hurricane-resistant housing and lost pretty much everything. They don’t have a lot of savings to fall back on. And it’s expensive to live in the Keys. So please, be kind, understand if they are short-staffed (remember, your server is one who stayed to help rebuild!) and tip generously.
HOTELS AND MOTELS
If you are going to have guests coming in, it’s going to be tough to get them a room. First, it’s always hard “in season” — that is, winter. Second, a LOT of people lost their homes or had them severely damaged and are now living in hotels and motels. Third, all the recovery workers (clean up crews, rebuilding contractors, insurance adjusters, and on and on) that are in town have to stay somewhere.
Key West and all its attractions had a lot less damage than Marathon. Pretty much all the “touristy” things to do there are open, as are the buses to take you there. HOWEVER, note that you’ll drive through the very hard hit “Ground Zero” area of Big Pine Key. It still looks like a war zone there. Please be respectful and don’t act like it’s a sightseeing event as people are trying to clean things up and rebuild their lives.
HOW THE HARBOR AND CITY LOOK
Those of us who came back right after Hurricane Irma think things are looking a lot better now. Those who are just arriving are shocked at the devastation, destruction, and debris.
Both groups are right.
There has been a lot of progress made, mainly due to the city marina employees and and a lot of volunteers from the harbor. There are still some debris piles — not many compared to what there were, but still astounding to newcomers.
Virtually all of the sunken boats have been raised and removed as well as almost all those that went into the mangroves have been removed. It’s rare to still see a crane operating in the harbor, but if you do, stay well clear of their operations.
You’ll meet people both around the marina office and in town who lost their boats, houses, cars, jobs. Most are surprisingly upbeat but you’ll see them having bad days too. Dealing with FEMA and insurance is not pretty. Have compassion. Just listening to their stories goes a long way.
BOTTOM LINE — PLEASE COME!
The Keys’ entire economy is based on tourism and boaters are part of that — and boaters put far less strain on local housing than other tourists, so are very welcome.
Things are not perfect but the community spirit is amazing. If you can deal with imperfection, want to pitch in and help, and have an upbeat attitude, you’ll have a wonderful time.
A friend, Mike Tounge, made this video last winter. The sunsets are still every bit as gorgeous! (PS – the background music really adds to it, so be sure you have your volume turned on.)