By Robert Betts (Age: 63)
Copyright 04-04-2000

Boot Key Harbor is one of the most beautiful and secure harbors in the world. However it has problems which need addressing.

First let’s dispel some ugly rumors. The January 2000 issue of Sail Magazine stated that Boot Key Harbor is filthy and has no swing room. Filthy is relative and not very specific. There are derelicts, people as well as boats. The water is green most of the time But there is a large population of very nice boats also. Several visiting cruisers people have commented that Sail’s description does not match the facts

As for swing room, all anchors are designed to hold when they are pulled on from one direction. hence if the wind switches, the pull will be opposite to the designed line of pull. Something has to give either the boat will break anchor and drag or the anchor shank will bend. The solution to this is to put out two anchors in opposite directions, known as a Bahamian moor. This adds to your security as well as it shows consideration for your neighbors.

The Great Land Grab
There seems little to add to the County’s attempt to grab Boot Key Harbor, it has been covered in the media and meetings. What is lacking however is historical perspective.

Boot Key Harbor was first used soon after Columbus discovered America. There exists an old chart, which shows Vaca Key but does not identify Olgothorpe’s colony. This dates the harbor’s first usage to about 1505. Since then it pretty much slept peacefully until the period of Flagler’s railroad in 1900.

Old charts show the original harbor to be semi protected, that is to the south there were numerous islands and Sister’s Creek was more of a wide channel rather than a narrow creek.

The mosquito problem, lack of naturally occurring water, intense heat and poor access caused all of the Keys to remain as a tropical Hell until these problems were addressed and solved. Disease laden mosquitoes hindered Flagler and caused many deaths during the construction of his railroad. The railroad lasted about thirty years until a hurricane in 1935 destroyed most of the bridges. The old railroad bed and bridges were converted to a treacherous and narrow road soon after the hurricane. During WWII a pipeline was constructed from the mainland to Key West. The major reason was to supply defense forces. The Keys were viewed as a possible beachhead of attack for Germany or Japan.

The forties saw little growth but development began in earnest in the fifties and sixties. Air conditioning solved the heat problem and chemicals were developed to combat the virulent mosquitoes.

All major problems solved, the development was so rapid that the Keys were often listed as the fastest growing part of the United States. The favorable climate was certainly a large contributing factor as well.

Boot Key Harbor stood almost abandoned for many years. Pictures of the harbor taken from Boot Key Bridge in 1970 show only three or four masts. Living aboard a boat was practically unknown and cruising was considered to be something only the adventurous, insane and/or wealthy would engage in.

As shore development progressed, property values soared and economics fueled a move toward living aboard. LORAN, SATNAV then GPS made cruising easier and more available to the general public. Glass boats, nearly indestructible, brought boat prices down to affordable levels as the market became glutted with used boats. Glass boats were too good, so good in fact that their life is indeterminate. Many companies throughout the country went out of business as the trade in used boats exceeded new boat sales.

The harbor saw a population explosion in the seventies and eighties which caused new problems. Sewage was and is directly dumped. Derelicts and abandoned boats flourished. Resentment developed between shore residents who perceived the boating community to be irresponsible freeloaders. Like most perceptions there was and is some truth to it although it is far more complicated than one would suspect at first glance.

A committee was formed back in 1985 or so to study the harbor. They were named the “Boot Key Harbor Task Force.” The end result was that they recommended enforcement of existing law, period. Bluntly, they did nothing and might as well have not existed, although Moron County officials like to point proudly that the present committee dates back ten to fifteen years.

In 1989 Swat Teams in flack jackets bearing automatic weapons mounted a full-scale assault on the harbor. Sister’s Creek and Boot Key Bridge were sealed off and defended. Dinghies were ordered back to their boats. U.S. citizens were effectively placed under arrest while boats were searched, looking for criminals they said.

Unfortunately for the man who ordered the raid, one of the boats contained a Senator. I’ve heard that gentleman is still rolling dung balls somewhere in the jungles of Africa alongside a few other scarab beetles. Donno for sure, only heard the rumors. The end result was that Boot Key Harbor received terrible press throughout the cruising community, which still occasionally stigmatizes the harbor.

Somewhere around ‘93 or ‘94 an organization was spun off the Chamber of Commerce. They called themselves the Economic Development Council but later changed their name to a more “politically correct” Marathon Community Council (MCC). This is vital, remember MCC. More about them later.

In 1995, the Ad Hoc Committee, who later became known as the Boot Key Harbor Committee (BKHC), was appointed by County Commissioners. They held meetings and took public input. Almost all attendees were harbor residents and cruisers. Nearly all lobbied against moorings. I hate to admit it, but I was one of those advocating anchoring. Several hurricanes and a few incidents with occasional “harbor rats” have conspired to change my mind and clear my clouded vision. Luckily, the committee did not give in to the “loaded” audience of boaters with their special interest but decided for the good of all. They recommended only 25 test moorings, a concession to lobbying boaters. However their intent was clearly for many more moorings.

BKHC wrote a long recommendations paper which was adopted by the County. They recommended that the county buy Pat & Kelly’s Marina. In order to avoid government competition with private enterprise (more accurately, to disguise inevitable competition) they also recommended that the marina management be contracted out to a private organization. This initiated some back-room deals that were most probably already in progress. Many BKHC members were doubling as MCC members. George Nugent was chairman of the BKHC at the time and an MCC member.

Now let’s follow the buck. Nugent ran for County Commissioner. Naturally, he chose Kirby Scheinman, a fellow MCC member, as his campaign manager. When Nugent won, he rewarded the MCC with the marina contract and Scheinman with a $50,000 salary for showing up at the marina once in a while and managing it. The other four commissioners were either uninformed, too dumb to see it or decided to play along.

The marina however is not self-sustaining. The county is pumping in $14,500/mo and collecting only a little better than half of that in fees. They have admitted that the marina as it stands will never be self-sufficient. There is inadequate dockage space to pay the bills. The building and canal was originally a receiving dock for fishing boats and is designed for one or two boats to offload fishing catches and not as a marina. The solution? Acquire bottom rights for the county, put in moorings and pay for the marina using the proceeds. Maybe spread a little more “good will” on a few deserving participants and MCC members.

November 1999 brought incorporation and independence from the county for the newly formed City of Marathon. The county and MCC realized that they had to move fast before the new Council could be selected and seated. Without warning, George Garret’s office (Water Resources), presumably under orders and acting for the county, quickly dumped a management plan on the BKHC. Many committee members were offended since it was supposed to be their job to recommend to the county, not the other way around.

As one might expect, the initial fast-tracked plan was horribly bumbled and flawed. The latest revision is better but still needs some absolutely vital smoothing in certain areas or Marathon’s economy will suffer drastically. Marathon’s City Council who has a vested interest in the plan for all its residents, not just county lackeys, must handle these revisions.

On Dec 22, 1999, Garrett’s office also secretly submitted this plan, without proper legal notices being posted, to the Florida’s Dept. of Environmental Protection in application for a county lease to the bay bottom, again presumably under orders. Was the MCC aware? You betcha! I learned of the submission and surprised Scheinman on WAVK’s “Good Morning Marathon,” hosted by Ken Carter. His prior knowledge was clearly revealed when Kirby couldn’t seem to curb his tongue in an effort to explain it all away. A conspiracy? You be the judge.

The crux of the matter is the fact that the County, especially George Nugent, has proven themselves to be dishonorable people and not to be trusted. (At last I heard “bookies” are giving 1200:1 odds against Nugent’s being reelected.) Luckily, most candidates for City Council seem to be a cut above the types we have on the county level. However, any MCC member is suspect. Their interest is for themselves and their organization. They are aware that their power comes ONLY from the county since many Marathon people know them for who they are.

A major economic consideration of the management plan is this: The plan admits that we have 350 boats in the harbor at the height of season. That number is low; it is actually 400-450. They want to place 149 moorings and allow 50 boats to anchor for a total of 199 boats. Since about 120 boats are live-aboards, using their lower number of 350 we get only about 80 cruisers allowed where there were about 250. Simple math gets you the fact that we will only be allowed 1/3 of the cruisers, which we had. Cruisers spend big bucks. It is not unusual for a single cruiser to spend $10,000-20,000 in Marathon! The negative impact on our economy will be tremendous.

Another factor is the strength of the moorings. The county has applied for class 1 hurricane moorings. These are white elephants which are totally inadequate in an area often subject to class 2-4 hurricanes. This is a liability disaster waiting to happen.

There are many, many more factors which are at stake, many equally important. The Florida DEP sent the county’s application back with many pages of questions for which they demand answers. Since the City of Marathon will have control over permits issued to improve the marina, the skirmish is over but until the County signs binding documents promising our harbor to the City of Marathon, the war is not ended.

Some people are lobbying for progress, any progress. The harbor desperately needs management and moorings. Some want that at any cost. However to leave it in the hands of the county will invite disaster and likely result in long-term, irreversible economic damage to Marathon.

At a recent meeting Commissioner Nugent replied to a question of how will the harbormaster be selected. Attempting to make a joke, he replied, “by a conspiracy.” Hmmm, one wonders.

Let’s clean and manage our harbor.

Let’s do it right the first time!

The Editors