Help the Keys re­build—go fish­ing.


Power & Motor Yacht - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN BROWNLEE

On Septem­ber 10, Hur­ri­cane Irma made land­fall on U.S. soil in the Florida Keys, af­ter wreak­ing havoc through­out the Caribbean, the south­ern Ba­hamas, and Cuba.

When Irma hit Cud­joe Key in the lower Keys, it ar­rived as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm with sus­tained winds of 115 knots. Up and down the chain of is­lands, dam­age was the worst on the ocean (south) side of the only high­way con­nect­ing the Keys, US 1.

As I write this from my home in Is­lam­orada, it’s been a month since the storm and the re­mark­able ef­forts to clean up and re­cover from the dam­age con­tinue—with no end in sight. Keys res­i­dents tend to be a re­silient bunch; we typ­i­cally take hur­ri­canes in stride, or as much as one can take such a thing in stride.

Most of you have prob­a­bly seen the im­ages com­ing out of the Keys, pho­tos and videos of huge trash piles, wrecked mo­bile homes, sunk boats, and flooded ap­pli­ances. We had just seen sim­i­lar im­agery com­ing from Texas, as our neigh­bors in the Lone Star state went through a sim­i­lar or­deal with Har­vey only a few weeks ear­lier.

Many peo­ple lost their homes, their cars, their boats, and ir­re­place­able per­sonal be­long­ings. Such is the na­ture of nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. But many have suf­fered an on­go­ing and more in­sid­i­ous kind of loss in the days and weeks af­ter the storms ended: eco­nomic loss.

Most of the ocean­side Keys mari­nas where char­ter boats dock suf­fered heavy dam­age, forc­ing boats to seek dock­age else­where while re­pairs were un­der­taken. That might not sound cat­a­strophic at first, un­til you re­al­ize that Keys mari­nas tend to be small and fully oc­cu­pied. So when these boats get dis­placed, there re­ally isn’t any­where else to go.

Much of that stems from the fact that ge­o­graph­i­cally, the Keys are a small land mass, sur­rounded by shal­low wa­ter in most places. Suit­able build­ing sites for deep­wa­ter mari­nas ca­pa­ble of ac­com­mo­dat­ing larger, in­board boats aren’t easy to find, so dock space tends to be lim­ited.

As Irma ap­proached, these boats had to leave the mari­nas in most cases and seek shel­ter where they could find it. Some cap­tains drove their boats far into tidal creeks and tied them off to the man­grove bushes on ei­ther side. This time-hon­ored hur­ri­cane de­fense strat­egy has proven quite ef­fec­tive in the past and did so again with Irma.

Oth­ers hauled their boats and se­cured them on the hard at lo­cal boat­yards with stands and chains. And still oth­ers tied their boats off in the mid­dle of res­i­den­tial canals with mul­ti­ple lines se­cured to dock cleats, trees, or what­ever was avail­able. Most boats made it through, but not all. One no­table ex­cep­tion was Capt. Jim Sharpe of Sum­mer­land Key, a vet­eran Keys skip­per and renowned mahi-mahi ex­pert, who has weath­ered many a storm in his years in the Keys.

Sharpe had his 43-foot Tor­res char­ter boat, Sea Boots, tied off in the canal be­hind his home of­fice, but the 1½-inch line se­cur­ing the bow parted in the height of the storm, caus­ing the boat’s stern to rise onto the dock in the flood tide, and sink­ing the bow in the canal. Many other boat own­ers shared a sim­i­lar fate, as thor­ough prepa­ra­tion sim­ply fell vic­tim to bad luck and the un­pre­dictabil­ity of wind and tide.

Still other char­ter skip­pers found them­selves with no place to dock their boats, as some mari­nas sent them let­ters say­ing they could not re­turn for up to a full year as re­pairs moved

for­ward. With a paucity of com­mer­cial slips avail­able to move to, many of these cap­tains found them­selves berthing their boats be­hind the houses of friends in res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods tem­po­rar­ily. A good short-term so­lu­tion for stor­age, but not vi­able long term since char­ter­ing from res­i­den­tial ar­eas is al­most al­ways il­le­gal.

Then there’s the gen­eral eco­nomic malaise that hur­ri­canes in­flict on tourism-based busi­ness of all sorts. For sev­eral weeks af­ter Irma, non-res­i­dents weren’t al­lowed into the Keys at all. When au­thor­i­ties fi­nally opened the road to ev­ery­one, they did so to al­low work­ers to come back and re­sume their jobs.

Busi­nesses, in­clud­ing char­ter boats, were shut down for weeks, and a few re­main shut down a month later. Imag­ine your own plight if you were thrust into a sit­u­a­tion in which your in­come stopped com­pletely for weeks, maybe months? Most of us would be strapped hard in short or­der should we be forced to coast with no money com­ing in.

Ex­penses con­tinue, of course, and bills keep com­ing. FEMA will un­doubt­edly of­fer some as­sis­tance, but as the off­shore char­ter fleet strug­gles to get back on its feet, you can help. The best way is to come to the Keys, book a fish­ing trip, stay in a ho­tel room, and eat at our great restau­rants. The Keys may be bat­tered, but they are also open for busi­ness and a lit­tle eco­nomic stim­u­la­tion goes a long way.

The good news is that off­shore fish­ing has been red hot since Irma passed through. Capt. Steve Leopold of the Is­lam­orada-based char­ter boat Yabba Dabba Do summed things up per­fectly. “Most of the boats and mari­nas are up and run­ning in Is­lam­orada but some re­sorts are not open yet,” he says. “The best place to be in the Keys is out on the wa­ter. Not many boats and lots of fish.”

The char­ter fleet awaits your ar­rival and is ea­ger to get back to work; as I men­tioned ear­lier, they are a re­silient lot. Hand-painted ply­wood signs along US 1 sport slo­gans like “Keys Strong,” and “You Can’t Drown a Conch!”

Amidst all of the de­struc­tion and chaos, the Keys’ sense of hu­mor and de­sire to go fish­ing re­main in­tact. And that’s what makes this place so spe­cial.

Much of the char­ter fleet is un­der wa­ter, but spir­its re­main high.

Re­cov­er­ing from Irma: Not for the faint of heart.

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