We made it to the Keys, and were able to make it to John Pennekamp State Park from Miami in about a half a day. There was no wind, so it was another day of motoring, but it was a fairly nice day of cruising. We love the hues of the ocean from the light to cerulean blues.
The approach to the park by water is interesting; as one friend described it, “You hear the banjos playing.” [And you had to be born in the 60s or 70s to even get that reference, and we're all still scarred by it.]. You have to drive through fairly narrow channels in the mangroves. It is a bit of a leap of faith; you have to turn corners without seeing the next day marker.
There is one corner in particular, called “Crash Corner,” because it is a tight point in the channel, and it is about a 70 degree turn to the left on the way in. Pennekamp Park runs several snorkeling and dive boats, and it also has one HUGE glass-bottommed catamaran that takes up the entire channel when it is transiting this corner.
We were forewarned about “Crash Corner” and the big boat by a friend of ours, who had been recently staying in Pennekamp on a mooring ball. And, as our luck would have it, just as we approached “Crash Corner” we heard the catamaran sound a horn that it was rounding the bend. We had to quickly put our engines in reverse, and turn away, out of the channel. Thankfully, there is a wide spot just before the corner that we were able to back into; however, if we had any other boat than Octopussy, we would have run aground.
We were very lucky once we got to the marina. We got the “big” slip because of our beam, and the dock ran the length of our boat. The other slips at the marina have no finger piers, so people have to jump on/off of the bow of their boats.
However, we were unlucky with the weather. We had intended to stay for three days, but the weather out on the reefs was so bad that we couldn’t get out there to enjoy them, so we stayed for five days waiting for the weather to pass. So, we put the dinghy in the water and explored the mangroves, the visitors center and aquarium, walked through the parks nature trails, and relaxed.
We fished for a couple of days, and thanks to Mike Merritt in the dock master’s office, who gave us tons of fishing advice, we caught nice-sized mangrove snapper which Dr. No cooked in a beautiful seafood stew one night, and we made fish tacos with another night. It’s great to catch dinner!
We rented a car one day and ran some errands as well, since we had some time on our hands. We went to K-Mart, where we ran into Bubba the Meeter-
Greeter Rooster (can’t make this stuff up!). And I know his name is Bubba because all of the locals greeted him by name as they walked into the store. [You can find his picture on my Facebook Page!]
We also went to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, a local favorite. And it is terrific! It looks like a small diner inside, with a lunch counter and about a dozen tables. However, it was clear to us that Mrs. Mac’s have their priorities straight: their drinks menu was just as robust as their food menu. Welcome to the Keys!
And on the fifth day, we snorkeled.
And it was good.
We finally left Pennekamp Park Marina and headed out to the reefs. The conditions were worse out at the reefs than expected, but we went to Largo Dry Rocks for the day, which was a shallow reef. We wanted to tie up on the “outside” next to the Christ statue, but the seas were 2-3 feet and coming out of the east. So, we moored on the “inside,” hoping the reef would give us a lee. It did, which was terrific. This was to be Dr. No’s first actual snorkeling experience in the ocean, we didn’t need him swimming in a crazy sea state [not that we would have done that; we would have aborted the not-so-secret mission].
It was a great introduction. He and I snorkeled, while James, M and Q stayed on the boat as safety observers for the day. As he said, “He got his shark heebie jeebies out” : you know, that weird fear of “what is in the water below me?” — because this was the first time he’d *just* jumped into the middle of the ocean off of a perfectly good boat. We saw a lot a barracuda, a huge grouper-thingy of some sort hiding behind a coral head that was NOT happy to see us [showed us all of his teeth and had a really big underbite ], a stingray, and of course the multitude of colorful tropical fish [I could, but won't bother naming them all]. We also had this really curious King Mackerel give us the stink eye as he swam right up to us.
After Dr. No and I had all of the fun snorkeling, James wanted to have some fun of his own fishing as we made our way to our anchorage for the evening at Rodriguez Key. Mike Merritt the marina dock master gave him advice to skirt the 60 ft depth line just outside the Pennekamp reefs… so we did.
And, just as we made our turn south of Molasses Reef west towards land, BANG!
My job is to drive when we have a fish on. So, I slowed down, and actually had to put the engine in neutral because the fish was swimming under the boat next to the props. We were afraid that we were going to cut the line. This was our first big fish, and it was a three-person job. M wanted to help soon badly that we had to put him inside; Q on the other hand does not lower himself to such menial tasks, and was watching us wrestle with the funny black stick on the back of the boat.
Finally we got the fish onboard, but realized we needed a larger fish net: I had to spatula him onto the boat with the frame of the net while James continued to pull on the line.
It wasn’t a pretty evolution to watch, but it was definitely a pretty fish.
We ended our day anchored snuggly at Rodriguez Key with about ten other boats.
The next morning we headed out to Molasses Reef. It is deeper than Dry Rocks, which adds to the size of the coral heads, and fish that are out there. The mooring balls were literally over the reef itself, so we literally floated next to our boat and just took it all in.
Dr. No was much more confident in the water this second day, and stayed in as James and I swapped out as safety observers. During that time, he popped his head out of the water, and said, “There are three yellow fin tuna swimming right below me. They’re HUGE!!!” It was great to see him enjoying it so much.
This last two days was the defining moment for us when we finally felt like we were cruising; we finally felt like we had “arrived.” Since we left Annapolis in September, we had been “transiting.” It was cold, we were always pushing to get somewhere, see someone, or do something. I’d been telling Dr. No of this “magical place” called cruising that we were heading to. He was starting to not believe me.
Yes, it does exist. And we have finally found it.