Marathon and Irma: A snowbird’s view

Boats were pulled out of the mangroves, but not the accompanying debris; that’s where we came in. Photo by Mike Camarata

Guest perspective/Michael Camarata

The 2017 hurricane season was notorious for the hardship it caused across the Caribbean and in many places in the United States and its territories. Recovery from the devastation has fallen out of the headlines, but is still ongoing. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the operative phrase.

Marathon, Fla., is a relatively small community located in the Florida Keys. Though other towns in Florida were hit harder than Marathon, Hurricane Irma had a major impact on the boating community there. Aboard our catamaran, Infinite Improbability, my wife and I are part of that community. We’re snowbirds. We are full-time liveaboards. We spend about four months per year in southern New England and about three months in the Florida Keys. The rest of the time we cruise between the two. We consider Marathon our second home, and when Irma hit near there just before we planned to depart for our eighth trip south we wondered what we’d find there, or if we should even go at all. Would our presence there stress an already fragile infrastructure? Would we be in the way? Would we be wanted at all? We talked with other cruisers and friends who were in Marathon year-round. Some cruisers weren’t going back, convinced services would no longer be available. Some didn’t want to go back, fearing things like sunken boats or out-of-place navigation aids would damage their vessels. We kept tabs on the situation as we headed south and ultimately decided to go to our winter home.

We arrived in Marathon two months to the day after Irma had hit. Boats that had sunk in the channels had already been removed. Buoys and day marks were adjusted or replaced. The Boot Key City Marina mooring field was almost fully operational, with a couple of partially sunken vessels still visible, but out of the way. The devastation, however, was still very much apparent. Surviving boats had missing or broken masts, and in some moored vessels there were holes above their waterlines. Usually beautiful mangroves were seriously scarred. Boats and major debris had yet to be removed. It was looking very sad, but to the local boating community it was looked at as a challenge. A job that needed seeing to so life could get back closer to normal.

Boot Key Harbor is the major center of boating in Marathon. It’s located roughly halfway between mainland Florida and Key West, the western end of the Keys. There are many other marinas in Marathon, ranging in size from a dozen or so slips to 100 or more, but the mooring field managed by the City of Marathon, and the anchorage around it, have more than 300 vessels (226 moorings). Of those, Irma left only about 75 boats unscathed. Although some boats sank, a lot more ended up in the mangroves, causing a lot of environmental damage. Various government operations pulled boats out of the mangroves and hauled them away, but they didn’t touch the various flotsam and jetsam there. It was obvious the unsightly debris in the mangroves would be there a long time if individuals didn’t tackle the problem. So, after the immediate emergency had passed, and food and drinking water issues were over, boaters banded together and tackled the junk that land dwellers didn’t have access to.

About six weeks after the storm, liveaboards in Boot Key organized volunteers who went into the mangroves aboard dinghies to pull out boat parts, plastics, wood, dock boxes, refrigerators, dock pieces and smaller wind-blown debris. They then pulled the garbage to the City Marina parking lot, or out to a local towboat operator, who stood by – free of charge – to take up larger objects. After several hours of toil, sweat, and a little bloodshed, the group would clean up and meet for lunch at the marina’s tiki hut. There they oftentimes were treated to a meal courtesy of noted marine author Carolyn Shearlock, who collected donations from her readers on behalf of the effort. People made the donations knowing they wouldn’t get a tax deduction, as no legalized charity was involved. Judging by their generosity, these same folks probably donated to the large charity/service organizations, as well.

The forays into the mangroves occurred approximately every five days. My wife and I, aboard Infinite Improbability, arrived eight weeks after the storm. We joined in as soon as we got there. As we approached three and a half months after the storm, the wrecked boats were mostly gone from the mangroves and so was the remaining debris. The group then tackled a mile of Route 1 in front of the marina, picking up the smaller stuff missed by the heavy equipment. To be fair, after three or four months, other groups were out there cleaning up the roadsides, as well. It may have taken the owners of residences longer because they were busy dealing with storm damage on their personal properties.

Boaters, in general, are always willing to help each other out. The scope of the situation in Marathon obviously went far beyond giving advice or helping someone do a minor boat repair, but, seeing something that needed doing, boaters pitched in and got it done. Houston, Puerto Rico and even Big Pine Key, roughly 20 miles to the west of Marathon, may have been hit harder, but the local and transient boating population in Marathon helped make one little corner of the world a better place.

Michael Camarata and his wife and co-captain Carol Zipke are full-time liveaboard cruisers whose home is the 44-foot catamaran, Infinite Improbability. They have been boating for more than 35 years, and, Mike says, “no longer do we own any dirt-based property.” They are both Senior Navigators and Past Commanders of the Waterbury (Conn.) Power Squadron of the USPS. Mike is also one of “Waterway Guide’s” cruising editors (Northern Edition).