ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Life in the Florida Keys is pretty laid-back. At least it can be, once you get here. That isn’t so easy these days because once-remote Key Largo, made famous by the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, isn’t so removed anymore. Some consider the island to be a bedroom community for Miami. And all of the Keys, down to Key West, are a weekend destination for all those city dwellers.
Getting to Island Time, the favored state of mind in the Keys, is harder than it used to be, too. One reason is the frantic traffic jams that occur anywhere along the Overseas Highway, the narrow road that strings all the Keys together. After driving this totally overwhelmed stretch of concrete, the best way to get to Island Time is to get as far away from this road as geography allows.
It helps to sit in the cockpit of a good boat, sail or power, share a bottle (or two) of wine and raise your glasses to what this wonderful place is all about: water, fish and good times.
I’ve arrived here with two of my brothers for a week of sailing. We’ve chartered a Watkins 33 sloop, vintage 1983, for what has become an annual event. We’re hoping for sunshine, for winds that run from fair to unfair, for simple meals aboard, a few memorable meals ashore and visits to the Hemingway house in Key West and to the sister ship of his fishing boat, the Pilar, in the World Wide Sportsman store.
Who would have thought that we’d discover a new economic indicator? But we did.
The source of the indicator is Pam, the owner/proprietor of Treasure Harbor Marina, a small sailboat charter and boat-slip rental operation about 21 miles south of Key Largo. Once a dedicated 18-slip marina for sailboat charters, it has morphed over the years into a mix of the original sailboats for charter, a few owner-sailed boats that rent slips and several motor yachts.
The man-made harbor is calm and protected, with only a narrow channel out to the Atlantic Ocean. Sail straight out, and you’re heading for Hen and Chickens reef and the rougher water of the Gulf Stream. Sail south a few miles, and you can take the Snake River cut into the bay.
Since she was widowed seven years ago, Pam has run the place on her own. She provides the sheets, towels and pillows for charters. She does any cleaning that hasn’t been done by returning charters. She takes care of small repairs. She provides local navigation knowledge and walks people through the details of a charter, like finding and replacing the diesel engine dipstick. And she still finds time to put fresh flower blossoms in the big bowl we all pass on our way to the boats.
One morning, while talking about good times and bad times, she suggests that she has an economic indicator. It is the amount of food left behind by people who charter boats.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“In really good times, people charter and they buy lots of food — more than they can possibly eat. And when the charter ends, they just leave it all.”
In lesser economic times, she explains, the amount of food left behind after a charter goes down. After a while, people no longer leave ketchup bottles behind because they’re using individual packets of ketchup they’ve taken from McDonald’s. When things are really tough, they don’t even leave the ketchup packets.
Pam has survived the no-ketchup-packet days. She smiles. “So the economy must be turning. Last week, a charterer left a bunch of food, more than I’ve seen in quite a while.”
Is Pam’s charter-food-left-behind indicator a good measure of our economy? I’ll let you decide. It’s as good as the better-known measures.
It also makes me think that for all the endlessly televised hand-wringing about hard times, an awful lot of people seem to be making-do rather well. The Miami/Fort Lauderdale airspace, for instance, is so crowded there are flight slowdowns — for fully loaded planes. On the Keys, “No Vacancy” signs are abundant.
SCOTT BURNS is a principal of the Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc., a registered investment adviser. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
— Universal Uclick