History

History of the Florida Keys and "Wrecking"

Florida
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April 2017
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By
Capt. Jeff
Werner

The Florida Keys, a coral rock archipelago and accompanying barrier reef, stretch 200 nautical miles from Key Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas. The first European to see Biscayne Bay and sail through the Keys was probably Juan Ponce de Leon, during his voyage of discovery in 1513. He named them Los Martires, or the Martyrs, because from a distance the islands looked like suffering men to him. The name we use for the archipelago today is derived from a Spanish corruption, cayo, of the Taino Indian word for small island.

One of these cayos, 68 nautical miles east of the Dry Tortugas, was named Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island, perhaps because the area's indigenous tribes used it as a graveyard. Today, it is what we know as Key West.

Key West has a famously colorful history, replete with eccentric characters and narrative twists and turns that a modern-day scriptwriter would have a hard time inventing. My favorite period runs from the 1830s to the turn of the 20th century, when Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States per capita. It was the era of the wrecker.

Wrecking was the practice of recovering valuables from ships that foundered close to shore. Wrecked Spanish galleons began littering the Florida Keys with gold and silver as early as the 1540s. The Keys were at the choke point for shipping from the southern United States, Mexico and the western Caribbean to the Atlantic Ocean via the Straits of Florida. Not only did the swift Gulf Stream current make navigation difficult, the waters between the Dry Tortugas and Key West are full of shoals and a dangerous coral reef. It was the perfect confluence of geography for wreckers.

Wrecking became a cottage industry in the early 1800s. Bahamian descendants of colonial Tories salvaged treasure in the Keys and auctioned it off in Nassau, greatly increasing the Bahamas' wealth. Commercial New England fishermen spent winters off the Keys supplying fish to Havana wholesalers. Sensing a use for their boats more lucrative than fishing, the New Englanders began cutting into the business of the Bahamian salvagers. Conflicts between the two groups soon arose. In the 1820s, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring any wrecks taken in U.S. waters to be valued solely by a U.S. court. Subsequently, Key West became the primary hub for selling the salvaged cargo --- and many of the Bahamian wreckers moved permanently to Key West.

Wrecking vessels would normally anchor at night in protected anchorages along the Keys, then sail out in the morning to see if any ships had wrecked during the night. As a result, a ship that had run aground overnight might attract a dozen wreckers by the afternoon of the next day. The first wrecking captain to reach a stranded ship became the wreck master, determining how many wreckers he needed to salvage the ship and directing the operation. Wreckers had an obligation to save the passengers and crew of wrecked ships, and to  salvage not only cargo but, if possible, the ship, as well. What had been salvaged was taken to Key West, where everything was appraised and often auctioned.

Wrecking became a big business --- in those days, ships ran aground in the Keys on average once a week. Shipbuilding and repair yards and chandleries flourished in Key West. Warehouses for storing the treasure went up close to the wharves. Auction houses were constructed to handle the constant flow of goods --- one prominent auctioneer is known to have made $10,000 in fees in one year, the equivalent of more than  $300,000 today.

Eventually, lighthouses were built on the reef as navigational aids. The introduction of steamships, more maneuverable than ships under sail, also dramatically reduced the flow of wrecked vessels, and, consequently, the livelihoods of the wreckers. In 1921, a federal court issued its last wrecking license in Key West.

Today, cruising Key West in search of its rich wrecking history is best done by finding a secure berth for your yacht and then exploring the island on foot, bicycle or moped. Visit the Bight, a historic waterfront area filled with specialty shops, restaurants and bars that overflow with local musical talent. Take an island tour with the Old Town Trolley or the Conch Tour Train, and the history of Key West will come to life before your eyes.

Literary History By Bar

Literary giants to make the island their home for months or years at a time, and many of them have used the bars fanning off Duval Street as their muse. Ernest Hemingway and Sloppy Joe's are forever entwined in local lore --- but it's not quite that simple. The current Captain Tony's Saloon and Sloppy Joe's Bar both claim to be the original Sloppy Joe's, and the rights to the name are now the subject of a lawsuit.

As a recent article in South Florida's Sun-Sentinel noted: "Sort through all the stories and this much is true: The original Sloppy Joe's was in Havana, and no longer exists. From 1933 to 1937, "Sloppy Joe" Russell ran a bar out of a former city morgue where Captain Tony's now is located. Some believe the saloon at what is now Captain Tony's was the inspiration for a bar Hemingway called Freddy's in his Key West tome "To Have and Have Not." As the story goes, Russell abruptly moved half a block to the current Sloppy Joe's location in 1937, upset that his landlord had raised the rent $6 a month. His patrons helped him move out --- at midnight."

It appears that the lawyers will have to duke it out to settle this dispute. Tennessee Williams also called Key West home. He first visited in 1941 to write plays and swim. Success soon followed with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and Williams returned to call Key West home for 34 years. You can visit the Tennessee Williams Museum (513 Truman Avenue) and pass by his former residence at 1124 Duncan Street (currently a private home, it is not open to the public).

Other great literary figures who have lived in Key West include Tom McGuane, John Hersey, Shel Silverstein, Tom Corcoran and Judy Blume. To read about their Key West exploits, visit Books and Books at the Studios of Key West (533 Eaton St.), or attend the popular Key West Literary Seminar held in January.

WHERE TO DOCK

  • Conch Harbor Marina accommodates vessels up to 200 feet and offers Valvtect fuel; the marina is in the center of activity along the wharf.
  • Key West Bight Marina located in the bight area and owned by the city, the marina offers 33 deep-water slips for vessels up to 140 feet.
  • Stock Island Marina Village is located next to Cow Key and offers complimentary shuttle service into Old Town Key West; it has 220 slips and state-of-the-art floating docks and it's pet-friendly, too! (305-294-2288, stockislandmarina.com)

WHERE TO VISIT

  • Audubon House and Tropical Gardens 205 Whitehead St, 305-294-2116
  • Customs House 281 Front St, 305-295-6616
  • Key West Lighthouse 938 Whitehead St, 305-294-0012
  • The Key West Shipwreck Museum 1 Whitehead St, 305-292-8990
  • Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum 200 Greene St, 305-294-2633
  • Oldest House & Garden Museum 322 Duval St, 305-294-9501

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.

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The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD
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With its sandy beaches and boardwalk attractions, Ocean City is the quintessential family summer vacation destination. It’s also a popular spot for sport fishermen and boaters traveling up and down the East Coast. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Ocean City was established on a barrier island called Assateague that extended 60 miles from the Indian River Inlet in Delaware to Chincoteague, VA. The section of the island belonging to the State of Maryland had no outlet to the sea, and early visitors came to bathe in the surf and take in the fresh ocean breezes. These travelers arrived by ferry boat from the mainland until 1876 when a wooden trestle train bridge was built. 

In its younger days, Ocean City was half resort town and half fishing village. The fishing was “pound fishing,” a style I’d wager few people today have ever seen. It was practiced originally by Native Americans and became popular in the 19 century along the East Coast from Maritime Canada to the Carolinas. Pound fisherman used wide nets attached to wooden poles to catch fish. They drove these tall poles into the ocean floor about a half mile from shore, creating permanent structures called pounds. When fish entered the open end of a pound, they were then corralled by the nets and couldn’t escape. 

With no passage into the Atlantic, crews of Ocean City fishermen needed to launch 40-foot boats from the beach directly into the ocean and row out to the pounds. To harvest the fish, the crew would remove the ends of the nets from the poles and pull them up by hand. The fish were then brought back to shore, carted across the island, packed in barrels of ice and shipped via railroad to fish markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. It was laborious work, and for years local businessmen petitioned state and federal agencies to create a manmade inlet to connect the bay directly to more fertile fishing grounds farther off the coast.

In August of 1933, a hurricane came ashore in Norfolk, VA, and then tracked up the center of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing up to 10 inches of rain per day and flooding the back bays to the west of Ocean City. Oceanside, wind and waves destroyed homes, hotels and businesses on the town’s boardwalk. 

When the storm subsided, the railroad bridge and fish camps had been washed away, replaced by an inlet 50 feet wide and eight feet deep that formed when built-up water driven by high tides rushed east over the barrier island from the swollen back bays to the ocean. Mother Nature did what governments wouldn’t do, and it changed Ocean City forever.

It didn’t take long for officials to take advantage of this event and enlarge the inlet to ensure its permanence. As a result, a commercial harbor, marinas and docks began sprouting up around the inlet and across the bay on the mainland. Most fishing was commercial in those immediate post-hurricane years, but a few captains realized the recreational fishing potential in the shoals and fertile canyons offshore that were teaming with billfish and other species. During World War II, a lack of fuel and the presence of German U-Boats in the Atlantic virtually shut down offshore fishing. Things picked up after the war, and by the late 1950s and 1960s more and more fishermen were coming to Ocean City. 

But it was the white marlin that really put Ocean City on the sport fishing map. A challenging fish known for its beauty, the white marlin wows anglers with its speed and jumping antics. These fish travel in packs and are prevalent in Maryland waters in late summer and early fall. 

Sport fishermen have been chasing white marlins off the coast of Maryland since 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt visited and caught two of the feisty billfish. To celebrate this exceptional fish and attract more attention to Ocean City, local fishermen launched the White Marlin Open in 1974. Fifty-seven boats entered that first year. By contrast, the 2021 Open drew 444 boats, more than 3,500 contestants – including NBA superstar Michael Jordan – and awarded $9.2 million dollars in prize money making Ocean City the undisputed “White Marlin Capital of the World.”

Ocean City today counts eight marinas, 20 fishing tournaments and numerous charter boats. According to the city council, boating and sportfishing are significant economic drivers bringing tens of millions of dollars annually to the local economy. 

So, whether you’re a hardcore sport fisherman, casual angler or a boater who simply enjoys a cocktail dockside at sunset, there’s something for everyone “Goin’ downy O, Hon!” as native Marylanders like to say about a visit to their beloved Ocean City.

Check Out Three World-Class OC Fishing Tournaments

Ocean City Tuna Tournament

July 8-10, 2022

Entering its 35th year, this has become the world’s largest tuna tournament with more than 100 participating boats and a record payout that eclipsed $1 million in 2021. 

White Marlin Open

August 8-12, 2022

First held in 1974, the WMO is inarguably the highlight of the Ocean City fishing tournament calendar. Now the biggest and richest billfish tournament in the world, the WMO drew 444 boats and 3,500+ contestants last year.

Poor Girls Open

August 17-20, 2022

Launched in 1994, this is the largest ladies-only billfish release tournament benefitting breast cancer research. Despite its charitable overtones, the tournament is all about the fishing, and the hundreds of boats and hundreds of competitors take it very seriously.

The Orange Crush: A Cocktail Born on the OC Docks

The Orange Crush is a staple cocktail in most Maryland bars. It’s basically a screwdriver with a shot of triple sec and a splash of lemon-lime soda. The secret to a good one, though, is fresh-squeezed orange juice. And there’s no place better to try one than the Harborside Bar & Grill in Ocean City where the cocktail is said to have originated on a slow night in 1995 when a couple of bartenders were bored and playing around with a bottle of orange-flavored vodka.

Harborside is a wooden establishment whose backside opens onto the commercial harbor in West Ocean City. Gritty is the word that comes to mind. As you would expect, the sign out front boldly announces the home of the Orange Crush, as do newspaper articles framed on the walls and t-shirts for sale. Inside, people pound crabs and watch the Orioles play baseball. Ceiling fans whirl, and it smells of Old Bay and French fries. White lights strung across the ceiling add a festive touch. It doesn’t get more Maryland than that. 

To try your first Orange Crush, visit Harborside Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, MD, 410-213-1846.

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There Once Was a Basket from Nantucket
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For many reasons, boat lovers and landlubbers love Nantucket. The well-known island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast has great maritime history, picturesque scenery, unspoiled beaches, boutique shopping, a nice marina and seafood galore.It's also home to a unique basketmaking tradition developed in the second half of the 19th century by manly men who manned the lightships that warned of dangerous waters around the island.Today, the Nantucket baskets they wove are ubiquitous to the island as both a popular souvenir and a highly collectible object that reflects the island's fascinating history and heritage.

Baskets Born of Necessity and Boredom

In 1820, the United States began building and converting ships into lightships in coastal waters and the Great Lakes. These vessels served as floating beacons to identify perilous shoals, reefs and shifting channels in places where lighthouse construction wasn't possible. The ships housed bright and navigational light beacons atop their masts to guide maritime traffic.

basket - history - marinalife
Friendship basket purse made by José Formoso Reyes in 1950 | The Nantucket Historical Association[/caption]

xThe waters around Nantucket were well traversed and very treacherous. In Nantucket Sound, sandbars muddled traffic, so the U.S. government placed a lightship there in 1823 to help mark a safe path by the island along a popular commercial route between New York and Boston. It became known as the Cross Rip Lightship.The Nantucket South Shoals off the island's southeast coast proved hazardous for transatlantic shipping. In some locations, the water can be as shallow as three feet. The shoals were a notorious shipwreck site, so the government stationed a lightship at the South Shoals in 1854. A lightship operated at the South Shoals until 1983 when it was replaced by a large navigation buoy. It was at the time America's last working lightship. By 1985, new technologies rendered the old lightship program obsolete.Lightships were manned vessels, and many Nantucket men were hired to work on the ones around the island. Some of these men had been whalers from back when Nantucket was the epicenter of the whaling industry. Rough coastal weather made the lightboat service perilous. For example, they had no onboard electricity, and the crew's only warmth was furnished by manually tending coal-burning stoves always at risk of breaking loose from their mounts and spilling hot coals during fierce storms that churned up mountainous waves that crashed over the ship.It was lonely, too. I've read how life on a lightship was likened to a term of solitary confinement combined with the horrors of seasickness. It's no wonder these men began making baskets to while away the time.

Cross Rip Lightship - history - marinalife
Cross Rip Lightship on station, circa 1930s | The Nantucket Historical Association

According to several sources, it is likely a man named Thomas James introduced basketmaking to men on the lightships. James, the story goes, had worked in the whaling industry and during his voyages supposedly made baskets in his spare time. When he began working on the South Shoals Lightboat, he took up his old pastime while on duty and sold his work on leave in Nantucket town. It wasn't long before he taught his skill to his fellow lightship men.Though the classic Nantucket basket is attributed to men aboard lightships in the mid-19th century, it's important to remember that its distinctive design was probably inspired by baskets originally woven with ash wood by the Wampanoags, the island's indigenous people.Lighthouse baskets typically were round and built on a mold with flat wooden bottoms to which staves (ribs) were attached to form the basic shape. Cane, also known as rattan, was then woven in and around the staves from bottom to top. Each basket was finished with a wooden handle. Tops and decorative elements weren't added until later. These baskets became popular with locals and tourists and thus became known as Nantucket lightship baskets. They're very desirable today among collectors.

Basketmaking Enters the 20th Century

By 1905, the last man from Nantucket manned a local lightship. Shortly thereafter, the federal government banned basket-making aboard lightships to end moon-lighting commerce. The craft then moved on island where it was taken up by a new generation of basket weavers who began personalizing their work and looking for ways to make them stand out and appeal to the growing tourist trade.

Nantucket basket lamp - history - marinalife
The author and Nantucket basket lamp

One of the most significant of this new generation of basket makers was José Reyes, a Filipino with an Education degree from Harvard, who served in the U.S. Navy fighting the Japanese and then after the war immigrated to Nantucket where his wife's family had a home. Unable to find a job in education, he repaired cane furniture and learned to make Nantucket lighthouse style baskets.Reyes is credited in 1948 for adding a top to the lightship basket and turning it into a purse for women. These purses, later known as friendship purses, quickly became de rigour for well-to-do summer residents. Reyes later included ivory carvings to adorn the purse tops. Rumor has it the name originated when a woman carrying one of Reyes' purses while visiting Paris noticed another woman with the same purse. She yelled out Friendship! and the two strangers became lifelong friends linked by their shared love of Nantucket.Paul Whitten, another basket maker, helped elevate artistic appreciation for the Nantucket basket when he was invited in 1974 by the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery to submit one of his pieces in a national arts and crafts competition. His basket was selected to appear in the gallery and then tour the country with other competition winners as part of a traveling exhibit. Whitten's basket was purchased by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection. Whitten also wrote extensively about Nantucket baskets, which has been important to preserving the history of this unique craft.Today the lightship basket influence can be seen in jewelry, cribs, bike baskets and all sorts of decorative pieces sold on and off island. Yours truly even owns a pair of tall handsome lamps modeled on the classic Nantucket Basket. There's even an auction market for exceptional baskets woven on Nantucket. A recent piece went for more than $100,000. Who'd have thunk it?

Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum

If you're visiting Nantucket and want to delve deeper into the history of these unique baskets and learn more about their makers, you won't want to miss the Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum. It features a permanent collection of baskets, special exhibits and basket weaving classes. The museum website also has a variety of fascinating videos, including an interview with noted basket weaver José Reyes.Location: 96 Main St.,Nantucket, MA 02554Hours: May 28 – October 17, open daily 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.nantucketlightshipbasketmuseum.org

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The Origins of Fish Capture Flags
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I've never had much luck saltwater fishing. My first outing as a young boy was holding a handline over the side of my grandfather Pop Hunter's motorboat in the shallow bay behind Alligator Point east of Apalachicola, Florida. Pop and my father were after redfish, and I wasn't expected to catch anything. Sit and be quiet, they said. So I did, until something grabbed my line, and I let out a scream.[caption id="attachment_324734" align="alignright" width="200"]

Fish flags - history - marinalife

Fish flags | Jodi Jacobson[/caption]My grandfather snatched the line and began battling a strong fish with just his tough freckled hands. That fish turned out to be a small hammerhead shark! When he finally pulled it onboard, he tossed it at my feet where it thrashed about, and I began screaming again certain it was going to bite me until Pop threw it back in the bay. He thought it was hilarious and told the story repeatedly that summer. Somewhat traumatized, I didn't go saltwater fishing again for years. When I finally did, all I managed to hook was a four-inch starfish. Like Pop, the fishing boat operator laughed. It was a first, he said, and he lamented that he didn't have an appropriate starfish flag to hoist for our return trip to the dock.Spend time around harbor docks and marinas, especially in the afternoon when the fishing boats come in, and you'll undoubtedly notice rectangular flags featuring different kinds of fish fluttering on outrigger halyards. Though they might look decorative, they're not. These fish flags, more formally referred to as capture flags, are colorful signals to let others know which fish were biting that day. It's a tradition born in the days before daily fishing reports began to appear in newspapers and on radio.The earliest capture flags on record are attributed to The Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island, California, a private fishing club started in 1898 by Los Angeles Times editor Dr. Charles Holder for the southern California and Hollywood elite. The Tuna Club refers to itself as the oldest fishing club in the United States, and it's still going strong.Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, William Wrigley and George S. Patton were among its early members. Teddy Roosevelt was an honorary member. Members flew large colored flags on their boats to alert their fellow anglers when they caught tuna, swordfish and marlin. The practice quickly spread, and sport fisherman and charter boat captains on both coasts began hoisting flags to announce their catch as they pulled into the docks.In Florida, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club (WPBFC) added a different twist to the fish flag. Founded in 1934 during the Great Depression, the WPBFC's mission was to promote fishing to lure visitors to the Palm Beaches and stimulate the local economy. Given the proximity of the Gulf Stream and its big game fish, the club initiated the Silver Sailfish Derby fishing competition, a celebration of one of the world's most elegant and iconic sport fishes. The Derby was the first serious billfish competition in the country. It quickly became the in thing to do for wealthy tourists. And it still occurs every January.[caption id="attachment_324735" align="alignleft" width="239"]

red sailfish capture flag - history - marinalife

Derby Queen with red sailfish capture flag | WPBFC[/caption]Here's the twist. Club members soon became concerned that too many sailfish were being caught and not consumed or mounted as trophies. As a result, WPBFC established new rules to restrict the number and size of sailfish captured and brought aboard boats during the derby. To help incentivize the policy, they encouraged contestants to raise a triangular red pennant to signify smaller sailfish that were caught and released so they could still be given their proper due. The national media seized on it with vigor. And in turn, the red pennant inspired other contests geared toward catch-and-release fishing and helped change the nature of big game fishing. It also furthered the practice and the prevalence of flying fish flags.As sport fishing became more popular and accessible to Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, so too did fish flags. This was driven in part by a growing number of game fishing tournaments with affordable entry fees and guaranteed prize money. Competitors wanted to show off their fishing prowess, so flag companies were more than happy to begin making and supplying 12"x18" canvas and nylon flags featuring the most popular varieties of sport fish marlin, swordfish, sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, etc. that we still see on boats today.Sharks, by the way, merit a capture flag. You can't miss it. It's usually a vibrant red color and features a white shark. To the best of my knowledge, there's still not a starfish flag.

HOW TO FLY YOUR FISH FLAG

[caption id="attachment_324736" align="alignright" width="300"]

white marlin - history - marinalife

White Marlin | Lunamarina[/caption]You need not worry about official regulations for displaying fish capture flags. Protocols vary from location to location. That said, more experienced fishermen tend to follow some informal rules of thumb.

  • Fish flags are generally flown on the port or starboard outrigger halyard and in order of merit, meaning game fish with bills (marlins, swordfish and sailfish) go at the top and others follow in order of size from largest to smallest. Shark flags are often flown on the bottom.
  • It's appropriate to fly a flag for each fish caught, though some say you should only fly one yellow mahi-mahi flag no matter how many you land. In Hawaii, some boats will run a black pirate flag beneath the mahi-mahi when more than 20 are caught.
  • Never run flags all the way to the top of the rigger; keep them about three quarters up the rigger and spaced at least six inches apart as this is optimal for visibility.
  • Flying a fish flag upside down is the most common way to signal a successful catch and release. Some fishermen, however, prefer to fly a fish flag right side up with a smaller square red flag beneath it or a red T-flag to indicate a fish was tagged and released. Red pennants are still sometimes used.
  • A fish flag should never hang on the halyard for more than a few hours, though charter boats might fly them for 24 hours to help attract clients.
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