History

History of the Florida Keys and "Wrecking"

Wreck Ashore!

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.

Related Articles
Hurricane Hunters
|

Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.

Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.

Three Who Paved the Way for How We Track & Predict Hurricanes Today

Father Hurricane

When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.

The Aerial Acrobat

Len Povey

Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.

When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.

Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.

The Data Cruncher

One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.

Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.

Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.

In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.

Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.

Hurricane Tracking Apps for Your Phone

You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

THE WEATHER CHANNEL

Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.

NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER DATA

Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.

WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.

CLIME

Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.

RADARSCOPE

If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.

HURRICANE – AMERICAN RED CROSS

Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.

Read More
How Hurricanes Get Their Names
|

Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.

In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.

Read More
The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD
|

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.

A Fierce Storm Carves Out a New Inlet

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

Orange Crush | Susan Elnicki Wade

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.

Read More

Want to Stay In the Loop?

Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!

Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Marinalife articles