Living In Key West - The Sailing Vessel Pomaika'i (2023)

I’ve been living in Key West for a month now, here are some of my reflections on how things work down here in the Florida Keys. Before I moved here, I had little idea of what it really meant to live in the Keys, though the fantasy was one I enjoyed 🙂

What’s Key West Like

I’ve only spent limited time walking around Key West so I’m sure my impression will change as I expand my explorations.

It really seems like there are two Key Wests. Downtown (what they label Old Town) is really the standard “adult disneyland“. A series of restaurants and bars that cater to the tourists with “made in china” trinkets the same you would find in Vegas, New Orleans, or any major tourist location in the US with just the labels changed. There’s the organized group fun (snorkeling, jet skis and water activities being the focus) to make your two weeks off for the year pleasant. For me that part is Meh, ok to grab an afternoon beer.

The other Key West you find away from downtown and Key West Bight. This town is filled with eccentric people (some homeless, some stupidly wealthy). The local characters are a mix of retirees, locals, and a lot of oddballs that have drifted down the Florida Keys to find their spot. A lot of locals are artists and writers. These are similar to the people I found in places like Venice, CA and Hawi, HI. I used to explain Hawai’i as the place that the one weird person that you grew up in high school with went to as adults. If you don’t find yours in Hawai’i, there’s a good chance they’re in Key West.

Cost of living in Key West

Key West (and the Florida Keys in general) are expensive to live in for all the normal reasons that living in a “vacation” spot are, and I’ve lived in a number of vacation spots. There is little to no industry, most of the commerce is made by catering to retired money and tourists. This limits jobs and other ways to earn income, though the defacto minimum wage is $13 per hour.

Outside of housing, the largest cost increase I’ve seen is food. Little is grown locally, so it’s trucked in from Miami warehouses. You’ll see this in an increase at the grocery store and at the local restaurants. On the upside, my free diving on some local rocks has netted some free lobsters 🙂

Unlike some vacation spots I”ve lived in, housing costs are terrible down here. The island is only 4 miles long, and all the houses that are going to be built are done. A small one bedroom apartment will run you around $1000 a month and up. Irma destroyed a lot of the low-income housing in the Florida Keys (mostly mobile homes), so there is a real crunch for affordable housing, which then puts a crunch on finding employees who can afford to live locally.

Mooring In Key West

Living on a boat really helps with the housing costs. The anchorages around here are poor (light covering of sand over hardpan) with poor holding unless you’re using a hugely oversized anchor (where the weight of the anchor is holding you vs. any ability to dig into the seabed). From talking with people, this is the case anywhere south of Marathon (Boot Key Harbor). So, I’m hooked on a mooring ball outside of Garrison Bight between Fleming Key and Dredgers Key in the old Navy seaplane base. The $350 a month this costs me gives me the mooring spot, a secure dinghy dock in the bight and access to the showers and laundry facility ($1.50 for a wash, $1.50 for dry). It’s about a mile from the northern point of the mooring field to the dinghy dock, when I rowed this took me just under an hour, with my new 3.5 hp motor I can get there in 20 minutes.

Rowing A Boat

When I left Jacksonville I didn’t have a motor for the dinghy (a little 8.5 foot hard dinghy I bought from a resident at the marina) as I didn’t need one living on a dock. For the first 6 weeks in the Florida Keys I would row in and out from wherever I was anchored or moored. Before finding a job (and if I was a retired cruiser) this wasn’t a hard to do. I would pick a day with nice weather and calm seas and just go into town. When I got a job I no longer had the luxury to pick my times, and after a 10 hour shift it was tiring to row for an hour. There are little to no small horse power outboards on the Craigslist in Key West so I bought a new Tohatsu 3.5 horse power outboard. It works well on the little dinghy I have though I need to make a tiller extension so that I can sit further forward to keep the front end of the boat down. This cut my commute time down to 20 minutes and also gave me more time to enjoy the scenery on my daily commute. Also I’m feeling more inclined to get out and explore more so look for updated photography missions.

Where To Park The Dinghy In Key West

Finding a place to leave your dinghy when you travel and live on a boat can be a challenge. With the mooring field, I get access to the secure dock in Garrison Bight. This is nice but unfortunately, it’s located a good distance from anything (which is a challenge on a 4-mile island, but one that the local city council excelled at). To make grocery runs, I also found an unofficial place to park the dinghy under the bridge near the Home Depot on N Roosevelt St. There is enough room for 3 or 4 dinghies tied to the mangroves here though you may have to tread through some water to get to shore if you’re the outside dinghy. There is supposed to be a short-term (2 hour) dinghy dock in Key West Bight, but I haven’t been over there (on the water) yet.

Challenges Of Living On A Mooring

When I left Jacksonville I really wasn’t finished with my refit and most of my challenges are due to that.

I haven’t installed solar yet, and a lot of challenges are due to lack of electricity. I have a small, inexpensive generator that I use to keep the batteries charged up but due to its size, it’s not the correct solution, so I keep the refrigerators turned off. I wanted to do things right and install an arch over the stern to mount the solar panels but am thinking that I’ll purchase the panels first and just have them on the deck for now and mount them on an arch before I leave Key West in a few years.

The other challenge I’m finding living out on the salt water is corrosion with my small electronic devices. Everything from phones, computers, and cameras to the rechargeable Dewalt batteries, the connection points easily get corroded. I use contact cleaner spray to try to keep things under control, but it’s a constant battle.

Before I left Jacksonville I found this cool device on Amazon. It’s a slide on adapter for my Dewalt tool batteries (I bought a number of tools so have half a dozen 20v rechargeable batteries laying around) that allows you to charge USB devices (phones, tablets, etc) off the batteries. This really helps keep all stuff charged up until I can get my electrical and wiring issues resolved.

On the upside here is my front yard (which makes it all worth it)

Living In Key West - The Sailing Vessel Pomaika'i (1)

living on a boat


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