According to our dash-mounted GPS, it is about 13 nautical miles from Bahia Honda Marina to Big Spanish Key — yes, one of those Keys, in the southernmost reaches of Florida and framed by water colors that Crayola cannot imitate. We’re ahead of schedule, idling out of the harbor at 6:50 a.m., lunch neatly stowed in the galley of the Regal 2860 and snorkel gear secure in the transom locker. The crew in the cabin adds an unexpected tranquility at this hour: Four kids and two moms are silently peering through the cabin’s portholes, mesmerized by the reflection of morning clouds on the water. It is seriously quiet. Already it’s the kind of day that the Florida Keys Tourism Council promises. It calls this “boater’s paradise.” Of course, every coastal region in the United States has kicked that term around so much that, like a Hacky Sack, it lost its clout years ago. Here in the Keys, though, it still plays well. Simple numbers bear this out:
• The Keys draw 4 million visitors a year, and they come not for conventions or casinos (there are none) but to be on the water, which is why there are 36 boat-rental shops.
• The nautical playground encompasses 2,900 square miles of Atlantic and Gulf waters, and once on it, there are 6,000 reefs and 800 islands to explore.
• It’s so boater-centric that those islands are called keys (derived from the Spanish word cayo, for little island), with names that magnify the come-as-you-are nature of the area: Happy Jack, Bowlegs and Knockemdown. You cannot help but wear a big floppy hat on your head and a silly look of freedom on your face.
But then, just outside Bahia Honda’s harbor, with our ridiculously baggy shirts starting to billow, we encounter our first source of angst. There, directly in the narrow channel under one of the Keys’ 42 bridges, is a dive buoy and flag.
“With as many boaters as we have, some are bound to do unbelievable things,” Billy Causey, former superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, had warned me earlier. His was one of six preparatory confabs I’d had with local experts before this trip.