While it may seem odd to become nostalgic about a home port before having even left it, Key West is the kind of place that a person cannot leave lightly. I am thinking about my home port today as I watch schooners tack across the harbor in preparation for the annual Wreckers Race.
The schooners represent a golden age of sail when over 100 ships per day passed by Key West. The waters they were sailing were known as some of the most treacherous in the world. On average, at least one ship per week would wreck somewhere along the Florida reef. The captain of the first ship to reach a wreck became the “wrecking master” and he controlled the salvage operation. The goods salvaged from the wreck would later be sold at auction in Key West with the wrecking courts awarding anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of the profit to the wreckers. In 1822, the U.S. Navy chose Key West as its base for suppressing piracy in the West Indies but by 1860 wrecking had made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida, and the wealthiest town per capita in the United States.
The Key West economy has always been fueled by a little bit of piracy. The wreckers were followed by sailors running guns and ganja. Refugees still wash ashore clutching figurines of the virgin Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba and protector of those who go to sea.
These days the schooners race to the reef with a cargo of sunburn tourists but Key West is still a seafaring town. From the vantage point of a balcony on a widow’s walk over Duval Street it is possible to look north to the Gulf of Mexico and south to the Atlantic Ocean. Our little Island in the Stream is less than a mile wide. I’ve made my living on the water in Key West for more than three decades. Our daughter was born here. It is home.
Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Pliny said, “Home is where the heart is.”
I will keep those words close to me as I set my sails for points west next year. It may end up being a voyage of 36 months and 36,000 miles, but I know if I just keep following the setting sun that it will eventually lead me back to Key West.