These fishing captains are famous in the Keys. Now they’re struggling to stay afloat

Larry Wren, captain of the First Choice charter fishing boat, speaks with Paul Johnson, captain of the Gold Reserve, at Whale Harbor Marina on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Both boats were docked at Post Card Inn Beach Resort and Marina before Hurricane Irma destoryed the docks there.
Larry Wren, captain of the First Choice charter fishing boat, speaks with Paul Johnson, captain of the Gold Reserve, at Whale Harbor Marina on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Both boats were docked at Post Card Inn Beach Resort and Marina before Hurricane Irma destoryed the docks there.

As the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Cudjoe Key a year ago Sept. 10, the storm surge was battering many of Islamorada’s most popular resorts 60 miles to the north along the island chain.

Well-known hotels including the Cheeca Lodge, The Islander, The Chesapeake and the Post Card Inn were hit hard. Badly damaged, they couldn’t reopen in time for the winter tourist season, the crucial months that determine whether most businesses in the Keys live or die.

For Islamorada, the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” it was a devastating blow to the famed charter fishing boat fleet.

The fishing boats depend on the resorts, for their marinas and for their customers. Now, a year later, the fleet is struggling to stay afloat.

And, while the National Association of Charterboat Operators doesn’t have numbers on the impact of the local fleet on the Keys economy, recreational and commercial fishing in Florida is a $5 billion industry, according to Florida TaxWatch. The fleet depends on and supports the local economy, including hotels and restaurants, mom-and-pop bait shops, and marinas.

The Post Card Inn, known better as the former Holiday Isle Marina, was home berth to more than 20 offshore and backcountry captains. They had to look elsewhere to dock their vessels after the Category 4 Irma destroyed the docks.

“You’re having a lot of people still hurting in the business,” said Larry Wren, captain of First Choice Charters.

Wren, a professional fishing captain for more than 15 years, moved his boat south across the channel to Whale Harbor Marina. It’s been a tough year on Wren, who, to make ends meet in the months after Irma, donned a yellow vest and worked on a hurricane debris removal crew.

Others found space at other marinas including Bud N’ Mary’s. Some docked their boats behind neighborhoods like Venetian Shores near Snake Creek. The Village of Islamorada opened several slips for captains at Plantation Key Yacht Harbor at Founders Park, mile marker 87 on the bay side of U.S. 1.

But life has not been the same.

Like all Keys businesses struggling in the year since Irma, the charter fleet has had its ups and downs. The Post Card Inn crews displaced by the storm are now facing an economic storm.

“You got a number of boats that went out of business,” Wren said. “We’re still in temporary homes, and we don’t know what we’re going to do.”

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Larry Wren, captain of the First Choice, services a rod and reel on the back of his boat docked at Whale Harbor Marina in Islamorada on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

The Post Card Inn is scheduled to reopen later this fall, said Jessica Shashaty, a spokeswoman for the Islamorada Resort Collection, a hotel group that owns the Post Card Inn, Amara Cay Resort, Pelican Cove Resort and Marina and La Siesta Resort and Marina. But a definitive date has not been set.

The Post Card’s marina is rebuilt with what looks like 20 slips. It’s not clear which boats that were docked there will be asked back once the marina reopens.

“We’ll have details about the marina once we have the date,” Shashaty said.

Chuck Schimmelman, captain of the Dee Cee, said he heard from Post Card management around March inviting him back. Schummelman has been operating out of Plantation Key Yacht Harbor.

He said it’s a great place to keep his boat, but the docks are far from public view, and he doesn’t get nearly the walk-up business he did when he was at Post Card.

“You just don’t have the exposure to the general public,” Schimmelman said. “It’s a place to keep our boats.”

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The Yabba Dabba Doo and the Dee Cee are docked at Plantation Key Yacht Harbor. The charter fishing vessels have been at the mile marker 87 municipal marina since last fall. They were docked at Post Card Inn Beach Resort and Marina, which was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

Steve Leopold, captain of the Yabba Dabba Doo, also found a temporary home at Founders Park. He had a decent year because of repeat business and the winter sailfish tournaments. But he said Founders, while a great place to dock a vessel, isn’t an ideal place to run a charter business.

“It’s a great spot. The people who work there are great, and they love their job. The people who live there on their boats are great,” Leopold said.

“It’s just tough to run your business there.”

If Post Card Inn doesn’t open in time for the winter season or if for some reason, he’s not asked back, Leopold said he would stay at Founders.

“There’s some challenges, but it’s a great spot,” he said. “If they told me at Holiday Isle I couldn’t go back, I’d stay.”

While Leopold reported a good winter and summer season, Wren, who had to wait longer to be offered dock space, had a tougher time making ends meet.

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Drone footage shows the damage done to the Post Card Inn Beach Resort and Marina by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10 and 11, 2018. David Gross

“Our best month was July. We had a good lobster mini-season here in the Keys, and I think that’s what brought July up,” Wren said. “June was still soft. It should have been a 20-plus day month, but everything’s been running between 50 to 60 percent off. I don’t know where it’s going to finish out, but it’s definitely off.”

Businesses in the Keys depend on busy winter and summer tourist seasons to get them through the dry times that typically happen in late summer, early fall, and last until the holiday season. The charter industry is no different, and this year’s lull seems worse than others, local captains said.

“Nobody’s out lately,” Wren said, gesturing toward the boats docked at Whale Harbor on a recent morning. “You’re seeing pretty much everybody here.”

Wren worries more boats will go out of business because they weren’t able to save enough money in reserves to get them through the lean months.

“I think a lot of real damage will be over the next three months,” he said. “Nobody has built up reserves this year. There’s been nothing over spring and summer. It wasn’t busy March, April, May, and June.”

Schimmelman said he had a decent winter and summer season, but not like years past. He attributes it to not only lack of walk-up business at Founders, but mostly to the hotels that were knocked out of the winter season by Irma. While most have at least partially reopened, others haven’t, including Post Card.

And the loss of lodging in Islamorada continues to take a toll on the entire Upper Keys tourism industry.

“The problem was, all the hotels were closed. There was no place for people to stay,” Schimmelman said. “Ours is still closed.”

Another drawback to marinas like Plantation Key Yacht Harbor is they are on the bay side. Captains have to drive their vessels longer to get to the ocean, burning fuel and time in the process.

“The problem in Islamorada is you only have so many direct-ocean-access marinas, and we’re still down one to two marinas,” Wren said.

It’s been hard on an industry made up of people who also live in communities hit hard by the storm.

“A lot of guys were just out of business for a couple of months,” Leopold said. “We had a lot to do to just get our houses together, our lives together.”

Besides the storm, the charter fleet, and Keys tourism overall, has been hurt by the images of red tide elsewhere in the state. The red tide algae bloom in Southwest Florida has killed thousands of fish and marine mammals.

“One of the things that will hurt us is if people keep dwelling on what’s happening in Sarasota, because it is not the case here. We need to stop these idiots on Facebook in the Keys showing pictures of dead manatees,” he said. “I know it’s a big problem, but it’s not our problem, nor is it coming here unless something very strange happens. By the time that water does come here, it’s diluted.”

Looking ahead, Schimmelman is cautiously optimistic about the state of the charter industry and its ongoing recovery. However, he can’t help but worry as South Florida enters into its peak hurricane season.

Although the Atlantic storm season started June 1, the worst hurricanes historically impact the Keys in September and October.

“If we have another year without a hurricane, we would be back to normal,” said Schimmelman, noting before Irma, it had been 12 years since a storm did major damage in the Keys. “We can’t have another one.”

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