What does it mean to live ‘on the hook’ in Key West? Let these boaters show you

An image from Mark Hedden’s “On the Hook” exhibit opening March 7 at The Studios of Key West, 533 Eaton St.
An image from Mark Hedden’s “On the Hook” exhibit opening March 7 at The Studios of Key West, 533 Eaton St. Mark Hedden

There is “Dangerous Don,” who once supplied live bait to fishermen to make ends meet. Marco came to Key West from Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift and has lived on the water ever since.

Pascale raised a child on a boat. Her daughter is now 21 and getting her captain’s license.

They live “on the hook,” meaning on a boat tied to a mooring ball or anchored in the near shore waters of Key West, beyond the marinas or the city’s mooring field.

People call them “liveaboards,” but the occupants don’t pay rent.

Key West photographer Mark Hedden spent more than a year exploring this neighborhood built upon saltwater, where stereotypes abound and many people see the residents as rough drunkards or bitter recluses.

Mark Hedden Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

“For some reason the neighborhood out there gets judged as a whole by the actions of one or two people,” Hedden said. “Whereas if something bad happens in your neighborhood, you’re not like, the people in that neighborhood are terrible. Everyone I met out there was pretty great, and I’m not blowing sunshine.”

Hedden found hard workers, sailors, parents and folks living as a community — all watching out for each other while respecting privacy. He didn’t ask for last names, and isn’t even sure if people gave him real first names. Some of his subjects appreciated the near anonymity.

Some live off of government checks or ferry into the city each morning on a dinghy — rent at the city’s dinghy dock is about $90 a month. Hedden met one man who is a mechanical engineer and spends every other month in Key West living on the hook.

Hedden met people who lost everything to Hurricane Irma in 2017. “Dangerous Don” lost a lot of equipment to Irma so he’s not doing the live bait work anymore. A lot of people couldn’t find anywhere to tie up and lost their boats.

A lot of those people, though, are still living on the hook.

“That weird independence we like in the Keys, it’s kind of amplified out there,” Hedden said. “I keep saying ‘out there,’ but it’s 500 yards offshore. But it is a whole different world. It’s not as wild west as people think it is.”

Hedden’s new exhibit, “On the Hook,” opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at The Studios of Key West, 533 Eaton St., and will stay up through March 28. The nonprofit’s galleries are open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Purists will say if you live in the city’s mooring field, you’re not really on the hook.

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Mark Hedden

Liveaboards must haul everything they need on a dinghy — fresh water, food, work tools and dog food. Many of the boaters have pets.

Hedden, 51, a South New Jersey native with an English degree from Rutgers University, has been in Key West for 27 years. He has had friends who lived on the hook and knows people who spent their childhoods on boats.

But going out to the liveaboards in person with his Fuji XT2 or a Canon 7D, knocking on boat after boat in search of portrait subjects, was an eye-opener.

“It was like being a Jehovah’s Witness for art,” Hedden said. “You don’t want to violate people’s sense of space out there.”

Hedden shot 6,000 photos for the project, including portraits of about 40 people in the Key West and Stock Island liveaboard community. About 25 people are in the exhibit.

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Mark Hedden

His favorite shot?

Probably the one of a liveaboard headed to shore on a dinghy, with his dog out on front. The unidentified man has his middle finger raised at the camera lens.

But it’s an anomaly in the project. Hedden said he learned much from meeting the liveaboard community.

“I think there’s more community and civility than we think in the world,” he said.

CC Rider lives with his wife and two daughters on a boat in Port San Luis near Avila Beach, California. He bought the $30,000 sailboat after the stock market crash of 2008, and settled in SLO County nearly six years ago.

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.