Cruise ships are money. The statistics are out of date and not always clear but most recent numbers show about three quarters of a million cruise ships visitors a year which generates $85 million annually for the city through landing fees, 1300 assorted jobs and the money the passengers spend in the city, mostly on Lower Duval. So no matter how much opponents talk about pollution, aesthetic ruin and over crowding money talks louder.
Key West has three pairs for cruise ship docking. Mallory Square is the smallest owned by the city but constrained by the nightly sunset celebration, a private cooperative that leases the waterfront from the city and thus finds itself in occasional conflict with cruise ships that want to stay docked through sunset...
The Outer Mole (above) is owned by the Navy and used by the city under threat of closure in a national emergency. The pier is a "secure area" behind a locked gate and passengers come into town only on Conch Trains that are contracted by the city for the job. Pier B is the dock behind the Margaritaville Resort formerly the Westin which was part of the navy base and thus sold by the city when Truman Annex was ceded by the Navy to the city which promptly auctioned it off to nascent developer Pritam Singh. The Westin Hotel property and waterfront plus Sunset Key, known then as Tank Island was all sold in a brilliant move by the city for the princely sum of eleven million dollars. Not their finest hour but they did retain portion of the landing fees payable to the hotel by cruise ships. Between the three piers the city res in, if memory serves, about two point five million dollars a year.
It's no small thing docking a cruise ship. I once saw a schematic of that worldwide symbol of luxury cruising, the liner Titanic of 1912 laid up against a picture of a contemporary cruise ship which is about 900 feet long. The Titanic was about a third the size over all of the ship you see above. Not only that, but protestors have succesfully stymied attempts to get supersized cruise ships into Key West, the giants that require even deeper harbor access. There was a protracted battle to stop harbor dredging which was proposed originally to "help improve military access" for the Navy, a scheme that was revealed as a way to get 1300 foot cruise ships to dock in town. These ships with 3,000 passengers each are quite large enough in a. town of 25,000 especially when they all walk and shop three blocks of Duval only despite best efforts to move them further down the famous street.
As much as they are disliked they are also found to be fascinating, these huge hotels, these self contained entertainment palaces always seeking to be more exotic than last year's floating entertainment offering, they come complete complete with the huge kitchens, an on board doctor with medical facilities and yes, a supply of coffins for those that cannot complete their last cruise in this life. Cruise ships are amazing organisms, self contained, polluting, energy hungry and incredibly complex offering very popular vacations. And they come to Key West all the time because this is a popular destination as evidenced by people wandering lower Duval with little round stickers on their shirts.
Docking a cruise ship is a business in itself and requires port workers to show up and attach the dock lines...
The ship's crew drops thin pieces of rope first and attached to those lines are thicker lines with a big loop in them which you can see in the bottom right of the picture below:
The ship is held against the docks by thrusters which are controlled from the bridge, propellers facing sideways at the front and the back which allow cruise ships to maneuver without the old fashioned help of tugs.
It's hard manual labor docking a ship. The sailors poke the lines through holes in the hull (hawseholes if you want to be technical) and they control the tension with winches but the port workers have to handle the ropes with muscle power alone.
The ship is directed into the harbor by a harbor pilot who takes over control of the bridge from the captain and gives specific directions on how to arrive safely at the docks. The pilot is taken out to the sea buoy by this boat whereupon he (no women pilots as far as I know in Key West) climbs a rope ladder up the side of the ship which sounds creepy enough to put me off ever thinking about this well paid job as a career choice, And of course they do the same in reverse when the ship leaves.
By the time the ship is tied up, the pilot's gone back to the office and the gang plank is down there is only Customs and Immigration to deal with if the ship came from a foreign port. While all this is going on the ship flies a yellow flag, known as the "Q" flag as it represents that letter in the naval flag alphabet. In sailing days ships communicated by raising flags to send messages across the water and the yellow flag was adopted as the symbol of a ship that hadn't been cleared for entry when it arrived from a foreign country. You may have heard of the cruise ship passengers in the Far East quarantined on cruise ships for fear of their carrying the dreaded the Coronavirus so the Q flag pratique still can have serious consequences for seafarers.
Once the Q flag comes down passengers and crew are allowed ashore and you will see members of the crew catching up on their shopping in Key West. It may come as a surprise Key West is a cheap stop compared to many ports on the cruise ship circuit, so if you need shampoo or toothpaste CVS is your place. And as a way to save money and skirt strict health and safety regulations cruise ships travel under "flags of convenience," and pretend they are based in small countries glad for some income and not too fussy about regulations they can skirt. That's why you can see flags of Liberia, The Bahamas, the Dominican Republic or some small island state like the Marshall Islands...
Which means they offer no work to US sailors and take advantage of desirable US ports. Fair enough; it's how the industry works.
Walking Rusty along the waterfront we had to dodge numbers of people pausing their vacations to observe the activity, which was actually what prompted me to write this essay. I guess peopled really do find cruise ships fascinating.
Some people just keep on keeping on.
But they find us equally interesting apparently:
Not everyone needs huge amount of help to make like a leaf and blow. Key West in the rear view mirror and no one noticed: