The Key West Mystique

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Key West cruise ships by ONeal

Key West cruise ships | Imagine the crowds if there were still three ships a day

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

02/17/2023

I can’t get Rob O’Neal’s picture of the cruise ship Norwegian Dawn out of my mind. Rob says in his social media post on Jan. 21, that he shot the picture from about three miles away as he was heading back into town.

The 965-foot long ship, which docked at Pier B on Jan. 18, dwarfed the island. Honestly, had that shot not been taken by Rob, I’d assume it was PhotoShopped.

i spotted this from about 3 miles away while returning to the airport after shooting the southernmost sailboat regatta on wednesday…

i think i’ll call it ‘Longboat Key (West)’ ….Damn!

Rob O’Neal, Keys Citizen photographer, Facebook Page

Key West’s on-again-mostly-off-again affair with cruise ships shifts between “they saved our economy in the wayback days” to “I’mma ready for a blockade.”

For some, cruise ship passengers are the lifeblood on which their jobs and businesses depend. For others, those passengers spend no money and wreck the mythical island vibe. For others, they’re floating environmental nightmares. It’s all of those in case you’re wondering.

Cruise ships are a shockingly visible target for our frustrations over too much. We are, here in the middle of February, starting that weary trudge toward end of season with its too many people, too much traffic, too much noise, too much waiting. Just too much of everything (Even the beautiful weather if you’re worrying about drought.) You can add your own list of “too much.” I’m sure you have one handy.

Key West cruise ships by ONeal
Norwegian Dawn docks at Pier B Jan. 18, 2023. Photo by Rob O’Neal

Cruise ships aren’t the only challenge

We’ve learned a lot over the past three years about cruise ships, state government, political fraternization, home rule, collaboration and the stunning demands of hundreds of thousands of new Key West visitors. We’ve learned that closing down our airport or shutting down cruise lines during the early Covid-19 months did little to stem the flood of visitors to the island.

As long as there are bridges and vehicles to cross them, Key West is open for visitors. At least the cruise ship visitors leave at the end of the day. That’s upwards of 5,000 visitors and crew who are off the streets before sunset. It used to be a lot more back in the days when three ships docked daily.

Thanks to Covid-19, Safer Cleaner Ships, the U.S. Navy and the City of Key West, these days there’s rarely more than one cruise ship per day. The big ones use the privately owned Pier B. The small ones dock at the city-owned Mallory Square. These days no one uses the Outer Mole pier, which is owned by the Navy and which is unlikely to offer it up again.

An aside for context: The Norwegian Dawn, which Rob photographed, has a passenger capacity of 2,340 and crew of 1,032. The Carnival Conquest, which like the Dawn, docks regularly at privately-owned Pier B, has a passenger capacity of 3,756 and crew of 1,150. The Sea Cloud Spirit, one of the small luxury ships that dock at Mallory Square, brings up to 136 passengers.

Come May 1, Safer Cleaner Ships will have been fighting for three years against behemoth cruise ships docking in Key West. The grassroots organization during the scariest months of Covid-19 convinced Key West voters to overwhelmingly pass three common sense referendums in November 2020.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the legislature and the owners of Pier B reversed the voters’ decisions and eliminated home rule in 2021, Safer Cleaner Ships re-grouped and worked with the city to craft resolutions that left Pier B alone and protected the Mole and Mallory. Today, they’re making sure the new city manager finalists understand the gravity of continuing to manage these ships.

The successes in the face of opposition are stunning. John Martini posted these stats from Safer Cleaner Ships recently on social media, saying “57% reduction in total cruise traffic. That’s what the people of Key West have achieved. Stay strong. There’s more to be won.”

  • December 2019 = 47 ships
  • December 2022 = 20 ships
  • January 2020 = 51 ships
  • January 2023 = 26 ships on calendar
  • February 2020 = 48 ships
  • February 2023 = 17 ships on calendar
  • 3-months total 2019-20: 146 ships
  • 3-months total 2022-23: 63 ships

If one big ship and one small ship per day is the best we can expect in today’s politically charged world, that’s success — and as Martini wrote: “Stay strong. There’s more to be won.”

Editor’s note: This post was updated on Feb. 20, 2023, to correct my error identifying the Navy Mole Pier and Mallory Square Pier. The correct information is: Thanks to Covid-19, Safer Cleaner Ships, the U.S. Navy and the City of Key West, these days there’s rarely more than one cruise ship per day. The big ones use the privately owned Pier B. The small ones dock at the city-owned Mallory Square. These days no one uses the Outer Mole pier, which is owned by the Navy and which is unlikely to offer it up again.

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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