DEBATE CONTINUES AS CRUISE SHIPS MAKE A CONTROVERSIAL RETURN TO KEY WEST

The Azamara Quest docks at Key West’s Mallory Pier on Nov. 27. With a 1,094-person capacity (686 passengers, 408 crew), the ship meets the city’s new cruise ship size restrictions. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

Two cruise ships returned to Key West on Nov. 27, one at Mallory Pier and one at Pier B. Another is due to arrive on Thursday, Dec. 2 at Pier B.

But the ships are coming back to a different island, as much has changed since any of them last visited in March 2020. 

Most cruise ships are no longer welcome, 62% of Key West’s voters decided in November 2020, when they approved local referendums to drastically reduce the number of ships — and the number of people aboard — that can dock in Key West. Six months later, a new state law voided those and any voter initiatives that could restrict maritime commerce in Florida.

But until the city of Key West turns those referendums, spearheaded by the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, into city ordinances, which were not voided by the new state law, the restrictions cannot be enforced at the privately owned Pier B marina. City officials are enforcing the new limits at the two piers the city controls, Mallory Pier and the Outer Mole Pier, which Key West leases from the Navy.

The Azamara Quest docked at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at Mallory Pier. With a 1,094-person capacity (686 passengers, 408 crew), the ship meets the voter-approved cruise ship size and capacity limits. It is one of 11 smaller ships that are eligible and scheduled to visit Key West in 2022, and, according to a Tweet by Safer Cleaner Ships, “is a good fit for Key West” due to its smaller size and shallow draft. 

At 9 a.m. Saturday, the Crystal Serenity arrived at Pier B. With a total capacity of 1,695 people (1,040 passengers, 655 crew), the ship, when full, would exceed the city’s new prohibition of ships that carry more than 1,500 people. But the Crystal Serenity arrived Saturday with only 476 passengers. 

Even if the Crystal Serenity had arrived at full capacity, the new ship rules haven’t been formally imposed at the privately owned Pier B. 

The third ship, Oceania Cruises’ M/S Marina, arrives Thursday. It has a total capacity of 2,030 (1,250 passengers and 780 crew), but the ship is arriving with fewer than 400 passengers and all crew is remaining aboard the ship when it’s in Key West, said John Wells of Caribe Nautical, the ships’ agent that schedules and provisions cruise ships in Key West.

Cruise ship schedule?

Key West’s cruise ship schedule for the coming year has become a source of debate and contention in recent weeks. Wells no longer makes the schedule public, saying he has stopped doing so due to “security concerns and numerous threats of violence against cruise ships and passengers” that have been posted to social media, including a Facebook page called Reimagining Key West that has no affiliation with the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships.

The city of Key West’s website formerly included a link to the ship schedule. That link took viewers to Caribe Nautical’s online calendar. 

“I think the story is that John Wells is hiding the ship calendar, not only from the public, but from the city’s port director,” said Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships. “The city has the statutory authority to regulate vessel operations in its port. So the city is sort of refusing to require that Wells provide that information. This is viewed as public information. Isn’t the whole idea that these ships are important to downtown businesses? The public has a right to know that information.”

Wells feels differently, and points to various online comments that are encouraging threatening or criminal activity against arriving ships.

Facebook user Curt Gary made two such posts to the Reimagining Key West Facebook page, writing, “Mine the harbor! Conch Republic!” and “How about we just wait for the first cruise ship to dock and show up with guns at the gangway.”

Richard Siniscalchi posted on the same page, “Blockade the channel.” Both men are verified Key West residents, and not fake Facebook user accounts.

When Key West’s voter initiative was voided by the new state law, Safer Cleaner Ships urged city officials to turn the referendums into ordinances, which hadn’t been voided by the state. 

Those ordinances are not yet in place.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.