“You know, the faster you go, the easier it will be.”
Ten minutes into a two-hour jet ski tour around Key West, Florida, Jason Johns, my guide from Barefoot Billy’s, has pulled up beside me for a little pep talk because I’ve fallen way behind the rest of the group.
Standing on the beach, I’d had a clear vision of how I would look on the Yamaha Waverunner: sexy, confident and a little dangerous, skimming across the Kool Aid-blue waters of the Floridian Atlantic with my tangled hair blowing in the breeze. The reality is I’m scared to push the machine above 30 kilometres an hour and every time I hit a wave I get a faceful of salt water.
Thankfully, Johns and fellow guide Austin Garbutt are patient, constantly doubling back to make sure everyone’s being safe, having fun, and following the “bubble highway” the jet skis leave in their wake. And once I’ve gotten used to the bucking and rocking of the machine on the somewhat choppy surf, I can see why so much of life in the Florida Keys revolves around getting onto and into that beautiful water.
The tour takes us from the Casa Marina Resort along the south shore of the island, past the popular Smathers Beach and the Key West International Airport. At one point, Garbutt and Johns stop the group between some buoys set about two kilometres apart and tell us to have fun. Here, we’re allowed to throw caution to the wind for a while and just zip back and forth, satisfying our need for speed. I’m still not achieving Baywatch levels of glamour, but I do get brave enough to try standing up. Fortunately, the roar of the motor drowns out my screaming.
Next, we enter the Cow Key Channel, which separates Key West from neighbouring Stock Island. Shallow and dotted with mangrove islets, it’s a no-wake zone, which is just fine by me. We pass beneath the Cow Key Bridge, which at only 300 metres is one of the shortest in the Keys and has for the past three years proudly hosted “The World’s Only Zero-K” run — basically just another excuse for Conchs, as the locals are known, to party (as if they needed one).
We emerge on the Gulf side of Key West and jet out into open water, past Dredgers Key, and I’m suddenly grateful for the earlier opportunity to practice handling the machine on the comparatively calm Atlantic side. Here, the surf is even higher, whipped up by the passage of a winter cold front the previous day. I shoot from the crest of one wave to the next, occasionally landing between them with a thud that threatens to dislodge my kidneys, but instead of feeling scared, I’m laughing.
I might be the most awkward jet ski driver the Keys have ever seen, but that just seems part and parcel of the Key West experience, along with the roosters patrolling the streets and the buskers in Mallory Square: a little unpredictable, a little bizarre, and a whole lot of fun.
Alexandra Pope is Canadian Geographic Travel’s Digital Editor. Pick up the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Can Geo Travel, on newsstands Sept. 24, to read more about the Florida Keys’ innovative food scene.