Key West welcomes battleship rejected by Miami
By Charlotte Libov
The USS Mohawk, until recently expected to become a tourist attraction on downtown Miami's shoreline, was brought Friday into Key West Harbor, her new home, accompanied by a contingent of tugs, police boats and a PT boat.
Aboard was Frans Boetes, founder of the Miami Dade Historical Maritime Museum who had hoped for a permanent berth in Miami but is now working with Key West's Mel Fisher Maritime Museum to make his retired cutter the linchpin of a maritime museum at that city's Truman Waterfront.
"It's nice to work with that organization," Mr. Boetes said of the Key West group, adding that he'd changed his plans after being told by City Manager Joe Arriola that he no longer could keep the vessel docked in Miami.
"I talked with Mr. Arriola, the city manager, who said there was no slip available in Miami even though he had sent a letter saying he would support it," Mr. Boetes said. "I had to disappoint a lot of people, cadets who were in training - we had a program for young kids - but I made the decision because Key West was so enthusiastic about it."
A spokesman in Mr. Arriola's office said last week that he was on vacation and could not be reached. No other city official would comment. Officials from the Historic Museum of Southern Florida, who had spoken favorably recently about helping Mr. Boetes create a floating museum, possibly at Bayfront Park, also declined comment.
In March, many Miamians involved in the project gathered with Mr. Boetes for the ship's installation here. Friday, it was Key West's turn, as officials greeted the ship's arrival with enthusiasm.
"It was a great ceremony," said Key West City Commissioner Bill Verge. "We had cannons going off and PT boats there. Frans Boetes was inducted as a captain in the Conch Republic Navy. We had the Conch Republic Air Force - one old biplane - fly over." The Conch Republic is a micro-nation declared as a tongue-in-cheek protest secession of the Florida Keys from the US in 1982. John David, commanding officer of the USS Mohawk, was also on hand, Mr. Verge said.
Madeleine Burnside, executive director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, said her museum is delighted with the turn of events.
"We got a call, and we were interested in this ship," she said. "We specialize in shipwrecks, but we are delighted because we are a maritime museum."
The Mohawk's association with the museum is "a little informal, but we hope to formalize it," she said. "It's a beautiful ship - it was amazing to see it come into harbor. And we are delighted.
"My understanding is that they got kicked out of the port because of Homeland Security and the city didn't find them a great alternative, so they started to look around. And I'm just very glad they came to us," Ms. Burnside said.
Mr. Boetes said he did not believe security concerns were involved.
The name of the organization he founded, the Miami Dade Historical Maritime Museum, remains as a maritime museum for Florida, Mr. Boetes said, "which is great," but "we wanted the ship in Miami. All the supporters are in Miami."
Still, he added, "I think it's great for Key West, especially since they respect veterans, and they see this ship as a representation of the Navy and the Coast Guard during the '30s and '40s. The US has a long history with the Mohawks, and now they have a new Mohawk."
He added that his organization's Web site, which still shows plans for the vessel to be in Miami, will be changed.
"I'm sorry for Miami," he said. "They missed the boat, although that sounds odd to say. But there are not many organizations that want to give a self-sustaining museum for free. We thought everybody was behind us, but I'm not sitting here crying. Miami has more of a focus on commercial real estate, but ships attract more visitors than conventional museums."
It's been estimated that the vessel, which Mr. Boetes said he purchased for $850,000, needs another $500,000 worth of work, and she had to be towed into her new port.
But Mr. Verge said a band of supporters and volunteers is eager to start working on the ship.
"This is a very good match," Mr. Verge said. "It fits in with your history and our plans to develop our park." The day the vessel arrived, he said, "a frigate bird - a rare big pelican - flew over and landed on her mast and rode her all the way into the harbor. I never saw that before."