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Key West calling: Lexington couple preserves island's history on a floating museum

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From the main deck of the U-S Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, the view takes you across the Naval Harbor in Key West, and out to the Gulf of Mexico.

The wind blows the American flag on the rear of the 327-foot ship anchored in this tropical paradise.

The engines of the USCGC Ingham no longer operate so it’s now a floating museum that gives the public a look at life aboard a ship that served in World War II and Vietnam.

Launched in 1936, it was decommissioned in 1988, and eventually found a home in Key West.

Four days a week a former Lexington firefighter opens the ship for visitors.

54-year-old Robert Crow started as a volunteer on the ship when he retired to Key West. Crow is now in charge of the ship, and it’s a full-time job. “You don’t get this history in school. So, when people come aboard, they actually find things they never knew, what the Coast Guard actually does. People think the Coast Guard just patrols the water. They do so much more.”

Crow has a connection to the naval history in Key West. His father served in the U-S Navy and was stationed on a ship in 1965 in Key West. “Being on a ship here in the same harbor that my father served in, it’s really impressive to me. It’s a lot of fun. This is the greatest office in the world.”

His wife Tracey, 52 years old and a former manager in health care in Lexington, also works on the ship doing the accounting and writing grants to help support the preservation of the ship.

They moved to Key West eight years ago to get away from the cold Winter months of Kentucky and look for a more laid-back lifestyle.

Tracey says people in Key West were very helpful and kind to the Kentucky transplants. “They were willing to help you do anything. You had a question? Sure, let me help you, let me take you there. It was just the freeing of everybody’s happy. There was no stress here.”

Robert appreciates the 70-degree temperatures in Key West during the Winter months. “I like getting up in the morning and having the sunshine. When we were in Kentucky the last two weeks of Christmas, it was just grey. I like Kentucky, but it’s grey in the Winter and that gets old. Just being on the water, it’s just a fantastic place to be.”

The couple has learned to cope with the threat of hurricanes. Key West is the last island along The Keys and is only about 90 miles from Cuba.

The city of about 27 thousand people has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane in more than a century (1919), but there have been some close calls.

Hurricane Irma in 2017 came ashore just north of Key West in the Lower and Middle Keys. Last September Hurricane Ian missed Key West and smashed through Ft. Meyers.

Robert says “we didn’t take a direct hit. We had some damage here. Our church had some damage. The ship as you noticed as we walk out, there’s no awning over top the bar area. We lost all of that, all the railing that all blew away.”

Tracey says they have plenty of warning when severe weather comes their way in The Keys. “You have a week preparation. You fill our washing machine with ice. You fill your tub full of water. You have those weeks for preparedness.”

On board the Ingham, I follow Robert down a steep set of metal steps into several levels of what was essentially a city on the water for up to 200 crew members.

Robert says the Ingham was made to be out on the water for long periods of time without needing to come back to shore for supplies.

There’s a laundry, officer’s rooms and eating area, the Captain’s dining table, desk, and sleeping bunk, and even a brig that held up to three people. The Crows noticed something was missing and created a chapel in one small room.

Robert says “we need a chapel on board because we have a lot of children from the Coast Guard that are baptized here on the ship. And we have ceremonies for some of our sailors who have passed on.”

Near the end of its duty on the seas, the Ingham helped during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 when Cuban leader Fidel Castro allowed 125-thousand refugees leave for the United States.

Robert says, “I was here one day, and there was a woman at the end of the gangway, and she was just looking up at the ship and she was crying. This ship brought her to America.”

For people considering doing something similar to what the Crows did by retiring to a tropical place, Tracey has this advice. “Definitely visit every season. So, you know you can live in hot and cold, whatever the seasons are. Be prepared for some life-changing emotional things you’re going thru. And take it all and enjoy. Don’t take anything for granted.”

If you are ever in Key West, the USCGC Ingham is usually open Monday thru Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. It’s a self-guided tour, but there are people available to answer questions.

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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