KEY WEST, Florida Keys — The Conch Republic never received the billion dollars in foreign aid its officials requested from the U.S. government after its 1982 secession from the mother country. Nevertheless the republic, also known as Key West and the Florida Keys, is to salute the 26th anniversary of the secession now through Sunday, April 27, in Key West.
The Conch Republic Independence Celebration features irreverent and inviting activities including a “drag” race between female impersonators, a sea battle featuring tall ships, an impromptu sea-to-sea parade and a bed race billed as “the most fun you can have in bed with your clothes on.”
As well as showcasing the independent and eccentric spirit that characterizes the Florida Keys, the celebration benefits a variety of local charitable organizations.
The birth of the island republic, whose motto is We Seceded Where Others Failed, was prompted by a 1982 U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint set up at the head of the Florida Keys so agents could search cars for drugs and illegal aliens. It virtually halted traffic on the only road into and out of the Keys, angering residents and threatening the fledgling tourism industry.
Realizing that the Keys were being treated as a foreign country, local officials protested by staging the secession. After proclaiming the Conch Republic, they declared war on the United States, pelted federal agents with stale Cuban bread, surrendered and requested $1 billion in foreign aid. The Border Patrol checkpoint was removed quickly, and the Conch Republic captured the popular imagination.
“The Conch Republic seeks to bring more humor, warmth and respect to a planet we find in sore need of all three,” said Peter Anderson, the republic’s secretary general. ”We like to think we express what is best about America.”
Highlights of the 2008 celebration are to include the Great Conch Republic Drag Race, a free-for-all sprint for female impersonators ranging from the fashionable to the fashion-challenged. The rowdy race, presented by the Bourbon Street Complex, is scheduled for Saturday, April 19, in the 700 block of Duval Street, Key West’s main “drag.” Participants are expected to compete in full makeup and gowns or stylish sporting attire; tiaras are optional.
The event is to commence at 1 p.m. when the “pits” in the 700 block open for public viewing. Beginning at 2 p.m., racers in staggeringly high stilettos or oversized platform sandals proceed through time trials and elimination heats, attempting to avoid crashes and broken heels to triumph over their sisters in the final round.
The racing action is to be capped by a 5 p.m. tea dance in the street for competitors and spectators with any remaining energy.
Other festival highlights include the U.S. 1 Radio/WAVE FM “World’s Longest Parade,” also to take place on Duval Street. Named because it begins at the Atlantic Ocean and proceeds to the Gulf of Mexico, the exuberant parade is to step off around 7 p.m. Thursday, April 24. The procession typically features impromptu floats, pedicabs, local and visiting firefighters, musicians and colorfully painted “conch cruiser” cars and bicycles.
The action is to move from land to the waters of Key West Harbor at 7 p.m. Friday, April 25, as sea dogs, sailors and wenches gather for a sea battle featuring tall ships and maritime mayhem. Sponsored in part by the republic’s flagship Schooner Wolf, the good-spirited battle pits the Conch Republic Navy against the reviled federal forces. Warfare is characterized by the roar of cannons as combatants pelt each other with flying conch fritters, ripe tomatoes, stale Cuban bread and similar ammunition.
Landlubbers can witness the fracas from shoreside viewing parties at Ocean Key Resort and Spa, 0 Duval St., and the Westin Resort & Marina, 245 Front St.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, April 26, the Conch Republic celebration’s oldest event is scheduled: the annual Conch Republic Red Ribbon Bed Race presented by Fairvilla Megastore.
Colorfully decorated and wheeled beds, some carrying “undercover” agents or passengers three sheets to the wind, are propelled down Duval Street by runners during this madcap excuse for a slumber party. While the race might engender strange bedfellows, it also has a serious purpose of benefiting Key West’s AIDS Help Inc.
Other featured events during the 2008 Conch Republic Independence Celebration include a fiddling contest and a bluesy music festival at the Green Parrot Bar, 601 Whitehead St., a sailing race to the reef that recalls the Florida Keys’ early wrecking industry, the election of the Conch Republic royal family and a pirates ball and pig roast at the Schooner Wharf Bar, 202 William St.
The celebration is scheduled to conclude with a stargazer cruise at 9 p.m. Sunday, April 27, aboard the Liberty Clipper. Passengers can view the wonders of the night sky, including the Northern Cross and Southern Cross, as the sailing vessel cruises the waters of the Conch Republic. For cruise reservations and prices, call (305) 292-0332.
For more information and a complete schedule of Conch Republic events, visit www.conchrepublic.com.
For lodging information in Key West, contact the Key West Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-LAST-KEY (800-527-8539) or explore this Web site.
Captain Finbar Gittelman and his first mate, Julie McEnroe, of the Schooner Wolf, take a direct hit from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter's water cannon during the Conch Republic Days Naval Battle in the Key West harbor. Photos by Mike Hollar/Florida Keys News Bureau
The festival's oldest and most famous event, the Conch Republic Red Ribbon Race, is to take place April 26. Photo by Mike Hollar/Florida Keys News Bureau
A female impersonator, known as Gina Maseratti, left, and Gary "Trampie" Drews, both of Key West, Fla., compete in last year's Conch Republic Drag Race. Photo by Mike Hollar/Florida Keys News Bureau