You cross 42 bridges to get from Miami to Key West. But it's the famed Seven Mile Bridge that carries you over the waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic that always makes us feel like we've crossed over to the Good Life.
Billy Kearins crossed that bridge on a Greyhound bus in 2002. Fresh out of Boston College and without much of a plan, Kearins showed up in Key West with a backpack of clothes, a skateboard, and not much else.
"I came down here to figure out what I wanted to do," Kearins told us, as we sipped coffee in his office. "Then I never left. I liked the people. It's a really supportive community, especially when it comes to creativity and the arts, so it worked for me. There's the natural beauty of the ocean and the weather, but also Key West has a small-town feel, while at the same time playing host to tourists and visitors from all over the world. For a sleepy beach town, there's quite a bit of culture."
We caught Kearins shortly after his bi-annual shave, so the salt and pepper scruff that has covered his face for the last 20 years was rather tame. His warm eyes looked out over the rim of his coffee mug; his shaggy, sun-lightened hair jutting out from under his hat. Kearins has a way about him that makes you think he's hiding a secret. Like he's somehow figured it all out, and if you're lucky, he might tell you.
When Kearins was getting settled into Key West he took a job as a mate on a sailboat. He worked his way up and became captain. Then he met a girl, fell in love, and winged off to Copenhagen for a five-year stint. When he came back to the States in 2012, Kearins founded his company, COAST Projects, and opened a storefront in Old Key West, above which he lives. COAST Projects is something of a creative depository. Art, clothing, surfboards, concerts, summer camps, books—they do it all.
"Inspiration comes from all over—a morning bike ride, the way the light hits during sunset, the smell of the ocean, the feel of the waves,"
Kearins told us, as we sat in the backyard, chatting while he waxed his boards in preparation for a three-day surf trip with his son Kristian, 12, and his daughter Naia, 8. "It also comes from talking to people who are creative, especially people who have been at it way longer than I have—older artists, other people who have taken the road less traveled. There's something about folks who have taken risks personally and creatively—and succeeded or failed—that motivates me. Perhaps more than anything else."
Kearins speaks modestly of being "creative." An artist, writer, designer, shipbuilder, boat captain, photographer, entrepreneur and surfer, Kearins is one of those people who juggles so many projects and hobbies you'd be forgiven for thinking he lives in a world with more hours in the day.
"I'm always excited for something new," he told us. "The business is called ‘COAST Projects' because everything we do is project-based. For me, it's always about what's next. That's part of what we've come to be known for here—what's COAST going to do next? About ten years ago we kinda pioneered ticketed live music in Key West, we came out with this renegade concert series [Coast is Clear] and we were the first people to do it. Since then the demand has been proven, and there are people who are better suited to do it. But for me, the best part about that experience was coming up with the idea and just doing it.
I'm always trying new things and seeing if they'll work. It keeps me excited. And for me to be creative, I have to be excited."
As Kearins loaded his boards into the bed of his 1986 Ford F-150 (which is the perfect level of vintage), we chatted about how he stays grounded with so much going on. "You have to carve out time to relax," he told us. "And that's hard sometimes, but it's really important. I think a lot of times, people get into this routine where they think if they keep pushing and keep pushing they'll be more productive. And they start to think that's normal. But my stance is it's better to take a breath; look at something from a different angle. There's no real formula for me, but I can tell when I've hit a wall, and I back off."
For now, the only thing on his schedule is a quick swim with the kids and wrapping up the last details for their surf trip. "My favorite part of the day is going to pick my kids up at school. Usually I'm done with most of my work by then, so we hop in the truck and figure out what the day's adventure will be—swimming, skating, or biking to the beach at Fort Zach, then maybe jumping on a friend's boat to catch sunset," he told us. "You've got plenty of options, and none of them are bad. That's the beauty of Key West."