Steward of the Keys: Matt Sexton
Matt Sexton, 34, a “retired” professional kiteboarder, owns and operates the new Grassy Flats Resort & Beach Club that opened last spring. With a zero-waste program and on-site sustainable amenities, the resort features a bar hand-tooled from locally salvaged wood surrounded by aeroponic tower gardens for flowers, luffas and garnishes; uses biodegradable and plant-based soaps and detergents and accessible water filtration systems; and bans single-use plastics and Styrofoam.
Sexton attributes his early success to being fiercely independent and rebellious as a teenager. Growing up around New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, he ran a sailing school and worked on boats around the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Globetrotter Sexton established the Collegiate Kiteboarding Association as an Eckerd College student in St. Petersburg, Florida; created the first CKA championships at Key West’s Smathers Beach in 2007; and competed worldwide as a professional kiteboarding champion and action sports athlete.
Sexton worked with co-owners Mike and Shana Walsh to build oTHErside Adventure Park & Keys Cable, the Middle Keys wakeboarding, kiteboarding and foilboarding park that opened in 2012. The park, powered by solar panels, also sells local wares, sporting goods and clothing made from recycled materials and is planning a restaurant.
Overall, Sexton is focused on making a difference and trying to do something bigger than himself. He recently spoke with Keys Traveler about his history and philosophy.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Matt Sexton: I was 5 years old when my family took a trip to Duck Key. We went fishing out of Hawks Cay, caught dolphin, rode amazingly retro jet skis and parasailed. It had a big impact on me because 22 years later, I was teaching kitesurfing lessons off the docks of Hawks Cay and living on Grassy Key.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
MS: Ten years ago, the ocean was everything to me. Restoring a 50-acre coastal property has shown me that what we do on land has a direct relationship to quality of life beneath the surface. You simply can’t have one without the other. Mangrove forests, upland hammocks, patch reefs and pelagic fish at the humps are insanely cool.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
MS: When I was 12 years old, my dad insisted that my sister and I become scuba certified. This set off a series of life events that dragged me all over the world, experiencing the best of what the ocean has to offer. When we took over the Big K lobster farm (the former Aqua Ranch) and turned it into oTHErside Adventure Park & Keys Cable, I saw some things that brought back hope. We turned a piece of commercial property into a vibrant sanctuary. We turned it into a natural wonderland in less than five years. We would clean up one pile to the next, figure out what was native and what was invasive, and attempt to sell off, recycle or repurpose abandoned fish farming equipment. This gave me hope, respect and drive to protect the Keys’ natural world.
KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
MS: It really all comes down to checks and balances as well as sustainability. I’m equally fascinated and challenged by business as I am with nature. I try to make sure every decision has an ethical, moral and environmental check and that we consider impacts from a generational perspective — not just the immediate return.
KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
MS: A key word that keeps coming back to me is “balance.” We currently have two retail shops, a hotel and an adventure park. In 2018 we founded the Florida Keys Community Center, a nonprofit to promote sustainability, arts, culture and community enrichment throughout the Florida Keys.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
MS: Interacting with our local and tourism communities. We meet people from all over the world daily and get to share perspectives and ideas in a fun and welcoming environment. Kiteboarding, spearfishing, free-diving, sailing, gardening, good food and good conversations over cocktails allow me to enjoy it all from one day to the next.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
MS: Not just public sentiment for the environment, but public action. If you don’t want to see single-use plastics and Styrofoam floating up on our beaches, stop selling them or providing them to your customers.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
MS: A lot of people tell me they can’t possibly see how their single actions can make any sort of significant impact. If every one of those people feels the same way, then we will never experience changes we need. Your decisions matter. Every little one.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
MS: Kiteboarding is one of the most amazing ways to experience the waters of the Florida Keys. Free-diving still holds a close second for me and is the best way to enjoy the world beneath the surface.