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Meet Mr. Gunkhole

Fearless explorers Tom and Hatty Lenfestey have discovered some magical gunkholes in their 40 years of cruising Florida’s west coast. So far, their favorite is the mouth of the Little Shark River. On the fringes of the Everglades just above Cape Sable — Florida’s southern tip — this gunkhole is about as out-of-the way as you can get. And that suits the Lenfesteys just fine.


 “To really enjoy the grandeur, you must get up at sunrise and watch the world as it comes alive in the Everglades,” writes Lenfestey, who is 80, in his Bible of Florida Gulf Coast cruising, “A Gunkholer’s Cruising Guide to Florida’s West Coast” (Great Outdoors Publishing Company, St. Petersburg, Fla., 12th ed., 2003).
An early riser could see a school of mullet breaking water in unison with a sharp splash, a great blue heron wading in the shallows, or a cormorant cruising the still waters, scanning the depths for fish. Snook and redfish abound in these coastal backwaters, providing breakfast for birds and

 Tom Lenfestey

 gunkholers alike. This is as close as the Lenfesteys have found to heaven.

The natural channel coming up the river is a comfortable 10 feet, the bight at day beacon No. 4, where they anchor, 15 feet. The banks of the Little Shark River are dense with red mangroves rising 60 feet above the water, protecting the anchorage from wind. “As you go farther in and approach the Shark River, the red mangroves actually reach a mind-

boggling 80 feet in height,” Lenfestey writes. “Awesome.” He advises exploring by dinghy the shallow creeks and rivers — Lostman’s, Broad, Harney — that meander nearby.

“All gunkholes are anchorages, but not all anchorages are gunkholes,” Lenfestey says. The couple’s guide rates anchorages with one to four anchors, like the Mobil Travel Guide’s star ratings for hotels. Little Shark rates a four, making it a true gunkhole: an ideal anchorage. Lenfestey says determining what is and isn’t a gunkhole is necessarily subjective. Everyone has a little different idea about what makes an anchorage perfect, but he believes there are some commonalities.

“It’s a shallow anchorage, though not so shallow that you go aground, and it has good holding,” he says. A gunkhole should be surrounded by thick stands of trees or bushes for protection from the wind. And it should be quiet.

“Stay away from dredges and power plants,” he advises.

As to wildlife, a gunkhole should be a window to nature, a place where cruisers can live alongside critters. Lenfestey says the gunkholes of Tampa and Sarasota bays are wonderful outposts for viewing 100 bird species, raccoons, rabbits, and myriad fish and marine life. Lenfestey appreciates a gunkhole all the more if it is a good fishing hole.

Nature sightings and aesthetics aside, he stresses the importance of a gunkhole being a harbor of refuge. He and Hatty weathered a hurricane in a houseboat tied between two saplings on the Suwannee River one year. “It was an excellent gunkhole,” Lenfestey says. “It was surrounded by hardwoods.”

Tom, a retired chemical company executive, and Hatty, education curator emeritus of a Tampa art museum, cruised for 33 years on a 29-foot Columbia sailboat. They have cruised the past six years on a 1965 Grand Banks 32, Silver Belle. The couple began publishing their west coast Florida cruising guide in 1981 because when they needed a guide themselves, they couldn’t find one. “We made that our mission, to write one of our own,” Lenfestey says. The gunkholers are working now on their 13th edition of the guide, updating it to reflect reconfigured channels, new shoals, and marina updates after four hurricanes tore into Florida’s west coast and Panhandle last year.

Lenfestey notes that many of the choicest gunkholes on Florida’s Gulf Coast require local knowledge to navigate through flats and shoals, hence the utility of a “gunkholer’s guide.” Where else could you find a word of caution to come armed with three levels of defense — mosquito coils, mosquito repellent and mosquito nets — to fend off the world’s largest mosquito, Psorophora confinnis, a critter gunkholers will find in maddening abundance in the Everglades?

Even the perfect gunkhole has its blemishes.


Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:

Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:

Learn The Art of Gunkholing