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Surprises await cruisers’ return to Florida

After last year’s hurricane season cut short their cruise south, couple finds plenty of changes in the Keys

Surprises await cruisers’ return to Florida

After last year’s hurricane season cut short their cruise south, couple finds plenty of changes in the Keys

Chuck Baier and Susan Landry are a cruising couple from Marathon, Fla. They sailed out of U.S. waters aboard their 40-foot ketch, Sea Trek, bound for ports in Guatemala, the Caribbean, Mexico and Belize. Their dispatches from Internet cafes along the way will appear in Soundings. This is their 11th dispatch, written by Chuck.

After being in the Western Caribbean for well over 12 months, we expected some changes when we returned to the United States, but were totally unprepared for the extent of those changes in such a short time. This was especially true of what had been our home base for the past 10 years, Boot Key Harbor in the Florida Keys.

Replacement and rebuilding of marinas and resorts are still in progress from the 2005 storm season and with the closing of a major transient resort in Marathon as well as conversion of several facilities to expensive condo slips, most anchorages that offer decent protection have become crowded.

In the major boating centers of Marathon and Key West access to shoreside resources and attractions from anchored boats is also growing more scarce. The situation in Boot Key Harbor will only continue to worsen for those traveling to the Keys looking for open anchorages for the winter months when the current plans to expand the present mooring field to more than twice the present size is implemented.

On the plus side, it will bring some organization to the Harbor and the dangers of your boat being damaged from anchor draggers should lessen. The moorings will help alleviate the pressures left from the loss of slip space and the doubling of transient rates of marinas still open to the public.

Another issue that compounds the crowding in these harbors is the weather patterns that prevail during most of the winter months. Even though the crossing from the mainland United States to the Bahamas is much shorter from West Palm Beach or the Key Biscayne/Miami area, many boaters come to the Keys for a period of time and then make a direct run from either Marathon or Key Largo to South Riding Rock on the Florida Straights of the Bahamas Banks.

Typically the winter fronts extending from low-pressure systems moving from west to east across the United States will come off the southwest Texas coast and move southeast until they pass through the Keys. In the height of the winter boating season those fronts can push through every three days for weeks and weeks. They can pack lots of rain and winds up to 40 knots that might blow continuously for three to five days. As they blow out a new front comes through and the whole thing begins anew.

Making the 48-hour run to a sheltered harbor in the Bahamas is difficult for many sailboats, so you begin to feel “trapped” after several weeks go by with no breaks in site. This was the case for us after an incredibly calm, quiet motor from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, across the Gulf Stream to return to the Keys.

Across the Gulf

After six weeks in Marathon, we began our slow transit along the Gulf Coast. From this point on we were entering new territory for us.

Our first stop was Little Shark River on the west coast of Florida. From our anchorage in Boot Key Harbor to our planned anchorage near the entrance to the river we would cover 44 miles across the open Gulf. That meant we would prepare ourselves and the boat the same as if we were heading out into the open ocean. Even though it looked like we would have a good solid five-day weather window to move north, we had been fooled before.

As we headed out of the harbor and motored under the Seven Mile Bridge for the trek north, we found the forecast east wind coming out of the northeast at about 15 knots and the day was cloudy and cool considering how far south we were. That means motorsailing and that’s what we did for all but two hours of the transit.

At around 3 in the afternoon the easterlies finally kicked in and we actually sailed for a couple of hours.

The Shark River is a hurricane hole for boaters in the Keys and south west Florida so we know the river is deep enough for Sea Trek’s 6-foot draft, but we also know the entrance can be tricky since nearby shoals do shift around after storms.

As we approached the outer markers we were having a case of deja vu all over again. The same reddish hue over the landscape that greeted us in Isla Mujeres was clearly present all along the coast here. The damage to the plant life was quite stark since all of the trees were virtually stripped of leaves and other vegetation was dead from the intrusion of salt water from last year’s hurricanes. As we got closer to our planned anchoring spot, however, there was a hint of returning growth.

We were amazed since so much time had passed since the hurricane season of ’05. By our estimates, it may take another year or more for the area to return to normal, assuming no more major storms make landfall here. Facilities in Flamingo and Everglades City near Cape Sable were beginning to rebuild and recover but are still limited.

One of our concerns was the availability of fuel since we knew this would be a motoring trip more than a sailing one. Prior to leaving Marathon, we collected the phone numbers of as many marinas and facilities as we could find along our route. The plan was to call ahead by cell phone to keep track of what was open and how far we might need to travel before food, fuel and whatever else we might need would be available.

From Little Shark we moved on to Indian Key just west of Everglade City and found the landscape to be the same. This was the area where Wilma made landfall and it took on a bleak appearance.

We dropped anchor just inside Indian Key Pass near our friends on the trawler Diamond Girl that we had met in Marathon. We had dinner together and did a little dinghy exploration.

The boat traffic from commercial fisherman and shrimp trawlers was pretty heavy and they ran all hours of the day and night. And they ran past us at full speed, some throwing up very large wakes.

In addition to Sea Trek and Diamond Girl, there were another three boats at anchor. It is a lovely anchorage, but unless you can find a spot well off the main channel we would not do it again.

Care must be taken outside the main channel since shifting shoal areas will put you hard aground. The bottom is sandy so this can be no more than an inconvenience, but anytime you are anchoring you need to consider the boat’s draft, the current state of the tide and the tidal range for the geographic area you are in.

Feeling our way

From Indian Key our next stop was Marco Island and we already had received reports of the problems there from the storms and from proposed restriction of anchoring vessels.

Many channel markers along this route had been damaged, destroyed or relocated and could not be relied upon. As we entered the channel into Marco Island, we paid close attention to our depth sounder and used our GPS with our electronic charts to try and maintain the channel and stay out of the new shoal areas that had shifted due to wind and seas from the storms.

Just as you enter the main channel to Marco Island a very popular anchoring stop known as Coconut Island no longer exists and is now only a very shallow area that is completely submerged. The island was actually destroyed by a storm two years prior.

Once inside the main anchorages of Factory Bay or Smokehouse Bay, you are completely protected from weather in almost any direction. In Factory Bay you can access shoreside facilities from the large marina at the north end of the bay.

In Smokehouse Bay access is via docks at a new and very large shopping and restaurant complex, and is completely free. We were anchored in Factory Bay with several other boats but only saw two boats anchored in Smokehouse Bay. Marinas are open, and fuel and groceries are readily available. Many restaurants, shopping centers theaters and marine supply stores are within easy walking distance from either bay. There has been a move to restrict anchoring here, but the local government has seen the light and for the time being that is not an issue, but as with all else in Florida that can change tomorrow.

Boat traffic is very heavy here during the day but they all seem to go home after sunset. The currents run very strong in the channels but both bays are relatively free except for tidal changes. Our three days here were pleasant and relaxing and we highly recommend Marco Island as a must-stop if cruising this coast.

After three days at Marco we moved on to Fort Myers Beach but found that the entire anchorage had been converted to moorings and unless we planned to stay at one of the marinas or pay for a mooring buoy we were not welcome. Basically when we asked where we might anchor, we were told to either pay for dockage or leave — so we left.

It did appear that most facilities were functioning here, but we know very little about service or availability. We anchored in San Carlos Bay for the night and headed north in the morning.

From this point on we would be traveling on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway instead of in the open Gulf as we had been up until now. Mile Zero begins at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River where you can continue on along the GIWW or head across Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway. The stretch from Mile Zero to the southern tip of Pine Island Sound is known as the Miserable Mile because of the strong currents that sweep across the marked channel at a sharp angle and can put a slow-moving vessel in shallow water if the skipper is not paying attention.

We must have hit the “mile” at just the right time around slack water since we had no current and actually found it to be a picturesque section of the waterway. The only negative was the enormous amount of small boat traffic the skippers of which seemed to have no clue as to how to safely pass another vessel.

Our mileage for this day would be a short 21 miles to a beautiful anchorage across from Useppa Island that we shared with six other boats. Useppa is a private island with restored cottages and a mansion built around 1912 complete with a museum, tennis courts and a 16-foot-by-16-foot chessboard with 3-foot-tall pieces.

Our anchorage was just outside the waterway channel markers so once again we had the wakes from passing boat traffic to contend with. From Useppa we worked our way to Manasota Key, and anchored just behind the highway bridge. Anchorages here are few and are just outside the waterway channel. As the tide went out over night we found ourselves aground but by midmorning the next day the tide came back in and we were on our way.

Along the GIWW

This stretch of the Florida west coast seemed to be untouched from the storms of the previous years compared to what we had seen previously. All of the marinas were open for business except those being converted into condos and there were several of those. Fuel and grocery stops were plentiful and we enjoyed some great weather for the next couple of weeks.

All of the cruising guides for this stretch warn about shallow water and with Sea Trek’s 6-foot draft we were a bit concerned. But as long as we did not stray outside of the marked channels, we found plenty of water and indeed only saw water below 7 feet in one area near an inlet.

Most of the rest of the waterway averaged 10 to 12 feet. But keep in mind that depths and bottom configurations are constantly changing so finding and using local knowledge is important.

We subscribe to one of the commercial towing services and armed with their telephone numbers all along our route, we only had to make a call to one of their captains and we could get up to date details on channel changes, shoals and missing markers.

Our travels along the GIWW, through Tampa Bay, and on to Tarpon Springs and beyond were a very pleasant transit with great anchorages in charted deeper waters and beautiful scenery. Except for occasional fog, which is not uncommon in the spring and fall, it was a very relaxing cruise. But more about that later.