Southwest Florida Yachts

Sounding Out Southwest Florida
By Tom Neale

The tree tunnel snakes through mangrove, past huge shell mounds barely visible in the green tangle of tropical foliage. Though the surrounding lowlands were occupied over 10,000 years ago, today there's no one around. The only noises are jungle sounds. Sometimes a dinghy or canoe from a sailboat anchored nearby ventures inside the sensuous darkness of the passage, its occupants carefully poling or paddling, working the tide. But most of the time it's as it has been since the Calusa Indians disappeared over 300 years ago. They flourished in southwest Florida for 800 years before Columbus "discovered" America. But then the Spaniards came, and later the British. The Calusa didn't survive, but their canals, middens, and mounds-some of them over 20 feet tall, built by coastal dwellers who primarily ate shellfish-still remain.

Though southwest Florida's Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor differ in size and personality, they complement each other in a marriage of perfect cruising grounds. Pine Island Sound is a shallow bay between the swampy Florida mainland and barrier islands that protect it from the Gulf of Mexico. Some of these islands are inhabited, some are wildlife preserves. At the southern end of Pine Island Sound is Sanibel Island, with beaches known for shelling. To the north is deep and wide Charlotte Harbor and, farther still, the hustle and bustle of Tampa Bay.

Cruising Southwest Florida
The Spaniards began charting the area over 400 years ago, and now the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway serves as a clearly defined backbone, beginning with beacon "101" at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. You can sail in the protected sound, make passages outside in the Gulf of Mexico, anchor in quiet places surrounded by wildlife, explore white beaches and mangrove forest, and, if you get tired of this, choose from an array of marinas and restaurants ranging from fine to funky. While the sound has numerous shoals and shallows, this allows cruisers-during nice weather-to anchor safely in open areas that otherwise would be unprotected. (There are also plenty of spots to duck into if a blow threatens.) Part of the essence of cruising the southwest cost is to find and enjoy these kinds of spots. Study the charts, and seek the deeper veins in good light and low winds so that you can read the water. Go in carefully on a rising tide, perhaps first with a dinghy and depth finder. Avoid anchoring in thoroughfares, and keep your boat properly lit at night. I'll mention a few of these choice places, but you'll have to find some on your own. Then stay awhile in each one. Fish, swim, relax; watch birds, and listen to dolphins splash outside your hull as you fall asleep. That is that kind of place.

Getting There
If you don't live in southwest Florida, you'll likely approach the area from Key west, around 110 miles south, or the cut through the Keys at Moser Channel at Marathon, approximately 120 miles to the south and southeast. Some on the eastern coast cross the state through the Okeechobee Canal, getting their masts unstepped at Indiantown or figuring out the best method of heeling their boats in anticipation of the canal's 49-foot vertical bridge clearance. (There are several 55-foot bridges from Indiantown.) The canal begins at St.Lucie and slices through groves, farms, wilderness, and yes, even cowboy country. It joins the Caloosahatchee River, which flows past Fort Myers into the sound.

Entering Pine Island Sound from the Caloosahatchee River is straightforward. The river's main channel bends southward out under the Sanibel Causeway into the Gulf, but a dredged passage takes you through the shoals directly into San Carlos Bay, from which you can enter the south end of the sound. If the skipper's attention wanders, as it's likely to amid the surrounding sandy islets and wildlife, the current, sweeping laterally over this channel, can push slower boats sideways onto the shoals, which is why some call this, quite inappropriately, the "Miserable Mile." Myriad birds and porpoises often surround you as you make the passage. Heading north, there are two more harbors before the Gulf Intracoastal ends, Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay.

Sanibel Island
Rounding beacon "26," at the top of Sanibel Island, look north to absorb the size and beauty of the sound. You can see little of civilization. The view is mostly tropical shoreline, islands, and water. Porpoises thrive here and will probably accompany you much of the time you're sailing fast enough to throw a bow wave. Stark, white, exposed sandbars turn into birds that start and suddenly fly away as you approach. These may be flocks of the rare white pelican. Train your binoculars on the white spots against the mangroves along the shore and see the herons or egrets carefully stepping along on spindly legs, looking for catches. Many cruisers skip Sanibel Island because of its condos, chic shops, and popular Gulf beaches. But the hype of the south end of the Sanibel is quickly forgotten in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge at its north end. An anchorage in the bight to the south of daymark "14" and beacon "16" (as always, proceed cautiously) allows you to explore the shoreline of the refuge and Tarpon Bay by dinghy. Just around the bend to the north, the west side of neighboring Chino Island offers another secluded anchorage.

Captiva Island
Captiva Island, to the north of Sanibel, is much less developed and has a wildlife preserve next to 'Tween Waters Inn and Marina. This "island time" resort marina has all the conveniences, and it's a great spot to stop. Shallow canals nearby run deep into the mangrove swamp and wilderness of Buck Key. A walk of a few hundred feet takes you to a Gulf beach where you can watch for the green flash at sunset; a much shorter walk takes you to a popular restaurant. You can also rent kayaks and canoes here and explore the canals. Take the map they give you and pay attention as you disappear into the mangroves. An anchorage near the marina provides good protection and access to the canals. At the north end of the island, South Seas Resort offers a huge marina, restaurants, and shops. You'll see its blue sign of the entrance channel. Call the dockmaster and ask about water depths before you enter. Shoaling is also sometimes a problem in nearby Redfish Pass, between Captiva and North Captiva. Its channel changes continually, and even the most recent charts probably won't reflect the exact location.

North Captiva
North Captiva has but a few homes; the rest of the island is protected. Unlike Sanibel and Captiva, it's not accessible by bridge. But as you sail by on the Gulf Intracoastal, you see signs on posts in the shallower waters inviting you to visit the various island restaurants, such as the Mango Island Cafe and Barnacle Phil's. These are accessed by water, and as you turn off into their channels, more signs tell you which route to take, up into the mangroves, to find the restaurant of your choice. East of the Gulf Intracoastal, smack-dab in the middle of Pine Island Sound, beckons another area of wide open but relatively protected anchorage. Work your way carefully to the west of Captiva Shoal. Old stilt houses, built as quarters for fishing guides, line a long, very low islands. (The charts indicate shoal, but there's now brush and mangroves, and you'll often see frigate birds in this area.) Follow the deep water in a northwesterly directions, along the old Gulf Intracoastal route (the modern one heads due north), to the top of North Captiva Island; you can anchor behind shallow bars.

Cayo Costa

Next up is Cayo Costa, a protected park that's almost nine miles long. The island's southern portion is a sandspit similar to many beaches in the Bahamas. An anchorage just to the east of the beach tip, which overlooks the Gulf and the sound, provides a base during settled weather from which you can go ashore and explore. To the east of the northern end of Cayo Costa are several small islands, where Pelican Bay separates Punta Blanca Island from Cayo Costa. This is a large, pretty anchorage, protected from all directions, except on weekends when its plagued by personal watercraft. A dinghy dock allows you to land and explore the trails of Cayo Costa State Park and the Gulf Beach.

An exceptionally protected anchorage hides on the southeast end of Punta Blanca Island, behind Point Blanco. Enter carefully, near the remains of a stick house off the southern point. Shoals shift, so you should first explore the depths with your dinghy. You won't find much breeze inside, but surrounded by casuarina and mangroves, you'll feel a deep sense of isolation. An easy, much more open anchorage lies to the east of Cabbage Key, off the middle of Cayo Costa, east of the Gulf Intracoastal, and just to the west of Useppa Island. From here you can visit Cabbage Key by dinghy (beware of the large ferryboats). There's a restaurant and bar there that has a wall covered in dollar bills. The building sits on top of a hill, which is really a Calusa shell mound. We decided to make a dinghy exploration into the Tunnel of Love.

This canal, covered by trees and dense jungle, connects the sound with the Gulf of Mexico, exiting through the beach on the west of Cayo Costa. Made by the Calusa, it's now almost buried by time and foliage, and it barely floats a canoe or dinghy. Go on a rising tide, and don't tarry, because you'll probably be stranded when the tide is low. The charts show navigable water (by dinghy) around the south end of Cabbage Key, but we couldn't find this and went around to the north of the smaller keys to its north, for deeper water. As you approach Murdock Bayou, you'll see an old shack to your right. The entrance to the canal is hidden in the trees, so it isn't easy to find, but you'll see it as you follow the bank around and up into the bayou.

Useppa Island

Useppa Island, just east of the Gulf Intracoastal and across the Cayo Costa, is an exceptionally pleasant opposite extreme. It, too, is steeped in history, but it's also steeped in quiet luxury. This island, called Toampe by the Calusa, has a fascinating past. Its "hills," some 40 feet above sea level, are actually shell mounds. The CIA used Useppa as a training site for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and it was the site of the invention of the drag reel-no fortuitous circumstance, as business tycoon Barron Collier used the island as a center for his famous tarpon-fishing expeditions. There are over 200 species of tropical plants here. Useppa Island is run as a private club, so its marina and exceptional facilities aren't public, but it welcomes sailors who might be interested in becoming members; they can stay the night.

A pretty, open-water anchorage lies to the north of Useppa Island and to the south of privately owned Mondongo and Patricio islands. Carefully follow the marked channel that leads to Pine Island and move out of it wherever there's enough water for your boat. You may want to skirt the northern end of Useppa Island and anchor just to the north and east. Don't stay in the marked channel. If you stay in the area at night (as in any anchorage), be sure your boat is properly lit.

Pine Island

Pine Island itself, huge and primarily oriented to fishing and tourism, is surrounded by water too shallow for most sailboats. There's a channel to its easy-Matlacha Pass, used by shrimpers that draw six feet or more- but it's narrow and doesn't provide good anchorages. The channel serves the quaint and picturesque old Florida fishing town of Matlacha.

Leaving Pine Island Sound and Cayo Costa behind, you enter Boca Grande (Big Mouth) Pass, leading out into the Gulf. Well-known for fishing, it's particularly famous for its tarpon. Locals say the peak tarpon runs occur at the full moon in June. It's well marked and easy, but don't head north to Charlotte Harbor just yet. First stop at the town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, just to the north of the pass.

Gasparilla Island
Local lore has it that a notorious pirate named Jose Gasparilla gave his name to the island, but most historians say he never existed. If you look to the north, you begin to see the condo horizons, so remarkably lacking where you've just been. There are some stacks and commercial docks on the southern end of Gasparilla, but the town itself is fantastic. Even though the island has a bridge to the mainland, Boca Grande is funky, South Florida-island eccentric. The docks at Miller's Marina give you a fantastic view over the bar protecting it from the sound. There's a restaurant here, and a fresh-seafood shop at the dock. The locally caught shrimp are great. You can rent golf carts from Island Water Sports and drive around town. The quiet roads parallel many old buildings containing small-town stores, shops, and restaurants, including the Loose Caboose, the Pink Elephant, Boca Rica Mexican Cuisine, and the Temptation Restaurant. One road winds through a tunnel of banyan trees and opens onto a Gulf beach. Coming in the channel from the sound, the marina is in the bight to port. Ahead you'll see a cove with mangroves to starboard and a dinghy dock. Here, boats anchor for the night Med-moored stern to the mangroves. A walk of around 10 to 15 minutes take you from here into town.

Charlotte Harbor
Charlotte Harbor is remarkable both for what it doesn't have and for the one thing it does have. It doesn't have a plague of fast boats constantly throwing wakes. It doesn't have hidden shoals and shallows (except close to the shore.) It doesn't have cities crowding its green shoreline. It doesn't present tricky navigation issues. It does offer miles and miles of unblemished sailing. Charlotte Harbor is around 10 miles wide and 20 miles long. You can put most of the B.V.I. inside this basin, but its waters are relatively protected-and they're right here in the United States. It isn't known for anchorage coves; cruisers anchor off whatever shore gives protection for the night, and they stay there. Some tie up at Burnt Store Marina in Punta Gorda and enjoy its restaurant. Others anchor off Punta Gorda at the mouth of the Peace River, in the northeastern corner of the bay, and dinghy in to the bars and restaurants. (Avoid "Restricted Anchoring Areas") The 45-foot vertical clearance of the bridge just inside the mouths keeps most sailboats from exploring this beautiful river. Charlotte Harbor is the perfect counterpoint to the careful gunkholing and exploration sailing of Pine Island Sound. Any time the wind is right, head up into these broad waters, hoist the sails, kick back, and let 'er rip.

Tampa Bay and Sarasota
Restaurants, museums, parks, and art galleries blend with open bays, island anchorages, and white beaches. Many consider this area to be the cultural center of Florida's west coast; it's a place where isolated harbors are rare, but in terms of things to see and do, the action is nonstop. Tampa Bay is roughly 25 miles long and 10 miles wide. With Tampa and St.Petersburg facing off across Old Tampa Bay, it's not surprising that industry and civilization line much of its shores. In Tampa, you might check out Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Theater, the Tampa Museum of Art, and the Lowry Park Zoo. In St.Petersburg, enjoy the Sunken Gardens, the Museum of Fine Arts, Al Lang Stadium (winter home of the St.Louis Cardinals), the Dali Museum, and other attractions. The opulent Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club has its Vinoy Resort Marina (the host of Sail Expo St.Petersburg in early November). Near the St.Petersburg Municipal Marina lies the famous St.Petersburg Pier, with its restaurants, shops, and aquarium. When you're satiated with the luxuries of the area, the open water of the bay whisks you quickly away. Such rivers as the Manatee and such towns as Bradenton hold more marinas and anchorages. You can escape altogether by sailing under the 15-mile-long Sunshine Skyways Bridge-then you'll have the Gulf of Mexico to play in, or the barrier islands to the north and south. The Gulf Intracostal Waterway links many of these, although in some areas its projected depth of nine feet is wishful thinking.

To the south, past Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key protects Sarasota Bay from the Gulf. If you keep one eye on the depth sounder, you can have a good day of sailing in the bay. There's plenty to stop for in Sarasota, such at Mote Aquarium and the Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary. To the east, the tall buildings of the city contrast with the more sparsely populated islands of Longboat, Lido, and Siesta Keys, where protected areas highlight the experience. Docks at restaurants as well as marinas give ready access to shoreside delicacies. Siesta Key marks what many consider to be the southernmost limit of the area. Passes between the keys out to the Gulf are often shoaling. Venice Inlet and Longboat Pass are generally good, but you should always check the latest charts and Notice to Mariners.

You can head north from Tampa Bay through Boca Ciega Bay and the Gulf Intracoastal, but again, watch your depth sounder. However, a trip up the coast in the Gulf takes you past much of civilization and into quieter towns, such as Clearwater, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, and New Port Richie. The barrier islands of the Anclote Keys, between the last two towns, begin to give you a feel for the great open sweeps of the Big Bend (around New Port Richie) to the north and west.

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