Southwest Florida Yachts
Press Coverage Of Florida Sailing And Cruising School

The following article is taken from the
April 1999 Issue of Sailing Magazine

Gulf Coasting

by Lisa Moore with photography by Walter Cooper


It was mid-December, I hadn't started my Christmas shopping and I'm not known for my spontaneity. But when asked if I wanted to take a five-day charter cruise of Southwest Florida, I surprised myself by exclaiming, "Yes."

My Travel companions, Ken Quant and Melissa Suring, who were cruising veterans, wrote out their Christmas cards on the plane while I, a first-time charter cruiser, frantically flipped through Claiborne Young's Cruising Guide to Western Florida.

Apprehension took a backset to anticipation when we stepped off the place in balmy Florida and drove past palm trees, pink and turquoise houses decorated with Christmas lights, and old oak trees covered with Spanish moss. At the Marinatown Marina in North Fort Myers, Vic and Barbara Hansen of Southwest Florida Yachts welcomed us warmly.

A primrose path led us past the Spanish-style buildings the surrounded the Burnt Stone Marina. I carefully stepped out of the sidewinding path of a crab to climb aboard Ocean Cabin, the Catalina 42 that would be our home for the next few days.

Ken Quant and the author enjoy a sunny cruise in the playpen, a
protected, consistently deep area in Pine Island Sound.

It was getting late in the afternoon. We quickly stowed our groceries and slapped together peanut butter sandwiches before preparing to sail the 10 miles across Charlotte Harbor on our way to Gasparilla Island.

Gray storm clouds loomed large behind us and then mercifully headed north, spitting rain as we unfurled the genoa in the 18-knot breeze.

Cormorants and pelicans glided evenly above the water and then dropped from the sky like bombs. I watched them from the deck as Ocean Cabin reached across the bay.

"Dolphins," Ken shouted from the wheel. Melissa and I rushed to the bow in time to witness three dolphins, maybe four, leaping alongside us. They were so close I could see the blow holes on their smooth, gray bodies as they emerged, then disappeared into the murky depths.

The wind calmed and we reached along at a lackadaisical 5 knots, navigating the marked path of the Intracoastal Waterway to Gasparilla Island.

George, a blurry guy with a hearty laugh, guided us into a small slip at Miller's Marina.

We were followed by a weathered looking man in a weathered old aluminum cruiser, with the name, something like Merriweather, faded on the transom. His boat's engine had a bad smoker's cough and there were clothespins hanging on its lifelines. "This guy looks pretty salty," said George as he moved to the other side of their pier to take his lines.

It was getting dark. At George's suggestion, we followed candlelit brick pathways through downtown Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island's only village. It was mid-December, not yet tourist season, and the locals were holding their Christmas festival. After visiting the art galleries and shops, we bypassed the much talked about Pink Elephant to have dinner at the less conspicuous Mango Tree.

The sign said "Open" but it took three raps on the screen door to rouse the restaurant staff, who seemed to be savoring the last slow weeks before the tourists would arrive. In the outdoor garden, we ate fresh grouper with lime ginger sauce and drank cold Heineken in the company of a gecko that watched us sedately from the wall.

Returning to our cozy berths in the dark, I remembered something my husband said to me before I left: "Don't forget to look up." Sure enough, the big Florida sky was pierced with starts.

When I awoke the next morning just before sunrise, our salty neighbor was already sitting in his cockpit. His name was John, and he was about to head back on the Intracoastal to his Tallahassee home. Schools of mullet slapped their tails on the water as we shared his pot of coffee.

Motors puttered in the marina and men spoke in one-word sentences, maneuvering the fishing boats back in. Miller's Marina is famous for its tarpon tournaments when the season peaks between April and June, but the catches of the day were kingfish, redfish, grouper and snook.

Grapefruit hung ripe and heavy in the trees as we walked past old tin-roofed clapboard houses, freshly painted in white, peach and yellow. Simple and rustic, they somehow blended in to the newer and larger homes with two cars and one cart in every garage. These little carts or ballooned-tired bicycles were the preferred way to travel, but we crossed the island on foot, strolling slowly on Banyan Street. Planted on either side of the street in 1914, the great banyan trees had gregariously outstretched their branches to create a shady canopy over the street.

We passed Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. With its wrought iron fence and stucco walls, it was reminiscent of the Spanish explorers who established a Catholic mission on the island in the 1500s.

Service was in session down the block at a white, clapboard Baptist church, where organ music piped out open windows.

As we walked singlefile along the concrete breakwater to the beach, a line of sunbathing lizards disappeared, one by one, behind the rocks. A freckled woman with a pony-tail stood on the beach holding a fish pole. Her companion, his pants rolled up to his knees, was baiting his hook. The gray-haired couple cast continuously into the white-green water at high tide, "for anything that bites."

Meandering past exotic and native plants, Ken Quant and
Melissa Suring follow Useppa Island's botanical trail.

Slowly, the blue horizon became an ominous dark gray. Ken broke the news that we wouldn't be anchoring out that night.

Melissa and I rented a golf cart to sneak in a visit to the island's two lighthouses. We visited the tall, white skeletal structure that was built in 1927 as a range marker for its predecessor, a recently renovated 1890s cottage-style lighthouse and its out buildings.

On the way back, the wind picked up and it started to rain. We sat in the cockpit eating cheese and crackers, listening to Billy Holiday until the bimini began to leak. Under the marina's awning, we stood with the marina crew and a man from Dusseldorf whose shiny black-hulled ketch was docked two slips away and watched it pour. I asked when it might let up. George laughed, retrieving his cigar from the windowsill. "This is Florida rain," he said.

So, we ate just-caught-this-morning stone crab claws at the upstairs bar and grill, while George and the bartender told tales of giant tarpon, aloof bobcats and alligators that took up residence in backyard swamps. But nobody knew the story of the alligator that was stuffed and mounted on the opposite wall. In the spirit of the moment, Ken invited George to come sailing with us and I half-expected to find him in the morning with his bag packed waiting on the end of our pier.

It was a gray day with a big wind. We sailed, on a broad reach, for the Tween Waters Marina. Almost every channel marker along the way was residence of an osprey and its young family.

Ken studied the chart and expressed his concern about Ocean Cabin's five foot draft. We decided not to risk going aground near the tight shoal Brian Mowat of Miller's Marina had warned us about. Reluctantly, we changed our course for South Seas Plantation on North Captiva Island, a place that has been described to us as Disneyland.

Sure enough, a triple-decker powerboat that could have passed for a carnival ride was the first thing I saw when we pulled into the slip. And when the harbor master told Ken, "Your money's no good here" we knew that he wasn't extending us a downhome Florida welcome. The place had its own special credit card. Walking past a manicured golf course, trolley cars and boutiques, we slowly shed South Seas Plantation to find North Captiva Island.

The gulf-side beach was a wide curvature of sand bordered by sea grass that waved in the wind like a horse's mane. A dark-haired woman sat on her ankles, placing shells in a large wooden bowl.

It wasn't long before we joined her treasure hunt. Walter, with his photographer's eye, found the most interesting shells- a turkey food, a perfect conch - which he passed to us as gifts. He dug a trench in the sand to uncover coquina, tiny mussels that look like agates. We watched as they opened their shells, each kicking out a pale, pink foot to bury itself back into the sand.

After dinner at the Mucky Duck, a friendly British pub outside "the plantation," Melissa and I returned to the beach by flashlight. The green waves broke, hurling themselves evenly to shore where they foamed and sizzled at our feet. They sounded like a chorus of voices followed by an audience softly clapping. Shivering in long pants, we sat on the expanse of sand listening to the performance under the dark, bright sky. Two stars fell and I made two wishes.

The next morning, I walked out to the farthest point on the longest pier to wait for sunrise. A fisherman rowed by in a wooden skiff, dangling a net and a cigarette, which glowed softly in the dark. Suddenly, a pelican flew at me. I stepped back as he swooped up to take a seat on top of the post I was leaning on. Together we watched pink light climb the layered clouds into the sky.

It was beautiful, sunny day, perfect for cruising. Melissa hoisted the main and I, a novice sailor, fumbled with the jib. Ocean Cabin reached along freely in the relatively deep water of Pine Island Sound. We later learned that the locals call this area the playpen.

The wind pushed us swiftly past Cayo Costa, a nature preserve speckled with a white pelicans asleep in the mangrove branches. A northwest wind pounded and the tide was going out, taking with it my last chance to experience gunkholing. It had only taken a few days of cruising to accept that plans are formed, dissolved and changed according to the weather and the tide.

By special arrangement from Southwest Florida Yachts, we were permitted to visit Useppa Island, a private island known for its role as a training base during the Bay of Pigs, for visits by presidents and for its old money. According to the man at the main lobby, there is nothing to do at Useppa, "unless you like croquet." Instead, we followed the marked botanical trail past eucalyptus plants, bamboo trees and ficus trees. Melissa brushed her sleeve against a branch, sending a flurry of zebra swallowtails into the air.

We passed the Collier Inn, established by New York entrepreneur Barron Collier, where a player piano soullessly plinked out a Gershwin tune to an empty room.

The old inn clearly wasn't open so we debated between peanut butter sandwiches and a wet trip in the dinghy to the famous restaurant across the Intacoastal.

Dollar bills cover the walls of Cabbage Key's only restaurant, which is built on a Calusa Indian shell mound. We pulled up to the dock just as the sun was going down, tying our dinghy to the slip marked 50-feet and over, and stretching our legs as we admired the shaggy forest of cabbage palms.

I couldn't find the cheeseburger Jimmy Buffett raved about on the dinner menu, so we sat at the bar and ate fresh shrimp and blackened mahi-mahi in paradise. The bartender, Mike Watts, told us that the place is bustling at lunch when cruising boats, the likes of which we'd seen at South Seas Plantation, unloaded for lunch. It was late in the day, two weeks before the tourist season, and we were once again the only diners.

When we told them we had come from Useppa, there was a long pause. "Is it true that they have a five-foot chess board?" asked Mike. We told them all about the boat with the United Nations flag Ken had seen, the croquet course and the marked nature trail. "We're not as sculpted here," said Jordan Smith, a J/29 racer, who, at least until Key West Race Week started, was Cabbage Key's official captain.

The night was overgrown with sailor chatter. Mike was working 80-hours a week as a manager of a discount clothing store. After his divorce 11 years ago, he taught himself to sail. "It's a cheap way to travel," he said. Recently, he married Donna, who was our waitress. They live aboard a Catalina 13 at Cabbage Key for six months of the year. During the other six months of the year, they cruise. Mike wore a bracelet that said "live the dream," in block letters. Ken wrote SAILING Magazine on a dollar in black magic marker and Mike hung it in an honored spot---next to the race car driver Dale Earnhardt's.

Entranced by their hospitality, we lost track of time. It would have been a long, dark dinghy ride back if Jordan hadn't been kind enough to offer us a tow. He bought us to the channel marker outside of Useppa. They sky was black, richer than old money, and spangled with stars. A halo of phosphorescence surrounded us as we motored back to Ocean Cabin.

On our last morning, the sunrise set the sky on fire, but the temperature had dropped to a chilly 38 degrees. Cold crept inside the layers of fleece we had piled on for the brisk ride back to the Burnt Store Marina. Melissa found a patch of sun and stretched out on the deck to soak it up. Walter curled up in a blanket below. And I sat shivering in the cockpit scanning the water. In my mind I summoned dolphins to escort us on the journey home. rooms on a high-tech campus.

Day is done for this elegant little cat boat
off Useppa Island.

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