The following article
is taken from the
August 2000 Issue of Southern Boating Magazine
For some time we had been daydreaming about how
much fun it would be to do some serious cruising
on a boat large enough to handle the whole family.
After many weeks of discussion, my wife suggested
that instead of buying boating magazines and just
talking, it might be better to go take a course
and see if we liked it.
Sound thinking. After searching the Internet and
making a few telephone calls, we settled on Southwest
Florida Yacht and its six-day course. A few months
later, my daughter Marie and I were aboard the boat
that was ours for a week.
Understandably, we were not at all sure we could
really learn everything we needed to know in one
week. We were also a bit apprehensive about having
someone watch us display our ignorance. As luck
would have it, our instructor Gary Graham seemed
determined to not only cover the course material
thoroughly but also to make sure we had as much
fun as possible while doing so.
At 9 a.m. on the first day we settled in for our
opening session. Having spent most of the past 20
years trying to keep up with computer technology,
I was no stranger to week-long sessions trying to
get my aging brain to grapple with the Next New
Thing. This workshop, however, looked more promising
than most. We were outside, for a start, on the
aft deck of a well-maintained 40-foot trawler, and
the smell of fresh sea breezes and sunscreen was
a big improvement over stale air-conditioned seminar
rooms on a high-tech campus.
Ray Bennett and daughter Marie on the flybridge
of their 46-foot trawler. Among other things, the
pair learned about handling, chart reading, anchoring
and basic engine maintenance during their six-day
We spent that first morning going
over every inch of Red Dog, starting with the chain
locker and working our way back to the rudder. Much
time was spent crawling around the engine compartment
checking out the controls, electrical panels and
so on. They manage to cram a lot of stuff into a
boat, I discovered, and getting at it requires quite
a bit more bending and stretching than I was accustomed
to. However, by the end of the week the morning
check of fluid levels, filters and so on became
easy. This way my first experience with diesel engines,
but it looked like most routine repairs could be
performed with the usual quota of skinned knuckles
and colorful language. Everything was in great shape,
so there was no call for a professional mechanic's
skills, but had we broken down, I have no doubt
that I could have held the light for Gary and contributed
colorful language if he ran short.
During the afternoon we headed out
in the harbor to practice close-quarters maneuvering.
My previous experience consisted of small outboards
and chasing fish in the Chesapeake on my father's
30' single-engine sportfisherman. While I knew that
a twin-engine boat could spin around in its own
length, actually doing it was incredible.
Despite the wonderful control provided by twin
engines, docking was more than slightly challenging.
Maybe water was cheaper when I was a kid, but I
seem to remember that they used to put more of it
in a slip than they do now. Also my dad's boat was
mostly cockpit and had relatively little freeboard,
so I was unprepared for what the wind does to a
boat with as much superstructure as a trawler. In
addition, I was accustomed to controls in a cockpit
from where I could easily see all the stuff I wasn't
supposed to hit.
Fortunately Gary has a wealth of experience in
dealing with novice boat handlers. He always knew
when we were about to do something stupid, how we
were going to do it, and exactly what to say to
get us out of trouble while there was still time.
Both Marie and I had been apprehensive about docking
ever since firsts laying eyes on Red Dog, but Gary
talked us through the maneuvers and now it was time
Marie went first, manage to dock a few times, then
it was my turn. Following my daughter's good example
and Gary's expert advice, I too managed to back
Red Dog into a slip. Turning to Gary I asked, "How
was that?" He stood there for a minute, gave
a slow nod of his head, and responded, "Not
bad. I was hoping for that other slip, but this
one is nice too."
Later in the afternoon we had some classroom time,
and Gary went over the basics of Intracoastal Waterway
piloting and familiarized us with charts. Next morning
we performed some more docking practice, but the
wind came up so we abandoned that and headed out
to cruise the Caloosahatchee River. From time to
time Marie and I traded places at the helm, and
Gary coached us on using channel markers and ranges
to stay oriented in the channel and the finer points
of passing and being passed. We anchored for lunch
and then made our way back to the dock.
Next morning it was back to the classroom, this
time to cover compass variation and deviation, the
basics of dead reckoning and how to use tide tables.
Gary was particularly good at conveying not only
what we needed to know but also why, and he made
plenty of suggestions regarding things we should
spend more time reading about at a later time. For
a lunch break we went back out on the river and
down to Shell Point where we anchored in a secluded
cove. It was hard to believe that we were only a
few miles from Fort Myers.
The course we took is divided in two. The first
three days cover basic boat handling and navigation,
and the last three are devoted to a short cruise
featuring all the things you need to know to make
cruising safe and enjoyable. While I suppose it's
possible to just take off on your own, it is certainly
more comfortable to make the first trip with an
expert who is also an entertaining companion. Believe
me, a no-hitch three-day cruise not only builds
confidence but makes you anxious to do it again
as soon as possible.
The afternoon before the cruise, Gary told us to
dig out the appropriate charts and locate an anchorage
between Captiva Island and Buck Key. We spent a
pleasant hour or so that evening planning our route,
and I discovered that looking at charts and planning
a cruise to take "some day" is addictive.
(I now own complete charts for all of Florida, the
Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Chesapeake Bay and
the Great Lakes. All I need is about three years
On the first day we experienced what is called
the Miserable Mile. This narrow channel, combined
with tidal currents and a gusty breeze trying to
push us onto the flats, gave us a fine opportunity
to watch the markers ahead, the wake, and the markers
behind. By mid-afternoon we arrived at our anchorage,
which was already quite well populated. Gary explained
how to approach the anchorage, how to pick a spot
and then place the anchors so that we would be secure
and not be a bother to our neighbors. A little impromptu
lecture on the etiquette of anchoring and the unwritten
rules of courteous behavior went a long way toward
reassuring us that we could do this without becoming
a public nuisance. Boat operators are a rather forgiving,
live-and-let-live group, but they indeed appreciate
common courtesy. It's nice to know how to go about
your business without accidentally annoying those
After launching the inflatable, Marie and I spent
several hours puttering around. Gary directed us
to an interesting little channel that led through
the mangroves into and through Buck key. We then
wandered up to Blind Pass before returning to fix
dinner so that we could get to bed early in preparation
for sleeping late the next morning (this was a vacation,
Next morning we headed across Charlotte Harbor
and made our way to Burnt Store Marina, which is
where Southwest Florida Yachts keeps its sailboat
fleet. We then went back out and anchored for the
night just beyond the Matlacha Pass bridge. After
dinner we sat reading our books, practicing knots
and watching the sun set from our chairs on the
aft deck. What a tough life, eh?
Oh the last day we followed the twisty channel
behind the Pine Island back to our starting point.
This was definitely one of those excursions where
it's good to have someone aboard who's familiar
with local conditions. Dolphin played in our wake,
birds strolled around no more than a dozen feet
from the boat (a bit unnerving), and plenty of other
craft (if you count kayaks and canoes) were in the
vicinity. Once safely back in our slip, we had a
bit of lunch and took a short written test.
We had a nice vacation, learned enough to be approved
for bareboat chartering and, most importantly, found
a new activity the whole family will be able to
enjoy for years to come.
For more information contact Florida Sailing &
Cruising School at (800) 262-7939 or (239) 656-1339.
Write to 3444 Marinatown Lane, N.W., North Fort
Myers, Fla. 33903.
Web site: www.flsailandcruise school.com
While researching the Venice area some years ago
for the first edition of my Cruising Guide to Western
Florida, I had occasion to spend a bit of time with
one of the local marina managers. As we passed bits
of cruising news back and forth one hot, summer
afternoon, he inquired as to where my research had
taken me before coming to Venice. I related a quick
account of my recent, lengthy cruises on Tampa Bay.
The manager looked at me for a few moments out of
the corner of his eye and said, "Please don't
tell them we're here!"
it would take very rose-colored glasses indeed to
look upon Venice as a backwater village, there is
no denying that a more tranquil atmosphere pervades
these climes than in the metropolitan centers to
the north. Downtown Venice is absolutely charming,
with wonderful shops, and more than a few fine dining
choices. You will find it necessary to take a taxi,
though one local marina does plop you within walking
distance of the downtown area.
can also boast the best inlet on this portion of
the Western Florida coastline. According to numerous
conversations with local cruisers and several dockmasters,
it has not been necessary to redredge this channel
for at least ten years. With minimum 10-foot depths
at the time of this writing, Venice Pass deserves
a red circle on the chart of any cruiser planning
to go outside or make his way inland from the open
City of Venice also features several fine marinas.
Our favorite actually flanks the southern shores
of the Venice Pass channel, near its intersection
with the ICW. Crows Nest Marina is a super-friendly
facility with plentiful transient dockage, full
fueling services and an exceptional on-site restaurant
and bar. Tell dockmaster Gary that we sent you!
you prefer to anchor off for the night. Well, Venice
is ready for you as well. The charted 10-foot waters
south of unlighted daybeacon #1 (south of charted
Bird Island) make for a wonderful overnight haven,
particularly when winds are blowing from the west
or northwest. As an added bonus, the sumptuous Venice
Yacht Club lies within sight of this anchorage,
and a public park with limited dinghy dockage is
close by as well.
is important to take special care when navigating
the Waterway in the Venice area. The various side
channels, not to mention the numerous twists and
turns in the ICW channel, can be confusing for first
timers, and, the tidal currents can flow swiftly.
Venice and heading south towards the Caloosahatchee
River you will first traverse a narrow, man-made
canal, which will soon lead you into the marginally
wider waters of Lemon Bay. Ahhh, Lemon Bay, I type
out that name, and it calls to mind some absolutely
beautiful waters set against the backdrop of a late
autumn sunset. We always enjoy this portion of the
Waterway, if, and only if, we stick strictly to
the channel's mid-width. The ICW channel running
through Lemon Bay is subject to shoaling along its
edges, and prudent mariners will pay extra special
attention to all relevant markers and keep a close
watch on the sounder.
Bay's marina facilities are somewhat widely scattered,
though visiting cruisers will find all they might
need at Englewood, Stump Pass and Palm Island. A
good anchor-down spot can be found on the charted
7 to 13-foot cove near unlighted daybeacon #30 (Mile
of Mile 35, the Waterway quickly leaves its more
sheltered passage behind and flows out into the
truly awesome waters of Charlotte Harbor and Pine
Island Sound. Normally, this writer would begin
to wax and wane eloquently (you believe that, right!)
about the uncounted cruising opportunities, gunkholes,
charming ports of call and innumerable anchorages
on these twin bodies of water. However, my host
for this series of articles, Southern Boating magazine,
recently (Oct.1996) featured an excellent article
detailing these waters in a first-class fashion.
So, within the body of this tale, we will only hit
a few personal favorites.
of Charlotte Harbor, this body of water runs to
the northeast off the northerly reaches of Pine
Island Sound. While most of Charlotte's shoreline
is delightfully undeveloped, there is one large,
notable marina facility guarding its southerly waters
and its northerly head is flanked by the picturesque
community of Punta Gorda.
Store Marina, flanking Charlotte Harbor's southeasterly
shores, is undoubtedly one of the most important
marina facilities between Venice and Fort Myers.
As you would expect, this large complex features
plentiful transient dockage, a super sheltered harbor,
a fine ship's and variety store and an on-site restaurant.
What you may not know about, however, is the large
number of charter craft that operate out of Burnt
Store. Both Southwest Florida Yachts and Yachting
Vacations offer a wide variety of vessels available
for bareboat charters. These sorts of rental sojourns
are a great way for first-time visitors to become
familiar with these cruising-rich waters.
City of Punta Gorda has received numerous awards
and was recently recognized by a national magazine
as offering the highest quality of life of any city
in the U.S.A. This writer would certainly not disagree
with that assessment. Beautiful homes overlook a
seemingly endless maze of canals, and the historic
downtown district is as pretty as a picture. Fisherman's
Village Marina (featuring an adjacent dining and
shopping complex) is located in the heart of the
community, and there are three yacht clubs in the
area as well.
For the really intrepid explorers among us (who can
clear some fairly low fixed bridges), you might consider
exploring either the Myakka or Peace River, both of
which flow off the northerly waters of Charlotte Harbor.
Be warned that there's plenty of shallow water to
contend with on these two streams, but there is also
the opportunity to anchor and spend the night where
few cruising-sized pleasure craft have been before
our attention back to Pine Island Sound, let me
just mention four of my "must see" ports
of call. I don't think it's overstating the case
to say that those who have not yet experienced the
delights of Gasparilla Island and its one village,
Boca Grande, have not really enjoyed the best that
Florida has to offer. If your pocketbook can stand
the strain, every cruiser should spend at least
one night at the Gasparilla Inn in downtown Boca
Grande. Yes, this facility has its own marina a
short step away from its doors, but the real charm
here is the glorification of Victorian architecture
and lifestyle. As I describe it in my Cruising Guide
to Western Florida, "if you were sitting in
the lobby of the Gasparilla Inn and F. Scott and
Zelda Fitzgerald came strolling through, they would
be entirely in keeping with the ambience."
Oh yes, the food in the dining room and (at midday)
at the Beach Club is absolutely, worldclass. Let
me pause here for just one second to note that Boca
Grande is a naturally deep pass, which, if you carefully
follow the markers, can be used with confidence.
Grande Pass divides Gasparilla Island from Cayo
Costa. This island is a state park and is completely
protected from development. Craft that can stand
some 4 to 4 1/2-foot low water soundings can anchor
just east of Cayo Costa in Pelican Bay. It's then
a quick dinghy ride ashore where exploration of
the almost deserted beaches is mandatory. Just watch
the sun go down over the Gulf, and see if you don't
think that this is what cruising is all about.
of course, there's Cabbage Key just a bit further
south. This island sports an inn sitting atop a
Native American shell mound. Once the home of the
son of Mary Roberts Rinehart, the mystery novelist,
it is said that the author penned many of her most
famous stories while living on this remote island.
Today the house has been turned into a unique inn.
For one thing, the dining room is wallpapered with
genuine one dollar bills that patrons have left
over the years after having affixed their signatures
to them. For another, the food is great, and the
backwater atmosphere is a welcome relief from our
modern, well-planned world. The small marina "out
back" is very convenient to we cruising folk.
the large marina and huge vacation complex known
as South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island is a
must stop for any boat owner who likes pleasure
craft facilities with all the trimmings. The harbor
is well-sheltered, transient dockage is not wanting,
and it would take a month to exhaust all the dining
and shopping opportunities. If you want to take
a break from the live-aboard routine, there are
plenty of adjacent rooms and condominiums for rent.
If you happen to prolong your stay for several days,
and wander outside of the complex's gates, ask any
local for directions to the Mucky Duck Restaurant
(no, I'm not making that name up). Set in an English
pub-style atmosphere, both the burgers and the fried
grouper sandwiches are enough to set my tastebuds
the ICW leads past the shores of Sanibel Island
and enters San Carlos Bay. One good marina is available
on Sanibel, and there is excellent anchorage just
behind Point Ybel (the southerly tip of Sanibel),
within sight of the island's historic lighthouse.
Sanibel is known worldwide as a vacationer's and
shell hunter's mecca.
Waterway crosses San Carlos Bay in a stretch that
is known as the "miserable mile." The
reason for this moniker is obvious to anyone who
has cruised this stretch in times past. The ICW
follows an east to west axis at this point, and
the prevailing, often strong, currents set north
to south, or south to north, sweeping directly across
doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that
leeway can be one heck of a problem along this channel.
Captains must watch their course over the stern
just as religiously as they eye the track ahead.
This wise strategy will quickly show if you are
being swept sideways out of the channel onto the
surrounding shoals, just when it looks from your
course ahead that you are headed just where you
should be going.
traversing the "miserable mile," the Western
Florida ICW ends. That's right folks, there is no
official, protected Intracoastal Waterway which
traverses Florida's southwestern coastline. Those
cruisers headed south have no choice but to take
to the waters of the open Gulf, but that is another
the east, the Caloosahatchee River serves as the
westernmost link to the memorable Okeechobee Waterway,
providing reliable access to the Sunshine State's
eastern coastline. In the last of this series of
articles, we'll explore this fascinating passage
again, it's been a rare treat to share a quick impression
of Western Florida waters with you. Good luck and
Lane N.W. North Fort Myers Florida 33903
(239) 656-1339 (800) 262-7939 Fax (239) 656-2628
Marinatown Marina 26° 38.5'N 81° 53.0'W
Burnt Store Marina 26° 45.71' N 82° 04.20'W
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