Southwest Florida Yachts
Press Coverage Of Florida Sailing And Cruising School

The following article is taken from the
August 2000 Issue of Southern Boating Magazine

Learning to Cruise

by Ray Bennet


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.

Cabbage Key photo


Author 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 course.

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 to try.

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 of vacation.)

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 around you.

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, after all).

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

South Seas Photo


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!"

While 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.

Venice 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 Gulf.

The 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!

So, 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.

It 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.

Leaving 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.

Lemon 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 36).

South 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.

Speaking 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.

Burnt 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.

The 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 you.

Turning 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.

Boca 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.

Then, 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.

Lastly, 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 to dreaming.

Finally, 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.


The 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 the channel.

It 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.

After 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 story.

To 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 together.

Once again, it's been a rare treat to share a quick impression of Western Florida waters with you. Good luck and good cruising!


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(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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