The following article
is taken from the
July 1997 Issue of Southern Boating Magazine
"Perfect" Cruising Ground
Claiborne S. Young
Adapted from his Cruising Guide to Western Florida
Photography by Chuck Kennedy
leaving Tampa Bay and heading south,
can look forward to some of the best
cruising and sightseeing the West Coast
of Florida has to offer. En route to
Fort Myers, they will encounter wildlife
like the roseate spoonbill (below),
beaches like Siesta Key (above), the
seashell mecca of Sanibel and, one of
the author's favorite stops, Gasparilla
leaving Tampa Bay behind, cruisers will quickly
find their way through a dredged cut allowing
access through a prodigious shoal known as the
"Bulkhead." Once this hazard is in
your wake, the southward-flowing, Western Florida
ICW leads through the idyllic waters of Anna
Maria Sound. To the west lies Anna Maria Island,
itself with good marina facilities, excellent
restaurants and fine beaches. We have always
admired the various communities on Anna Maria
and its sister barrier islands stretching to
the south. Life seems a bit less hurried there,
and we always savor the slower pace like a fine
marina at Cabbage Key. It is said that
the novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote
many of her most famous stories on this
A short hop farther to the south, the ICW
works its way past the easterly reaches of
a marked channel leading to Longboat Key Pass.
This seaward cut has just been redredged and
it is hoped that the channel will be reliable
for some time to come. Just watch out for
the strong tidal currents as you approach
and pass through the 17-foot bridge crossing
the southerly track of the ICW leads yachtsmen
out into the wide waters of Sarasota Bay.
To the west, Longboat Key boasts several good
marinas. To the east, the City of Sarasota
beckons with myriad attractions and an impressive
wanting a marina closer to downtown Sarasota
are not forgotten. The locals call it Marina
Jack - the name of the on-site restaurant,
which serves excellent burgers and more than
passable seafood. However, the facility is
officially known as Marina Operations. The
huge marina overlooks the Waterway's easterly
banks just south of charted Golden Gate Point.
south of Marina Jack, you will almost certainly
spot a host of vessels anchored adjacent to
the charted sharp point of land. This is a
very popular overnight haven, but be warned
that stays are now restricted to a maximum
of 72 hours.
us pause for a moment in our journey south
to reflect on the inlet situation in Sarasota
Bay. The bay is actually served by two seaward
cuts, New Pass to the north and Big Sarasota
Pass. For the last several years, both of
these channels have suffered from shoaling.
New Pass was all but impassable and Big Pass
had low water depths of as little as 4 feet.
Fortunately, as this account is being tapped
out on the keyboard, extensive dredging operations
are slated to commence of the New Pass channel.
Hopefully, Sarasota Bay will soon have a reliable
passage to the briny blue.
run from Sarasota Bay to Venice is a visually
pleasant experience, though marinas and anchorages
are somewhat less numerous. Not all is lost
by any account, however. Be sure to look east
as you pass unlighted daybeacon #78 (near
Mile 71). The elegant structure and adjacent
dockage basin are home to this writer's good
friends at The Field Club. The clubhouse is
actually the former home of Marshall Fields,
of Fields Department Stores fame.
of unlighted daybeacon #62, the Waterway passes
out into the somewhat broader waters of Little
Sarasota Bay. This body of water still has
plenty of protection in all but the nastiest
weather. We love to anchor east of unlighted
daybeacon #51 in the correctly charted 6-foot
depths. It's always a treat during fair weather
to watch the sun set over the barrier islands
to the west.
south from unlighted daybeacon #13 (Mile 60),
ICW craft will soon begin their approach to
the waters lying about the charming city of
Venice. Just north of this community, however,
you might want to consider a quick stop at
one of the restaurants gathered about the
Casey Key Bridge (south of flashing daybeacon
#12). Both Urbanek's and Pelican Alley restaurants
offer fine dining and temporary (for dining
patrons only) dockage adjacent to the ICW.
Be on guard against swift tidal currents in
Seas Plantation on Captiva Island offers
first class amenities to the cruising
yachtsman, from dockage to fine dining
and speciality shops.
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 Gulf.
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 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 36).
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
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
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.
Boca Grande Lighthouse.
Author Young counts the island of Gasparilla
and town of Boca Grande a "must see"
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.
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.
paddlewheeler cruises up the Caloosahatchee
River under a beautiful Southwest Florida
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.
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
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.
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.
again, it's been a rare treat to share a quick
impression of Western Florida waters with
you. Good luck and good cruising!