Southwest Florida Yachts

The following article is taken from the
July 1997 Issue of Southern Boating Magazine

Florida's "Perfect" Cruising Ground

by Claiborne S. Young
Adapted from his Cruising Guide to Western Florida
Photography by Chuck Kennedy

beach photo

boat photo

Cruisers 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 Island.

bird photo

After 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 wine.
Cabbage Key photo


The marina at Cabbage Key. It is said that the novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote many of her most famous stories on this island.

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 inlet.

Soon 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 skyline.

Visitors 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.

Immediately 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.

Let 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.

The 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.

South 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.

Cruising 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 this area.

South Seas Photo


South 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!"

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.

The Boca Grande Lighthouse.
Author Young counts the island of Gasparilla and town of Boca Grande a "must see" for cruisers.

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.


A paddlewheeler cruises up the Caloosahatchee River under a beautiful Southwest Florida Sky.

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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