The situation in Boot Key Harbor will only continue to worsen for those traveling to the Keys looking for open anchorages for the winter months when the current plans to expand the present mooring field to more than twice the present size is implemented. On the plus side, it will bring some organization to the Harbor and the dangers of your boat being damaged from anchor draggers should lessen. The moorings will help alleviate the pressures left from the loss of slip space and the doubling of transient rates of marinas still open to the public. Another issue that compounds the crowding in these harbors is the weather patterns that prevail during most of the winter months. Even though the crossing from the mainland United States to the Bahamas is much shorter from West Palm Beach or the Key Biscayne/Miami area, many boaters come to the Keys for a period of time and then make a direct run from either Marathon or Key Largo to South Riding Rock on the Florida Straights of the Bahamas Banks.
Typically the winter fronts extending from low-pressure systems moving from west to east across the United States will come off the southwest Texas coast and move southeast until they pass through the Keys. In the height of the winter boating season those fronts can push through every three days for weeks and weeks. They can pack lots of rain and winds up to 40 knots that might blow continuously for three to five days. As they blow out a new front comes through and the whole thing begins anew. Making the 48-hour run to a sheltered harbor in the Bahamas is difficult for many sailboats, so you begin to feel “trapped” after several weeks go by with no breaks in site. This was the case for us after an incredibly calm, quiet motor from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, across the Gulf Stream to return to the Keys.
As we headed out of the harbor and motored under the Seven Mile Bridge for the trek north, we found the forecast east wind coming out of the northeast at about 15 knots and the day was cloudy and cool considering how far south we were. That means motorsailing and that’s what we did for all but two hours of the transit. At around 3 in the afternoon the easterlies finally kicked in and we actually sailed for a couple of hours. The Shark River is a hurricane hole for boaters in the Keys and south west Florida so we know the river is deep enough for Sea Trek’s 6-foot draft, but we also know the entrance can be tricky since nearby shoals do shift around after storms.
As we approached the outer markers we were having a case of deja vu all over again. The same reddish hue over the landscape that greeted us in Isla Mujeres was clearly present all along the coast here. The damage to the plant life was quite stark since all of the trees were virtually stripped of leaves and other vegetation was dead from the intrusion of salt water from last year’s hurricanes. As we got closer to our planned anchoring spot, however, there was a hint of returning growth.
We were amazed since so much time had passed since the hurricane season of ’05. By our estimates, it may take another year or more for the area to return to normal, assuming no more major storms make landfall here. Facilities in Flamingo and Everglades City near Cape Sable were beginning to rebuild and recover but are still limited. One of our concerns was the availability of fuel since we knew this would be a motoring trip more than a sailing one. Prior to leaving Marathon, we collected the phone numbers of as many marinas and facilities as we could find along our route. The plan was to call ahead by cell phone to keep track of what was open and how far we might need to travel before food, fuel and whatever else we might need would be available.
From Little Shark we moved on to Indian Key just west of Everglade City and found the landscape to be the same. This was the area where Wilma made landfall and it took on a bleak appearance.
We dropped anchor just inside Indian Key Pass near our friends on the trawler Diamond Girl that we had met in Marathon. We had dinner together and did a little dinghy exploration.
In addition to Sea Trek and Diamond Girl, there were another three boats at anchor. It is a lovely anchorage, but unless you can find a spot well off the main channel we would not do it again. Care must be taken outside the main channel since shifting shoal areas will put you hard aground. The bottom is sandy so this can be no more than an inconvenience, but anytime you are anchoring you need to consider the boat’s draft, the current state of the tide and the tidal range for the geographic area you are in.
In Smokehouse Bay access is via docks at a new and very large shopping and restaurant complex, and is completely free. We were anchored in Factory Bay with several other boats but only saw two boats anchored in Smokehouse Bay. Marinas are open, and fuel and groceries are readily available. Many restaurants, shopping centers theaters and marine supply stores are within easy walking distance from either bay. There has been a move to restrict anchoring here, but the local government has seen the light and for the time being that is not an issue, but as with all else in Florida that can change tomorrow. Boat traffic is very heavy here during the day but they all seem to go home after sunset. The currents run very strong in the channels but both bays are relatively free except for tidal changes. Our three days here were pleasant and relaxing and we highly recommend Marco Island as a must-stop if cruising this coast.
After three days at Marco we moved on to Fort Myers Beach but found that the entire anchorage had been converted to moorings and unless we planned to stay at one of the marinas or pay for a mooring buoy we were not welcome. Basically when we asked where we might anchor, we were told to either pay for dockage or leave — so we left. It did appear that most facilities were functioning here, but we know very little about service or availability. We anchored in San Carlos Bay for the night and headed north in the morning. From this point on we would be traveling on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway instead of in the open Gulf as we had been up until now. Mile Zero begins at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River where you can continue on along the GIWW or head across Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway. The stretch from Mile Zero to the southern tip of Pine Island Sound is known as the Miserable Mile because of the strong currents that sweep across the marked channel at a sharp angle and can put a slow-moving vessel in shallow water if the skipper is not paying attention.
We must have hit the “mile” at just the right time around slack water since we had no current and actually found it to be a picturesque section of the waterway. The only negative was the enormous amount of small boat traffic the skippers of which seemed to have no clue as to how to safely pass another vessel. Our mileage for this day would be a short 21 miles to a beautiful anchorage across from Useppa Island that we shared with six other boats. Useppa is a private island with restored cottages and a mansion built around 1912 complete with a museum, tennis courts and a 16-foot-by-16-foot chessboard with 3-foot-tall pieces. Our anchorage was just outside the waterway channel markers so once again we had the wakes from passing boat traffic to contend with. From Useppa we worked our way to Manasota Key, and anchored just behind the highway bridge. Anchorages here are few and are just outside the waterway channel. As the tide went out over night we found ourselves aground but by midmorning the next day the tide came back in and we were on our way.