Ft. Myers to Keys to Ft. Lauderdale - 2/07-27/03
Day 1, 2-07-03: We had a slip reservation at Marco Island which was expected to be about a four hour trip. So we were in no big hurry; which was a good thing. It was calm on the Calusahatchie River, mostly cloudy, but foggy. Local knowledge indicated it should be lifting by noon, and sure enough, about 11 am it looked like we were "good to go." It was a nice cruise down the river, and by 12:30 we were through the manatee no wake area at the mouth of the river. There had been quite a bit of boat traffic both ways, but as we approached G"101" (the turning point to leave the ICW and head south to the Sanibel Causeway lift bridge), we seemed to be all alone (i.e. nobody to follow!). Looking for the next markers, the exact course of the channel was not obvious! Choosing to keep G"101" on our port side, we slowly rounded the marker to leave the ICW, and it began to get disturbingly shallow. At 5', it was time to bring our 4.5' draft to a halt! We reversed back into the middle of the ICW, and turned back from whence we came. With several boats approaching in the narrows, we decided to do a 180 behind them to see if any would show us the way. Of course they all continued on the ICW right past G"101"....no help! A more careful look at our paper chart still didn't show exactly where the channels intersected, but based on the sounding lines, it looked like it might be better to turn left out of the ICW just before G"101" instead of past it. So easy does it one more time....we made it to the next channel marker toward the bridge with one foot of depth to spare.
By 1 pm, we've passed under the causeway bridge with one foot to spare with our VHF antenna up (bridge tender said we had a "good 27 feet" clearance, and it was). Looking ahead, Estero Island at San Carlos Pass was nowhere to be seen -- FOG BANK!! By the second red marker beyond the causeway bridge, visibility was less than a quarter-mile. Just then a Grand Banks trawler came into view toward us -- he had been ahead of us, but turned around. We decided to do the same, and gave up on our Marco Island destination. We passed back under the bridge and began radio calls to local marinas. We soon determined there were three marinas in the area with the word Sanibel in their name. After several calls with no response, we finally heard an offer of help, and were guided to a small channel entrance to Connie Mack Island and the Port Sanibel Marina. It turned out their Dockmaster was in a small boat in the main channel near us, returning from a minor rescue mission of their charter boat which had gone aground on a sand bar. He guided us through the long, narrow, winding, shallow channel to the marina just one hour before high tide. In the process of spinning a 180 right in front of our assigned tie-along, the starboard prop hit sand. But by 3 pm, we were tied down at slip F11 in our unplanned "safe haven."
It was a beautiful little marina, right next to the road leading from the mainland to the Sanibel causeway at Punta Rassa. We had driven by there many times over the years while on vacation. The channel depth was clearly an issue, but a quick check of the tables showed a 6 am high tide the next morning, and the weather looked good. We were still in position to make our Key West reservation by skipping the Naples/Marco Island area.
Day 2, 2-08-03: Early to rise, with a disturbing discovery. The "high tide" was nowhere near the level of the water when we had entered the previous day! Measurement of the swim platform relative to the dock showed we were a good 12" short! No way we were going to make it through that channel, and the next high tide was after 5 pm -- too late to make it even as far as Naples! We were stuck for the day. Plenty of time to converse with the local expertise. It seems we were victims of the same cold fronts and strong N/NE winds that had plagued us up in the Panhandle. They literally blow water in the bays and backwaters out into the Gulf, then the weaker S/SW winds can't bring it back before the next cold front hits. The tides, "unpredictably variable," sometimes ran 8-12" below the tables. One of the part time marina workers, also was a fishing guide, and operated a website that attempted to show the tide variations. It looked like "all things considered" (hopefully!), the 5:09 pm high tide would be high enough to give us 6" clearance at the shallowest part of the entrance channel. So we reached the authorities at the Sanibel Harbor & Resort (at the high rise hotel next to the causeway approach) by phone (we confirmed they don't monitor channel 16 consistently -- as we had discovered the previous day). They had deep water and slip space we could enter before nightfall. With a new plan, we were visited in the marina by our MN friends staying in Ft. Myers (Ken Sanville and Wally Rea in their Grady White center console).
Finally, at 4:30 pm, we departed our shallow, safe haven for a very cautious but short trip. At closed throttle, low idle speed, we carefully wound our way through the 1.9 mile channel, making certain we stayed exactly in the middle. The prediction was right this time; 6" clearance at the shallowest point, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we returned to the main channel. Next challenge: following very specific instructions to enter the Sanibel Harbor stern first, against the north wind and tidal current, carefully swinging around a protruding Sea Ray bow pulpit, into a wedge-shaped slip in the corner, across the dock from the big SkipperLiner dinner boat. 5:30 pm; no damage; no casualties; but quite a trick to tie down!! Safe again, with no low tide problems, and easy exit through the Sanibel bridge, with no fog forecast. We might actually make Key West, only one day late! With an extra night in the familiar area, our MN friends (Wally and Mary Rea) picked us up for a relaxing dinner at the University Grill in Ft. Myers. So much for planning!
Day 3, 2-09-03: It's a beautiful day, and plans and preparations are complete for an open water, direct route straight south for seven hours to Key West. At 7:25 am, we depart G"1" channel entrance marker in San Carlos Bay Pass, just off the familiar light-house at the tip of Sanibel Island. For nearly twenty years, we'd had a time share condo on the Gulf side, right next to that light-house. Our kids grew up vacationing there. Many fond memories. We turn south on a heading of 182T, cruising @ 16 knots, with SE wind @ 5-10 knots, 1' seas, and sunshine! The only nuisance in life at that point was the crab pots (aka "anti-auto-pilot" pots!).
By 9:07 am, we were abeam Big Marco Pass at a range of 12 nautical miles. At 9:33 am, we abeam the tip of Cape Romano at a range of 16 nautical miles. Clear cruising (except for crab pots!). At 11:10 am, we met "Purrseverance" northbound (the huge, high speed catamaran Ft. Myers/Key West shuttle which docked near us in Ft. Myers Yacht Basin; VERY impressive under way on a beautiful day. He didn't seem to worry about crab pots! By 11:30, we were in 51' of water, and finally ran out of crab pots. The water temperature was 66 degrees, wind now SE at a steady 10+ knots, waves 1-2' out of the NE, with SE surface chop, and occasional 1-2' swells following straight out of the north. An interesting effect of a quickly shifting wind. Now holding course and speed steady, and at 12:05 pm, we're abeam the southern tip of Cape Sable at a range of 52 nautical miles. Sighting of the Keys on the horizon brings us to G"1" marker at the entrance of the Northwest Channel at 1:30 pm. We are in the Keys!! The water is as advertised - gorgeous!
We turn to a heading of 140T in the wide channel and join the lazily cruising boats of all descriptions for 9 nautical miles to the main ship channel coming in from the south before entering Key West Bight. We call A&B Marina on the radio for docking instructions, and by 2:30 pm we're backed in slip 23 for two weeks. A&B consists of one pier, perpendicular to the restaurant-lined boardwalk, with about 25 boats backed in on each side of the pier. By far, most of the boats are sportfish style (up to 70') with big tuna-towers. At the end of the pier on the opposite side are a few larger slips with 70-80' yachts, and one "resident" private mega-yacht, 106' out by the fuel dock at the end. Two classic old tugboats are docked across the tee at the end of the pier. Across from us (forward of our boat) is the larger, and more well-known Galleon Marina, which is connected with the Hyatt Resort Hotel; thus renters have access to a nice pool. Two other marinas are packed into the Key West Bight, along with many docks for various "tourist" attraction boats: sail boats (several tall ships), catamarans, diving/snorkeling boats, para-sail boats, and many charter fishing boats. Constant activity make for excellent people and boat watching!! And the 80 degree, mostly sunny weather makes for good watching of the Weather Channel, while a series of major snowstorms paralyze most of the US from Texas to New England.
We're right in the middle of a heavy-duty tourist area in Historic Old Town Key West, with up to three cruise ships at a time dumping thousands of people with cameras and money into the narrow shopping streets and restaurants. We dismount our tender and explore the island shorelines in the immediate area, passing by the cruise ship docks. I find a "quasi-private" spot in the fuel dock shack at the end of the pier, with a dial-up phone connection for my laptop, a noisy fan in the ceiling, and a great view of the action. But a major attraction are the new neighbors, like Capn Bobby, who drive the private sportfish boats for their owners, and generously provide an endless assortment of freshly caught and cleaned fish. And the A&B Oyster House at the end of the dock, really knows how to cook our "catch" any way we like it for $7.95 each (with two sides, and 2 for 1 beverages). Not a bad life-style for a couple weeks in the middle of winter! Two big surprises about Key West: no grass (for the dog!), and no beaches! They do have a couple, but they're so rough with coral and stones, shoes are required!
Meanwhile, we're greeted by some friends visiting: the Morks & Baineys from back home in MN pass through in their "Florida boat" on their way from Port Charlotte to the Miami Boat Show; Bob & Inge Hoffman, boaters from Cincinnati whom we befriended up in Sandestin; Winston & Sue Fowler, retired 3Mers from NC, cruising in their Carver 444 with their two beautiful dogs (stayed at Galleon & invited us to "their" pool!).
Day 4, 2-16-03: As dedicated beachin' people, we were determined to find a sandy shore. The local recommendation was a small island 14 miles west of Key West, Boca Grande Key. We were told on a good day, we could approach from the south and anchor in a channel between islands, and take a tender to the beach. Our world-traveler son from NYC was able to fly down for a four day weekend visit, and the weather was perfect to give it a try. Our friends, the Fowlers in their boat "WinSue" decided to check it out as well. It was absolutely picture-post-card perfect!
About 11 am, WinSue went ahead of us, as we had to stop at the fuel dock to load our tender. At Boca Grande Key, Winston carefully eased into the channel, finding about 10-15' of water for a good anchor in a fairly strong outbound (south) tidal current. Following the soundings to approach the first green marker around a sandbar, we moved Souvenir in about 50 yards behind him, set the hook near the R"18" marker, and proceeded to drop the dinghy. Diane and our son, DJ, took Billie Jo and went ashore, while I stayed on the boat to make sure everything was "stable" and shoot a few photos. Then DJ returned to haul me ashore where we romped in the warm, 80 degree shallow water, and ran the dogs up and down the sandy beach. A late-afternoon low tide would reverse the current in the channel, so we timed our return to Key West to beat that and be back in the slip before dark. This is the way we thought the Keys were supposed be! A most enjoyable day!
Day 5, 2-23-03: Our stay in Key West has been exceptional as hoped, but we are ready to move on. At the recommendation of our MN friends, the Morks & Baineys who preceded us, we've made reservations at Hawk's Cay Marina, Duck Key; a little over half way up the Keys, just beyond Marathon. It should be a comfortable four hour cruise up Hawk Channel, so we want be underway before noon. The weather is cloudy with wind NE @ 10 knots, 1-2' seas inside the reef, water and air temperature 80 degrees.
To leave our slip, we have a 70' Hatteras next to us on our starboard side (bow protruding 10' into the channel), and a 102' megayacht docked broadside in front of us across the narrow channel at the T-end of a Galleon Marina head pier. My plan is to turn left out of the slip, with the wind, and back out of the channel to reach the fuel dock on the other side. Just as I eased Souvenir about 2/3 past the forward-port piling before beginning a pivot to the left, the bow made a hard move to the left. Of course the swim platform pivots right against the forward-starboard piling (I hope it's not the Hatteras -- remember there are no dock "fingers" between the slips). I don't understand what caused the motion; it couldn't be the wind that strong, but a counter-move with the bow thruster has no effect. My second thought was that I lost the port engine, but that's not the case. I "touch" reverse on the starboard engine, which straightens the boat momentarily, then I engage both engines forward. In a matter of seconds my crew (First Mate and a marina dock hand on the bow, and a dock hand to the rear) as well as people on the Hatteras, investigate the cause of the action, but there's no clear indication to me what happened. The boat hesitates momentarily, then lurches forward out of the slip. I make the left turn as planned, carefully back around the Hatteras bow and out the channel to the turning basin to approach the fuel dock. What the hell happened???
While in the slip for two weeks, we maintained two cylindrical fenders, vertically, on the port side of the boat, at the gunnel. Our neighbor on that side was a 50' Sea Ray totally unoccupied. With no dock fingers between boats, and with various winds and tidal action, we frequently made contact . The marina had small black lines running the length of each slip from the forward piling back to the head pier as "separation." It turns out our fenders had become entangled with that line which effectively "tied" the port side of the boat as I tried to move forward, until they "snapped" loose with considerable force and freed me to depart. After tying up at the fuel dock, I walked back to the Hatteras and confirmed that my swim platform had not made contact -- whew!!! My comment was, "What good is experience, when every incident seems to be something new!" That'll never happen again!
That took longer to tell than it did to happen. So we were soon full of fuel and ready to go. Departing Key West Bight about 11 am, we made our way south in the main ship channel past the cruise ship docks and out through the reef to check out the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was back on course up the Hawk Channel, and a very nice cruise up the Keys to the Duck Key channel entrance about 2:30 pm. We raised Hawk's Cay Marina on the radio and received very detailed instructions about entering the channel, making an immediate hard right turn, then following it literally half way around the island to the resort property. We were warned about shallow water as we passed the "dolphin pens" (actual dolphins in a fenced in pool, adjacent to the channel, in front of the resort pool and recreation area). Quite a sight, and as predicted, cleared the shallow bottom by a few inches. Entering the harbor itself, we could see the dockhand standing with a hand-held radio at our assigned slip tucked in the corner. With a fairly stiff breeze blowing into the corner, across the front of the slip he wanted me to back into, I sensed another challenge coming on. On the third try, I finally got the port side of the swim platform pinned against the forward piling with the bow into the wind, and pivoted the boat back into the slip. A great day, with a tense beginning and end!! In both cases, a close acquaintance with a forward-port piling.
Hawk's Cay Resort & Marina is a first class, gorgeous facility (and they know how to charge for it!). And plenty of grass for Billie Jo after two weeks in Key West. Talk about a relief! That evening, we called our MN boating friends and neighbors, Joe and Beebe Carroll, who were wintering in a condo in Islamorada, just up US 1 a couple of islands. They came and joined us for dinner, and took us for a tour of Marathon. The weather forecast showed higher than expected NE wind (15-20 knots) which would expose us to greater than 3' seas in the open ocean past Miami. So we decided to stay an extra day, with the promise of diminishing winds to follow. It was a great place to relax.
Day 6, 2-25-03: We wanted an early start to beat a 9 am low tide, so we cleared the low channel point at the dolphin pen by about 8". By 8:30, we're on plane, cruising up Hawk Channel in 1-2' seas, partly sunny, wind ESE @ 10 knots, with 2-3' swells expected in the open ocean above Key Biscayne. As we reached the north end of Hawk Channel, it narrows considerably, and the markers weave back and forth near the closing reef. So it requires a bit more concentration to assure clear sailing. But it certainly was more enjoyable than fighting the reported low water conditions of the "inside route" (ICW) which winds through back-waters and creeks. We stayed one to three miles off-shore as we past Miami Beach, dodging "fish havens" (sunken vessels, etc) and "tacking" slightly in the beam to quarter following seas. But generally it was an easy ride up the coast to the Port Everglade Channel entrance (@ Ft. Lauderdale) by 2:30 pm.
The people on the Hatteras next to us in Key West had recommended the municipal marina at Las Olas on the ICW. Phone calling ahead, we reserved dockage for a couple nights, and directions to enter. As we came in the Channel, and turned right on the ICW, passing under the 17th highway bridge, we immediately recognized the area from a new perspective (we had attended the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show several years earlier). Sliding past Pier 66 and Bahia Mar, we spotted the Anson Bell; a brand new 156' Palmer-Johnson yacht, belonging to a TV "entrepreneur" who lives just a mile from our marina back home on the St. Croix River. We heard about the construction of the yacht for a couple of years, and while in Key West I had seen a feature article on it in magazine. Quite a ship! And of course the rest of the boats in the marinas and lining the canals behind the gorgeous homes were a sight to behold on a beautiful day. We lost all touch with any economic reality in our little 50' Carver!
Just past the Las Olas bridge, we easily backed into our assigned slip, and were greeted by the Dockmaster by 3 pm. A very nice staging area, we had reached our objective for this leg of the voyage. It was time to connect with the service yard recommended by Carver for three weeks of routine maintenance and warranty work on the boat while we made a home visit. Shortly after our arrival, a boat named Sea Venture backed into a slip near us. It looked familiar and turned out to be a couple also on The Great Loop. We had actually "locked through" with them on Tenn-Tom canal last October. Plus they said they had seen us coming into Key West. It is a small "community."
The next morning, Keith Willis from Cable Marina came over to inspect the boat and discuss the list of work to be done. We rented a mini-van and prepared for the road trip home.
Day 7, 2-27-03: We moved Souvenir into the service building at Cable Marine, just up the 16th Street canal past the Marriott. It looked like she was in good hands, so we steadied our sea legs and headed north on our 1800 mile, three day road trip. Still "Livin' the Dream."
The end of Stage 3 of our Great Loop Adventure!