Updated text, added detail and pictures: January, 2016
As always, readers are responsible to perform due diligence with official charts, cruising guides and online cruising resources to verify the navigation and piloting informations presented in this post.
There is a lot for the cruiser to see and do in Florida. This is only a thumbnail sketch of what we think are the highlights. We are not fans of big cities, which will be apparent. We strongly suggest cruisers carry local AAA automotive travel/touring guides to supplement boating/cruising guides. There are several excellent cruising guides available for the area, including several guides (“Eastern Florida,” the “Florida Keys,” and “Western Florida”) by Claiborne S. Young, and “The Waterway Guide,” Southern Edition. For touring (touristing), we prefer the guides by Claiborne Young, as we think he does the best job with presenting local history and highlighting POIs and attractions that interest us. In the wake of Claiborne’s untimely passing, some of that material is becoming obsolete, but we’re glad we have it available. We also consider the ActiveCaptain website, http://www.activecaptain.com, to be an essential adjunct for cruising everywhere. Bicycles will help you a lot in Florida. This is not densely settled or hilly country; everything tends to be spread out.
Florida East Coast:
Starting clockwise from the GA/FL line:
Fort Clinch, Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach
Fernandina Beach – must see; wonderful 1920s era waterfront town with a local history that goes back to the 1560s. There is easy access to town from the mooring field/anchorage and from the city marina. The downtown is “walkable” from the city marina. There are several nice restaurants and shoppes. From Fernandina Beach, visitors can arrange a tour of Fort Clinch, a Civil War fortification. Also, visit Billy Burbank’s Trawl Net company, where visitors are welcome. This is the only remaining trawl net manufacturing company in the US, and they hold patents for shrimp net designs that avoid injury to bottle nose dolphin and sea turtles. Very cool stuff. Who knew? The shrimping industry may not be doing all that well, but this small manufacturing company is actually doing quite well through their “sideline…” making nets for professional sports stadium venues!
The Castillo de San Marcos
St. Augustine – must see; stay at the municipal mooring field or the city marina; reservations are suggested. There is good public transportation by city bus. As your very first activity, take a tour of the city to see what’s there; then, plan for what you want to see in more detail. Definitely, visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine and the historic Spanish Fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos, which are both within walking distance of the city marina. The alligator farm is a must if you have young kids aboard; and, the St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum is available for the energetic. Both are accessible by bus. Eat at the A1A Ale House across from the city marina; that food is excellent.
Daytona – very nice waterfront area; nice museum.
View of Cape Kennedy from Titusville Municipal Marina
Titusville – Kennedy Space Center; also, if so inclined, one can visit the “Mouse House” from here; ask about visiting Dixie Crossroads if you like shrimp/seafood.
Cocoa, Melbourne, Vero Beach, Ft. Pierce and Stuart – nice weather; Cocoa is home to SF Travis Hardware Co, probably the largest hardware store in the US, and one of the oldest in continuous operation. A real treat for tool nuts! No specific touring recommendations.
Crossing Lake Okeechobee vs. “Going Around the Bottom:”
Lake Okeechobee “vs.” The Keys – both regions are interesting, but they are very different from each other. The travel distance from Stuart to Ft. Myers Beach is at least 250 StM farther via the “Florida Bay” route around the keys than across Lake Okeechobee via the Okeechobee Waterway. In the winter season in North America, weather fronts pass through south Florida every 7 – 10 days. On average, these cold fronts are usually characterized by 12- 18 hours of intermittent storminess followed by a second day of relatively high winds. Spring fronts often carry t’storms with strong outflow boundaries and very heavy local rains.
Rim Canal, Lake Okeechobee, Clewiston, FL
The Okeechobee Waterway (OWW) is very secure from bad weather. The route passes through “working Florida” sugar cane and commercial agricultural lands. The route transits through some old – and not particularly prosperous – towns (Labelle, Moore Haven, Clewiston) with very nice people, but not really “tourist” country. The eastern end of the OWW is cut canal (St. Lucie Canal), and the western end is rural river which develops as one gets farther west (Caloosahatchee River). Both routes will accommodate 6′ draft boats. The OWW is marked following Intracoastal Waterway rules; that is, “red” toward the mainland, “green” toward the sea. There are five US Army Corps of Engineer’s (USACE) locks on the OWW.
Typical lock gates, these at St. Lucie Lock, on OWW.
The design of the lock gates on the OWW system is very unique from others cruisers may have experienced in North America. The locks at St. Lucie (eastern end) and Alva (west end) have inexpensive USACE boat dock “marina” facilities with power, water and shower facilities. There are commercial marina options at Indiantown, Clewiston and Moore Haven. Anchoring options are very limited on the east end, but fairly available on the western part. Navigation depths of Lake “O” vary seasonally. The navigation depth of the two primary routes across/around the lake can be found here: http://w3.saj.usace.army.mil/h2o/reports/r-oke.html. There is a RR bridge on the OWW route, at Port Mayaca, that limits max boat “air height” to about 50′.
There is a wind-driven “tide” on Lake Okeechobee. Prolonged winds from the south can make the lake quite lumpy with short period seas. These winds will drive water depths on the south end of the lake a foot less than the datum would otherwise suggest. North and NW winds will act oppositely. Think “seiche,” as cruisers on the great lakes would. Same phenomena. The channel from Clewiston leading into the Lake is a dredged channel about 100′ wide on the south end. The seabed of the lake is limestone, a soft stone, but plenty hard enough to hurt props and rudders. It’s extremely important to stay in that channel and not get blown sideways. The farther out of Clewiston one is, the farther apart the channel markers become. The prevailing winds on the lake will try to blow boats sideways out of the channel. Pilots must be able to backsight the markers to be sure the boat stays in the channel. The channel edges are VERY unforgiving, like the “Rock Pile” in Myrtle Beach.
“Going Around the Bottom:”
“The Keys” are wealthier than the OWW communities, with tourist-based economies. The entire keys is the jurisdiction of Monroe County, Florida. There is hyper-emphasis here on environmental and sanitary issues for boaters. Even accidental grounding in coral or grass seabeds may cost boaters many thousands of dollars in fines. “Sea stories” are told of aggressive and onerous Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) and sheriff department officer’s monitoring and over-bearing enforcement activities. There’s also more chance to run into crowds, rip-offs and snarly attitudes from locals in the keys, particularly “in season.” Compared to “transiting” the OWW, transiting the Keys routes will cost more in time, fuel dining and dockage. For those planning to “visit the keys,” there is certainly more to do from a tourist perspective than on the OWW.
Stick houses, Biscayne Bay
There are route alternatives for those who choose the “Keys” route. There are “inside” and “outside” routes from Key Biscayne National Seashore to Marathon and Key West. The “outside route” follows the Hawk Channel. This channel is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean from every direction except North, and exposed to the prevailing winter South and Southeast winds. There are limited marina options, but there are some anchorage options and a Florida State Park (John Pennekamp Coral Reef). The “inside route” follows the charted ICW along and through Florida Bay. There are unlimited anchoring opportunities along the Florida Bay route. The tidal range in Florida Bay is less than 6″; high tide will not help deep-draft boats. There are excellent, fun stops at Key Largo and Islamorada. Water depths on the Florida Bay “inside” route shallow to long distances (miles) of 5-1/2′ to 6′. There are some places where it is possible to get from outside to inside, but they are shallow, infrequent and generally not recommended unless the pilot has local knowledge.
Skip Miami/Ft. Lauderdale; big cities
Boca Chita Light, Boca Chita Key, FL
There are great anchorage harbors in Biscayne Bay, south of Miami, at No Name Harbor and Boca Chita Key. Both are very popular, very crowded and very noisy on weekends. Weekdays, arrive early in the day for the greatest choice of spots. No Name Harbor is an anchorage with a wall on one side; at this writing (2013) a $15 fee is charged. Pump out is available. Boca Chita Key is a National Park System facility consisting of a basin surrounded by a concrete wall; docking is by along-side tie; no services; a $20 fee is charged ($10 with Golden Age Passport).
Key Largo is a good stop for cruisers. At Key Largo, live evening music is available at Gilbert’s and nearby at Alabama Jacks. These are very informal tiki hut style outdoor eateries vs. restaurants. All Keys towns have attractions to take money from tourists. Bicycles are helpful here. There are great anchorages at Key Largo (Thursday Cove) and Islamorada (Upper Matecumbe Key bight). At Islamorada, stop at Sportsman’s World, a huge sportsman’s store; fun to window shop. Also boasts a life sized model of Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat, Pilar. Lorelei’s is a very nice beach tiki hut style restaurant with live entertainment.
Miniature “Key-deer,” Big Pine Key
Cruisers have two route options between Key Largo and Marathon; one can travel “inside” Florida Bay on the charted ICW route or “outside” in the Hawk Channel. Inside is scenic, interesting and shallow, with lots of crab pot floats. Outside in the Hawk Channel, coastal offshore conditions prevail, and vary from smooth to dangerous depending on the winds and weather.
We suggest a visit to Marathon. Boot Key Harbor has a large, very popular mooring field which fills up fast. They maintain a waiting list; “in season,” it can take some time to get a mooring ball. Visit Key West and the lower keys by bus from Marathon. There is a $1.00 bus service that runs several time a day between Marathon and Key West. Find superb pizza at No Name Pub on Big Pine Key (will need a car or a ride to do that). Key West marina space is very expensive and very limited “in season.” We suggest visiting Ft. Jefferson at Las Tortugas (the “Dry Tortugas”) via the fast Catamaran tour boat/ferry from Key West. Cruisers can visit Key West and Las Tortugas with personal boats, of course. Bicycles will help a lot in the Keys.
Ft. Jefferson Light, Dry Tortugas National Park
Cruisers who take their own boats to Las Tortugas must consult cruising guides and prepare with diligence and great care. While visiting Las Tortugas, pleasure craft will be completely on their own and must be completely self-contained and self-sufficient.
Las Tortugas is 70 statute miles from Key West, offshore. The first 40 or so miles, water depths on the shelf are in the range of 40′ – 60′. In the last 1/3rd of the trip, water depths fall off to 200′ and sea states change noticeable to more ocean-like conditions. Prevailing SE winds can blow for several weeks between weather windows in the winter months, so advance planning is essential. At Las Tortugas National Seashore anchoring is permitted only within 1 NM of Ft. Jefferson. The seabed is mixed sand, gravel and rubble, and holding is moderate-at-best. Boat permits are required, for a minimal fee, for all boats in the National Park. There is a park entrance fee of $10 per person. Mooring balls are for day-use only. There is no dockage, no potable water, no pumpout, and no trash disposal; no facilities of any kind. Las Tortugas National Park is a “no discharge zone.” During daytime hours when tour boats are there and the park is open to the public, heads – but not showers – are available on the National Park Service dock. Cruisers stuck waiting for a weather window can use the fast cat tour boat to get to Key West and back for emergency re-provisioning.
Florida West Coast:
Note: The gulf coast of Florida experiences “diurnal” tides. Diurnal tides occur when continental land masses create so much interference to global ocean water flow that there is only one high tide and one low tide per day. In North America, diurnal tides only occur in the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Alaska. The result is, on Florida’s west coast, water depths are generally lowest in the morning and moderate to high in the mid-to-late afternoon. Commonly, there is a 2 – 3 hour “flat spot” in the tide during the mid-day period. This general guideline varies with spring and neap periods, and varies from place to place along the coast, but it is a useful generalization for departure planning. If water depths are at all questionable, and you plan a morning departure, always consult locally for water depth and tide behavior.
Cruisers have several route options when traveling from the mid-keys to the SW mainland coast at Cape Sable. One route option, starting from Key Largo, is to follow the “Yacht Channel” NW through Florida Bay to the SW mainland Coast. The Yacht Channel carries in the range of 5-1/2′ for many miles at MLLW, so draft is definitely a passage consideration. Tides in Florida Bay are 6″ or less, so they won’t help, but they don’t hurt, either. This route bypasses Marathon and the lower keys. Traveling NW, stay just inside the charted Everglades National Wildlife Sanctuary boundary line in order to avoid crab pots. Outside the park boundary, there are lots of them. That route carries 6′ or slightly more water all the way.
A second route option is to cruise from Key Largo to Marathon via the Hawk Channel. Visit Marathon, as mentioned above. Just west of Marathon, turn north at the Seven Mile Bridge, and proceed to a secure and remote anchorage at the Little Shark River on the SW mainland coast. The Hawk channel is exposed to the open waters of the Straights of Florida in all wind directions with a “South” component. If the wind has been “up” for any period of time, seas can be uncomfortable. Stay toward shore, in shallower water, for the best ride (but, of course, be alert). There are no water depth concerns on the marked route from the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon north toward Cape Sable.
A third route option for cruisers traveling from the mid-keys is to proceed all the way to Key West. There are no water depth concerns on the outside, in the Hawk Channel. The Florida Bay inside route is very shallow and may limit options for deeper draft boats. Once at Key West, turn northbound and travel to the SW mainland. This option involves open water in both the Hawk Channel (Straights of Florida) and the Gulf of Mexico. Attention to weather and prevailing winds is absolutely essential.
Via the Yacht Channel through Florida Bay, or northbound from Marathon or Key West, the first practical landfall on the SW mainland is a delightful, remote anchorage in the mangroves at the Little Shark River. This is the southern limit of what is called regionally the “10,000 Islands.” There is no place to land pets or people, but it’s a well protected, calm anchorage to overnight or to wait out passage of a storm front. It’s also a great area to go dinghy-exploring. Take a GPS; don’t get lost. Shine a light along the mangroves at night and see all the alligator eyes watching for an unsuspecting tasty morsel to float by. It would be wise to not go for a swim in these waters.
Between the Little Shark River and Marco Island along the SW Coast is the 10,000 Islands region. This is a superb cruising ground replete with remote, secluded anchorages! Especially so at Panther Key and Indian Key.
Rod & Gun Club, Everglades City, FL
Everglades City – must see; transit east from Indian Key into the Barron River to visit Everglades City. The river is well marked and very scenic. Celestial tides can create strong ebb and flood currents in the river. This region experiences “diurnal” tides. Low tides are commonly in the early morning, and higher tides are more common in the mid-afternoon hours. During lunar “spring tide” lows (those below MLLW), water depth in the Everglades City entrance channel can drop to 4 ft, so pilots must plan accordingly. Stay at the Rod and Gun Club (aka, the Sportsman’s Club). This business does NOT accept credit cards. Cruisers can pay with cash or with personal checks! There is a wonderful, if small, local heritage museum. Everglades City is truly a glimpse of “Old Florida.” More great dinghy exploring.
G-ICW Route showing (top, left) Marco Island, Goodland and Coon Key Pass into Gullivan Bay (bottom, right). Double-click the image to view it full screen.
Northbound from Everglades City, there are two options. Deeper draft boats (over 5′) will want to run north to Marco Island/Naples/Ft. Myers offshore, around the Cape Romano shoals. Boats drafting less than 5′ can go inside at Coon Key Pass and through Goodland to Marco Island via a remaining segment of the “old” G-ICW. This inside route is shallow, like the Yacht Channel, but carries 5-1/2′ to 6′ depths throughout, and is much more interesting if draft permits. The ICW navigation marker colors change side immediately East of the highway bridge at Marco Island. DO NOT MISS THE RED “26″ MARKER TO THE SOUTH AND EAST OF THAT HIGHWAY BRIDGE! R”26″ is hard to see against the background of the shoreline, but it’s essential to honor it to avoid spoiling your day. There is a nice, secluded anchorage in the mangroves at the correctly charted entrance to Rookery Bay, just north of Marco Island.
The SW Florida coastal towns (Marco Island, Naples, Estero, Ft. Myers Beach) are made for tourists; the best is Ft. Myers Beach, where there is a mooring field and a couple of marina choices. The waters in this area are shallow, but generally carry 5′ at low tide; ICW tides here are 6″ because Gulf inlets are small and do not permit lots of water flow. Reminiscent of the New Jersey barrier islands and inlets.
Ft. Myers is a big city, but nearby Ft. Myers Beach gets “honorable mention” for several marina choices, some good restaurants, and the world class Thomas Edison Homestead and Museum.
Sanibel/Captiva are snooty and expensive.
Cabbage Key resort and restaurant
Pine Island Sound is home to Cabbage Key at MM 22 on the G-ICW. Cabbage Key was Jimmy Buffet’s inspiration for his hit song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” This is a must visit for us. The basin at Cabbage Key carries 7′ of water at low tide throughout its length. Several tour boats use the basin for day visitors, and 6′ draft boats will not have problems here. Transients are welcomed to stop in for lunch. Overnight stays in the marina are available. Immediately across the ICW from the Cabbage Key entrance channel is a good anchorage that lies off Useppa Island. Expect occasional large wakes during the daylight hours, but it quiets down after sunset. If there is any concerns with Cabbage Key entrance or basin depths, anchor at Useppa and dinghy in. The dockmaster here is “Jeff;” he is abrupt and intense, but we love him for his absolute cooperation getting us in and out.
Manatee mother with 2-week old calf
Cayo Costa State Park and Pelican Bay are premier anchorage stops for cruisers in this entire region. Pelican Bay is actually a “pass” between Cayo Costa Island to the west and Punta Blanco Island to the east. The bay is well protected and has excellent holding. It provides good protection to wait out the passage of all but the most severe weather.
“Local knowledge” is important to getting into and out of Pelican Bay without incident. Neither the approach to the bay, nor its entrance channel, are marked with aids to navigation. Cruisers should approach the entrance to Pelican Bay from the G-ICW. Turn westward at a point south of G “75,” and about 200′ north of R “74.” Just off the western shoreline, a Florida Speed Zone Sign, mounted on pilings, is visible hard against the background of the Cayo Costa Island shoreline. Navigate toward that sign. Just before reaching the sign, steer SW. Hold a course parallel to the beach and hold the shore close by to stbd at 50′ – 75′. Yes, just a boat length or slightly more off the beach line. A “deep water channel” just off that beach carries 9′ of water. The water shoals rapidly to the south (to port) off the north end of Punta Blanco Island. Many, many unwary boats go aground on that shoal. As you pass the beach, the Cayo Costa State Park docks will be visible at 11 o’clock, at a distance of about 1/2 to 3/4 miles. When past the beach, set a rhumb line toward the State Park docks. The shallowest water is 500 ~ 700 yards +/-. There are slips on the State Park docks, but only the very outermost slips carry sufficient water depth for cruising boats. The dock tee heads are reserved for tour boats, of which there are several that ply those waters.
Anchor in Pelican Bay. The tidal range is only about 2′. The rhumb line from the beach to the State Park docks will carry 5-1/2′ at MLLW. At the State Park docks there will be 6-1/2′ at MLLW, or more. There is a deep pool correctly charted on current NOAA charts that carries 9′ at MLLW. That is the deepest water in Pelican Bay. Some older charts that are still widely circulated do not show that 9′ pool correctly. Charts that do not show the deep pool are not the current charts of the basin. To the south from Pelican Bay, the water is shoal, and not navigable by cruising draft boats. The only access back to the G-ICW from Pelican Bay is the one to the north of Punta Blanco Island, described above. This a great place to dinghy around. There are always manatee in the basin. The Beach at Cayo Costa is also a favorite for collecting “sand dollars.”
The Charlotte Harbor towns of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte are nice. Punta Gorda has a downtown, and is “doable” with a bicycle; Port Charlotte not so much. There are several good restaurants near the water in Punta Gorda, and there is a fabulous Irish Pub called the “Celtic Ray.” The pub was the inspiration for the song of the same name by Van Morrison.
Ringling Home, Ca’ d’ Zan
Sarasota – must see; other than St. Augustine, the only Florida “city” we recommend. Sarasota has a symphony orchestra and the John Ringling Home (Ca’ d’ Zan) and the Circus Museum. The Ringling property is extraordinary and very much worth a visit. Marina Jack is a good – if somewhat expensive – marina facility; they offer a courtesy shuttle 4 times per day. The shuttle will take visitors to the Ringling Museum, Publix, West Marine, Walgreens, etc.
Skip Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater; big cities.
Tarpon Springs is a Greek settlement town with superb Greek food, sponge diving and a waterman’s economy. It has a tourist flavor and is a very fun place.
There is no navigable protected inland waterway between Tarpon Springs and Carrabelle around the “Great Bend.” Cruisers must run offshore in the Gulf of Mexico in this area. From Tarpon Springs north around the Great Bend, research carefully using the cruising guides; in this region, there are only small communities, large, open, shallow waters and few safe harbors. Crossing directly from Tarpon Springs to Carrabelle/Apalachicola is a 170+/- mile, overnight, 45 mile offshore run in 60 ft of water. At trawler speeds, it will take 21 ~ 23 hours. Attention to weather and prevailing winds is a must. Seas are short period and can be uncomfortable in winds over 20 kts.
Carrabelle and Apalachicola are nice, small towns with mostly fishing and farming economies.
We’re less familiar with what’s available in the panhandle towns, but Panama City, Destin, Ft. Walton Beach and Pensacola are all available from/via the G-ICW