Everglades National Park: Inside and Out

May 19-25th 2013

Bill Fite and Gary Hirsch in SeaPearl 21 Sailboats


Day 1 (Sun) Gary and I left Davis Is in Tampa around 1100 and launched from the Everglades City Rod and Gun Club on the Barron River at around 1830 with an 8 mph SE wind right in our faces. Our goal was to round Chokoloskee and get away from civilization on the incoming tide. We rowed hard maybe ½ mile and suffered a few mishaps to get out of the river. One of Gary’s leeboard pennants broke, and an accidental jibe tore out the eye strap holding his main boom vang. We no sooner escaped the river’s current when we were hit hard by a strong thunderstorm. We anchored and quickly put the camper tops up, then watched the light show for two hours before the rain seemed to stop. As we got ready to go the rain started again, then the wind dropped to nearly nothing. At 2230 we started to row and feed the mosquitoes. Gradually the wind increased to a useable 5 mph or so. We row-sailed and then sailed under a beautiful moon, picking our way through the shoals around Chokoloskee until stopping at 0030 about a mile from the Lopez River, still in sight of Chokoloskee . This was a rough start, but we enjoyed a robust happy hour and turned in at 0200.
Day 2 (Mon) Got started around 0800 and rowed with the current up the Lopez River into Sunday Bay, where we were able to sail, tacking frequently against a light E wind, and rowing where required through the connecting channels between bays, and during wind lulls around noon. In the afternoon the wind picked up to around 10 mph and thunderstorms approached as we were about to leave Last Huston Bay. We stopped near marker 101, put up the camper tops , and rode out the storm. The tide was now going out again, which put the current against us when we passed the Chatham River, so rowing and row-sailing was required often to proceed, especially when the wind was disturbed or blocked by the mangroves in tight spots. We passed Darwin’s place around 1800 and pressed on to reach Alligator Creek by about 1900. Wasting no time because of the coming darkness, we rowed in negligible current through the creek (about 1500 yards?) in an hour and 15 minutes, catching sight of the only alligator seen on the trip. The creek is plenty wide for our boats, but overhanging trees and sometimes inadequate clearance for oars each side made the going slow. We sailed on through Alligator and Dad’s Bays until anchoring in open water around 2115 about 500 yards from the entrance to Plate Creek, which we judged to be too difficult to take on at night in sailboats. After a few beers and dinner, we turned in, tired but very happy to have made good progress on our first full day.
Day 3 (Tue) We got up around 0700 and took down our masts. Plate Creek is a bit tighter than Alligator Creek, and it has more difficult overhead obstructions. Entering the creek I saw a three-foot shark in the clear but stained waters. The current was slightly with us, which makes rowing through more difficult due , in part, to the tendency of the boat to turn sideways when stopped. Still, we made it through in 45 minutes. Gary used the technique of rowing by pushing on the oars while facing forward, which gave him better visibility of maneuvers required ahead of him than if he had to look back over his shoulder.
By mid-morning the E wind picked up to 10 mph and over. We made good progress through the bright, hot day, especially on the mostly southern heading required down to the Lostman’s River area. At marker 51, however, we had to turn E. As storm clouds began to form, we began the hard work of tacking through the channel leading to Big Lostman’s Bay and on to Rodgers River Bay. A nearby thunderstorm caused very gusty winds. At around 1400 near marker 34 I noticed that my SPOT tracker on Moon Shadow’s side deck was covered up by an oar. When I reached down to move the oar a strong gust caused the boat to heel far enough to put the oarlock under water and fill the cockpit with water. The SPOT device was washed overboard, and I barely recovered my balance and released the mizzen sheet in time to prevent capsizing. In previous outings I have tethered the SPOT to the mizzen mast; this day started quietly, and I didn’t bother. Soon I bailed out the rear cockpit and resumed my journey, very annoyed at myself for being too casual in conditions calling for strict attention.
We pressed on to the south, making many short tacks in narrow channels and strong swirling winds before reaching Broad R Bay around 1600, where we enjoyed a mile or so with a steady following wind. When Broad R narrowed, however, the wind eased and became shifty and variable. Moreover, it began to rain, causing us to put up our camper tops, which prohibited rowing. When it wasn’t raining, deer flies were especially fierce. Still, the current was with us, and we made progress by catching what wind we could and paddling with canoe paddles from the rear cockpit.
By around 1900 we arrived at the confluence of Broad and Rodgers Rivers with storm clouds gathering ominously. Gary saw a shark about this time. We erred in paddling down the right side of the Broad for a better look at Rodgers River and got stuck. It was nearly dead low tide, and the water was only inches deep over the mud. I got out of the boat and pulled it around until finding a direction we could row to escape. We lost valuable time in freeing ourselves and working back and then left to exit the mouth of the Broad R.
The designated Wilderness Waterway we were following required traveling down the coast and reentering the Everglades interior via Broad Creek, which leads to the Harney River. Unfortunately for us, Broad Creek is maintained (cut through) by the park authorities just wide enough for a canoe or kayak. To follow the designated route as closely as possible we had to pass the mouth of Broad Creek and enter the Harney directly about a mile to the S.
Thunderstorms were looming around us as we tacked and row-sailed in very shoal waters into a SE wind from the mouth of Broad River. It was after dark when we entered the mouth of the Harney R just as a torrential rain began. In the scramble to anchor and get the camper top up I stepped on and broke the zipper to my camper top rear opening door or flap. I crudely pinned the flap in place, but it leaked badly. Both Gary and I sat soaked under our respective camper tops, which began to leak profusely as the incredible downpour continued. We drank a couple of beers alone, unable to hear each other over the rain. Eventually the deluge eased and we fell asleep to the incessant drone of mosquitoes, exhausted and soaked. This was a tough day.
Day 4 (Wed) We were up and underway in reasonably good spirits by 0800. The skies were clear and the incoming tide gave us the boost we needed to row up the Harney R. We arrived at the Harney Chickee around 0930, making good use of its one amenity (a toilet). By 1130 we arrived at Tarpon Bay and the entrance to the Shark River, which takes Wilderness Waterway travelers back WSW toward Oyster Bay and Whitewater Bay. The tide was coming in the Shark River, so we waited for it to turn. Hours passed, but the water continued to flow into Tarpon Bay. We saw some fishermen in this area, the first humans we had seen since the Chokoloskee area. They took our pictures, explaining “We’ve never seen a sailboat back in here!”
At 1530 we decided to row against the current, which we did for perhaps thirty minutes when a headwind became strong enough to power us. We short tacked down the river for hours, arriving at the turn into Oyster Bay around 1800. By about 1930 as the sun was getting low we anchored for a snack and a beer in beautiful surroundings at the top of Whitewater Bay. We set up our running lights and sailed from there until about 2230 when the wind died when we were less than a mile from Tarpon Creek. We anchored in the open as at Plate Creek in order to reduce the mosquito density. This was a fairly hard day with lots of rowing and working in tight places against the wind.
Day 5 (Thur) We were up at our usual 0700 or so and got underway quickly, eager to get to Flamingo and replenish our ice. The wind was again out of the SE perhaps 6 or so mph. This was OK for the sailing we had to do, but rowing was required in Tarpon Creek, and of course the last three miles down the Buttonwood Canal to Flamingo, where we also had to take masts down to get under the bridge. We arrived there just before noon. Right away we enjoyed a cold drink, and then got ice for the return trip. We had been without phone service from the Lopez R at the start until around Tarpon Creek, so we made a few phone calls and ate a sandwich each before shoving off in the early afternoon.
When we put our masts back up we rigged our mizzens, hoping to use the headwind we had battled getting there. Not really to our surprise, we found that the winds rowing back up Buttonwood Canal were swirling at best, so the mizzen wasn’t of much use. Tourists on the park tour boat waved and took pictures of us, somewhat to the annoyance of the tour guide, who was trying to deliver his pitch without distraction. This happened numerous times through the afternoon.
The wind was strong in Coot Bay at about 10 mph out of the N, requiring us to tack to Tarpon Creek, where wind and current were both against us. We struggled to progress a few hundred yards and then around 1500 tossed out our anchors to wait for the tide or wind to change. The tour boat occupants took pictures of our feet sticking up from various nap positions over the next three hours . At about 1800 we were able to row, and by 1900 we were tacking up Whitewater Bay against the N wind. After dark the wind diminished, but we still were able to make progress to cross the bay. Finally around midnight we anchored in Cormorant Pass near marker 45 due to the difficulty in tacking in the very light breeze. Mosquitoes tormented me through the night as I tried with little success to sleep under the stars.
Day 5 (Fri) The bugs helped us get up early, There was no wind at all, but the water was like glass, and we began rowing with the outgoing tide toward Little Shark River and Ponce de Leon Bay just after 0600. The light, water, and islands with tall mangroves in Oyster Bay were beautiful. By 0800 we were anchored in Ponce de Leon Bay waiting for wind.
Around 1030 a light NW wind arrived, and we began tacking N up the coast. The wind continued to build. At one point what must have been a whale made a huge splash and 30-foot muddy boil right in front of my boat! By around 1430 the gust were about 15 mph as we sought a break in a tiny corner of shelter behind the S corner of Highland Beach, where we scared up a large ray in the shallow waters. We reduced sail by taking in three turns in the main and two in the mizzen before starting out again. Weather Underground shows gusts as high as 24 mph that afternoon. Generally the wind seemed to be 12-15 mph, but the seas were steep and rough due to steady building all day. This sailing was reasonably intense, especially around 1645 when we had to tack far offshore in order to get around Plover Key. The low tide and vast shoal areas around the islands in this area more or less dictated that we press on. At that point for some reason Gary pulled far ahead, leaving my crown as Worst Upwind Sailor firmly in place. He pulled in and anchored at New Turkey Key just after 1800, about a half hour ahead of me.
We enjoyed our happy hour as the sun went down and the wind died. The NOAA weather report described a huge thunderstorm with winds of 50 mph possible. We had hoped to press on, but instead made ready to take on the storm. We did agree that we would consider moving on in the middle of the night should we get a decent wind to work with.
Day 6 (Sat) Clouds of mosquitoes descended on us, but the dreadful storm predicted never came our way. At 0200 the noise of my rudder scraping shells woke me up enough to realize there was a nice soft NE breeze. I called over to Gary and we were underway in just a few minutes. The resulting sail in the almost full moon up the coast was one of the finest I’ve ever enjoyed. The water was flat and the Sea Pearls were humming. In a little over an hour we were sliding past Pavilion Key, and by 0600 we were in Indian Key Pass just above Kingston Key. As the skies got lighter we anchored and dozed an hour or so to wait for the tide to change. This was one of the few stretches on the trip when we did not battle a headwind.
Working up Indian Key Pass was fun at first, even before the tide turned. As the channel narrowed, however, we were soon reminded that we had chosen to return on Saturday of the Memorial Day Weekend. Powerboat traffic was heavy; even the park tour boat ran Gary out of the channel—twice! The low tide caused us to pull up leeboards and rudders many times (another of Gary’s leeboard pennants broke), and to get stuck quite a few times as we tacked across the narrow channel. We arrived at the Rod and Gun Club before noon.
Takeout was uneventful. Fatigue was settling in as we packed up in the noon sun, but we managed to slick up a little and make it over to the Seafood Depot for the traditional salad and shrimp bar victory meal. Gary and I each ate multiple shrimp in honor of each of our dirtbag friends unable to make the trip.
This was a fabulous adventure despite tough luck with headwinds. Gary and I agreed that the Everglades offers a terrific venue for shallow draft sailboats. Actually depth was almost never a problem when we could choose our direction. More of a challenge was the continual change in what was required to progress. Shifty winds, direction changes, shoals, current, mangrove obstacles, bugs, heat, etc, can combine to test one’s stamina and frustration tolerance considerably. We were making a small point for Sea Pearls by taking on the Wilderness Waterway without a motor. For pure pleasure cruising in the glades, I would take a motor or simply choose my daily destinations based on what the weather offered. When you travel in your own campsite, so to speak, you can stop wherever you like.