May 7th through May 10th 2008

by Bill Dolan

Craft; Marshall Sanderling ~18 foot LOA gaff rigged catboat with

three days supplies aboard.

DAY 1:


It seems to be one of the unspoken rules of sailing that the wind

will blow strongly from the exact direction in which you wish to go.

With that said, it is necessary that the sailboat operator move on to

plan'B' My original plan was to sail directly South from Placida to

the `Tween-Waters' Marina in Captiva Island with a lunch stop at Cayo

Costa. That would be the mid point of the trip and a convenient place

to have my prepared lunch and visit with my friend Mike the park

ranger. With a wind of 15 knots blowing directly on the nose from

the south, a trip into the teeth of the wind seemed unwise and very

uncomfortable. Moving on to Plan `B' I decided that I'd take

advantage of the wind and head North to Stump Pass State Park some

ten miles up the coast. From Eldred's, I headed out the small swash

channel that parallels the Boca Grande Causeway and heads directly

out into the Gulf of Mexico. One carefully picks his way through the

shoals and can not be in a hurry to turn in northerly direction. Once

out in the Gulf and a mile or so off shore a brisk breeze pushed the

boat north at a speed of five knots towards the Stump Pass inlet.

This inlet is constantly being changed by shoals but is well marked

with day marks and lighted buoys and no boat should really have any

difficulty navigating its way.


The ride north bound was wet with a following sea and I was well

soaked but the time I made it into the inlet. Stump Pass State Park

offers picnic tables, showers and a protected anchorage. I took

advantage of all and included a well deserved afternoon nap. The

winds increased through the afternoon and I headed southbound on the

inter-costal waterway (ICW) towards the Palm Island restaurant where

I could take advantage of free dockage and a sumptuous meal. By the

time I was finished with dinner it was dark and the winds had calmed

considerably. Out came the spot light and on went the navigation

lights. I moved south along the ICW under motor about five miles

further south to Don Pedro State Park. This park is relatively new

and is quite a facility. It is on `Little Gasparilla Island' and has

all the amenities for which one could ask. Free dockage, rest rooms,

showers, covered eating facilities, grills and close by beach access

are available. This park is only accessible by shallow water boats as

the hard to find channel that leads to its entrance is dredged only

to two and one half feet. The entrance through the mangroves is

marked by a small, well hidden sign at the channel entrance. I made

myself a cup of tea, set my mosquito netting, then read my book and

caught the latest weather forecast on the radio. Ah, good, the winds

are forecast to be from the north tomorrow as a cold front passes

during the night. A rain shower preceded the cold front on schedule.

As I pondered the day, I realized that I put in a full day of sailing

and had made a complete circle that put me back within a mile of

Eldred's ~my start point.


DAY 2:

The sun came up with an explosion of light filling the cabin and

making sleep next to impossible. I gathered up my breakfast victuals

and headed for the covered pavilion at Don Pedro. My butane stove

from the boat quickly served up the eggs, sausage and a blessed cup

of coffee from my Melita drip coffee maker. Once again proving the

adage that; 'There is no life before coffee'


The wind had shifted as predicted and with the frontal passage came a

much dryer and more gentle northerly breeze. I decided to motor out

the park's narrow channel and continue under engine until I passed

through the Boca Grande Swing Bridge about a mile south. A tip of the

hat and a friendly `hello' to Bob the bridge tender got the bridge to

open on time and I was on my way southbound. On my left was a

favorite local haunt called the Fishery Restaurant. Many an evening

have I tied up to their docks and enjoyed the bill of fare. As the

breeze filled in it was more from the west than the north and made

for the most pleasant of southbound sails down toward Cayo Costa and

Sanibel Island. The wind was in perfect harmony with the boat. With

her gaff rig happily capturing every ounce of pressure that could be

afforded it, the Sanderling catboat sailed effortlessly without a

hand on the tiller. It was one of those great moments that serves to

remind us why we step foot on to a boat. A quick stop at the town of

Boca Grande for charcoal, bug spray and ice and I was again on my way.


Gliding across the Boca Grande Pass on the incoming tide gave

evidence that it was now Tarpon season and the big sport fish would

soon be hunted by the hundreds of fisherman who make their pilgrimage

to the area. The tarpon, who often are over 100 pounds in weight,

tend to swim in tight circles and churn the waters as they assure the

continuation of the species. Fisherman are not the only ones who

notice this commotion as the activity tends to bring on the sharks as

well. Once past the Boca Grande Pass it is a short sail to Pelican

Bay at Cayo Costa to visit with an acquaintance, Mike the Park

Ranger. Mike is a gentle soul who was a minister in a prior lifetime

and now spends his retirement as the park custodian living in this

little slice of unspoiled paradise on Florida's west coast. Upon

entering the bay there is evidence that larger boats do not

necessarily have better sailors on board. The entrance to the bay is

deceptively close to the shoreline and sailors who do not heed their

chart's information quickly wind up aground. Such was the case with a

forty foot sloop over on her side and waiting for the next tide.


A quick visit with Mike noted that all was well with him and the park

had fully recovered from a minor brush fire that burned forty five

acres the week before. A quick use of the park's indoor plumbing

facilities and it was off again to take advantage of the fair winds

that would enable me to make the `Tween-Waters Marina' on Sanibel

Island by late afternoon. Before securing the boat I refueled and re-

iced. At Sanibel, I caught up with some other members of the sailing

group, shared an adult beverage and made it over to the Crow's Nest

Restaurant for an early dinner. The evening's entrainment was a

specialty of the place called the NASCRAB races. It seemed to have

more of an appeal to those with heavily alcohol dulled senses and is

much akin to the coconut races where folks buy a coconut for five

bucks, throw it in the river and cheer it on over the finish line.

Here you buy a sand crab for five dollars and with adult beverage in

hand, cheer it on down a chute hoping it will finish first. The

winner gets several extra dollars with which he can purchase more

adult beverages and start the process over again. There really is

something strange about having to be twenty one years old to by a

drink then turning around only to act as a child again. Oh

well….adventures in Paradise. With a full belly and a chuckle in my

soul, I set the boat on a mooring and called it a day.


DAY 3:



The early morning weather report from NOAA promised that this

day would be better than the one before and, totally out of character

for weather reporters, they were dead on. Today's destination was the

little town of St. James City on the very southern tip of Pine

Island. The favorable breeze from the west northwest allowed me to

make excellent time and put in far in advance of my scheduled

arrival. St. James City is a series of canals with houses and trailer-

homes along side. A good chart and little local knowledge gained from

a fisherman put me in front of the `Double-Nichol' Tavern on the

Monroe canal. Since I had skimped on breakfast, a robust lunch was in

order and this was the place to do it. Dock your craft in the back

yard along the sea wall and walk on in. I'm not certain if it was the

salt air but the `lunch burger' with raw onion and tomato was about

the best I'd had in a while.


With my hunger satisfied and many hours of daylight remaining, I

decided to motor sail to Matlacha. It is a well marked, albeit

convoluted, trail through the mangroves with the unique little

fishing town at the end. Another touch of the disappearing `Old

Florida' One passes Picnic Island and makes a turn to the north back

toward the central portion of Charlotte Harbor while paralleling the

length of Pine Island. Matlacha has several funky restaurants and an

excellent anchorage in town. I threw down the hook and walked about

town till after dark. It was good to stretch my legs and it helped

with the night's sleep. At 5:30 am the fishing boats started for

their daily run and the engine noise reminded me that there are still

people working for a living. There was a great little spot near the

anchorage for a simple breakfast and a shower. It was simpler than

making my own. I took on more ice and found and adequate amount of

fuel on board. I retrieved the anchor from its position in the mud

and headed north toward the area of Cape Haze and the central portion

of Charlotte Harbor.


The winds changed again and did not favor a twenty mile slug

northward to Punta Gorda. The northern Pine Island town of Bokeelia

seemed to be a logical destination and that is what I set sail for

reaching it in early afternoon. The place is complete with a small

marina, several good restaurants and twenty-five million mosquitoes.

I feel I know them all on a first name basis since most of them

seemed to know me on an intimate level. After a brief discussion

between the chief-mosquito in-charge and my bug bites, I opted to

navigate my way through the night air and anchor five miles away over

in Pelican Bay at Cayo Costa. With lights a blazing I made it through

the channel above Useppa Island and successfully anchored in the bay

for the night leaving the bugs to chew on some other poor sailor.


Day 4:






My trip started off with a substantial breakfast of eggs and sausages

at Cayo Costa State Park knowing full well that there may not be

adequate time for lunch. With a quick spruce up at the rest room

facilities in the Park and a fresh bag of ice from the ranger

station, I was off on a rather ambitious one day's sail up Charlotte

Harbor with a destination of the Navigator Grill located on the Peace

River near Arcadia. The sail northward from Cayo Costa State Park

through the center of Charlotte Harbor was with a strong southerly

breeze pushing the boat on a dead run before the wind. As afternoon

continued, the seas built and the wind increased in intensity. At 15

knots of wind the catboat began to show its flaw in design on a dead

run. The boat demonstrated two accidental gibes and with a boom

longer than the length of the boat, I felt it was better felt to sail

off on a broad reach and zig-zag my way up the harbor then to allow

the boat to continue on a dead run.


After three hours of sailing northward and as one makes the 90 degree

turn from the harbor into the Peace River, the boat was now sheltered

from the long fetch of the wind and was off on a most comfortable

reach headed north by northeast. With rail down and flat seas, the

boat was a joy to sail with her gaff making the most of the sail

shape. Whisking rapidly by an area known as Punta Gorda Isles and

headed towards the Punta Gorda City Marina that sits at the southern

base of the two bridges that take Highway US 41 over the Peace River,

the marina was a quick stop for ice and replenishment. The

hospitality was extraordinary with caring friendly folk running the

marina and I availed myself of a mid day shower.


Past the city marina, the river narrows and meanders under the

Interstate 75 bridge. All bridges had a mast clearance of at least 45

feet. Now would be time to stay between the navigation marks and

motor sail gently on up the river. The depth of the river ranges from

five to a surprising twenty five feet and the navigation marks are

ease to spot. In places where the marks are far apart the Army Corps

has put much larger `Protect the Manatee' signs and placed the

navigation aids directly along side the signs to assist in locating

them at a distance.


There were several dolphins fishing the river and their curiosity

with the boat encouraged them to stay for more than ten minutes. It

was a bit of a strange feeling as they would swim along side the

cockpit and gaze up at me. I was wondering who was more curious about

whom. An odd feeling prevailed as you are inspected by these mammals.


A mile beyond the Interstate Highway Bridge the river becomes rather

remote and the population density thins considerably. Houses fall

away and the river looks like a scene from the Bogart-Hepburn

movie `African Queen.' Cabbage palm trees line the banks and there

are many open places to picnic. The enormous amount of fresh water is

deeply stained with the tannins generated by the local flora and one

feels as if one is sailing in a cup of Lipton's finest. As the river

progresses northward one comes upon the new and lightly used facility

of Harbour Heights Park in the Harbour Heights area of Port

Charlotte. The park is county owned; well maintained, has free

dockage for some fifteen boats, charcoal grills, covered eating area,

fresh water, showers, play ground facilities and boat put-in ramps.

Although my venture was taken on a weekday, I was surprised to see

that there was no one in the park beyond a couple fishing from the

dock. I vowed to remember the location and thought that this would be

an excellent place to take my afternoon siesta on the return trip.

After another hour motor sailing through the wilds the river and

averaging about five knots on the GPS, I came upon the channel

entrance to the Navigator Grill. The place has free slips for patrons

and the desire to have a well earned lager helped me qualify.


The remote Navigator Grille is a funky little place with beer on tap,

a fry pit with standard fare and an `Old Florida' atmosphere. Oh, did

I mention the very cold beer on tap? It is one of those time portals

you can walk through and feel as if you've gone back fifty years in

time. They rent canoes kayaks here for further exploration of the

many side creeks in the area. One very pleasant surprise was the fact

that De Soto County added a new park facility complete with a paved

parking area; free all night parking and boat ramp. It is directly

next door to the Navigator. (I did mention that cold draft didn't I?)


Refreshed, it was time to head back down the Peace River and enjoy

the view from the cockpit of the catboat. It was now three in the

afternoon and my body was calling out for a short afternoon nap.

After an hour of motor sailing I found the Harbour Heights Park area

that I passed on the way up river. I tied up the boat and closed my

eyes for a few minutes. The Park has a pleasant view of the water

with many large sprawling oaks and I decided that I would cook my

evening meal on one of the park's charcoal grills. The steak, mashed

potatoes, onions and peppers were terrific. As the sunset was

scheduled for 8:15 PM, I took a little walk after dinner and

thoroughly relaxed before continuing. The river is set up with day

channel marks only and navigating at night with spot light in hand

did not seem like a prudent move. I cleaned up my mess and headed

towards home with adequate time to arrive at my permanent dockage in

Port Charlotte before dark. All in all it was a memorable side trip

through one of Florida's deep and scenic rivers with the reward of a

cold lager at one end. The Peace River Trip is one I certainly would

do again.


Bill Dolan

s/v; Sea Bird