by Bill Fite
Last week I was finally able to make a reconnaissance of Florida Bay as preparation for this year's Everglades Challenge. I left Tampa at 3:00 pm Wed Jan 17,'07 and pulled into Flamingo around 10:00 pm. The drive through the glades in the dark and the partially lit but nearly deserted, spooky-quiet parking lots gave a special feeling to the trip that you don't experience when it's daylight and crowded. After fiddling around and setting up the boat I decided to sleep on it in the parking lot. There were people sleeping aboard two small sailboats in slips adjacent to the ramps, and I didn't want to awaken them just to save ten minutes in the morning. You're not supposed to "camp" in the parking lot, but no one came around during the night to bother me.
At first light (about 6:30 am) I was in the water and motoring off toward Tin Can Channel against an ENE breeze of about 7 kts. My purpose was to confirm waypoints originally taken from charts, and I didn't feel like I had time to try tacking in the channels ahead. The sky and the sunrise were glorious. The tide was quite low and still flowing out, creating a strong opposing current to my easterly travel. Hundreds of birds stood on the many exposed mudflats. The beauty of the scenery and the solitude reminded me what a treat it is to be able to take trips during the week when relatively few people are around.
Through the morning and early afternoon I pressed on to the east, sailing some in each basin between channels, but mostly motoring into the NE and E wind and checking waypoints. My route was through Tin Can Channel to Buoy Key, End Key, Twisty Mile Channel, Dump Keys, Jimmie Channel, and Manatee Pass. To my surprise, all of the channels I needed to use were marked, not with numbered day beacons but with posts of various kinds. Several of the channels had areas less than a foot deep at low tide, possibly because of silting during the hurricanes of recent years.
Once through Manatee Pass I had no reason to go further east. Buildings were visible on Key Largo, and I could see no more shoal or navigation problems to check out.
It was 1:00 pm, and I decided to sail back for a final check of the waypoints. The wind was very light out of the SE, the sun was bright, and the temperature was near 80 degrees. All sailors know how splendid sailing can be when everything is more or less right. So it was that afternoon as I slid past the channel markers and savored the whole experience. I saw some rays and other creatures, including a fair-sized barracuda in the surprisingly clear water.
By around 4:00 pm I was back to Dump Keys and decided to anchor on the west side just out of the channel for the night. I was pretty tired, but had the strength to down a few Dos Equis and admire the sunset. There was no moon, so the stars were brilliant. From where I was you could see the faint glow of Key West and Marathon on the southern horizon and Miami to the northeast. There were no bugs at all. The breeze shifted to the north but remained light.
A good thing, too, that light breeze. When I pulled on the anchor rode to get underway the next morning, the anchor (a Bruce) came to me while the boat stayed put. Only the weight, not the grip, of the anchor and chain and the bottom of the rudder in the muck had been holding me in place. Note to self: don't trust the Bruce alone in the Florida Bay marl, or you might wake up halfway to Mexico.
The wind picked up enough for me to average over 5 kts (6.7 max) on the way back to Flamingo, and the northerly wind direction allowed me to go all the way to the harbor channel without motoring. I hope readers will forgive me for saying that this last leg was also a delight. A final treat was passing another Sea Pearl coming out of Flamingo as I was heading in. The boat was a dark blue one named Neu Perle, I believe. We exchanged shouted greetings, but I didn't get the name of the couple. That was the only sailboat I saw in two days.
The east portion of Florida Bay has many attractions for extreme shoal draft boats in good weather and favorable winds. To me, the scenery and the remoteness are especially appealing. A trip across and back doesn't make me an expert, but I do believe boats which can't float in less than a foot of water will get stuck trying to cross the way I went. My guess is that boats requiring 16 inches of water could enjoy the bay from Flamingo east to End Key or from Key Largo west to Manatee Key.
As for the Everglades Challenge, I'll be praying for daylight and following winds on this final leg from Flamingo to Key Largo.