Southern Front Report by Ron Hoddinott
Flamingo to Little Shark River via Whitewater Bay
and return via Cape Sable
Dec 27th - Dec 31st- 2006
December 27th -Bob Wood met me in front of the house at 6:00 AM. He had his Dovekie Ocita ready to go. It's so nice to have a sailing buddy you can count on! I was just loading the Honda 2 into the back on my truck for the long trip across the state to the Everglades National Park in Flamingo Florida. We stopped a few times to check the rigs, and once for lunch crossing the glades on US 41, the Tamiami Trail before we finally reached the ENP entrance south of Homestead about 1:30 PM. What we didn't realize, as we roamed around the book store and gift shop, is that we had another 38 miles of two lane backtop to cover before we reached the boat ramps at Flamingo. This was a first time down there for both of us, so I supposed we can be forgiven this oversight. When we finally got to Flamingo and the ramps, I spotted Bill Fite's MoonShadow getting rigged up in the parking lot. Ted Jean with his Hunter 19, Milk and Honey,and Paul Wagonner with his Sea Pearl Tri - Wing-It had already launched and were just about ready to head north through the Buttonwood Canal to Coot Bay, our first night's destination.
Paul and Ted took off, leaving room at the dock for the rest of us, and then Bill, while Bob and I were still getting things together. One thing we didn't have to do is raise the masts, because to get to Coot Bay, you have to go under a bridge with about a 10 foot clearance. We just motored up the canal dodging what looked like a chinese fire drill of canoes that had been rented from the park marina. After four nautical miles of motoring in the narrow canal, we reached the relative safety of Coot Bay, we powered over to the NE side near a litte indentation in the mangroves that would give us shelter from waves should the wind increase during the night. We had a great weather forecast with N winds switching to NE for the next few days and then clocking around to E by the time we were coming back out in the Gulf.
I spent the next hour or so setting things straight on Whisper, which included raising the masts, organizing all the junk I'd brought along to eat. heating up some coffee on the stove, and rigging my convertible cabin. Coots, or some small duck that looked like them, were spotted in Coot Bay by Bill Fite. The night turned cool and I was glad that I'd brought along my old watch cap to keep the ears warm as I snuggled in my sleeping bag aboard Whisper. Sometime during the night a hoot owl was heard nearby. I got up early to just look around, and found an inky black sky studded with diamond stars overhead. We were in the wilderness, no lights of the city to dilute the sky. Beautiful.
December 28th - By 8:00 am everyone was up and almost ready to go. I was up so early after retiring early that I had time to cook breakfast, clean up, shave and organize the boat before it was time to up anchor and go. Our plan for the day was to get into Whitewater Bay and head right on through it to reach the mouth of the Little Shark River at the Gulf of Mexico. This was all new to all of us, and we were exciting to be sailing in new territory for us. The winds were 12 - 15 knots out of the north and our first course in Whitewater Bay, after traversing Tarpon Creek caused us to beat into the north wind. Starboard tack was well favored, however, so a few long tacks on starboard and a few short ones on port and we had reached a point in the bay where we could head more westerly and ease the sheets. We noticed that Whitewater Bay was earning it's reputation this day. Streaky whitecaps with foam were visible as far as we could see.
Just north of marker 18, I saw a pair of islands that appeared bo be hills with close cropped grass growing on the SE slopes. Despite the fact that this was highly unlikely in a mangrove swamp, this impression could not be shaken. The other sailors commented on it as well. Bill said that it might be an old Indian shell midden. I decided to take a flyer and check it out. As I got closer what appeared to be grass showed itself to be a perfect progression of black, red and white mangroves growing in ever higher elevations as they went back farther from the salty water in the bay, making it appear to be a gentle sloping hill from a distance. The white mangroves were magnificent. Some were over 80 feet tall.
About 11:30 we stopped at Midway Keys for a lunch break and to discuss our next moves. You could truly stay in Whitewater Bay and poke around the islands here for at least a week without seeing everything, but we wanted to continue on through to the Little Shark, so we continued along with marked channel. All this morning we didn't see any other boats, but as we neared the Little Shark, we began to see some fishing boats. We stopped again near Oyster Bay Chickee to allow everyone to gather together, and to consider where we wanted to anchor for the night. Ted Jean was strongly in favor of continuing on through to the mouth of the river, and that turned out to be the consensus, so we entered the river and ran down to the mouth with a following breeze. Along the way Bill Fite and I spotted two groups of manatees. The first pair was right off my boat on the north side of the river in very shallow water. As I approached they rolled, flipped their hugh tail flippers and pushed out into the center of the river. Bill spotted the other pair a few minutes later further down toward the mouth of the river.
The anchorage at the Little Shark was pretty devastated by the hurricanes of the past few years, and probably Wilma last year. The magnificent white mangrove trees that marked the entrance on the north side were denuded of vegetation, and appeared to be dead. There was some regrowth going on though. The current was pretty swift with the outgoing tide, and the wind was still kicking out of the NE, so we snuggled our boats up along a northerly shore and away from the main flow of the river current. The anchorage was quite deep, and there were a few very large yachts anchored further out toward the mouth by the Gulf of Mexico.
I cooked a thawed hamburger patty, and heated up some canned corn. Along with some french bread that I'd brought along, it was a satisfying meal. Bill loaned me a book called "The Gladesman" by Glenn Simmons and Laura Ogden about how the homesteaders lived here in the glades during the depression and up until the park was established. Hunting alligators and small mammals for their hides, eating Chokoluskee Chickens ( Ibis), fishing, moonshining, and living by their wits and hunting skills, these rugged outdoorsmen endured the worst of the swarms of mosquitoes and the heat of summer, and seemed to like it! Weather was warming up this night. High 50's low 60's was the coolest we saw, and we all slept well.
December 29th - We all agreed to leave the anchorage for the three Capes of Sable at 8:30, but Bob Wood in the Dovekie and Ted Jean in the Hunter left about ten minutes before that. We figured it didn't really matter, as the SeaPearls could easily catch up with them. I was the last to get away for some reason, and then my anchor snagged something deep down in the tannin stained bottom of the anchorage. I tried pumping it out with the boat, and the backed off with line, and powered it out with the engine. I think it was caught on a mangrove root along the bottom, but after ten minutes, it came free. Looking out to sea, I could tell I had my work cut out for me! The boats were all disappearing over the horizon! I had Whisper's main reefed but her mizzen was set full. I played the puffs along the shoreline, and before long we came alongside the other boats. Now with wind was on our beam as we headed SE along the shore to Cape Sable. As the morning continued we got hit with some great gusts. Our speeds were in the upper 6 knot range with a few spurts into the low 7 knots. Rebel yells echoed back and forth from boat to boat. This was great sailing close along a wild shoreline with clear shallow water rushing under our hulls.
South of the Little Shark is Big Sable Creek, and we eased into in to check it out as a possible refuge for Bill Fite during the Watertribe Everglades Challenge this year. It had a lot of little coves and hide-a-ways out of wind and current, and looked like it would offer good protection from all winds except perhaps due west.
Continuing on down the coast, we rounded NW Cape and headed for Middle Cape. As we went round NW cape we had to head even closer to the wind, and were now on a port side close reach to the E-SE. Bob Wood was having trouble with the Dovekie in the higher gusts, and Ted Jean had a line flying from the masthead, and was having a tough time reefing by himself on the Hunter, so we decided to land on the beach and sort things out. By this time it was about lunch time, so we did what we usually do on a beach... had a little picnic, and sorted things out. Bill and Ted and I walked down the beach to what I thought were a couple of blue plastic kayaks as we'd gone by out in the Gulf. But it turned out to be the remains of a Cuban refugee boat. It was a metal frame welded up with a pool liner covering it, and inner tubes on the inside. There was a rudder shaft and stock, and places to tie water jugs and supplies along the sides. We took a few photos, and wondered if they'd made it to shore, or if it just washed up without them. Kind of sobering.
With Middle Cape Canal into Lake Ingraham only a mile or so down the coastline, we decided to duck out of the wind and chop and head into the lake. The chart show a marked channel down the center of the lake with 2 feet of water at low tide. The tide was ripping out as we motored through the canal into the lake. A 90 degree right turn put us into the channel, and it was just a matter of staying in the channel until we reached the other side of the lake where a canal ran to East Cape Canal. We stopped at a little island for a break, and Ted Jean said that he couldn't get in there where we were anchored, so he powered on ahead. As we got ready to go again, he was coming back saying that he'd run aground continuously and that the way ahead was not deep enough and that the water was still dropping. We saw powerboats zooming through the canal, and the SeaPearls and Dovekies draw a lot less than the Hunter, so we decided to continue. Ted said that he'd meet up with us in the morning, and sailed back into the Gulf to spend the night out on East Cape Sable. The mud flats on the east side of the lake were brimming with birds of all types. Roseate Spoonbills, shoals fo greater and lesser Sandpipers, egrets, Ibis, Herons, Night Herons and green Herons were everywhere. On the east side of the lake the current began to flow in our favor. Now the current was carrying us out of the lake and back to the Gulf.
Making the right turn into East Cape Canal, we could look right back out to the Gulf. Now we were being carried along by the wind and tide, and it was getting to be time to look for a sheltered anchorage for the night. Luckily there was a canal that ran off to the right (north) side of East Cape Canal. We turned right and headed in. True explorers in an unmarked canal surrounded by mangrove swamp, we moved slowly along sounding the way ahead with a sounding rod. After a few right and left turns, I found a spot along the creek that would allow us all to line up at anchor on one side without blocking navigation in case someone decided to take a short cut and come through here at night at a high speed. Anchor lights were going up this night!. After we'd all settled down, the feeling came over me that we were in the MeKong Delta in Viet Nam. Just so wild. Paul saild the No-See-Ums were having a feast on him, but I wasn't bothered by them in Whisper with it's great bug screens. Once again we fell asleep early after a fantastic day of exploring and sailing.
December 30th, 2006 - Going home day. But Bob Wood reported that he didn't think he had enough fuel to power back to Flamingo. It was only 7 miles from the mouth of East Cape Canal to Flamingo, but the wind was out of the east and the wind was again predicted to be quite strong, in the 20 -25 knot range. Bill suggested that an early start would help because the wind had been building as the morning continued. He was right. Winds this morning were only 10 - 15 and we decided to beat ahead slowly as Bob powered the Dovekie at 2 - 2.5 knots to save fuel. We did run into Ted in the Hunter briefly as we exited the canal, but he seemed to be in a hurry, and powered on toward Flamingo. The SeaPearls had a great three hour beat to the entrance to Flamingo, and to make a perfect ending to a perfect cruise, Bob's Dovekie did in fact have just enough fuel to get back. He was probably running on fumes, but he made it by being conservative with his throttle, and taking it easy, as he always does.
Bob and I were pretty bushed after pulling out and cleaning up the boats. We decided to drive to Naples and get a hotel for the night. Showers and a dinner at Cracker Barrel got us back up to speed and made the trip back home much easier!