The following article
is taken from the
August 2000 Issue of Southern Boating Magazine
For some time we had been daydreaming about
how much fun it would be to do some serious
cruising on a boat large enough to handle
the whole family. After many weeks of discussion,
my wife suggested that instead of buying boating
magazines and just talking, it might be better
to go take a course and see if we liked it.
Sound thinking. After searching the Internet
and making a few telephone calls, we settled
on Southwest Florida Yacht and its six-day
course. A few months later, my daughter Marie
and I were aboard the boat that was ours for
Understandably, we were not at all sure we
could really learn everything we needed to
know in one week. We were also a bit apprehensive
about having someone watch us display our
ignorance. As luck would have it, our instructor
Gary Graham seemed determined to not only
cover the course material thoroughly but also
to make sure we had as much fun as possible
while doing so.
At 9 a.m. on the first day we settled in
for our opening session. Having spent most
of the past 20 years trying to keep up with
computer technology, I was no stranger to
week-long sessions trying to get my aging
brain to grapple with the Next New Thing.
This workshop, however, looked more promising
than most. We were outside, for a start, on
the aft deck of a well-maintained 40-foot
trawler, and the smell of fresh sea breezes
and sunscreen was a big improvement over stale
air-conditioned seminar rooms on a high-tech
Ray Bennett and daughter Marie on the flybridge
of their 46-foot trawler. Among other things,
the pair learned about handling, chart reading,
anchoring and basic engine maintenance during
their six-day course.
We spent that first morning
going over every inch of Red Dog, starting
with the chain locker and working our way
back to the rudder. Much time was spent crawling
around the engine compartment checking out
the controls, electrical panels and so on.
They manage to cram a lot of stuff into a
boat, I discovered, and getting at it requires
quite a bit more bending and stretching than
I was accustomed to. However, by the end of
the week the morning check of fluid levels,
filters and so on became easy. This way my
first experience with diesel engines, but
it looked like most routine repairs could
be performed with the usual quota of skinned
knuckles and colorful language. Everything
was in great shape, so there was no call for
a professional mechanic's skills, but had
we broken down, I have no doubt that I could
have held the light for Gary and contributed
colorful language if he ran short.
During the afternoon we headed
out in the harbor to practice close-quarters
maneuvering. My previous experience consisted
of small outboards and chasing fish in the
Chesapeake on my father's 30' single-engine
sportfisherman. While I knew that a twin-engine
boat could spin around in its own length,
actually doing it was incredible.
Despite the wonderful control provided by
twin engines, docking was more than slightly
challenging. Maybe water was cheaper when
I was a kid, but I seem to remember that they
used to put more of it in a slip than they
do now. Also my dad's boat was mostly cockpit
and had relatively little freeboard, so I
was unprepared for what the wind does to a
boat with as much superstructure as a trawler.
In addition, I was accustomed to controls
in a cockpit from where I could easily see
all the stuff I wasn't supposed to hit.
Fortunately Gary has a wealth of experience
in dealing with novice boat handlers. He always
knew when we were about to do something stupid,
how we were going to do it, and exactly what
to say to get us out of trouble while there
was still time. Both Marie and I had been
apprehensive about docking ever since firsts
laying eyes on Red Dog, but Gary talked us
through the maneuvers and now it was time
Marie went first, manage to dock a few times,
then it was my turn. Following my daughter's
good example and Gary's expert advice, I too
managed to back Red Dog into a slip. Turning
to Gary I asked, "How was that?"
He stood there for a minute, gave a slow nod
of his head, and responded, "Not bad.
I was hoping for that other slip, but this
one is nice too."
Later in the afternoon we had some classroom
time, and Gary went over the basics of Intracoastal
Waterway piloting and familiarized us with
charts. Next morning we performed some more
docking practice, but the wind came up so
we abandoned that and headed out to cruise
the Caloosahatchee River. From time to time
Marie and I traded places at the helm, and
Gary coached us on using channel markers and
ranges to stay oriented in the channel and
the finer points of passing and being passed.
We anchored for lunch and then made our way
back to the dock.
Next morning it was back to the classroom,
this time to cover compass variation and deviation,
the basics of dead reckoning and how to use
tide tables. Gary was particularly good at
conveying not only what we needed to know
but also why, and he made plenty of suggestions
regarding things we should spend more time
reading about at a later time. For a lunch
break we went back out on the river and down
to Shell Point where we anchored in a secluded
cove. It was hard to believe that we were
only a few miles from Fort Myers.
The course we took is divided in two. The
first three days cover basic boat handling
and navigation, and the last three are devoted
to a short cruise featuring all the things
you need to know to make cruising safe and
enjoyable. While I suppose it's possible to
just take off on your own, it is certainly
more comfortable to make the first trip with
an expert who is also an entertaining companion.
Believe me, a no-hitch three-day cruise not
only builds confidence but makes you anxious
to do it again as soon as possible.
The afternoon before the cruise, Gary told
us to dig out the appropriate charts and locate
an anchorage between Captiva Island and Buck
Key. We spent a pleasant hour or so that evening
planning our route, and I discovered that
looking at charts and planning a cruise to
take "some day" is addictive. (I
now own complete charts for all of Florida,
the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Chesapeake
Bay and the Great Lakes. All I need is about
three years of vacation.)
On the first day we experienced what is called
the Miserable Mile. This narrow channel, combined
with tidal currents and a gusty breeze trying
to push us onto the flats, gave us a fine
opportunity to watch the markers ahead, the
wake, and the markers behind. By mid-afternoon
we arrived at our anchorage, which was already
quite well populated. Gary explained how to
approach the anchorage, how to pick a spot
and then place the anchors so that we would
be secure and not be a bother to our neighbors.
A little impromptu lecture on the etiquette
of anchoring and the unwritten rules of courteous
behavior went a long way toward reassuring
us that we could do this without becoming
a public nuisance. Boat operators are a rather
forgiving, live-and-let-live group, but they
indeed appreciate common courtesy. It's nice
to know how to go about your business without
accidentally annoying those around you.
After launching the inflatable, Marie and
I spent several hours puttering around. Gary
directed us to an interesting little channel
that led through the mangroves into and through
Buck key. We then wandered up to Blind Pass
before returning to fix dinner so that we
could get to bed early in preparation for
sleeping late the next morning (this was a
vacation, after all).
Next morning we headed across Charlotte Harbor
and made our way to Burnt Store Marina, which
is where Southwest Florida Yachts keeps its
sailboat fleet. We then went back out and
anchored for the night just beyond the Matlacha
Pass bridge. After dinner we sat reading our
books, practicing knots and watching the sun
set from our chairs on the aft deck. What
a tough life, eh?
Oh the last day we followed the twisty channel
behind the Pine Island back to our starting
point. This was definitely one of those excursions
where it's good to have someone aboard who's
familiar with local conditions. Dolphin played
in our wake, birds strolled around no more
than a dozen feet from the boat (a bit unnerving),
and plenty of other craft (if you count kayaks
and canoes) were in the vicinity. Once safely
back in our slip, we had a bit of lunch and
took a short written test.
We had a nice vacation, learned enough to
be approved for bareboat chartering and, most
importantly, found a new activity the whole
family will be able to enjoy for years to
For more information contact Florida Sailing
& Cruising School at (800) 262-7939 or
(941) 656-1339. Write to 3444 Marinatown Lane,
N.W., North Fort Myers, Fla. 33903.
Web site: www.flsailandcruise school.com
While researching the Venice area some years
ago for the first edition of my Cruising Guide
to Western Florida, I had occasion to spend
a bit of time with one of the local marina
managers. As we passed bits of cruising news
back and forth one hot, summer afternoon,
he inquired as to where my research had taken
me before coming to Venice. I related a quick
account of my recent, lengthy cruises on Tampa
Bay. The manager looked at me for a few moments
out of the corner of his eye and said, "Please
don't tell them we're here!"
it would take very rose-colored glasses indeed
to look upon Venice as a backwater village,
there is no denying that a more tranquil atmosphere
pervades these climes than in the metropolitan
centers to the north. Downtown Venice is absolutely
charming, with wonderful shops, and more than
a few fine dining choices. You will find it
necessary to take a taxi, though one local
marina does plop you within walking distance
of the downtown area.
can also boast the best inlet on this portion
of the Western Florida coastline. According
to numerous conversations with local cruisers
and several dockmasters, it has not been necessary
to redredge this channel for at least ten
years. With minimum 10-foot depths at the
time of this writing, Venice Pass deserves
a red circle on the chart of any cruiser planning
to go outside or make his way inland from
the open Gulf.
City of Venice also features several fine
marinas. Our favorite actually flanks the
southern shores of the Venice Pass channel,
near its intersection with the ICW. Crows
Nest Marina is a super-friendly facility with
plentiful transient dockage, full fueling
services and an exceptional on-site restaurant
and bar. Tell dockmaster Gary that we sent
you prefer to anchor off for the night. Well,
Venice is ready for you as well. The charted
10-foot waters south of unlighted daybeacon
#1 (south of charted Bird Island) make for
a wonderful overnight haven, particularly
when winds are blowing from the west or northwest.
As an added bonus, the sumptuous Venice Yacht
Club lies within sight of this anchorage,
and a public park with limited dinghy dockage
is close by as well.
is important to take special care when navigating
the Waterway in the Venice area. The various
side channels, not to mention the numerous
twists and turns in the ICW channel, can be
confusing for first timers, and, the tidal
currents can flow swiftly.
Venice and heading south towards the Caloosahatchee
River you will first traverse a narrow, man-made
canal, which will soon lead you into the marginally
wider waters of Lemon Bay. Ahhh, Lemon Bay,
I type out that name, and it calls to mind
some absolutely beautiful waters set against
the backdrop of a late autumn sunset. We always
enjoy this portion of the Waterway, if, and
only if, we stick strictly to the channel's
mid-width. The ICW channel running through
Lemon Bay is subject to shoaling along its
edges, and prudent mariners will pay extra
special attention to all relevant markers
and keep a close watch on the sounder.
Bay's marina facilities are somewhat widely
scattered, though visiting cruisers will find
all they might need at Englewood, Stump Pass
and Palm Island. A good anchor-down spot can
be found on the charted 7 to 13-foot cove
near unlighted daybeacon #30 (Mile 36).
of Mile 35, the Waterway quickly leaves its
more sheltered passage behind and flows out
into the truly awesome waters of Charlotte
Harbor and Pine Island Sound. Normally, this
writer would begin to wax and wane eloquently
(you believe that, right!) about the uncounted
cruising opportunities, gunkholes, charming
ports of call and innumerable anchorages on
these twin bodies of water. However, my host
for this series of articles, Southern Boating
magazine, recently (Oct.1996) featured an
excellent article detailing these waters in
a first-class fashion. So, within the body
of this tale, we will only hit a few personal
of Charlotte Harbor, this body of water runs
to the northeast off the northerly reaches
of Pine Island Sound. While most of Charlotte's
shoreline is delightfully undeveloped, there
is one large, notable marina facility guarding
its southerly waters and its northerly head
is flanked by the picturesque community of
Store Marina, flanking Charlotte Harbor's
southeasterly shores, is undoubtedly one of
the most important marina facilities between
Venice and Fort Myers. As you would expect,
this large complex features plentiful transient
dockage, a super sheltered harbor, a fine
ship's and variety store and an on-site restaurant.
What you may not know about, however, is the
large number of charter craft that operate
out of Burnt Store. Both Southwest Florida
Yachts and Yachting Vacations offer a wide
variety of vessels available for bareboat
charters. These sorts of rental sojourns are
a great way for first-time visitors to become
familiar with these cruising-rich waters.
City of Punta Gorda has received numerous
awards and was recently recognized by a national
magazine as offering the highest quality of
life of any city in the U.S.A. This writer
would certainly not disagree with that assessment.
Beautiful homes overlook a seemingly endless
maze of canals, and the historic downtown
district is as pretty as a picture. Fisherman's
Village Marina (featuring an adjacent dining
and shopping complex) is located in the heart
of the community, and there are three yacht
clubs in the area as well.
For the really intrepid explorers among us (who
can clear some fairly low fixed bridges), you
might consider exploring either the Myakka or
Peace River, both of which flow off the northerly
waters of Charlotte Harbor. Be warned that there's
plenty of shallow water to contend with on these
two streams, but there is also the opportunity
to anchor and spend the night where few cruising-sized
pleasure craft have been before you.
our attention back to Pine Island Sound, let
me just mention four of my "must see"
ports of call. I don't think it's overstating
the case to say that those who have not yet
experienced the delights of Gasparilla Island
and its one village, Boca Grande, have not
really enjoyed the best that Florida has to
offer. If your pocketbook can stand the strain,
every cruiser should spend at least one night
at the Gasparilla Inn in downtown Boca Grande.
Yes, this facility has its own marina a short
step away from its doors, but the real charm
here is the glorification of Victorian architecture
and lifestyle. As I describe it in my Cruising
Guide to Western Florida, "if you were
sitting in the lobby of the Gasparilla Inn
and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came strolling
through, they would be entirely in keeping
with the ambience." Oh yes, the food
in the dining room and (at midday) at the
Beach Club is absolutely, worldclass. Let
me pause here for just one second to note
that Boca Grande is a naturally deep pass,
which, if you carefully follow the markers,
can be used with confidence.
Grande Pass divides Gasparilla Island from
Cayo Costa. This island is a state park and
is completely protected from development.
Craft that can stand some 4 to 4 1/2-foot
low water soundings can anchor just east of
Cayo Costa in Pelican Bay. It's then a quick
dinghy ride ashore where exploration of the
almost deserted beaches is mandatory. Just
watch the sun go down over the Gulf, and see
if you don't think that this is what cruising
is all about.
of course, there's Cabbage Key just a bit
further south. This island sports an inn sitting
atop a Native American shell mound. Once the
home of the son of Mary Roberts Rinehart,
the mystery novelist, it is said that the
author penned many of her most famous stories
while living on this remote island. Today
the house has been turned into a unique inn.
For one thing, the dining room is wallpapered
with genuine one dollar bills that patrons
have left over the years after having affixed
their signatures to them. For another, the
food is great, and the backwater atmosphere
is a welcome relief from our modern, well-planned
world. The small marina "out back"
is very convenient to we cruising folk.
the large marina and huge vacation complex
known as South Seas Plantation on Captiva
Island is a must stop for any boat owner who
likes pleasure craft facilities with all the
trimmings. The harbor is well-sheltered, transient
dockage is not wanting, and it would take
a month to exhaust all the dining and shopping
opportunities. If you want to take a break
from the live-aboard routine, there are plenty
of adjacent rooms and condominiums for rent.
If you happen to prolong your stay for several
days, and wander outside of the complex's
gates, ask any local for directions to the
Mucky Duck Restaurant (no, I'm not making
that name up). Set in an English pub-style
atmosphere, both the burgers and the fried
grouper sandwiches are enough to set my tastebuds
the ICW leads past the shores of Sanibel Island
and enters San Carlos Bay. One good marina
is available on Sanibel, and there is excellent
anchorage just behind Point Ybel (the southerly
tip of Sanibel), within sight of the island's
historic lighthouse. Sanibel is known worldwide
as a vacationer's and shell hunter's mecca.
Waterway crosses San Carlos Bay in a stretch
that is known as the "miserable mile."
The reason for this moniker is obvious to
anyone who has cruised this stretch in times
past. The ICW follows an east to west axis
at this point, and the prevailing, often strong,
currents set north to south, or south to north,
sweeping directly across the channel.
doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand
that leeway can be one heck of a problem along
this channel. Captains must watch their course
over the stern just as religiously as they
eye the track ahead. This wise strategy will
quickly show if you are being swept sideways
out of the channel onto the surrounding shoals,
just when it looks from your course ahead
that you are headed just where you should
traversing the "miserable mile,"
the Western Florida ICW ends. That's right
folks, there is no official, protected Intracoastal
Waterway which traverses Florida's southwestern
coastline. Those cruisers headed south have
no choice but to take to the waters of the
open Gulf, but that is another story.
the east, the Caloosahatchee River serves
as the westernmost link to the memorable Okeechobee
Waterway, providing reliable access to the
Sunshine State's eastern coastline. In the
last of this series of articles, we'll explore
this fascinating passage together.
again, it's been a rare treat to share a quick
impression of Western Florida waters with
you. Good luck and good cruising!
Marinatown Lane N.W. North Fort Myers Florida 33903
(239) 656-1339 (800) 262-7939 Fax (239) 656-2628
Marinatown Marina 26° 38.5'N 81° 53.0'W
Burnt Store Marina 26° 45.71' N 82° 04.20'W
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