Panther, Bahia Honda, Tarpon Belly Keys + : 2013 Photo Recap

Winterlude’s 2013 cruising season got off to a slow start between spending an unexpected 2 months in the boatyard getting bottom repairs (amongst other stuff) and returning to Atlanta and then the Midwest for 2 new grandbabies, we didn’t get the boat out of the boatyard until January 9 — 3 months into our normal six month season.

We decided for the first time ever, just to go wherever the wind blew us.  Trouble was in early February after we’d completed varnish projects and waited what seemed endlessly for weather, the wind was blowing from the SOUTH, meaning we’d be sailing NORTH.  But WAIT!  It’s COLD up north – it wasn’t terribly warm in SW Florida, we certainly didn’t want to go further north.   Plan scrapped before it even begins!

Headed out the channel from Burnt Store Marina to Charlotte Harbor.  It’s about 5 minutes to where we can actually put up our sails and SAIL – no long motors down the ICW to access open water when we’re at Burnt Store, which is one of the things we love about it!  First stop Cayo Costa State Park, a barrier island  just north of Sanibel and Captiva Islands but only accessible by boat – either private boat or ferry.

With beaches stretching for miles and very few people, Cayo Costa is one of our favorite anchorages anywhere – not to mention that it’s one of the very few almost totally enclosed anchorage which means weather protection from almost any direction!  I LOVE anchorages like this!  Unfortunatly, after a great 10 mile sail across Charlotte Harbor, we found rampant red tide – dead fish, even a dead eagle ray, which made me cry – or was that just my eyes burning and watering from the red tide.  Not good, time to move further south, reportedly the red tide is moving north.

The next night, anchored securely in Glover’s Bight, another of our favorite staging points, we listened as Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” song wafts across the anchorage, the perfect end to a good day of sailing, even if it was the ICW.

“I see skies of blue….. clouds of white
Bright blessed days….dark sacred nights
And I think to myself …..what a wonderful world.”

We like “firsts” – and the longer we spend on the West Coast of Florida, the harder it becomes to find “firsts”.  David’s studying the charts trying to figure out places we can explore that we haven’t been before – seems there are lots of 10,000 Islands, but we can’t get there in one day, so we stop in Factory Bay, Marco Island to wait out yet another cold front and break up an overnight sail.

While “stuck” at Marco Island, we dinghied out to one of the barrier islands to walk a beach unaffected by the dreaded red tide, and enjoyed the shelling.  West Marine and Publix are in walking distance and we took advantage of that to get ourselves a little boat heater since the temps plunged into the upper 30’s one night – bbbrrrr!  There’s also a great Winn Dixie with a dinghy dock – it’s a bit of a dinghy ride from Factory Bay, but if you’re anchored in Smokehouse Bay, it’s right under the bridge just beyond Esplanade Marina.

From Marco, we had a GREAT sail to Indian Key/Russell Bay in the 10,000 Islands.  What a GREAT spot.  Here’s our buddy boat, sv War Dept, illustrating what a great sail it was!  One of those days we dream about!

From the charts, it appeared there might be a cool anchorage close to Tiger Key, so we dinghied explored the extended area to see what we could find, but it didn’t look encouraging – we couldn’t find a way to get our 5 1/2 foot draft over the shallow bar at the entrance.  So we had fun exploring dozens of little beaches and returned to the boat.  The next day we went in to Everglades City – always a highlight on a trip south, I love that little fishing town!  It deserves it’s own separate post, which I’ll add soon and link here.

Other cruisers were talking about enjoying Panther Key, but there was very little information available, so we studied the charts and decided it was only a couple hour sail up from Indian Key, why not take a look.  We ended up spending almost a week … exploring, wandering beaches, bonfires on the beach, sunset, watching the mighty eagle rob the osprey, sea turtles and dolphins galore, great fishing and a gazillion little secluded beaches perfect for shelling and picnic lunches.  There was one boat there when we arrived, but we had several days to ourselves … other than the kayaking groups that would paddle up mid afternoon, camp on one of the beaches and depart the next morning.

From Panther Key, we sailed to Little Shark River, the traditional jumping off point for the Keys.  From Little Shark it’s only about 45-ish miles to the 7 Mile Bridge and Marathon/Boot Key Harbor.  And since our head totally quit our last morning at Panther Key, it seemed a good idea to get to somewhere we could get parts to fix it.  Plus I needed to do laundry and do a bit of reprovisioning.

Ducking into Little Shark is easy and luckily there were no bugs this stop.  You can see that a recent past hurricane has removed alot of the foliage off of what once was a beautiful dense jungle river.  You can also see that Marker #3 is precariously hanging on … when we returned a couple months later, there was no “3”, just a pole.

Approaching the 7 Mile Bridge after a great sail … well, if you don’t mind ducking a gazillion crab pots.  Our first week in Marathon was engulfed in changing out sanitation hoses and ultimately replacing the pump on our Raritan PHII elderly head.  Then cold fronts held us mostly in the Boot Key Mooring Field for another 2 weeks.  But we made the most of it – Marathon is not the worst place to be “stuck” and the cruising community there is alot of fun.  Here are three posts I’ve done about the fun things we did in Marathon.

6 Favorite Things to Do In Boot Key Harbor

Marathon/Boot Key Harbor:  Stuff to Know (the logistics, where to stay, where to provision, etc)

More Fun Things to do in Marathon

While in Marathon, our two favorite days were the day spent snorkeling Delta Barge (Flagler Barge) and a different afternoon spent devouring stone crab claws at the Keys Fisheries bar happy hour.  YUM!

And our couple of day “escape” over the Bahia Honda State Park — be sure to check out my post on Bahia Honda Anchorages and Stuff to Know  Bahia Honda marked the first time we’d been brave enough to try exploring the Florida Bay side of the Keys — everyone told us it was too shallow for our 5 1/2 foot draft.  And it WAS shallow, but it made for a fun almost “glass bottomed” boat ride – we could see everything on the bottom!

And we always appreciate dolphins that are willing to stick around long enough for me to get their picture!

Newfound Harbor provided a convenient stop on the way to Key West – it was also where we unceremoniously drug our newly painted keel through less than 5 feet of sand, so not one of our favorite memories and then on to Key West for a couple of days treat in the Galleon Marina.

If you look hard enough, you can barely make out our little dark hulled sloop in the marina.  Key West is always fun for people watching and more.  We enjoyed our day at the Truman Little White House and also Fort Zachary Taylor.

Fort Zachary Taylor reminded me a little of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, which was our ultimate destination on this trip.  Unfortunately we chose not to go out there because the stiff southeasterly winds would have made exploring and snorkeling not very good anyway, so exploring Boca Grande, the Marquesas and another trip to the Dry Tortugas will have to wait for another year.

A stop at Tarpon Belly Key on the way back to Little Shark River, made for an interesting anchor neighbor — Fat Albert live & in person!  The area itself has great fishing and we’ll go back to explore more.  Several cruisers have told us it’s one of their favorite stops.  We were just happy to find we could get there since it’s another of those Florida Bay side of the Keys “too shallow for us”, or so we previously thought, anchorages!

From Tarpon Belly Key, we made it all the way to Little Shark with a GREAT sail – the winds were 19-22 from the SE which meant we were flying along with a single reef and a bright sunny sky!

Of course, the wind died in the night and the next morning saw our panicked departure from Little Shark to escape the noseeems — which had apparently camped aboard and followed us all the way to Factory Bay, Marco Island!  It was a nice sunrise though, too bad we couldn’t sit & sip coffee & enjoy it!

And so the sun sets on another winter’s cruising, this one dramatically shorter than usual, but next year IS another year!  🙂   This sunset is from our Panther Key anchorage in the 10,000 Islands.

Recapping, we didn’t accomplish all our objectives, BUT we did discover that with our 5 1/2 foot draft we CAN explore the bay side of the Keys, stopping in 2 bayside anchorages and thoroughly enjoying them both.  We discovered Panther Key in the 10,000 Islands, where we spent a week and loved every minute.  We also learned everything there is to know about rebuilding our sanitation system aboard, which was NOT fun, but was an accomplishment since we did it all ourselves.   So I guess for an abbreviated winter cruise, we had more fun than I give us credit for!  🙂

What did you do for this winter’s cruise?  Go somewhere you loved?  Where?  We need input to decide where we go next!   Please leave a comment and share!   Cheers!  Jan












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