We went off the grid for a while when we left the Keys, so let me get you caught up on where we’ve been. The map segment on the left shows Lower Florida and the Keys. Center-right on the map is Biscayne Bay. For reference, Dinner Key is at the northwest edge of the Bay, just about under the first M in Miami. Tarpon Basin is about the center of Key Largo on the Bayside. The red line is not our actual course, but roughly shows our stops along the way from Key Largo to Naples.
We left Tarpon Basin at Key Largo on a Wednesday, and went down to Lower Matecumbe Key to stage for our hop back to mainland Florida. Our route from Largo to Lower Matecumbe was littered with crab traps, and their floats were a constant threat to the boat. You can do a lot of damage to a boat, even sinking, if the boat’s prop happens to twist around the line connecting the float to the crab trap. We had to be constantly vigilant, which made the relatively short trip extremely tiresome.
At one point, as we traversed a cut through a shoal, we noticed a line of objects that appeared to be mounted on stakes along the shallow sides of the channel.
When we got closer, we saw that the objects were live cormorants roosting on the top of each stake. They looked like decoys. Occasionally, one would fly off only to be replaced by another. Odd. How many cormorants can dance on the head of a pin? Apparently, only one.
We never quite figured out what the stakes were for.
When we dropped the hook in Matecumbe Bight, a group of people in a powerboat stopped by to chat. One of them, Arthur, had previously owned a 27-ft Watkins sailboat (Madge is a Watkins). They are a rare breed, especially a 36-footer like Madge. Even stranger, Arthur had once known a 36-ft Watkins that had been named “Imagine,” spelled with a “g” (Madge is “Imajine” spelled with a “j”). We gave him a tour of our boat, and learned he’s from a town on the Chesapeake that we plan to visit this summer — so we may see him again.
We left Lower Matecumbe Key early Thursday to cross Florida Bay and round Cape Sable, which is the southwest tip of the Florida peninsula. It would be our longest travel segment to date, in excess of 45 nautical miles. There was practically no wind, and what little we had was “on the nose” (from directly ahead of us), so it was another day of just motoring. What’s worse, the entire route was covered with crab traps. The only relief from the crab traps was to travel as much as possible inside the boundaries of the Everglades National Park, where crabbing is prohibited. However, such a route would take us off our shortest “straight line” route, making the trip even longer. In the end, in order to make our destination before too late in the day, we had to suffer the crab traps.
We pulled in Thursday afternoon at the Little Shark River. All reports were that it was a beautiful place. They were accurate. There were three boats anchored in the bay near the mouth of the river when we arrived. Nobody was moving. No one made a sound. As soon as we anchored we discovered why. The bay was alive with wildlife! Dolphins were herding fish into the shallows, trapping the fish and then devouring them. Sea turtles glided by. Rays were jumping out of the water as they chased their prey. One ray jumped so close to Madge, and came so far out of the water, that we got a clear view of him (or her) from the tip of his mandibles to the point of his long whip-like tail. Pelicans dove all around us. Shore birds meticulously worked the banks. After the Dolphins fed, they toured the bay inspecting all the boats. We could easily hear the “phew-whoosh” as they exhaled and inhaled in the calm water. Suzy swears she made eye contact with one. (She didn’t say whether it winked at her.) The most amazing thing in the bay was the reaction of the humans. Everyone was on the deck of their boat with binoculars, but nobody made a sound. As the afternoon turned to early evening, four more boats came in off the Gulf. Each one, in turn, joined the mesmerized audience. Only the arrival of the mosquitos and sand gnats (“no-see-must”) at dusk ended the show. We passed a calm, peaceful night. Definitely, our most favorite day so far.
We would’ve liked to have stayed at Little Shark River for another day, but our weather window for getting back to civilization was closing. On Friday morning, we pulled out for another long day northbound. Our course was northwest, and the wind – which was a little stronger than the day before – was also out of the northwest. Sailing would mean tacking through the crab traps, reducing our overall progress, so we cranked the engine and slogged on. Our target was an anchorage in Russel Pass behind Indian Key, on the route from the Gulf through the Ten Thousand Islands to Everglade City. As we got closer to Indian Key, the wind built and the sea got rougher. Nothing dangerous – just uncomfortable. We had turned far offshore trying to avoid the crab traps – fewer, but still there – and observed another sailboat paralleling our course closer to shore. As we entered the pass at Indian Key, that boat fell in behind us. We recognized them as having been with us the previous night at Little Shark River, but we hadn’t spoken with them. We ended up anchoring next to them in Russel Pass, and had a nice visit with Joe and Carol of SV Toby Too before the darkness fell. Except for one lone sea turtle that popped up briefly, there were only Pelicans with us in Russel Pass.
Toby Too only drew three feet, being slightly smaller and much shallower than Madge, so they planned to take a different route than us leaving Indian Key. We were both heading for Marco Island, but Toby Too would take the inside route and follow a leisurely path through the Ten Thousand Islands to get there. Madge is too deep for the inside route, so we had to head offshore again to slog around the shoals extending southward from Cape Romano. The wind was 5-10 kts out of the north, and we were actually able to pull our jib out during our westbound leg, but it was only good for steadying the boat, and didn’t provide any speed, so we ended up motor-sailing. As we turned north, we rolled up the sail and bounced along by diesel alone. We had one scary moment just as we were approaching the shoal. A breaker tripped, and we lost all electronic navigation, depth and autopilot systems. Fortunately, I had been tracking our progress with the boat’s compass and a paper chart, but I had no intention of crossing a shoal with no depth sounder or GPS positioning. As I tried to devise options, Suzy reset the breaker a couple of times, and it finally held. All systems came back online, and performed normally the rest of the day (and since). However, I immediately dug my handheld GPS out of the ditch bag for redundancy. My heart can only take so much.
We pulled into Marco Island by mid afternoon Saturday and decided to take a slip at the Marina at Factory Bay. After the day we’d had, I didn’t want to have to look around for an anchorage. Plus, Suzy wanted to do laundry and I wanted to flush the holding tank, and both were free (well, after we paid for the slip). Sunday was predicted to be a blustery day, so we decided to stay two nights. We played tourist a little on Saturday evening, and satisfied a sudden craving for pizza at a place called Joe’s Hideout, which had great New York style pizza. We did our chores on Sunday and did some shopping (another West Marine, right next to Publix – score!). Marco was an easy place to walk around, and we did our share. The marina had a four-day limit for transients (WTF?), so since moderate winds and seas were predicted for Monday, we kept with our original plan to leave, only we changed our next stop from Ft. Myers Beach to Naples – only seven miles up the coast.
The short trip on Monday was a little rougher than we expected, but not too bad. We still had to be on the alert for crab traps, which was discouraging. Don’t know when we’ll be rid of those. Suzy is so perturbed by them she will no longer eat crab cakes. It was a long, crowded ride from Gordon Pass – the inlet to Naples – to the City marina. Lots of wake from speeding power boats. We took a ball in the City’s mooring field. Boats are required to pump out holding tanks before taking a ball here, and the wind was so stiff pushing Madge into the dock that we almost couldn’t get off. We have a couple more scrapes on our hull to show for it. The Naples mooring field is tiny, basically in the fairway between two sets of docks. The balls are so close together that our dinghy almost touches the ball behind ours, which fortunately is empty. As in Marco Island, we were told we can only stay on the mooring for four days. We could go away for a night and come back for another four days, but I’m not sure where we’d go. I don’t see many possibilities for anchoring near here for a boat with our draft. Or we could take a slip in the marina for a night, then go back on a ball for four more days. You can only do that once. We’re here mainly to wait out some strong winds, which will hopefully subside enough for us to leave on Friday, when our time is up.
Naples is a beautiful town. Very lush. Walkable. We’ve done a lot of walking. Went to Tin City and the old waterfront. Walked the Design District and the high-end shopping district. Visited the Naples pier and looked at the beach, but didn’t get on it. Toured the historic Palm Cottage and heard the history of Naples. Looked at a lot of expensive houses. Most are expensive just because of location, but some are what the locals call “faux chateaus.” Some of these are very big and pretty; some are just very big.
All week, the wind has persisted at 15-20 kts. The weather forecast predicts the wind will drop into the 10-15 kt range on Friday. We’ll head up to Pine Island Sound near Ft. Myers and Sanibel Island, and meet up with our friends from MV Dubhe. Our plans after that are undefined.