More Exploration Of The Middle Keys

After a couple of fun days anchored at Little Crawl Key, it was time to return to Boot Key Harbor. We had made a commitment to give a presentation to cruisers at the Tiki Hut located at the City Marina so we pulled up the anchor and headed back early on Tuesday morning. We really like the opportunity to share our experiences with other boaters and they always go away satisfied that they had just a little more knowledge than they came with. What a difference from our trip east to Little Crawl Key. Hawks Channel was flat calm and we had a pleasant motor back to the Harbor. It was one of those warm sunny days that remind us why we are here this time of year. In about an hour and a half, we were back at a friend's dock and tied up. So far we had tied to our friend's dock, anchored in the harbor and sat on a mooring for a few days. It's nice to try and experience it all. You can view our vessel tracklines for our last 2 cruises at, http://argus.survice.com/vessel_tracking/images/trackline-MarinaLife.html


The presentation went well and we met some new friends. That's really the good part. But after about a week, we were getting the itch to get out and explore more. That was a promise we made to ourselves before we even left Goodland. We would not let Boot Key Harbor latch on to the bottom of the boat and hold us there as it seems to do to every other boat that enters the harbor. It usually does it to us every time as well. The weather forecast was a bit squirrely and the winds were predicted to come from every direction over a 3 day period. Two more fronts were due over the next several days, a weak one on Wednesday and a strong front near the weekend. If the winds are consistent, you can plan to cruise Florida Bay in south winds and Hawks Channel in north winds, keeping in mind that the Middle Keys the islands run east and west. But when there are a couple of days of brisk northerlies and a couple of days of southerlies then a couple of days of northerlies and a couple of days of southerlies, it makes planning tricky. That was the forecast and we have to keep in mind the the weather service is often not accurate and they can change the forecast, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. 


So with reported southeasterly winds, we left the harbor, headed west to Moser Channel and crossed under the 7 Mile Bridge to the Florida Bay side, um, right into northeasterly winds. Fortunately they were light and the swell that is constant in Hawks Channel is absent on the Florida Bay side. There are quite a few shallow banks and narrow passes between coral patches to negotiate, and the ever present and ever abundant trap floats make navigation fun around the Keys this time of year. They completely blanket the water for as far as the eye can see and are deposited in all matter of patterns. There is no exception made for channels; the floats criss-cross everywhere that our boat can possibly navigate. A sharp lookout at all times is required because fouling one on our prop would mean a dive over the side to cut it loose. Not something to look forward to as the water temps are pretty cool this time of year.


Fortunately we were able to negotiate them without incident and arrived at our planned anchorage for the night. We had considered a few different places but finally explored a deeper channel along the northern side of Long Key and dropped the hook in 6 feet of water just off Fiesta Key (lat 24.50.400 N long 080.47.915 W), page 103 of The Great Book Of Anchorages. There is a small boat marina and a campground located ashore but we didn't launch the dinghy to investigate. We did have to find a hole big enough in the trap floats to be able to anchor and swing with the wind shifts. A couple of sailboats came in later and anchored about a 1/4 mile east of us. We guessed they didn't want to get into the floats as we had. The night was uneventful and the winds subsided to just a gentle breeze. The next morning we slept in a bit and after breakfast pulled the anchor for some more exploration.


Our plans were kind of up in the air because the weather forecast kept changing. We needed to find an anchorage that would give us protection from the predicted north winds once the front came through. Our "southeast winds" were coming out of the northeast so it made sense to find an anchorage with protection from both directions since we couldn't get a consistent forecast. We crossed under the Channel Five Bridge and did some reconnaissance in Long Key Bight. The chart showed many 5- and 6-foot spots deep in the bight, but also some 4-foot areas. We found the depths to be in the 5- to 6-foot range in most of the bight, but there was another problem. The bottom was very thick grass throughout and thick grass does not provide good holding, especially in brisk to high winds. And seagrass is protected in the Florida Keys so we certainly didn't want to do damage to the grass beds. There are a few sandy patches but none we were comfortable with in the existing and potential wind directions and conditions. Anchoring in the more sandy areas (page 89 of The Great Book Of Anchorages) would leave us exposed to even the present winds which by then were building.


After doing a brief survey of depths in the bight, we opted to move west to the anchorage at Little Crawl Key that we had visited a little over a week ago. This anchorage affords protection from all wind directions and offers great holding. We could also get off the boat and go ashore at the Park even if the front brought strong conditions. The winds were now east to southeast and 10 to 15 and, as usual, the seas in Hawks Channel were getting pretty uncomfortable. Fortunately they were off our stern quarter once we made the turn toward the Little Crawl Key entrance. The new Garmin autopilot handled the surfing conditions quite well, but we still had to do a lot of hand steering because of the thousands of trap floats everywhere on this side of the Keys, too. In these conditions, you have to be especially watchful since the floats can disappear in the swells and waves. It took about an hour and a half to reach the entrance channel and once we made the turn between the channel markers, the seas flattened out. Not exactly how we had planned our Christmas day, but all in all, not too bad. After all, we could be dealing with the severe weather and snow our family in the north was dealing with.


The rest of the day went as planned. We just relaxed on the boat, read, caught up on email, took a nap and in the early evening, had a great Christmas dinner surrounded by warm breezes, palm trees, mangroves and happy people ashore. The east to southeast winds switched to the south and increased considerably over night. By morning, they had dropped to less than 5 knots and began shifting to the southwest, then west. This pattern is normal just prior to a frontal passage. The next day we checked in at the Park entrance, paid our fee and walked the beach while watching the kite boarders fly over the water in the building breeze. It is exciting to watch them virtually fly in the air at times as the large "kites" pull them across and out of the water at breakneck speed. We took the dinghy out the channel and checked depths outside of the marked channel with our portable depth sounder. As we ran out the channel, the kite borders zipped passed and would even jump the wake from the dinghy. It was obvious from the hoots and hollers that they were having a great time.


By early evening the front was approaching us. We watched it on the radar, both online and on the local TV news over our satellite system. We could see a lightning display out in the Straits of Florida. A couple of large storm cells were moving northeast off the coast of Cuba towards the Bahamas. In the meantime, the tail  end of the front was moving just north and east of us so we would probably be in the clear of any rain storms. At around 9 PM, the winds abruptly switched to the north and increased, but only slightly. Nowhere near the strength forecast by the NWS. Our secure anchorage also helped. It was a bit breezy overnight, but the occasional eyeball check showed us sitting right where we should be. The clouds from the front had passed and the skies cleared. The full moon lit up the night sky so brightly that we could have read a book outside. The next morning was sunny but noticeably cooler after the frontal passage. We made a couple of quick trips ashore and took a walk on the beach before lunch. When we returned to the boat to grab a bite, we also checked the weather, and of course, it had changed. We had planned on staying put until Friday morning based on the predicted winds in Hawks Channel, but now the forecast had changed...surprise, surprise. It would be an uncomfortable ride back to Boot Key Harbor on Friday, but if we left right away, the seas would flat, the breeze light and it would be a beautiful trip back to the harbor. So up came the anchor and off we went, a day sooner than we would have liked.


In just a short time, we were back and tied to our friend's dock. We plan to meet some old friends that we haven't seen for a while this week, so being at a dock will make this a lot easier. They will be here for about a week and after they leave, we plan to head north to Key Biscayne and cross over to the Bahamas on the first good weather window. In the meantime, we'll enjoy the company, finish a few small projects and prepare ourselves for winter in the Bahamas. This will not be all play since while we are there, we will be researching the Bahamas edition of our Great Book Of Anchorages series, which we plan to have ready for sale some time in the summer of next year. A tough job, but somebody has to do it. Stay tuned.

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