Gulf Side Of The Florida Keys

Marathon, Florida was our home base for 10 years. We have sailed between Marathon and Miami many times. But we always traveled along Hawks Channel because of our 6-foot draft and the reports of how shallow the waters on the Gulf side of the Keys are. Our experience on the Gulf side has been limited to the Middle and Lower Keys and day trips on small outboards. Finally being able to free ourselves from Boot Key Harbor, we vowed that we would explore more of the Gulf side this time since Beach House's 4-foot draft is ideal for exploring areas we could never consider on Sea Trek in the past. And oh man, were we impressed. I can't believe that in all of those years we missed the best part of cruising in the Keys. And a bigger surprise was the fact that with only a couple of exceptions, the ICW route is not all that shallow.


The winds were forecast to be out of the east and then northeast and light, so we opted to travel Hawks Channel to the Channel Five Bridge and then cross over to the Gulf side. Of course, this was a forecast from the National Weather Service so it was no surprise that the winds were more southerly and the Hawks Channel route still presented some rolly conditions for us. Fortunately, they were still light so it was tolerable and by the time we reached Long Key, things had settled down nicely. What we found traveling the rest of the way to Biscayne Bay left us in awe - the clearest emerald green and turquoise waters we have seen anywhere else in the Keys. Susan remarked how reminiscent this was of cruising the waters of the Bahamas and it was further enticement for us to get north and make our crossing over to Bimini. 

Our first of the reported shallow cuts on the Gulf side was Bowlegg's Cut which we reached about 45 minutes after crossing over to the Gulf side. The cut is a straight run and we transited pretty close to low tide. The shallowest depth we saw was 6 1/2 feet and with a 1 1/2- to 2-foot tidal range, most boats could easily have passed through. Forty minutes later, we transited Steamboat Channel and again, never saw any depths below 6 1/2 feet. By 2 PM, we were at Cowpens Cut and the water depths through the cut were never less than 8 feet. There was a long stretch of water just past Cowpens that was 5.9 feet at low tide for quite some distance. By now we were at about mid-high tide. Bakers Cut leading into Tarpon Basin was also fairly deep. Astronomical tides and wind driven events can and do lower the depths of the water more than normal.

Even traveling in 8 to 10 feet of water, the bottom was clear and visible as if it were only a couple of feet deep. There are long stretches of sandy bottom that seems to go on for miles. These were the areas that especially reminded us of the Bahamas. Even though it appeared shallow enough to get off the boat and walk, our depth sounder constantly read 8 to 10 feet. Once we reached the grass covered areas, the water colors quickly changed to a dark emerald green, but were still crystal clear.

Between the main Keys and the Gulf, there are many, many smaller Keys that would make for some great overnight anchorages or just interesting places to explore while daysailing. These small Keys and shallow banks keep the seas down on anything but strong northers and make this side of the Keys a pleasure to sail or just slowly cruise along in your trawler. We enjoyed the trip so much that we puttered along at a much slower pace than we normally travel just to be able to take it all in. The weather could  not have been more perfect and after sitting in Marathon for weeks while the winds howled, this was almost heaven.

There are dozens and dozens of tranquil anchorages along this side of the Keys, many we detail in our book, The Great Book Of Anchorages. Places with names like Long Arsenicker (page 94), Pumpkin Key (page 94), Jew Point (page 95), Steamboat Creek (page 96) and Sexton Cove (page 97). We would have loved to spend a night in each, but then it would have taken us weeks to make the short trip to Key Biscayne. We did do some rechecking along the way. At times it just meant cruising through the anchorage to be sure depths had not changed. The great thing about most anchorages is that unless there is some major weather event, they won't change for many, many years, if at all. We have been using many of our favorite anchorages for over 20 years. They have become like old friends. But of course it's always nice to experience something new just for a change.

We saw an interesting hang glider operation going on as we passed by. A small powerboat with a hang glider on the back speeds along the water, allows the hang glider to be reeled off the stern until it's airborne and then released. The hang glider stays airborne for a short period of time and then lands back in the water. The boat then retrieves it, hauls it back on the stern and starts the process all over again. A quick stop in Tarpon Basin (page 98) for some reconnaissance detailed the heavy grass bottom on the north side of the channel. Anchoring here requires finding a sandy spot in the bottom to be sure you get a good hold. The bottom on the south side is a combination mud, grass and coral. There are several shallow areas to avoid but they are obvious and locals have marked them. There are also several local boats that seem to be permanently moored there.

Our destination for the evening was Stellrecht Point (page 97, Lat 25.09.200N and Long 080.23.815W) off Blackwater Sound. The winds at this point had almost completely diminished and the anchorage was flat calm. There were a few local boats at anchor and a couple of cruising boats, both power and sail. The holding was excellent, and at 4:50 PM, the anchor grabbed as soon as it hit the bottom. This is a commercial area and there is a dive operation and a couple of resorts ashore. One of the resorts had an outside Tiki Bar and entertainment that went on for quite a while. It was a single guitar player singing Jimmy Buffet songs and we were far enough away that it was not annoying. The feeling of being back on the water and underway at last is beyond words. Tomorrow will be another glorious day.

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