By Jim Favors
Florida’s western coast is a wonderful cruising territory, providing abundant anchorage possibilities, sandy beaches, and unique communities, along with a large variety of marina choices. Lisa and I started our journey on the west coast of Florida with a weeks stay at the City Marina in Tarpon Springs, the sponge capital of the World. Tarpon Springs is a Greek community rich in history and alive with culture dating back well over a hundred years.
Counting the seven days in Tarpon Springs, we spent 23 days working our way down Florida’s coast before reaching Key West on New Year’s Eve day, for a month-long stay. The 350-mile trip was enhanced a great deal by the fact that we planned on averaging approximately 15 miles of travel per day, which is less than two hours of daily movement. This type of travel translates into having more time to explore surrounding areas by dinghy, work on the boat, or read and take it easy. Slow motion!
Tarpon Springs has a lot to offer and it’s all within walking distance of the City Marina, making it easy access for productive trips ashore and in turn making our visit even more enjoyable. We went to the Greek markets and bakeries along with enjoying the local cuisine at the many Greek restaurants in our search for the best Greek salad. Hellas won our vote.
While our friends Charlie and Linda from Freedom’s Turn were docked next to us for a couple of days, we took a dinghy excursion to Spring Bayou. The short ride provided an opportunity to get close to the manatee that make this warmer shallow spring-fed bayou their home for the winter. We had fun watching them swim gracefully as they were ever so close to the dinghy but always just out of reach, seemingly playing a game of hide and seek with us.
Tarpon Springs also afforded us our first family visitors since we left home in September. Lisa’s brother, Mart, and his family live close by in Dunedin so we were able to visit with them a few times during our weeks stay. It had been a couple of years since we last saw each other so it was nice to have the shared time to get caught up with everything. The highlight of the visits was getting to meet Christina’s new son Ethan, only five months old. Maybe someday our boys will settle down and have children so we can have our very own grandchildren to spoil.
After leaving the Tarpon Springs/Clearwater area we had six days to enjoy many new anchorages before our son Bart joined us in Sarasota for a week. The last time we came through this stretch of water from Tarpon Springs to Ft Myers we rushed through in only five days. Determined not to repeat this scenario we lingered and relaxed while exploring and becoming accustomed to the surrounding habitats.
Although all the spots we choose were unique in their own way, we enjoyed the DeSoto Point and Long Beach anchorages the best. DeSoto Point is located at the entrance to the Manatee River, which leads to Bradenton, just off Tampa Bay. DeSoto Point is home to the DeSoto National Memorial and is located inside a National Park that includes a museum and walking trails. We dinghied to shore to visit the park, walk the trails, and learn about DeSoto, the sixteenth century Spanish explorer who arrived in Florida in 1539.
Later that same day we dinghied over to Bill and Phyllis Haan’s home, we had originally met them during our first Loop in December of 2005 while anchored in the Bradenton area when Bill came out by boat and introduced himself. Bill, having followed our blog, knew we were coming through Bradenton and invited us to their home for happy hour and to discuss boating and more specifically the ins and outs of preparing for the Loop. We had a good time discussing their future Loop plans and getting to know them better. Helping people overcome any personal reservations by answering their boating questions, and addressing their curiosities about the Great Loop, is a pleasure for Lisa and me, especially if it leads to people realizing their dreams.
Our Longboat Key anchorage was only an hour’s boat ride away from DeSoto Point. After settling in, and making sure the anchor was set, we ventured off to explore the area in our dinghy and take a short walk, which always feels good when you’ve been traveling on a boat. Never knowing what you’ll see or come across we were surprised when we arrived at the opposite side of the New Pass channel and found Peacekeeper, a 44-foot catamaran owned by Frank and Cindy Staffe, anchored there. We’d first met the Staffes at Dowry Creek Marina in Belhaven, North Carolina, in 2006. They’re one of the couples who wrote a chapter in our book, When the Water Calls… We Follow (http://www.boatus.com/cruising/kismet/book.asp). We’ve been fortunate to bump into them a few times during our travels and nicer people you will not find. We’d last seen them a few months ago, in Grand Rivers, Kentucky. It truly is a small world when you’re out on the water traveling. After a short visit we were off to visit Bradenton Beach, a nice community with no buildings over three stories tall. Because of this, the area probably most resembles what is often referred to as “old Florida.”
Upon returning to our boat we noticed a couple of small fishing boats casting nets for mullet. There must have been a very large school of fish as the news traveled fast, and by the time we made it back to our boat there had to be at least 25 boats buzzing around bringing in nets filled with mullet. The fish must’ve decided to seek shelter under our boat as all the fishing activity remained around us for over an hour, providing us with unexpected entertainment for the afternoon. It was so nice at Longboat Key we stayed two days before we made a short 12-mile cruise to another anchorage and eventually Sarasota where our son Bart joined us.
Instead of going home for the holidays Lisa and I decided to spend an unconventional Christmas by having our sons come to us, each spending a week with us, at different times. This way we figured that they got a vacation from the cold northern winters and we were able to have some quality time with each them. Bart joined us first, Skyler the next week, and Ross will visit us in the spring.
Bart joined us in Sarasota, five days before Christmas. For Bart’s benefit we scheduled days at port as well as anchorages as we worked our way down to Naples, Florida, only 122 miles south. Bart had never traveled with us before, so we wanted him to get a taste of what this kind of lifestyle is all about. We cooked on the grille, went out to eat, had happy hours, played games (Lisa always seems to win) watched sunsets…all things we do in any given week. The difference this week, Bart’s week, was that we got to do it all with him, making the time very special, making memories while strengthening family ties and this is what the holidays are all about for us.
Some of the highlights while Bart was with us were the trip to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota (a great miniature circus exhibit), walking the beaches of Venice, Cayo Costa and Ft. Myers Beach, playing horse shoes on Useppa Island, experiencing the dolphin who jumped completely out of the water three feet from Bart while he was driving the boat and most of all just waking up each morning to his smiling face.
With four days remaining, after Bart left us in Naples, to get to Key West in time for Skyler’s arrival we left for the Everglades National Park. We were fortunate that we had calm waters the entire four days. Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to experience it, seeing we were in the neighborhood. Accessible by water from the Gulf of Mexico we headed for Indian Key Pass, the entrance that leads to Everglade City and the western boundaries of the park. We proceeded into Indian Key Pass and up into Russell Pass to find our anchorage for the night.
To visit by boat is special because we got to witness the unspoiled beauty that will never be developed, an area not seen by many people. Although we did see a large number birds, large turtles, and dolphins, we saw no alligators. We were the only boat anchored in our secluded hideaway, absorbing Mother Nature in complete quiet, with only the sound of the animals. From dusk to sunrise we were warned that we’d need to be inside our boat unless we wanted to be victimized by the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. This presents a problem trying to take in the brilliance of the star-lit sky on a clear night, enhanced by the cover of darkness because of no artificial lights.
Little Shark River was similar to our first-night anchorage, however we decided to explore further into the wilds in our dinghy. When you think about this, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of good sense running around in an inflatable boat looking for alligators, but we did. Half way into our exploring I was beginning to wonder if we might be lost, not a good thing with limited daylight left.
When we set out I’d decided to only make turns to the left but we kept going and going with seemingly no end in sight and no alligators either. We eventually did make it back to the boat and all was fine. However I can understand how easy it would be to get turned around and lost within the 10,000 islands that inhabit Everglades National Park.
After two full days and nights exploring the Everglades, which is not nearly enough time, we moved on to our southernmost destination of Key West, Florida, for the entire month of January. A month’s stay in Key West to welcome our son Skyler (more later), absorb the warm sun and cool night breezes, see the sights and find out where and what the locals do. Spending a month in Key West is a luxury for which we’re grateful, a stop we savor on our slow-motion American odyssey.