Florida’s Wide Open West Coast
By Jim Favors
Florida’s Gulf Intracoastal Water Way (GIWW) offers 150 miles of gorgeous cruising ground. Having plied these waters many times in the last six years, our feelings are that we’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to explore. That’s why we keep coming back to Florida’s "Wide Open West Coast."
Another picture perfect anchorage, this time at Redington Shores, anchoring is not always this tranquil.
Leaving Tarpon Springs, with no hard agenda formulated, we felt good that we had 12 whole days to explore these coastal waters and communities, return to some favorites and build on our Florida cruising experiences, before attending a Ranger Tug Rendezvous in Ft Myers Beach. With an empty holding tank, a full tank of fuel, a well-stocked pantry, and our tummies satisfied with delicious Greek cuisine, we departed Tarpon Springs with Wedgewood blue skies and calm waters. It felt good to be on the move, heading south, ultimately to Key West.
The GIWW provides a wide swath for cruising with easy access to the Gulf, large waterfront towns, small villages, state and national parks, sweeping white sandy beaches, easy and well protected anchorages, spectacular island views, and stunning sunsets. So many possibilities, on this side of the state, for exploration and chances to commune with nature, whether you’re following the Great Loop or are a migrating cruiser. Within the first 15 miles of our departure from Tarpon Springs, we had left Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin, Clearwater, and Clearwater Beach, all places we’ve visited before, in our wake. We passed them by because we were on a mission to stumble upon a few new spots, as yet unknown to us.
Just beyond these Redington condo’s lays the Gulf of Mexico.
In the next 10 miles we had navigated through The Narrows and entered Boca Ciega Bay where our research found a well-protected anchorage, this side of MM 125, in Redington Shores, off of Sand Key. Sand Key is a 15-mile long spit of land that runs from Clearwater Pass down to Johns Pass. Although built up with a mixture of residential housing, condos and hotels of various sizes, it doesn’t have the feeling of populated congestion, but more of an inviting, relaxed and open feel. The Sand Key State Park Beach, at the northern tip of Sand Key, is a 95-acre waterfront park that has consistently rated as one of the top beaches in the United States.
Our anchorage, in the horseshoe shaped cove, was surrounded by modest homes on the GIWW side and low-rise condos on the Gulf side. With barely enough real estate to house the condos and the main road that runs the length of the island, our anchorage was close enough to see the Gulf and to hear the sounds of gently lapping waves, creating the perfect spot for our first night at anchor in Florida this year.
Shortly after we dropped and set the hook, we were greeted by a couple of dolphins, creating gentle undulating waves, as they made their way around the calm, glassy cove. We would have liked to think they were there for our entertainment but we feel they were on a mission of their own. Like us, they were getting ready for dinner, ours was soon to be on the grill, theirs were the small fish they were corralling a short distance from Kismet. Lisa had heard that dolphins like music, especially female voices singing, so she played some Ingrid Michelson tunes over the outdoor speakers in the hopes of luring them closer to the boat. They remained on task while we had a glass of wine and watched the early sunset through the slivered opening between the low-rise beach condos.
Gulfport Marina’s harbor house, sits next to a nice boat ramp with ample parking for the trailering crowd.
Even though we’d only been out for one day, Lisa and I decided we’d like to stop at the town of Gulfport the next day, a small town we’d heard positive things about over the last couple of years but have never been to ourselves. Gulfport is still in Boca Ciega Bay, only 10 miles from our first anchorage, we only had a little over an hour’s run before we’d arrive there, so after a leisurely breakfast we pulled up the anchor and headed out. To maximize our transient marina experience and our dollars, we try to arrive at a marina as early in the day as possible. When leaving, we exit as late in the day as possible if our schedule and marina rules allows. It just doesn’t make good economic sense to show up at a marina late in the day and leave early the next morning.
Our early arrival gave us time to get settled and walk the short distance into Gulfport’s waterfront district. We’d heard Gulfport was transforming itself into an art and restaurant area. We strolled into gift stores and art galleries; saw quaint restaurants and the typical waterfront pubs across from the beach. We arrived the day of Gulfport’s weekly farmer’s market, having left Tarpon Springs fully stocked, we had to resist the urge to shop for more produce.
True to form we lingered in Gulfport until early afternoon the next day. Knowing we’d be anchoring out for a couple of days and not getting much exercise, we decided to take another late morning walk, through the residential area this time. We also took time to map out our next few days’ route, all this was accomplished before our departure for an anchorage, 15 miles south of Gulfport.
When we left Boca Ciega Bay, heading south, we entered the massive Tampa Bay. We straddled the Sunshine Bridge as we worked our way out, into, and across the bay, heading 10 miles to Manatee River. If one goes east/northeast under the Sunshine Bridge you would be heading to the port towns of St Petersburg and Tampa, but it was a peaceful night at anchor we were looking for, and found, on the south side of the bay.
A boater’s dream anchorage materialized for us tonight, while at DeSoto Point, with no wind and calm waters.
Just beyond the mouth of the Manatee River and to the south is Desoto Point. This is one of our favorite anchorages because of its close proximity off of the GIWW and relative remoteness to civilization. It’s true that the City of Bradenton is merely four miles from the anchorage and houses are within eyesight, however with the 27-acre Desoto National Memorial Park as a backdrop it has the feel of what I imagine old Florida must have looked like.
The park derives its name from the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. DeSoto was licensed by the King of Spain to explore and colonize the area known as Florida today. DeSoto’s 1539 exploration is considered the first extensive European exploration of southern United States, including Florida. As I write this, I couldn’t help but think of what it must have been like for DeSoto and his crew to be anchored out in these same waters. To think they came all that distance with no GPS, chart plotter, cell phone or Internet (boy, are we spoiled) but it must have been quite an adventure. To learn more about DeSoto and his place in southern Florida history, you can visit: www.nps.gov/deso/index.htm
Anchored out at Longbeach and getting ready to explore the area by dinghy.
The next morning, we pulled anchor to head back out into Tampa Bay, for the short, three-mile, cruise to the mouth of Anna Marie Sound. Once here you would have access to Bradenton Beach, Longbeach, Longboat Key, Sarasota, and the Sarasota Bay. We ended up spending three days/nights in this area, two on the hook and one at Marina Jack’s in Sarasota. As we dropped anchor off of Longboat Key, at MM85 of the GIWW, I could not help but think of how important our ground tackle was to our successful anchoring.
At 27’ we were the smallest boat in the marina at Sarasota’s Marina Jack’s.
It’s always a nice surprise when we run into fresh produce, like at this farmers market in Sarasota.
If you have ever experienced waking up, in the middle of the night, while at anchor with the feeling your boat’s anchor had lost its grip on the seabed below, putting you and your boat in harms way, then you know how important good ground tackle is in preventing this from happening. Our philosophy is to have the necessary equipment to be prepared for the worst with the hope that it never is a problem.
Longbeach sits at the mouth of Longboat Pass, a narrow inlet with a great deal of current when the tide is running. Having the proper equipment is important in this type of setting, not only for current and tide changes that can put a corresponding pull on the boats rode, but also strong wind, boat wakes and the various seabed bottoms one encounters when anchoring. Our Longbeach anchorage presented us with a sandy bottom and everything else mentioned above, so it was our first serious test for our ground tackle and, I’m glad to report, it was a positive experience.
Our ultimate goal is to sleep soundly while at anchor, regardless of the situation, and we feel our equipment will provide us with that feeling of safety. Our ground tackle consists of 200 feet of .75 nylon line attached to 50 feet of chain that is attached to a shackle and a 22lb Rochna anchor.
Anchors are like opinions but after four years experience (on a Fathom and our new Ranger Tug) we are Rochna/Buegle style anchor converts.
After picking a spot to stay for the night, we lowered the anchor and enough rode into the water so it rested on the bottom and then we let the boat drift back a bit. We then let out more rode, moved the boat back to set the anchor soundly and once set let out more rode until we were approximately seven feet of rode to every one-foot of water depth. Our first attempt to anchor at Longbeach had to be aborted because we didn’t feel we’d accomplished a good anchor set. Our rule is that if either Lisa or I are uncomfortable with our deployment and set, we bring everything back in and attempt a reset. Our feeling is that it’s better doing it right during the initial anchoring than in the middle of the night when conditions could be questionable or challenging. We had a very peaceful, uninterrupted, night’s sleep on Kismet – our goal every night while on the hook, whether in Florida’s west coast or anywhere we cruise.
For more information on different styles of anchors, their best uses and terminology you can visit: http://www.christinedemerchant.com/anchor_styles.html
We are now almost half way to our southern end goal of Key West to spend the month of March. We’ve enjoyed our anchoring opportunities in the natural coastal waters of western Florida. We get a lot of pleasure spotting interesting wildlife and tropical flora and fauna, which exist in great contrast to our hometown in Michigan. The west coast of Florida continually surprises us by providing us with opportunities, as boaters, to enjoy and learn more about this southern jewel, from the water.