By Jim Favors
Lisa and I desperately strive to get as much as possible out of our current trips and therefore try not to concentrate too much on future cruise planning while in the middle of a trip. As boaters we know there’s a fine line that, if crossed, can often blur the utter enjoyment of “being in the moment.” However, as self-proclaimed adventure nuts, we sometimes have to mentally move ahead while in the middle of a trip to plan a future cruise. With that said, we knew we were stepping out of our MO as we became intrigued by a suggestion made by a friend this winter, shortly after we arrived in Key West. We were asked if we’d heard anything about the Marquesas Keys or the Florida flats – both reside in the waters to the west of the southernmost point in the United States, Key West. The adventure seeker inside of us was telling us to… “Go west” and in preparation, we were about to learn what this unique cruising ground is all about.
Here we’re leaving Key West to our starboard side as we work our way west into new cruising ground.
Our depth shows 0.5 feet below our keel as we pass by Mule Key.
Shortly after we arrived at Key West Harbour Marina, we invited our friend Rick Garton, on Wishing Star, to our boat for a little soiree. Rick happened to be staying on his boat at A&B Marina, in Key West Bight for the winter. We met Rick years ago in Charlevoix, Michigan, and because we all possess a love of boating, we’ve become good friends. Rick arrived at our marina a few days later, we toured the facilities, had a glass of wine and a nice dinner at the marina restaurant which overlooks the harbor and the emerald blue waters of Hawk Channel and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean. We quickly caught up on what we'd all been doing since our last visit, both on and off of the water, but Rick really wanted a tour of our recently purchased Ranger Tug. He also wanted to share with us a cruising idea he recently learned about, he told us that since our new boat had such a shallow draft we might have a better chance of making the trip than he had in his bigger boat.
Marker 7 at high tide and calm water and 3.5 feet depth, nice and easy does it!
Rick asked if we'd ever been out to the flats or to Marquesas Keys, located just west of Key West. We said we hadn’t but we were hopeful to explore new areas around Key West during our stay. Being the "boater’s boater," Rick was at the ready and quick to pull out a chart book from his bag and we commenced to studying the shallow waters of the flats, starting just a few miles west of Key West. "What's your draft?" Rick asked us. After explaining that we draw two and a half feet but usually figure three feet just to be safe Rick stated, "It's pretty skinny in a few places but because of your shallow draft, I think you should be just fine - just go on a rising tide," was his advice. Always up for an adventure and knowing the flats had a nice soft sandy seabed we continued our discussion with growing anticipation while learning details of a new cruising opportunity.
After Rick left, I turned our GPS chart plotter on, zoomed into the flats area, also known as Lakes Passage, and found out this area is a Key West National Wildlife Refuge and a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. My goal in firing up the GPS was to make waypoints and create a route including special notes of critical shallow points Rick pointed out to us, by Mule, Archer and Boca Grande Keys – all the while keeping in mind his tutorial. I wanted to do this while the conversation was still fresh in my mind.
A picture perfect day crossing the flats.
As it turned out it was a good thing I had made the special notations, in light of the weather conditions in the ensuing weeks; although perfect weather for sailing, going to the beach and sight seeing, winds persisted that were too strong to make things pleasant for cruising. One week led into another and yet the wind would not let up and we so desperately wanted to cut the lines that kept us captive at the dock in the marina. Mind you, we’re not suffering in any way it's just that after a week or so, of not being out on the water moving, I began to feel like I might forget how to operate the boat. Will I be able to remember how to negotiate the current and tide while docking, set the anchor properly and all the other tasks and skills that go along with boating? My anxiety level started to build, much like a balloon being filled with helium, until the time came that we were finally able to get back out on open water. So, we continued to enjoy our time on Stock Island and downtown Key West until a good wind weather window arrived and we could comfortably set out to explore the flats and Marquesas Keys.
Towards the end of our third week in Key West a light to variable wind forecast started to emerge, making our excursion to the flats and Marquesas for a couple day cruise imminent. My excitement built as the day approached to leave the marina. As we often do, we departed for our exploration cruise early in the morning in order to maximize our cruising day. Leaving early provides us with the opportunity to take our time at a leisurely pace, throw out the hook to have lunch if we choose, observe the aquatic life around us or stop early enough in the day to settle in and relax.
There are plenty of scars left in the seabed sand by boats with too deep of a draft.
A shallow sand bottom gives the flats plenty of visual delights that alone make this trip a worthwhile cruise.
As we rounded Fort Taylor, the southwest corner of Key West, we headed into the Northwest Channel, which separates Key West from the flats. I was looking for my first waypoint; at 24˚ 33.815 N 81˚ 50.165 W, there is a narrow spit of an entrance to the flats that we headed towards. The flats are a large area of clear, shallow water favored by fisherman, snorkelers, and cruisers who have one thing in common, a very shallow draft boat. The water depth at the entrance to the flats is relatively deep at eight to ten feet. That all changed when we passed between markers 6 and 7, just to the south of Mule Key and only a mile into the flats. I had echoes in my mind of Rick's statement, "I think you should be just fine," as the depth sounder went from five feet down to four feet and kept slowly creeping down until we were at roughly three feet and the sand bottom was being stirred into a cloudy haze by our prop and keel. We took it very slow and made it through the Lakes Passage part of the flats in good shape with comfortable depths of four to six feet of water. I thought to myself how it was a good thing we’d gone on a rising tide as Rick suggested!
Our eastern approach to Boca Grande Key, at the western most part of the Lakes Passage flats area, was a distance of 10 nautical miles. We leisurely cruised along, stopping from time to time to observe a stingray, turtle, or a school of fish in the unclouded water below us. The water is so crystal clear, as close to the turquoise waters of the Bahamas as you can get – it also portrays an optical illusion in that the depth appears only inches deep when you're actually in four feet of water. Basking in the sunny day, under clear blue skies, we had ideal conditions for scouting the water for marine life during our cruise.
This photo shows the stunning sandbar beaches by Boca Grande Key.
Our approach to Boca Grande Key reminded us of our first approach to the West End of the Abaco Islands, in the Bahamas, in 2006. As we negotiated the natural serpentine channel created by the current we were greeted by beautiful white sand beaches. It was this area, more than any other, as we were departing the flats for the Marquesas Keys, which made us feel like we were in the Bahamas. If someone blindfolded you, flew you around in a plane, and dropped you on this island, you'd swear you’d been drop-lifted to the Abacos. On that day the beach was home to a fair number of day boaters enjoying the warm water, walking the beach and fishing.
Here we are legging it back to the flats, you can see the Marquesas in the background.
Earlier I mentioned that we like to leave early in the day because it gives us flexibility in our travel plans; as it turned out we needed the flexibility for more than leisure this trip out. As we exited the flats mid-day, everything was still wonderful, we had another nine miles of open water to travel before we reached the Marquesas Keys, just barely visible off to the west of the flats. The Marquesas are a ring of mangrove-covered islands, shaped in a large circle, and surrounded by lots of very shallow water on all fronts. The beauty of the Marquesas is the tranquilly that can wrap around you on a star studded night resting at anchor, as these islands are uninhabited and generate no artificial light. The only other land separating us from Mexico was the Dry Tortugas, only 32 miles west of the Marquesas Keys.
We made way for the western side of the keys where we soon set anchor in eight feet of fairly calm water. This is where the flexibility part comes in because no sooner had we dropped anchor the wind picked up and changed directions, tossing us up, down and around. It was coming directly out of the west and things were getting lumpy fast and it didn’t appear that it would let up any time soon. With plenty of daylight left and nowhere to tuck into around the island, we had to abandon our plan to anchor and proceeded to pull the gear up. With shallow waters all around the island, and far out from shore to boot, this made it impossible to get anywhere close to land to anchor. Even on the leeward side, the strong wind would still have had plenty of access to us because we would have been too far from shore and the protection of the island. We decided we’d better head back to Boca Grande Pass and into the flats to find shelter for the night.
A sunset like this, at our anchorage in Barracouta Keys, is what makes the adventure of boating so rewarding.
Back in the flats we finally found relief from the high winds on the leeward side of Barracouta Keys, where we anchored and spent the remainder of the day being serenaded by the rookery of birds living in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Although the day did not end the way we had hoped and planned, we did experience a beautiful sunset unencumbered by city lights and the noisy crowds of Key West. Going west of the Florida Keys was different than any of our cruises to date. The shallow waters were enchanting and we could see why people love to get away from the more traveled keys to this beautiful treasure sitting just west of the more popular, easier to get to, keys.