Nice to Have Options


By Jim Favors

Even though it seemed like it was only yesterday, it had been almost three months since we’d launched our Ranger Tug, Kismet, in Tarpon Springs, Florida, to begin our winter cruising season. The time sure flew by, almost as fast as a bright shooting star speeding through a starlit night sky. Our time in Key West, and our winter sojourn’s end, had crept up on us; where did the time go? As we sat in the cockpit of our boat, at our first anchorage in Jewfish Basin, located on the Florida Bay side in the Lower Harbor Keys, ripples were gently lapping against our hull, made a few minutes prior by a fishing boat way off in the distance. We were slowly absorbing the new vista surrounding us during our first night on the hook before we continued on our way first east, then north, to Marathon where we had moved our truck and trailer a week earlier. As we relaxed on the back deck of the boat at anchor, I couldn’t help but marvel at our continuing success at finding new and exciting cruising options to complement our relatively new trailerable boating lifestyle.

This is an example of the mangrove islands and sandy seabed surrounding Jewfish Basin.

Lisa and I had three route options available to us when we departed Key West. Our first option was Hawk Channel, which runs inside the shoals of the Straits of Florida on the ocean side; we had cruised this before. The second option would have been to trailer the boat all the way up to the mainland; this would have been a speedy way to cover ground fast but since we were dragging our feet at having to depart the Keys, we decided on the last option available to us. We chose to take the path less traveled, the Florida Bay ICW, as it offered us more time on the water.

It’s always a good feeling when we come back from a long dinghy trip to find our boat right where we left her.

We left our slip on Stock Island early Sunday morning heading west towards Key West. We soon rounded Fort Taylor and proceeded into Key West Harbor’s Northwest Channel. We were heading towards the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico's Intracoastal Waterway (ICW - I call it the inside ICW route) the lesser travelled route for boaters heading to Marathon or beyond from the southern most point in the United States.

The reason it is less traveled is because, for one, a boat has to cruise an additional seven miles to get to the same point in Marathon from Key West than the more popular route, Hawk Channel. In addition, and more importantly, the water depths in this route get a little skinny in a couple places, most notably in the narrow channel off of Big Spanish Key, just to the south of Turtle Crawl Bank. Although we never saw much less than five feet of water off Big Spanish Key, boats with a draft much deeper than our 2.5 feet might prefer Hawk Channel for this reason. Because of our Ranger Tug’s shallow draft and our quest to explore new cruising grounds, it was a no-brainer for us to venture off into Florida Bay en route to Marathon.

Sunset at Jewfish Basin, it doesn’t get much better than this!

Forty-seven miles of cruising, at a typical trawler speed of 9 MPH, is a five-hour cruising day and very doable for a one-day cruise. With time on our side, Lisa and I decided to take advantage of the current good cruising weather and stretch our trip from Key West to Marathon into a three-day/two-night, scouting adventure. Earlier, I had mapped out viable anchorage locations using Active Captain ( prior to leaving Key West, so we would have more than one option to choose from while on our trip. I'm of the opinion it's better to have a few anchoring options noted and researched ahead of time, in case one place is already taken or you need to make adjustments to get into the lee side of the wind. I'll alternate between Active Captain, Salty Southeast Cruisers and Skipper Bob publications depending where we're cruising, in order to maximize our available options. Our first night at anchor we rested in five feet of sandbox-like white sand bottom, we soon hopped into our dinghy and set off to explore the serpentine like channels surrounding the dozen or so mangrove islands near us. It didn’t take long before we were rewarded with the sight of several great white herons, nestled on gnarly mangrove branches close to shore. As we slowly moved from the shallow waters to deeper parts of the channels we were able to sneak up and surprise a few stingrays. Just the opportunity to encounter and revel in nature’s wild habitat reinforced our logic for taking the route less traveled.

Crab claws are small so you don’t need a large boat when harvesting them, as shown here.

For us, being at anchor is like staying at a really nice resort, except the price is a lot more reasonable, in fact – FREE, and the views are typically more rewarding. We left Jewfish Basin late morning, there really wasn’t a hurry, as we had two more days and only 20 miles to go. While working our way back into the ICW channel, we passed a busy stone crab claw fisherman, maybe the same one who sent ripples across the basin the night before. He was working diligently pulling his traps up so he could quickly harvest the crab claws. Stone crab claws have a large amount of meat to them however we recently learned that only one claw is harvested per crab not only to make sure the crab population remains stable, but they’ll be able to defend themselves while a new claw grows back.

No sooner had we passed the fisherman and were heading northeast in the ICW, we were greeted by a school of playful dolphins, just off of Mud Key Channel. I don’t know what it is about cavorting dolphins, but I never get tried of being escorted by them and find their antics very entertaining. They stayed with us, darting in and out of the water around our bow and stern for a few minutes, probably until their attention was diverted by a school of fish and an opportunity for an early morning snack.

If you look real hard you’ll see four dolphins swimming underneath the water by the bow of our Kismet.

Many boaters find it unsatisfactory to cruise in water less than 20 feet, one doesn’t have much choice on the Florida Bay ICW side, especially in the area we were cruising. The white sand bottom, coupled with the clear turquoise water beneath us, made the eight feet of water appear less than it really was. This illusion of depth, in crystal clear tropical bodies of water, begs one to rely on and trust one’s depth sounder readings because with the bottom appearing closer than it actually is anxiety can rule as you feel you might hit bottom at any moment.

As we made our turn at Turtle Crawl Bank we made our way through the narrowest and shallowest part of our trip. Maybe that’s why this area is named Turtle Crawl. We navigated our way through the red and green buoyed channel, much the same as a skier negotiates a giant slalom run, with laser like focus, we also idled down to a cautious “crawl.” It was a good thing, too, because as we left Big Spanish Key to our port, the water depths were from one to six feet all around us, so it was vital to remain in the channel. It was there we recorded our shallowest depth reading of 3.5 feet a few times. No time for cell phone calls or texting, laser-like focus was imperative!

This photo illustrates the clear shallow water near our anchorage at Porpoise Key.

Successfully past Big Spanish Key and only 10 miles outside of our Marathon destination, we tucked in between Big Pine Key and Porpoise Key to anchor for the evening. As careful as we had been cruising these sometimes shallower waters, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how fast the locals zipped by us, returning from a day of recreational fishing or leisure out on the water. As it turned out, we didn’t need to be as overly cautious as we were when planning our trip and the good news is, we now have a bit more local cruising knowledge under our belts and we’ll be able to skirt these waters more freely next time ourselves.

Lisa and I are always in search of new cruising options and are glad we had a properly drafted vessel this time out to be able to take advantage of the Florida Bay ICW route from Key West to Marathon; it’s a route that seems more utilized by the locals than migrating cruisers like ourselves.

Back in Marathon we’re graced with one final sunset over Boot Key Harbor before we haul our boat out and leave the Keys and start to wind down our winter cruising season.

The third morning, and last leg of our cruise, we headed to Marathon, located only six miles from our Porpoise Key anchorage. We left Florida Bay by traveling under the Seven Mile Bridge so we could enter Boot Key Harbor. We planned to pick up a mooring ball, from the City of Marathon Marina, for a couple days’ stay. There are about 20 marinas to choose from in the Marathon area, including the mooring ball option from the city marina we choose this time. Isn’t it nice to have options?