Changing Your Dreams

By Tom Neale, 2/6/2009


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

mangrove islands in Florida
Mangrove Islands in South-West Florida

I recently talked to a guy who had planned to go cruising for years, bought his boat, made all sorts of preparations, and then found that he had a serious health problem.  “I’m afraid to leave the country,” he said.  “I don’t even think I should go to the Bahamas, and I’ve dreamed of doing that all my life.”  I’ve also talked with couples who’ve planned to cruise and started the process, to find that one of their children had already started the process of beginning a family, with the result that the couple had a brand new grandchild.  “Oh, we can’t leave the country and miss this,” they’ve said.  I’ve known of couples who want to cruise to the islands but had to cancel their plans because of an aging and ill parent. Lately there are a lot of people out and about in boats who had planned on long-term cruising but who, because of the economy, can’t afford to do what they’d planned. It seems cruel that when people work hard all their lives with the dream of cruising to the islands, the dream is dashed at the end.  Well, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Guess what. You don’t have to leave the country to have a wonderful time cruising the islands. For example, you don’t have to go to the Bahamas to feel like you’re cruising in the Bahamas. There are many incredible areas to cruise within our borders, and Southwest Florida is one of them. It could be one of them even if you live on the US west coast.

Southwest Florida is in many ways like the Bahamas.  You can get the pretty clear blue waters, white beaches, tiny islands, beautiful mangrove anchorages, funky bars and restaurants, green flashes and much of the rest of the good stuff of the Bahamas Abaco Islands, but you still have all the great infrastructure of the US. The Bahamas are great, don’t get me wrong, but it can be incredibly difficult there to get really good medical help for serious health issues. It can also be difficult to conveniently fly in and out unless you hang out around one of the more civilized areas—which sort to defeats the purpose of going to the Bahamas.  It can also be very expensive to communicate.  Those long and very special phone calls between parents and their children can be very costly. And even if you have the money to pay for the calls, it’s sort of hard to have a relaxed conversation when you’re realizing that dollars are flying away as you talk.

tom prepares to anchor
Tom Prepares to Anchor

Today a surprising number of marinas in the Bahamas are no longer open. Some of those that are open charge a surprising high price to tie up. Fuel is extra expensive in the Bahamas. Potable (hopefully) fresh water in many marinas costs fifty cents a gallon or more, and comes from sometimes questionable reverse osmosis operations or cisterns. Supplies cost more unless they’re produced in the Bahamas, and not much is produced there. If you have to get a part for your boat, you have to order it, hang out at or near a marina or shipping destination, hope it comes, and pay a lot for the transportation and import duty. Just the fee for getting into the Bahamas is now $300 for boats 35-feet and up.  Am I knocking the Bahamas?  NO WAY. And I’m mentioning the Bahamas because that seems to be an “ultimate” achievable cruising goal for so many people. If it’s practical and safe for you, go there. I think you’ll love it. I’ve loved the Bahamas for years. This island nation is incredibly beautiful. But the point is that you can get a “near Bahamas” experience without the hassles and expenses.

south west florida beach
South-West Florida Beach

For example, we all know about the Florida Keys, memorialized in song, story and cruise books. You can cruise there. But this cruising doesn’t stop at Key West.  You can go from there around to the west coast, in an interesting “ocean type” voyage up the Gulf of Mexico.  If your boat meets the draft height requirements, you can take a short cut part of the way down the keys without going as far as Key West.  Or you can do Key West and take off down to a tropical island experience in the Dry Tortugas (in good weather only).  You can even skip the lower east coast of Florida and the Keys and take a fascinating trip by boat across the state via the Okeechobee Waterway. Sometimes in drought conditions this route may be too shallow for safe passage, but this is something to keep in mind.

If you go south around to the west coast, you can take a diversion and explore up the Shark and Little Shark Rivers. It’s like going into a jungle river in one of those old jungle movies.  In the Ten Thousand Islands area there are thousands of small mangrove islands with mostly shallow but some deeper channels meandering through them.  This is wilderness, pure and simple. You might prefer to pass it by well offshore, but it’s there if you want it.

When you get to the Pine Island Sound area you’ll really appreciate the combination of the conveniences of US infrastructure and the Bahamas-like atmosphere.  Here are small islands, clear waters, large protected areas in which to cruise and sail, quiet serene anchorages, fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, fancy restaurants, island resorts, laid back funky restaurants, deserted beaches, shelling, history, pirate stories and more.  And if you need a city or a fancy marina, it’s all available, even though they don’t interfere with the island nature of the cruising.

Tom’s Tips on Changing your Cruising Dreams

1. Start with guide books. Go to a good marine bookstore or similar source on the www and see what interests you.

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I’ve been writing this from the perspective of coming around from the Florida east coast. I’ve done this because so many do the trip that way and also because I wanted to tell you what’s along that route.  But you can start out on the west coast of Florida, and take your pick of cruising experiences from there.  And here’s a really neat part.

You can cruise much of this area in trailerable boats.  This means you can come from afar and launch and have a unique relatively safe island cruising experience without leaving the country and without buying a large yacht. If your boat is too small to sleep on, you’ll find marinas with hotels nearby and resorts of many types.  You can also charter boats from this area. Just go online and start searching.  Chartering from a company here means you don’t have that expense and hassle of traveling to a foreign country.  So even if you’re from the middle of the US or from the west coast, you can easily cruise this area.

It’s really unfortunate to see people have to pass up on their dreams because things aren’t “right.” But it’s OK to change dreams, especially in this country.  You may find that another area, such as the Southwest Coast of Florida, will give you all that you want and more—at less expense and less risk.  Check it out.


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