Trailering Magazine Archives - Featured Articles
Cayo Costa by Jet Ski
By John Richman
Could it really be true, that there's an
unspoiled, undeveloped island just a
stone's throw off the coast of Florida?
This BoatU.S. Trailering Club member
says it's absolutely true
So you think you know Florida's southwest coast because you had a nice dinner on Sanibel or took a day sail around Marco a few years back? I'll bet you didn't know that while you were stalled in traffic on Periwinkle Way, you were within an arm's reach of one of the last great original treasures of South Florida. Imagine a key, nearly seven miles long and a mile wide, with nearly nine miles of pristine whitesand beaches, no paved roads, no traffic, no high-rise condos, no gas stations or restaurants – and only accessible by boat.
No, I'm not talking about the early 50s, I'm talking about 2010.
Having moved to the Fort Myers area
after retiring three years ago, I was first
struck by the complexity of the coastline.
A myriad of bays, inlets, islands, and rivers occupy the space between hard ground Southwest Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and while the more recognized coastal islands of Sanibel, Captiva, and Boca Grande get all the attention, true mariners know of the "hidden" one in the middle – La Costa Island, or more commonly "Cayo Costa." Costa State Park occupies 2,426 acres of the island and is as undeveloped as a state park can be. Open to the public year round, though accessible only by ferry out of Pineland, Pine Island, or private boat, Cayo Costa remains very much as it was 120 years ago when the young inventor Thomas Edison built his winter home on the Caloosahatchee River and put Fort Myers on the map.
Part Of The Plan
I should have mentioned that while my sports cruiser winters on the south shore of Lake Ontario, I winter in Fort Myers with my Kawasaki jet ski in tow. It can't match the boat for creature comforts, but it's an easy one-man launch and can run over flats that would grind my cruiser prop to dust.
Long considered a possible goal but not acted on, I'd promised myself that the highlight of my 2009-2010 winter would be a jet ski trip to Cayo Costa State Park and a little exploring. What I hadn't planned on was the coolest, rainiest, and windiest winter there in over 20 years! Cold front after cold front lifted and tossed the Gulf around from January through mid-April.
The coldest week in memory dropped Gulf temperatures nearly 10 degrees in January and effectively killed the shore fishing for the season.
For the smart Flathead Lake newcomer with a trailer boat in tow, the spectacular scenery is part of the adventure, but the statistics always get in the way of the view. Cynthia Bras of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes frequently speaks with visitors about their plans for the day. "Montana is known for fastchanging weather," she tells them, "and here on the lake that's very true. There can be several days of beautiful, calm, sunny weather and then a storm may come in from out of nowhere. You need to be observant of clouds and wind. This is a large lake with large areas that have no sheltered spots so small boats can have difficulty getting in when the waves begin getting large, and they can get that way in a hurry. Make sure you have a VHF radio and cell phone, warm clothing, and rain gear on board. Don't take a chance. Go to shore if you get caught in a storm. Check your fuel tank before going out. Fuel stations are scarce out there. If you keep these things in mind, you should have a good trip."
When the question comes up about where your next boat-and-trailer destination should be, vote "Montana." It may take some discussion and planning, but the rewards of making such a trip to big sky country will be huge – an up-close look at some precious Indian territory, vistas that will amaze you, and a connection to one of America's treasures.
Planning The Parts
My optimum launch site for my trip would be from the newly renovated Lee County ramp at Bokeelia, Pine Island, so my trip over to Cayo would include a substantial run across the south end of the giant Charlotte Harbor. Using that route, I'd have five miles of open harbor to my north, pushing waves into Pine Island Sound and right up my starboard wetsuit cuff. Again, not terribly threatening in a boat, but my jet-ski gunnels have a fiveinch freeboard! Wet was going to be part of this trek – a big part.
By March 31, the weather had calmed and I had less than three weeks left before heading back north. I decided to make my run. I'll also tell you that, at 63, I'm not as spry as I used to be and the whole trip took more than the usual planning. That day's wind was to remain northerly but moderate, and the forecasted sun would be out to keep me warm. I have a very good memory and generally get by with one last look at the charts but as I was leaving the house, I had the presence of mind to grab my trusty old Garmin GPSMap 76. It was to come in plenty handy.
Not Part Of The Plan
The 40-minute drive to Bokeelia was uneventful, though I was a little concerned about launching the ski from my rearwheel drive CTS. If the tide was low, that new ramp would be mossy, and nothing looks more amateurish than getting your car stuck on the ramp. I've also been led to understand that Cadillacs don't do well in saltwater. But the tide was high and the ramp was in great shape. The legitimate fishermen had been out for hours and the ramp was empty, thus the launch was equally uneventful.
My first mistake was turning east on exiting the residential canal on which the ramp was located. After idling the old twostroke a hundred yards east, it was clear that direction offered no escaping the mangroves.
As I turned to backtrack, I reached in my dash and grabbed the old Garmin. I held it in my left hand while idling out to the west. As soon as it locked in, it gave me a nice picture of both the mistake I'd made and the correct path out into Charlotte Harbor. On open water, I turned west again and ran around the north end of Pine Island. The "moderate" breeze had kicked up a three-foot chop and, even on plane, I was getting pretty wet.
Riding a jet ski in such a complex environment is an interesting experience. At best, your line of sight is three feet above the waterline, so all land looks the same. You quickly lose any perspective, and small islands meld into large islands and even the shore. I quickly decided to bring the Garmin back out and continue to navigate while holding it in my left hand. Kudos to Garmin for making it "water resistant," too.
Thirty minutes later I'd successfully navigated a number of islands and found the Cayo Costa State Park marina. Aside from the ferry berth, the small marina included a limited number of "first come first served" finger slips suitable for anything up to 30 feet. On arrival, the slips were full, but I observed one family preparing to leave. Now out of the wind, I bobbed around until he backed out and was about to replace him when a small runabout pulled up behind me. The skipper asked if I would let them dock and I could raft to them. The slip looked big enough for both of us and it made sense to me, so I quickly agreed and we completed our joint landing. It really worked out for both of us as his boat was a great place for me to shed the wetsuit and hang it out to dry while I explored the island.
A Step Back
I was greeted at the shore end of the dock by a volunteer who graciously took my $2 entry fee and informed me that I'd just missed the "shuttle" to the Gulf beach.
I decided not to wait and walked the old shell road about a mile west, on foot. Other than a few small structures at the marina, the road to the beach was desolate and, at times, canopied by live oaks and other tropical flora, reminding me of a much more primitive time. At one point, the shuttle that consisted of a small benched trailer pulled by a pickup truck passed me heading east, back to the marina. I promised myself I'd take it back.
At the Gulf end, the road ended on a beautiful white-sand beach. By midday there were a number of visitors already there enjoying the emerald Gulf and, from
my limited conversations with them, most came by their own boats. I should point out that while the marina slips were full, there were a dozen larger boats, both power and sail, moored off the marina. Of course, others had come over on the day's ferry.
After a short walk, enjoying the dolphins and sea birds, I turned back and
caught the shuttle for the return trip to the marina. From the covered waiting area, I could see a small number of cottages behind the beach that are rented to the public for overnight stays. There's also a small tent-camping area. Both are reserved through the Florida State Parks.
My trip back was pretty much the reciprocal of my trip out, except that on arriving at Pine Island, I used my trusty GPS to navigate the only alternate way back to the Bokeelia launch site. This one wound through a series of natural mangrove canals, under the highway and right back into the residential canal network. It was very interesting and a whole lot drier than the earlier route.
Next winter I'll do it again, but this time with my wife onboard and a picnic basket on the swim platform. I must remember to bring the GPS, though. That way I'll give the illusion that I know what I'm doing.
John Richman is the author of adult westerns, including the Montana Adventure Series Trilogy (www.callmemontana.com). When he isn't writing westerns, the former writer of labor contracts for a number of Fortune 500 companies enjoys boating on Lake Ontario and Florida's Gulf Coast.