By Bob Slimak - Minnesota - USA

Part 1 - Part 2

Not liking the severe cold of Northern Minnesota winters any more I decided to spend the winter in Florida on my Bolger Bantam, Drifter. No particular plans on where to cruise except for wanting to cruise Pine Island Sound and the Ten Thousand Islands. Seventeen years ago I took midlife break, quit my job, and went cruising, taking my Bruce Roberts Spray, Crystal Dawn, down the rivers from Minnesota to the Gulf, around the GICW and across to the Bahamas. That’s a story from a different time, however. The point is that I missed cruising those areas then as I had to go right on through and up the Caloosahatchee River to escape a late season Hurricane. Went on East instead of going back. Now I wanted to see what I had missed.

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The Free dock at LaBelle.

Arriving in Florida the second week of January I took my time deciding where to launch first by checking out the rivers and coastal areas of the Panhandle. Wanted Ideas for cruising in March when it warms up in northern Florida. After a week, a Norther came in prompting me to get my rear south , so headed for Ft Myers.

I launched in a backwater of the Caloosahatchee River near Chester Young’s house. Chester was kind enough to allow me to park my van and boat trailer in his side yard while I went off cruising this area of Florida. Thanks Chester! He owns the Bolger Tennessee Esther Mae, which was written up in MAIB.

I had planned on heading down river to Pine Island Sound right off, but the cold front was kicking things up out there, so went up river instead. The nice thing about Drifter is that I only need 12 inches to float, so can get in to some really nice protected places to anchor. Not being one to think I have to move every day, I laid around for a couple of days, taking care of some projects around the boat that I didn’t have time to do before winter had set in up north, reading, and just enjoying being back living aboard in Florida again.

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Dock at Hontoon Island S.P.

When that cold front ended and was followed by another one I decided to head on up to LaBelle. Arrived just as two trawlers cleared the bridge from up stream and started docking procedures. Anchored across the way as this could take a bit as you have to dock Med style here. After they had docked I saw there was one place left on the dock proper, but thought that since it was this crowded I would leave it for someone who needed deep water and tied up on the end where it was only about 18 inches deep. I would have just stayed at anchor, except that I needed to get food, ice and use the computer in the Library.

LaBelle is still a great, boater friendly place. You can stay at the dock for three days and they even provide water and electricity! Everything you need to provision is within easy walking distance. Had to go get a piece of pie from Flora & Ella’s of course. Found out they had moved from the original place a couple of blocks away and were now a pretty good walk away. The pies are still great, but I liked the atmosphere of the old place better.

Being at the dock also gave me a chance to talk to other boaters, something you miss if you are always anchored in out of the way places in shallow water. This gave me insight into the boating problems in Florida. I’m sure you have all read some of the stories about how Marinas are being replaced by Condos because of high property taxes. The only way for the marinas to survive is by charging really high prices. Talked to Jack, who told me that after living aboard for 13 years at a marina at Anna Maria Island ( barrier island off the south end of Tampa Bay) that he couldn’t afford it and had to go back to living on the hook. According to Jack, they were charging $600.00 a month for dock space. Forcing Marinas out of business seems short sighted since Florida gets $18.4 billion dollars a year from boating. Not to mention more and more of those ugly 50 story condos. To me, condos are human sized bee hives and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in one, or anywhere near one, for that matter! We also discussed the recent law passed in Florida regarding anchoring, and how many places were ignoring it and still telling anchored boat to leave after 24 to 72 hours, depending on where you were.

Obviously used to people!

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Well, with seemingly one cold front after another giving Florida an unusually cold winter I was considering heading East to the Atlantic, then South through the Keys. Determined to see Pine Island Sound and the Ten Thousand Islands, however, I started to slowly head back down river towards the Gulf. Seventeen years ago, most of the loops left from straightening the channel for barge traffic were all wilderness and made great gunk holes for anchoring. Now most of them were filled up with houses. You can still anchor of course, but it’s not as nice as before. Fortunately you can still find places if you search them out. At least you can if you don’t have a deep draft boat.

After waiting out a two day blow anchored back in the Power Plant Slough north of Ft Myers, the forecast was finally promising to get the weather more normal for this time of year. I headed down river again and stopped in at Bimini Basin in Cape Coral, another of the few remaining boater friendly places. Well protected, with a city park on which to pull up your dingy (in my case a solo canoe), everything you need to provision is within easy walking distance, including a West Marine, Ace Hardware, Publix, and many restaurants. A great place to stop for supplies, but no wilderness., Just expensive houses on a maze of canals. When the weather finally broke off I went for Pine Island Sound.

Since it was a glorious day, I just kept going all the way up to Cayo Costa Island and the State Park, which comprises 90% of the island. A beautiful place, with beautiful beaches. Well, mostly beautiful anyway. Here I came upon another new Florida problem, although I wouldn’t read about this until later on down on Sanibel Island. While the beaches were great, if you wanted to actually go swimming you had to walk through deep piles of red algae or seaweed to get to the water. I later read that this is caused by too much fertilizer runoff from agriculture and is a big problem for the tourist resorts whose clients expect pristine beaches.

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The beach at Cayo Costa

There were 27 boats at anchor in the Cayo Costa anchorage one day, and I observed some interesting human behavior. While most of the big sailboats had fast outboard powered dinghies, three of the biggest power boats had sailing dinghies. They apparently could not be satisfied in just sailing for the fun of it, but set out fenders as markers and proceeded to have a race, complete with air horn signals, thereby ruining the pristine silence of the anchorage. I’ve never understood why so many people can’t seem to find enjoyment in something unless they can beat someone else, thereby proclaiming themselves superior, at least for that day. Ah - the human super ego, the root of most human problems. Anyway, after determining that I would not be allowed to shoot the damned horn out of his hand I instead paddled to shore and walked to the other side of the island for the rest of the afternoon.

Having satisfied my curiosity on Cayo Costa, and realizing I was not going to find any Angel Wing shells there, I upped anchor and headed across the bay to the anchorage on the SE side of Punta Blanca island. This was the more typical anchorage as I was to find out, meaning there was no place to go ashore, being nothing but Mangroves. Since there is a nice beach around the corner however, I decided to go around and beach to talk a walk and do some shelling. Came around the corner and found a rather large, long legged Feral Hog had already staked out the beach. Not being one to argue with something that has bigger teeth then me, I left him his beach and went on down to North Captiva and Foster‘s Bay. Having read in a previous article in MAIB that it is tricky getting in without local knowledge I went in slowly. I finally realized that some fisherperson had set all his/her traps on both sides of the channel and just followed them across the flats and into the anchorage areas. I could see that the hurricane, Charley, I think, had done much damage to the mangroves and had, in fact cut a new channel through the island. So, are charts in the future going to show a South North Captiva, and a North Captiva? Will they give it a different name? Hmmm.

Birds at morning feeding. Five differant large wading birds in one shot!

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After too many boats came into the small anchorage areas, it being a Friday, I left for places with more room to be away from others. Finally found myself down in the bight between Buck Key and Captiva as far away as I could get from the other boats. The next day I went paddling around and found that Captiva is not a boater friendly place. Not to boaters who anchor anyway. It seems that unless you take a marina slip or go eat at one of the expensive shore side restaurants, you are not welcome here. I digress again. I have noticed in my travels, that people who travel to find out what life is like and how people live in other countries are not really welcome either. On one of my trips to Mexico I was wandering around it the local market seeing how vastly different it is from shopping in the US and kept repeating “solo Miranda” to all the shopkeepers trying to sell me everything, none of which I have any need. As I came up to a woman who spoke English, she said “if you are only looking, what good are you?”

Apparently you are expected to buy things you don’t need, just to help the economy. But what do you then do with all those “things” you don’t need? Hmmm, actually, buying things not needed seems to be the American way to keep the economy going also. Oh well, having too much “stuff” already, I stopped buying anything on my travels 30 years ago. Lodging, food and transportation is it. Be that as it may, I found it kind of irksome to find that same attitude is here. Seventeen years ago is was easy to find places to go ashore, in fact the guidebooks I had then not only told you where to anchor, but where on shore to go tie up your dingy. I had three Florida cruising guides with me this time, and none of them gave any hint of where you could tie up. So, I tied my canoe in an out of the way place by the parking lot of the Green Flash Restaurant, and having paid my dues to the tune of $25.00 for a fish sandwich and a beer, plus tip, spent the afternoon wandering around Captiva. While it is definitely touristy , and expensive, it is still a pleasant place in that the stores, shops, etc. are small and feel like they belong to an older Florida than all the newer 50 story condo places.

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Nice spot at N.E. end of Blue Island.

Moving on down the chain to Sanibel I anchored in Tarpon Bay, finding way more water than shown on my chart. Took my canoe and set off to explore. After going through six different bays back into the mangroves, most of them having more than one cut through them I decided this was not such a good thing to do without either a handheld GPS, or a lot of red ribbon to tie onto the mangroves to mark your way back. Since mangroves pretty much look all the same, it is hard to get your bearings without any real landmark. I figured six small bays back was about the limit to my aging memory and paddled back before it got dark.

The next day was rainy and windy, so I just stayed put and read. The day after that arose clear and sunny, so upped anchor and followed the channel markers to the other end of the bay and anchored off the Park Concession place where they rent boats, canoes, kayaks and bikes, and have excursion boats to take people out on tours of Tarpon Bay. Paddled ashore and walked into town, looked around, bought supplies and went back to the boat for the night. Next day I paddled ashore and rented a bike to explore the “Ding” Darling Wildlife area. From there to the start of the Wildlife Drive is two miles, then 8 miles around the outer loop, than another 4 around the inner loop, then to the beach, back into town to the Bailey Tract, then around town, bought more supplies and back to the boat. Peddled about 20 miles, which was easy by bike, but not possible by walking. Although I could rent a bike here, it was at this point that I regretted not bringing along my folding bike. Next year! It was a very nice day, seeing many kinds of birds and a few gators, although no really big ones.

Dock at Murphy Island Conservation Area.

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When I got back home I happened to see a special on TV about how Sanibel had decided to get inline with the rest of Florida’s populated areas regarding gators and hired hunters to get rid of any over 8 feet. This was after two people were killed by gators, the last straw being a well know woman landscaper who was taken 15 feet from shore in 2004. If I had seen the film showing just how fast a big gator can be out of the water with its jaws clamped on your leg, I would have been much more careful than I was, to say the least. It seems a gator can propel itself onshore the length of itself in the blink of an eye. Thus, a 15 foot gator can be out 15 feet before you can react. Later, on the St. Johns River, I saw for myself just how fast these ancient creatures can move.

Leaving Sanibel I drifted on down to Estero Island (Ft Myers Beach) and anchored past the mooring fields, behind the little island. While passing the mooring fields I saw the Mark V, Heart of Gold, circled around, but no one aboard. Then, in the anchorage, was a Bolger sailboat that looked like an AS 29. The owner was not onboard, but a friend of his on board said that is was a Bolger, but 39 feet, and that was all he knew. There was no name on the boat and he didn’t know that either. Oh well. In my quest to stay away from other boats I anchored way over by the shoals. Late in the afternoon, a guy swung by in his dingy and told me I would be grounded at low tide. I decided to stay put as it was all sand and see how it takes the ground.

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Back in Cross Creek.

I had been having problems with my new Fortress anchor setting. Once set, it holds great, but it is so light for the size of it’s flukes that it “sails” to the bottom and has trouble setting. In a crowded anchorage I thought grounding during the highest tidal current might not be a bad thing. I did ground, and everything was OK.

The next day I had to go ashore to do laundry and shop for food and beer. Instead of taking the long paddle across the busy channel to the dinghy area (I had asked a local live aboard) I went over to another shoal spot right next to the channel to the dinghy area, made sure I had a nice flat sandy area and did the same. I figured the Brits do this all the time, so why not? Note - never do your laundry in a bar, unless you are a smoker. My clothes came out smelling like cigarette smoke!

Having taken care of shore needs I headed down island to the S end of Estera and anchored off Coon Key within site of the bridge over Big Carlos Pass. This was a very nice anchorage , no one there but me, good holding, and close to Lovers key State Park with its nice beaches. I explored the Estero Sound area while waiting for a cold front to pass before heading out on the open Gulf. The boat having been designed for protected waters, I am not one to push things too much.

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This gator was 14 to 15 feet! Glad I'm in a big enough boat!

After seeing all I cared to in that area NOAA said I would have half day of 2 to 4 feet before another cold front pushed the surf up again for 2 more days. Not wanted to spend another 3 days here, I left immediately and headed for Delnor-Wiggens Pass, about 9.5 miles south. The nice thing about this part of the Gulf is you are never more than 6 miles from an inlet in case things get rough.

The swells were on my starboard quarter and Drifter handled them very well. Entered Wiggins pass and thought to explore up river first, but past the marina area it went right to 2 feet. I probably could have gone further by using the bow mounted trolling motor, but decided to look for the State Park instead. Went back and turned off onto the channel heading south to Water Turkey Bay and found the ramp for the park. Since there was a good size dock I tied up and went ashore to explore.

The main park road was only about a quarter mile away with the beaches right beyond. Spigots in the rest rooms were handy to refill my water jugs towing them from the dock in my handy folding cart. Got back and found a guy fishing off the end of the dock by my boat, and not wanting to disturb his fishing I decided to stay there until he left, state parks closing at sunset. I was only going 200 feet to anchor anyway.

Beached at Blue Springs S.P.

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Settled down to read and watched the fishing with interest as I wasn’t having much luck. Everything down here in saltwater is different from my northern freshwater fishing. Well, maybe not so different after all. I watched him lose about two dozen shrimp to Clown Fish during the course of 3 hours. I know they were Clown Fish because two of them surfaced before tangling themselves in the mangroves. Having noticed a few days before that bait shrimp were selling for $4.50 a dozen, I decided that you would be better off just eating the shrimp rather than feeding the fish!

After he left I went and anchored. This was right on the edge of the park, so half the anchorage was natural, and the other half was all condos. It was very protected however, and the next few days were small craft warnings on the gulf. That, plus a paddle of only 200 feet to shore to walk in the Park made it a great place.

I spent the next few days lazing around, reading, and walking the beaches, which were very windy and chilly with the cold front. I also explored the canals on south into North Naples Park. Many obscenely huge homes, but no stores. Some of these homes were so big that a whole third word village could have lived in them. I never will understand why some people need so much space, either in a house or on a boat. On what I figured would be my last day here before I headed further south I took my grocery pack and started off walking to find a store. I ended up with a 6 mile roundtrip to get to a Publix, the first grocery store I found. Good exercise, but hardly a good provisioning area!

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My "Creature of the Black Lagoon" site on Cross Creek off the St. Johns in the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.

The cold front over, and the Gulf having calmed down, I headed out and south for Naples. It was a beautiful day on the Gulf, then I arrived in Naples and found boat after boat after boat. I headed back north from the pass to explore, but after a mile or so decided this is just too crowded for me and turned back south into the inland waterway to Goodland. This turned out to be the busiest place on my whole trip, with boat after boat passing me. My guidebook mentioned the many inviting beaches along this route, but must not have been updated. I did see many nice looking beaches, but almost all of them had docks, cabins or houses, and no trespassing signs. With all the wakes from all the boats passing within 50 to 80 feet from shore I would not have wanted to be there anyway.

When I got to Marco Island, where the ICW goes almost out to the Gulf before heading back in, I got another good example of one of the big problems facing the boating industry. As I was slowly (no wake zone) headed towards the pass before the turn there was a boat coming across the channel off my port side. I was in his right of way zone, so I had the right of way. Of course, I know better than to believe people know the rules of the road, or even that there are rules of the road. I kept on just to see if he would give way, there being no danger since he was going slow also. When we got to, maybe, 50 feet, he kept coming, but turned his body sideways in the boat and put his hand down, backside towards me, and pushed them out a couple of times in the classic, shoo, shoo, go away signal. I immediately changed course to go behind him, as it was now clear the man was an idiot. Then, after I had turned back inland, I found seven boats coming towards me taking up the whole channel from one side to another. Apparently they thought the channel was one way, in their direction. After this, I gave up all thoughts of stopping in Marco, left it to the crowds of idiots, and headed on to Goodland.

I digress, again. What I have noticed in recent years is that the average cruising boat is now about 10 to 12 feet longer than 17 hears ago, and almost all the boats, large or small, want to go fast. It seems the current thought is that simply buying a boat makes one a boater. I know it is not popular to think of government licensing. I don’t want that either. But something has to be done to teach these idiots that there ARE rules, just as in driving a car; and they MUST be obeyed for boating to be safe. As it stands now, If I won the lottery and could afford a 150 foot boat, I can legally operate it unless using it commercially. How idiotic. I may have been boating all my life, but I know I am not, at present, capable of safely handling a vessel that large. Maybe part of the solution is that no one be allowed to buy a boat without showing proof of completing either a Coast Guard Auxiliary or Power Squadron course. At least, then, they would know the rules, whys and hows of safe handing. Whether they would follow them is another matter. This, at least, would not be a government license.

on to Part 2 ...

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