The wind diminished over night and by sunrise on April 14th Aqua Vida was riding gently at its mooring in Sarasota Bay. The grey skies quickly brightened as the early morning sun burned through the haze. Danielle checked the latest weather reports and tides as we prepared to drop the mooring and get underway. The plan was to navigate the Sarasota Pass and sail offshore to Boca Grande where we would reenter the Intracoastal Waterway and continue south. If the wind increased, as it had done on the previous two mornings, we could duck into the Venice Pass and complete the trip to Charlotte Harbor on the Intracoastal Waterway. Conditions looked right and we were ready to get the boat under sail after having to motor for most of the passage down from St. Petersburg. We would be riding an outgoing tide through the Pass and Ken remained concern about the lack of definition on the charts and the warnings in the cruising guides about the continuously shifting shoals at the Gulf entrance to the Pass. We had only been underway for a few minutes when we passed the first channel marker and entered the Pass. Almost immediately the keel touched bottom and we bumped over a shallow sandbar in the channel. To port, smaller runabouts were navigating closer to shore and we began to feel our way in that direction, but the water depth remained shallow. So, Ken opted to be cautious and reluctantly aborted our plan to sail offshore. With disappointment and apologies he turned the boat around and headed for the Intracoastal Waterways. Once under the Siesta Key Bridge the commitment had been made and we would continue south for the next 55 miles in the Intracoastal Waterway.
The disappointment of not being able to sail offshore diminished as once again the south wind increased into the high teens and gusted into the 20’s. Danielle confessed that she likes wind in the 15 mph range and no higher. So we settled back and enjoyed the scenery as we motored slowly south along the waterway. here were beautiful and amazing homes and resorts situated on the Waterway on Siesta Key all the Way down to Ft. Myers and we were periodically pointing out architecture or landscaping so that no one would miss the sites. We made the trip on Sunday and there was a kaleidoscope of boats on the Waterway. They were of all sizes, and shapes for a variety of purposes. Some were for fishing, but the majority of boats along the Sarasota County section were for day cruises. I should say luxury cruising, because there were literally billions of dollars of boats at docks and marinas and on the water. Just south of Stump Pass we encountered the states shortest car ferry. A tugboat and barge with a four cars on deck left Gasparilla Island and deposited them on the mainland a few hundred yards away. Alas, the Intracoastal Waterway is far too narrow at this point to allow for the construction of any bridge. So the residents of the Island enjoy their exclusive homes on the island and, I’m sure, suffer through the inconvenience of waiting for the ferry to go buy groceries. Further south as we approached Boca Grande both the land uses on shore and the boats were oriented more towards serious fishing. Tarpon is king at Boca Grande and fishing is big business.
We motored across the mouth of Boca Grande pass in the late afternoon and headed for an anchorage in the sheltered waters west of Useppa Island. We joined six other cruisers at this anchorage and settled down for a rum and coke to reflect on the day’s passage. To the west was Cabbage Key, made famous by Jimmy Buffet’s song, “Cheese Burger in Paradise.” We hoped to partake of this renowned delicacy at lunch the next day. But that was tomorrow. This evening Danielle and Kaylee got into their bathing suits for a late afternoon swim when a small shark (maybe 3 feet long) broke the surface chasing a fish near the stern. It was exciting to see, but needless to say, there was no swimming that afternoon. We did catch a small sand trout, much to Kaylee’s delight, before turning in for the evening. The real hardship of the day was there was only one rum and coke that evening. Cruising can be a bear sometimes.
One crew member, I won’t say who to protect the guilty, was up before sunrise the next morning stomping around on deck and waking everyone up. He also lost two yellow jigs to a fierce school of minnows that were swarming around the boat. To his credit, he later teamed up with Kaylee and caught the largest Lady Fish seem in Charlotte Harbor for the last few decades. Unfortunately, it fell off the hook while attempting to bring it aboard. So, you will just have to take the word of this author about the gargantuan size of the fish or ask Kaylee. She will tell you how big it was. At four years old her arm span is just long enough to show its size. Just ask her about the, “Mommy Fish,” she will know what you mean. (Note to Ken: I owe you two yellow jigs.).
After the excitement of the Lady Fish things slowed down, Ken, Danielle and Kaylee took the dingy and explored a mangrove island, while I finished cleaning the blood off the deck from the fierce battle with the Lady Fish. All morning we had watched for activity at the restaurant on Cabbage key. Surely there would be a boat delivering grocery and another bringing staff to the key. But, there was almost no sign of activity, making us wonder if the restaurant was closed on Mondays. However, we did not want to miss the opportunity, so by 11:30 AM we all piled into the Dingy and headed for Cabbage key for our rendezvous with the legendary cheeseburger. Boats and people appeared magically from a nearly deserted waterway and filled up all of the dock space along the shoreline at the restaurant. Tour boats dropped off hundreds of people who all hurried up the steps and into the restaurant with great anticipation. Inside the restaurant, a staff of dozens also materialized to carry platters of cheeseburgers to the waiting masses. In the background Jimmy Buffet sang a ballet of songs that included “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” every 15 minutes. It was all….just….magical. The cheeseburger was sort of mediocre, but I’m not letting that spoil the magic of the day.
After lunch we weighted anchor and motored south to an anchorage off of Cayo Costa then took the dingy ashore to walk the beach and look for seashells. The island is reported to be one of the best shelling beaches in the world and we were not disappointed. There were large drifts of shells along the shoreline. The only problem was selecting the choice ones without loading the boat down with shells. Kaylee was very selective and only collected a small cup of shells. Danielle took some great pictures of driftwood and shells for the blog.
We took a short swim before returning to Aqua Vida while the boat next to us on the beach was catching small sharks. Why worry about sharks, the water was warm and inviting. Back on the boat we were under sails at last for a leisurely 12 mile passage to our overnight anchorage off of Chino Key. We were able to make 3 to 4 knots with just the genoa set and it was a leisurely trip. We could have sailed faster if we had raised the mainsail, but why bother. Somewhere along this 12 mile passage we experienced the zen of cruising. That coveted frame of mind that cruisers speak of with reverence. It’s difficult to describe, but we were in the moment. There was no schedule, safe the setting sun. No need to rush, we had all the time were needed. We did not care about influences off the boat. They did not matter. More importantly, we did not care that we did not care. Land dwellers, the poor souls, would call it mellow, lazy, zoned out, or out of touch with reality. But we knew the truth, we were cruising.
Chino Key provided deep water sheltered from the forecast northwest winds by the mangrove forest along its banks. It looked ideal and we dropped the hook and settled in for the evening. But later in the evening a serious problem arose. Mosquitoes from the mangrove island managed to cross the 100 yards to the boat and invaded the cabin. We tried to cope with the buzzing and bites, but without success. Kaylee protested the loudest, but we were all annoyed by the invasion. So sometimes around midnight we lifted the anchor and motored further out into Pine Island Sound away from Chino Key. Problem solved, the boat was now out of range and we all slept soundly with dreams of Lady Fish and cheeseburgers on our mind. It was a great cruising day.
We weighted anchor early the next morning to cover the 10 miles to the moorings in Ft. Myers Beach. It was Tuesday morning and Charlotte Harbor was full of fishing boats, lying at anchor with poles in the water, others dashing about towards preferred fishing grounds. Ft. Myers Beach is one of those staging areas were cruisers congregate waiting for the ideal time and weather conditions to head out to points further south. As we neared the entrance to the channel, two cruising boats passed us heading south. They were beautiful with their sails up heading 200 degrees south out of the pass. In a day or two, Ken and Danielle would follow in their wakes with a fresh crew and high anticipation.