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Short cuts are attractive but they are rarely romantic. That was never more true than for boatmen cruising the Big Bend coast of Florida — an area unique for undeveloped shorelines, beautiful rivers and estuaries, fine cruising and fishing, charming ports nicely spaced, and unmatched southern-style hospitality for those who take the time to explore and enjoy it.
The name “Big Bend” is geographically accurate, describing as it does the Gulf Coast as it curves up the peninsula from Tarpon Springs to St. Marks and the Panhandle, but it hardly describes the area’s wild charm. The newer name of “Nature Coast” does a better job, but “Big Bend” still works, too.
We might use the name “Big Test” to describe the area, since the Gulf ICWaterway ends at Tarpon Springs and doesn't pick up again until Carrabelle, 140-odd miles northwest. On the charts it looks like a daunting gap, but in fact it is more of an invitation to a new experience in cruising. The Big Bend Coast is unique, not just to Florida, but to the entire Intracoastal Waterway, and it offers a quality of experience not available anywhere else.
You can, of course, just make the Rhumb Line passage from Anclote to Carrabelle, on St. George Sound in the Panhandle, where the Gulf ICW starts again. You'll save miles (at least ten) and hours (how many depends on your cruising speed), but it’s an offshore run that demands a seaworthy boat, good weather, good navigation, good visibility and constant vigilance, especially of the weather, which can change in the blink of an eye and often does.
For skippers less pressed for time, less confident and/or less well-equipped, yet still trying to make miles toward the Panhandle, the Big Bend buoyage system is a good compromise. The buoyage system route, curving to follow the shoreline, is longer than the direct route, but makes the trip much easier on both navigating skills and peace of mind by breaking the total mileage into manageable legs with visible confirmation of position at every marker. Whether you have GPS or not, it's reassuring to seeexactly where you are (at regular intervals) because a confirming marker is there also. Of course, you still need good weather, good navigation and a seaworthy vessel — even a ten-mile offshore run is an offshore run. But it's certainly easier and less intimidating than a 130-mile run!
The route starts at flashing red #10 north of Anclote Key and proceeds by even-numbered flashing red markers to #26, in Apalachee Bay off St. Marks, buoy-hopping offshore. There are only ten to 15 miles to cover on each hop but the first, and you'll be in comfortable, eight-foot or greater depths all the way. Yet you'll also be within easy reach of safe harbor (or at least shelter) if the weather goes bad. And the whole route only takes nine markers. See, the passage looks easier already!
The main drawback to both of those routes is that they only get you across the void. In doing so they bypass the series of rivers and bays and villages and towns that are the main attraction of Big Bend cruising. All of them deserve attention, particularly by those who love nature and wildlife. Much of the area is rural, having been set aside as national, state, or county parks and preserves. Yet it is not altogether wilderness. As our chart shows, there are plenty of places for fuel, dockage, food and supplies, more or less evenly spaced so that cruising from one to the next requires only a short hop. Here is an opportunity to truly get away from it all without making the total commitment to wilderness cruising required in the Ten Thousand Islands. And for anglers, the fishing, especially around the river mouths and particularly the tarpon fishing at Homosassa, is legendary.
The trouble with the inshore waters is that they’re shallow. Sometimes really shallow! Boats comfortable in four feet of water at low tide can cruise inshore with little care for tides and charts; boats needing more than that are generally restricted to narrow and often twisting channels. Careful use of tide tables helps take advantage of the average two and a half-foot tidal range. With any vessel, it's best to run with a close eye on soundings, keeping careful track of your position. But the less draft you carry, the easier you'll have it in these (often very) thin waters. (Continue...)
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