Site  Updated:
June 13, 2013

Cruising the Florida Keys

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Cruising southward under the Rickenbacker Causeway, you find yourself out in the open waters of  south Biscayne Bay and at the gateway to the Florida Keys, North America’s most accessible — yet in many ways most unspoiled — cruising grounds. This directory’s founder, Pete Smyth, described them accurately as “America’s Out Islands, the Bahamas with channel markers and working telephones.” This description is still quite true. Indeed, a visit to the Florida Keys is probably the most exotic and “foreign” trip you can take without having to clear Customs.

Key Notes
Some general knowledge and info you'll find helpful throughout the Keys ...
Direction and distance: While everyone speaks of the Keys as a chain, it is a curving one. Starting down the chain from Key Largo, your course will be almost due south, but by the time you reach Marathon it will be almost due west. Most cruising boatpeople simplify directions and use the terms “up” and “down,” and “ocean side” and “bay side” rather than compass points, as we will do on these pages. The addresses of shoreside businesses often include the term “Milemarker” (abbreviated “MM”) which is simply their distance, in statute miles to the nearest tenth, from the start of the Overseas Highway (US 1) at MM 0 in Key West. For rough approximation, note that MM 100 is on Key Largo, MM 50 is in Marathon. As far as the waterway is concerned, we'll use the standard mileage references along the ICW, which begins with Mile Zero in Norfolk, Virginia.

We will also divide the Keys into three subregions: The Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and Lower Keys.

Depth and tides: One of the joys of Keys cruising is that the water is generally shallow enough to allow easy observation of the varied aquatic life beneath the surface. Snorkeling and SCUBA trips will be rewarded with some spectacular sights. The other side of this coin, of course, is that you have to navigate carefully.

But most navigable channels are deep enough (most of the time), and marked well enough that this simply means you have to pay attention. Be extra cautious at beginnings and ends of channels as there may be more of a tendency for shoaling there than in the bulk of the channel. But again, you can often see so clearly through the transparent water that avoiding the thin spots is not much of a chore. Then, too, you can always wait for high tide if you need a margin of safety.

On average, high tide in the Keys will give you about two feet greater depth. But here's the rub: tidal predictions in the Keys are not always as straightforward as in other locales, especially on the bay side where the tidal influences are so varied. Consequently, it isn't always easy to know exactly when high water will arrive at a specific location. However, unless your draft is very close to the depths you expect to encounter, a close approximation will probably do. Just proceed with care and have a “Plan B” ready if you can't go on.

Here's a tip: if you spend any time at a specific location, say, in one particular marina, record the depth at regular intervals and compare the times to the predictions at Key West or Miami, whichever is closer. Developing your own private Table of Tidal Differences can be a big help in the future. Our editors are pretty much in agreement that  four and a half feet is pretty much all you should take on the inside if you plan to go beyond Card Sound, unless you really watch the tides.

NO DISCHARGE ZONE in the FLORIDA KEYS

In 2002, all state waters in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary became a No Discharge Zone. The state waters extend out from the land 3 miles on the Atlantic side and 9 miles on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Keys. Discharge of sewage is not allowed and boaters are required to find one of the Pumpout Stations (which are listed herein). If you need to know more, try Rich Jones at Monroe County Marine Resources, 305-289-2805 or visit their Web site

Now, let's get on with our cruise. At the Rickenbacker Causeway, southbound boats have two choices: to stay inside the barrier islands on the ICW or to go outside.

If you opt for the outside route, you have two more choices: 1) Follow the mostly unmarked channel along the southern shore of Key Biscayne (be sure to keep Markers #4 & #2 to port) and past Cape Florida until you join the outer reaches of Biscayne Channel; or 2) Take the well-marked Biscayne Channel all the way, going right through the middle of Stiltsville. (Continue...)

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