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Hawk Channel is a mostly natural trench that runs along the ocean side of the Keys, very well protected by the reefs that parallel the shore all the way to Key West. Although its outside perimeter is one long reef — the second longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere — every hazard is well marked and you shouldn’t have any difficulty if you keep your eyes open.

The inside route, down the south bay, is wide open and pretty much of uniform and adequate depth until you get to Featherbed Bank about Mile 1108. The bank, which extends nearly all the way across the bay, will be your initiation to Keys-style skinny-water piloting, your first brush with go/no-go depths and the need to follow the markers closely. Happily, the ICW channels are very well marked, visibility is usually excellent in the clear water, and the prudent pilot who practices good eyeball navigation should have no trouble.

This is true, however, only part of the way down the Keys (to Marathon or Bahia Honda, depending on the size of your boat) because Congress has never seen fit to follow through. Under the Act of 30 August 1935, the project for an Intracoastal Waterway from Miami to a point immediately south at Cross Bank in Florida Bay, provided for a channel 7 feet deep and 75 feet wide. Dredging to provide project dimensions in this section of the waterway was completed way back in 1939.

So far, so good.

The Act of 2 March 1945 modified and extended the previous project to provide a channel 90 feet wide and 7 feet deep from Miami to Key West along a protected inside route. That was the plan. But no funds have ever been appropriated. And as a result, no work has been accomplished. To date, the Federal channel from Florida Bay to Key West has not been constructed.

But don't let that keep you from enjoying the inside route for as far as you can go. The inside route brings you closer to the Keys' many islets and their elements of beauty. It's often twistier than Hawk Channel, but that's because it runs close enough to things of interest that you often have to change course to go around them. Hawk Channel, on the other hand, runs straight and deep with but minor course changes occasionally to account for the Keys' curving chain. But to really see things close up, let's stay inside. At least for the remainder of Biscayne Bay.

South Miami-Dade has good public facilities spaced along the mainland shore including Matheson Hammock Marina, Black Point Marina & Loggerhead Marina- Miami. Homestead Bayfront Marina is next to Biscayne National Park headquarters in Homestead. They're all there if you need them, and pleasant stops in any event.

For anglers, there are the fabled flats which are home to some of the biggest (and some say best-educated) bonefish on this side of the Gulf Stream as well as permit, tarpon, seatrout, snapper and other shallow-water gamefish. Fishermen, especially fly fishermen, come from all over the country to try for the elusive flats feeders, and support an active tackle, outfitting and guiding industry in the process.

Biscayne National Park (HQ phone: 305-230-7275) occupies both sides of the lower half of the south bay. The keys that line the eastern side are all part of the park, beginning with the Ragged Keys (which could also be called the northernmost Keys) on the north and continuing southward to Boca Chita, Sands Key and the park's main island, Elliott Key. All are accessible only by boat, and while the Park Service maintains docks on other islands, the bulk of the park facilities are on Elliott Key. Sands and Elliott Keys also offer good anchorage, and protection from the elements is fine as long as the prevailing easterlies blow. Note that “Slow Speed - Minimum Wake” zones have been established in these waters for both environmental and traffic-control purposes. The zones are marked by small white buoys which may be relocated from time to time as park management evaluates the effectiveness of the project.

Note also: Since April of 2000, the Park Service has banned ALL use of personal watercraft within the park boundaries. This rule is still strictly enforced — but, of course, there are still some who'd like to see the rule eliminated. (Continue...)

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