Note that the fixed bridges at Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Navarre are all listed at 50-foot clearance, but people tell us that all three are closer to 48 feet at high tide with the Highway 98 Bridge at Destin the worst offender. So, if you need more than 48 feet, approach all three bridges with care — and use your tide tables.
The main dockage area in Destin lies just south and east of the fixed bridge over East Pass. After passing through the bridge, turn sharply east to enter Destin Harbor between the mainland and the protective sandbar to the south. The entrance channel is very narrow, subject to constant shoaling from the south, and deep, but once inside, the harbor is open and protected. It has been suggested that we describe this as "potentially hazardous," however, due to the almost-contstant, crowded conditions entering and exiting. When the charter boats train-steam in or out to get to or from the Destin Pass channel, disregard of wake considerations for smaller vessels often prevails. In addition, boats transiting the bridge, north- and south-bound may crowd the harbor approach. This may be further compounded by fleets of jet ski traffic and dolphin watchers blocking the pass side of the bridge entrance, making this area seem like another "Times Square of Boating."
Several facilities still line the northern shore and some major restaurant properties (closed or newly re-opened) have their slip areas open to boaters on a permanent, fee, basis. Most of these are just west of Harbor Docks.
Opposite Destin Harbor and across East Pass lie the famous sugar white beaches and dunes of Santa Rosa Island. Five miles west, at the western end of Choctawhatchee Bay, lies Fort Walton Beach with marinas and motels, restaurants and shops.
Fort Walton Beach has served marine interests of all sorts for a long time. Pirates were among the first — including the notorious Billy Bowlegs, whose legend is celebrated annually with the Billy Bowlegs Festival in June. Later, lumber and supply schooners plied the waters of Santa Rosa Sound in large numbers. The city's first mercantile building was built on pilings to accommodate water trade. For many years, mail, supplies and visitors all arrived by boat.
On the Choctawhatchee Bay side, Shalimar Yacht Basin & Marina is at the entrance to Garnier Bayou, about three miles north of the waterway at Mile 225 and well worth a visit — both for the facilities and the scenery. Garnier Bayou itself, and Cinco Bayou to the southwest, offer some very pleasant protected anchorages.
At the east end of Santa Rosa/Okaloosa Island back on the waterway, passing under the Fort Walton Beach bridges, you leave the open waters of Choctawhatchee Bay and enter narrow Santa Rosa Sound. Its eastern stretch, called "The Narrows," is a continuation of Fort Walton Beach. The Narrows is well named and particularly constricted, and local boatmen recommend listening to Channel 16 for barge traffic when transiting the area. The eastern end of that stretch is lined with marine and shore attractions. One is The Boat Marina, a full service yard and marina that's also home to the concrete hull of what was once a 150-foot troop carrier. The Fort Walton Marina has the Original Crab Shack Restaurant on site. Transients are welcome and fuel is available.
Santa Rosa Sound leads westward from Fort Walton Beach almost as narrow as The Narrows, and offers a number of nice coves and good anchorages along the way with the welcome opportunity to pick your shore according to wind direction. The anchorages, however, tend to be shallow until you get south of Hurlburt Field.
At the southwest end of the Navarre Causeway (Mile 207 EHL), on the north (sound) side of Santa Rosa Island you'll see a set of thatched roof buildings known as Juana's Sailors Grill. (The buildings were constructed by Seminole craftsmen who claim the rounded native American design is more wind resistant than square-cornered European-style buildings — and they do seem to weather storms quite well!) Of perhaps greater interest to cruising boatmen, this spot has become a favorite watering hole and anchorage for rendezvous, raft-ups and such for clubs and individuals from Perdido Bay to Choctawhatchee Bay — a good recommendation for visitors! The State of Florida has buoyed and dredged the channel to the State Park and the boat ramp immediately adjacent and they still have limited dock space in front. The anchorage is the same. There are boat rentals at the small dock so it can be quite busy in season. We hear the food and refreshments are “great,” and the ambience is “Beach Bum-Boater Friendly.” Piloting note: the anchorage is open to the east, west and north so it's strictly for fair to moderate weather — certainly not the place to be in one of the typically severe summer squall lines common to these waters. (Continue...)