Thursday, April 28, 2016

Cruising the west coast

We are anchored in a quiet bay off Manasota Key, in the community of Englewood, Florida (map). This is a new anchorage for us, on an otherwise familiar route. We passed by here a year ago in the other direction.

Sunset over Cabbage Key.

Monday afternoon we steamed into San Carlos Bay, leaving the Sanibel Lighthouse to port, and arrived off the landward side of Sanibel Island. We dropped a "dinner hook" just east of the Sanibel Island Causeway's "C-Span" (map). Not to be confused with the TV channel of that name.

The Sanibel Island Causeway connects the island to the mainland, at Fort Meyers, by means of three separate bridge spans and two man-made islands. Together they span the entire mouth of San Carlos Bay, some three miles. The A-Span, closest to Fort Myers, crosses the main navigation channel and has a vertical clearance of 70'. We can easily pass under this, of course, but the main navigation channel leads to Cape Coral, Fort Meyers, and the Okeechobee Waterway, whereas we wanted to continue north along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

We could have simply continued up the main navigation channel to the Caloosahatchee River entrance and then turned left into a dredged channel that carries the ICW across San Carlos Bay. That route was four miles out of our way, most of it against the current. Moreover, it would take us across one of the most unnerving stretches of waterway we've ever traversed, a narrow, shallow channel with so much recreational boat traffic it is known locally and throughout the boating community as "The Miserable Mile" -- even guidebooks call it that. We traversed that stretch last year on our way up the Caloosahatchee and found it lived up to it's name; we were not eager to repeat it.

Instead we opted for the shorter route, which crosses the causeway at the C-Span (the B-span, between the man-made islands, has a ten foot air clearance across shoal-draft water, and is only navigable by very small boats). The C-Span has a full-draft navigation channel under a hump in the bridge with an air clearance of 26'.

The C-Span, from the west, with the tip of Sanibel seen through the navigation channel.

Vector's "air draft" is 27' with the antennas down, which means we can not pass under this bridge at high tide or any time within a foot of it, and it was high tide when we arrived. Consulting the tide tables we learned the low tide in the morning would not be low enough, either (the tide is bi-modal here) and we'd need to pass through at the evening low or close to it, hence the dinner hook.

Another issue with this bridge is that the tide board, which informs mariners of the actual clearance of the bridge accounting for tide, is missing on the east side. (Fortunately, we knew this before arriving.) We wanted to double-check the clearance, and so when slack tide came, not long after we anchored, we launched our new inflatable kayak for the very first time and paddled through the bridge and over to the west-facing tide board. The clearance turned out to be even lower than published, so we're glad we did. The kayak worked surprisingly well for something that cost just a hundred bucks, and we foresee using it to reach places the tender simply can not go.

Sunset over Sanibel Island.

We had a very nice dinner and enjoyed watching the comings and goings at Sanibel Island throughout the afternoon. We spotted quite a few dolphins all around us, also enjoying their dinner. Just a little before sunset, we weighed anchor to move literally just a few hundred feet, to the other side of the bridge. We dropped the hook just west of the bridge (map) and settled in for the night. And what a night it was.

Just after twilight a huge storm cell hit us, with lightning, torrential rain (nicely cleansing the salt spray from the boat), and 20-knot winds. No problem at all for Vector, but just a few hundred yards from us we could see several small pleasure boats, 20-odd-foot center consoles, who were having the proverbial "worst day fishing."  Everyone in these open boats was drenched, notwithstanding some of them trying to take shelter under the bridge, and we watched as one small boat tied up to a bridge support and everyone got off onto the abutment. We got no answer from them on the radio and ended up calling the Coast Guard in case we were witnessing an abandon-ship (there was no way for us to reach them). When the storm let up they got back in the boat and left, so apparently they were just trying to escape the swells.

Vector in front of Useppa Island, as seen from Cabbage Key.

We had a quiet morning at anchor Tuesday morning, as we waited on a favorable tide to continue north. After only a short distance, we rejoined the ICW and our track from our previous visit, retracing our steps back to Cabbage Key, which we quite enjoyed last year. We could easily have made more distance, but we wanted to enjoy dinner there in their quirky restaurant. I described this anchorage last time through, so I won't repeat it here; we anchored in very nearly the same spot (map).

Cabbage Key.

Last year we had made the run from Sarasota to Cabbage Key in a single day. At 47 nautical miles, with several bridge openings, that makes for a very long day, around eight hours under way, all of it requiring constant attention to the helm. This time we wanted to break the trip up into two sections, but anchorages for our draft are few and far between here. We set our sights on Manasota Key, which looks from the chart to be inaccessible, but notes from other cruisers said otherwise. We weighed anchor yesterday fairly late in the morning, so as to arrive here on a rising tide of at least a foot.

It turned out to be no trouble at all, and we could easily have made it at low tide, too. It's a calm, quiet, and spacious anchorage, and other than a few local boats being stored here on the hook, we had it to ourselves. We dropped the tender and rode to local favorite Flounders Beachside Restaurant for dinner. We also walked across the street to the beach where we had a Manasota flashback -- long-time readers may remember we had a bit of an incident here in the bus.

Today we will proceed the rest of the way to Sarasota, where we will most likely take a mooring ball again at Marina Jacks. We enjoyed our last visit there and are looking forward to returning. Ahead of us on today's route is one of the shallowest spots on the ICW, so we are timing our departure with the tide.

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