Aligning with the weather for an Everglades wilderness beach walk – 1/14/16

First of All –

  • First time cruising on waters Chinook has seen before
  • First time seeing live horseshoe crabs
  • First bird: American avocet
  • First time wearing foul weather gear

Namely Speaking-

  • Jack Daniels Key
  • Chokoloskee Pass
  • Pavilion Key
  • Lostmans River
  • Highland Beach
  • Broad River
  • “The Nightmare” (high tide canoe route through Everglades mangrove swamp)
  • Ponce de Leon Bay
  • Little Shark River

Loop Log:

  • Miles Cruised today: Power: 52; Sail: 3 hours motor sailing
  • Total Miles Cruised to date: 2,472
  • Hours Underway: 8
  • Fuel: NA
  • Morning House Battery Reading: 12.71
  • Wind Speed: 12 ; Wind Direction: ENE
  • Daily High Temperature: 62
  • Water Temperature: 64

Last evening I spent considerable time studying weather information, drawing on multiple sources to gain as clear a picture as possible. The predicted pattern is somewhat complex and variable, with stormy days alternating with fair, calm days. Today is predicted to be chilly, with 10 to 12 mph winds out of the NE, and rain developing in the afternoon. Tomorrow a warm front is supposed to move up from the south and crash headlong into the cold air we’re now in, resulting in strong winds, accompanied by showers and thunderstorms, all of which will produce high seas. This is all supposed to end tomorrow night, and Saturday is forecast to be sunny and warm, with north to northeast wind at 10 mph and seas 2 feet or less. By Saturday night it’s supposed to get windy and stormy again. The long range forecast for next week calls for fair but breezy weather. My task is to apply this best knowledge to our immediate travel plans so that we can take advantage of the good days and be in suitable locations when prudence calls for us to hunker down. The plan that evolves is this: Today we’ll get an early start and make the 40 mile run down to Broad River, where the chart indicates a possible anchorage. Broad River is also adjacent to a nice stretch of beach, called Highland Beach, which will afford us the chance to go ashore and stretch our legs, weather permitting. Since we expect stormy weather tomorrow, we’ll need to lay over on Friday, and then make the long crossing out to the Keys on Saturday. We’ll head for a marina near Big Pine Key, since there’s a good navigation channel across Florida Bay to that part of the Keys, as well as a 40 foot bridge I can sneak under. Once there we’ll determine our next moves, again, doing our best to take what the weather gives us.

DSCF9977I get up at 6:30, bundle up and toss charts, camera, binoculars and log book into the cockpit. I flip the auto pilot, VHF, and navigation lights on, activate the GPS, start the engine, and go forward to raise anchor. It’s just getting light when we leave our little bay at 7am. It’s breezy out and shallow inshore depths force me to cruise a couple miles out from shore. Even there the depth is only 4 or 5 feet. The wind has a bite to it, and the water is choppy. We’re heading down to a very remote stretch of coast, along the west side of Everglades National Park. Once we pass the inlet to Everglades City we will be completely isolated, with no services of any kind, including cell phone access. The water gets quite rough when I pass open inlets between islands, and I begin to wonder if I should change plans and simply head in to Everglades City. I know if we do, we’ll be stuck there for several days, and will lose the good Saturday weather window for getting across Florida Bay. I check my weather reports again and see no changes, so decide to proceed. This turns out to be the right call, for today at least. The winds ease up a bit, and the seas remain a light chop. The rain does start 3 hours sooner than expected, but I simply set up the cockpit surround. While this reduced visibility, it does provide a wind break which, in this chilly air, is welcome.

A few miles past the approach to Everglades City (which we had visited on Chinook in January 2004) we near Pavilion Key. On thatDSCF9982 2004 trip we anchored out for a night at Pavilion Key, opting to let the tide go out from beneath us in the middle of the night, and paid the price of being boarded by racoons in search of food. We pass Pavilion Key via a narrow inside passage, and set our course for the Broad River. In 2004 we dinghied 6 or 7 miles up this river, seeing 17 alligators along the way. On this trip we’ll settle for a nice walk on the beach. The approach to the river mouth is narrow and poorly marked by scattered black and white stakes. I try to stay in the center of the channel by GPS, however the channel must do a lot of shifting around here, and I end up slowly feeling my way, with depths of 5 to 9 feet in the channel, but as little as 2 feet when I stray out of it. I tip the outboard up to gain a few inches until the depth improves. This place doesn’t look like offers us any decent protection from foul weather, DSCF9976 so we plan on dropping the anchor as close to the north side of the inlet as possible. This will give us decent dinghy access to Highland Beach. As we dinghy in to shore we spot a roseatte spoonbill roosting in a snag along the shore. This place has a very wild feel to it, with abundant bird life everywhere we look. We go ashore and walk the beach for over a mile. Shells are thick, including some very pretty whelks and small tulips. Footprints other than ours are absent. We feared we’d get caught by rain, but the weather thankfully holds off. We see several horseshoe crabs shuffling around in the shallows. They appear to be digging out nests, and we see what we take to be mating behavior which, I must say, is a bit clumsy for horeshoe crabs. Shorebirds are clearly attracted to this beach, with large flocks of small sandpipers working the sand. A small squadron of skimmers flash by, and we see our first American avocet, a handsome wading bird with a distinctive upturned bill.

Too soon it’s time to return to the boat and head for secure anchorage. Along this shore that translates into Little Shark River, a wellDSCF9981 known and popular refuge for cruisers heading up or down the coast, as well as for boats like ours who are staging to cross Florida Bay to the Keys. It takes an hour and a half to reach Little Shark River, which we reach by 5:30pm, just half an hour before dark. We find 5 other sailboats at anchor, strung out near the center of the river. I’m pleased to see the little nook on the south side, where we anchored in 2004, to be completely empty. I rig the trip line and buoy, since this anchorage has strong reversing currents and Active Captain comments confirm that some boats have had trouble retrieving anchors. All in all it’s been a satisfying day. I think we made the correct choice in moving this far down. We’re in a protected spot for weathering tomorrown’s storm, and we’re in the best possible position for our crossing to the Keys.


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