A casual conversation in late fall with an old boating acquaintance
from Ariel days at the Alton Coffee shop resulted in a short
exploration of the Florida Gulf a week before Christmas.
Harry, a retired Canadian with a southern boat was single
handing in December while his U.S. boating partner stayed up north to
work. Maybe you'd like some crew we suggested. He agreed it would be ok
if we should happen to drop in for a short visit. Perhaps to his
surprise, two weeks later we had airline reservations to Fort Myers.
Harry is nothing if not a good sport. He picked us up at the
airport and drove us to Labelle some thirty miles inland where the boat
was docked on the Caloosahatchee River. He then parked the Pontiac in
storage for five months. Time for him to go cruising.
Labelle is on the ICW which cuts across Florida. Inland
Florida near Lake Okeechobee is favored among northern cruisers as a
lay up spot for their boats during the summer. Here boats stored ashore
are less subject to hurricane winds and hazards. Our host's 35 foot
Morgan sloop had survived a powerful and rare inland blow a few months
before with nothing more than a lost mast head fly. But now it was time
to drive the recently launched Zugfogel down the murky brown river to
salt water for a winter of wandering.
Hanging out at the Franklin lock
We walked two blocks under wide spreading live oaks to the grocery and
stocked up on cruiser food and shoved off, happy to leave the traffic
noise of the Labelle drawbridge beside the town dock. Despite Florida's
housing boom there were considerable stretches of natural shoreline and
citrus orchard and pastureland along the waterway. At the anchorage by
the Franklin lock we saw a resident bald edge (whose nest had been
blown away Harry said) and a sea cow.
The next day we continued on through the lower Caloosahatchee
and under several more draw bridges to the wide but thin waters of Pine
Island Sound. Florida's west coast is edged with a series of barrier
islands for much of its length. Behind these lie extensive stretches of
shoal murky water. Our track followed the ICW channel for about forty
miles. (The waterway goes up Florida and then along the Gulf Coast to
Texas). We spent one night behind Sanibel Island, another up north of
Florida is flat. It was for much of our visit warm, almost always humid
and sometimes overcast. Its waters were surprisingly empty of boat
traffic. Behind the barrier islands Florida's interface between land
and sea is a gradual and often ill defined edge. Red mangrove trees
colonize shoals that gradually grow into small islands, laced together
by the roots of the low growing trees. You can look across five or ten
miles of open water mirror smooth and broken here and there by the
dozens of little green mangrove islands. And none of it is more than
three feet deep or fifteen feet high.
We went ashore on one barrier island north of Captiva for a
brief walk on a white beach. Here the famed shell beach was much in
evidence. We have our lake pebbles, Florida has its shells. Welks and
winkles, oysters, and snails, clams and mussels shells lay sometimes in
piles a foot deep. This particular island also showed the impacts of
recent hurricane wind and storm surge. The once lush mangrove tangle
had been transformed into a ghost forest of silvery gray trunks and
limbs. Naked of bark leaves or twigs they stood stripped by the wind
reduced to bare weathered wood. Often the low bushy trees had been
ripped out of the earth and lay toppled.
Yet even here new vegetation sprouted. Vines and shrubs and sapling
tees had gained a toe hold to reclaim the desolation. I was surprised
in general by the amount of bird and sea life here. There were the
ubiquitous pelicans "ugly birds" as our captain called them and lots of
big white wader birds-ibis, egret, heron pretty much indistinguishable
to the casual birder. A number of loons were vacationing in the sound
and we saw ospreys everywhere. We also saw dolphins close enough
sometimes to hear them breathe. A lot of the birds seemed really
fearless down here in their vacation land. Must be lots of tourists
One day we went for a dinghy ride and spotted a wake of some
sea creature in the calm water. It was swimming just under the surface.
Maybe its a turtle! We shut the motor off and rowed over for a closer
look. The creature swam steadily on ignoring us. Is it a sea cow? It
looked like a head of some sort. Still it swam and as I rowed closer to
it we wondered Boy this thing is really dumb and oblivious. What if it
suddenly sees us-will it dive and upset our dinghy? Was it a shark? A
giant ray? Nope. It's a crab pot float, just under the surface weaving
and bobbing in the tidal current and appearing as a very credible
We saw one real "monster" a sizeable gator during a walk at
the Ding Darling wildlife refuge. But unless you count the ant lion we
tried to feed a luckless ant to on one beach, that was about it for
monsters. Yet the dark tangled fetid smelly mangrove swamps with their
no see ums sure looked like they should have monsters.
Hurricane stripped mangroves
On our last day we got out on the gulf for a few hours of sailing. It
was cool and drizzling but our cheerful captain agreed to the request
for an hour or two of day sailing. With a grand offshore wind of 10 to
20 we had a nice reach in flat water down the coast five or six miles
past endless condos and beach houses. Then we headed into the mooring
area where we spent the night and got a welcome shower.
Fort Myers being home to Florida's largest shrimper fleet, we
went off to a shore dinner with Harry and had shrimp. The beach front
and eateries were pretty quiet this cool gray December day. Harry
explained the "high season" didn't really start until January.
We left by taxi the next day to return to the land of snow.
Harry was off to Naples and then slowly working down to the keys were
he would meet up with his boat partner in January. We had a grand time
with him and are very lucky to have Harry and Fran's generous
friendship. Now who can we find to invite ourselves aboard for a
tropical cruise next year?