Wow, what a GREAT article by our Florida Keys SSECN Correspondent, Captain Charmaine Smith Ladd. To reach the anchorage Captain Charmaine describes hard by Tarpon Belly Key, cruisers whose craft draw 5 feet or less, might choose to run the so-called, Back Route from Marathon to Key West, at least partially. To do this, run north on Big Spanish Channel, sandwiched between Big Pine Key to the west (among others) and Little Pine Key, plus several smaller keys, to the east. At Harbor Key Bank Light, you make a turn to the southwest, and slip along the northern face of the uninhabited keys all the way to Northwest Channel, which, in turn provides access to Key West.
Cruisers bound for Tarpon Belly Keys should depart this “back route” near Statute Mile 12287, and navigate the “Cudjoe Channel” to a point abeam of Tarpon Belly Keys. This is an unmarked passage, so the use of an up-to-date, GPS chartplotter is highly suggested.
For those whose vessel requires more than 5 feet of water to keep off the bottom, Captain Charmaine recommends navigating an arc around Bullard Bank, Monkey Bank, and Sideboard Bank to enter Cudjoe Channel from the Northeast.
What a neat place to be once the hook is down. Read Captain Charmaine’s article below, study her pics, and you’ll see how neat it is!
Tarpon Belly Keys, Florida Keys
N24 43.74 W81 31.24
by Charmaine Smith Ladd
September Sea is often out sailing and anchoring throughout the Florida Keys. Often the question “Where do you go?” is presented to me. When told of the plethora of unique and quaint places where we anchor, the usual response is: “There’s no protection there, is there?” Or, “That’s Bayside, what do you draw?” We draw 5’8″ and have no problems navigating Florida Bay–we simply consult and adhere to our charts!
Cruisers often forget that shoal waters surrounding an anchoring area can be just as beneficial as a body of land for protection. When looking at charts, one limits their anchorage areas if land is viewed as the only source of protection from foul weather and indicative of a comfortable anchorage. Shoal waters can provide much the same protection.
One fine example of this is Tarpon Belly Keys. Looking at the charts one might view it as undesirable for protected anchoring. But a closer examination shows the shoal waters around it prohibit fetch from building in the area. The only seemingly exposed area is from the Northwest, but because of the shape of the narrow channel from the Northwest, and its surrounding shoal waters, you are quite protected. It is a very comfortable and lovely anchorage.
Tarpon Belly Key used to be a shrimp farm. There are two man-made, coral bottomed canals that are fabulous for exploration. From a distance, it appears there is a sand beach but it is sand-colored coral. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes when going up to the Key. We are careful to have an extra long painter on the dinghy so that no chafe occurs while tied up to a tree on the Key. There’s a home-made tree swing, remnants of campfires, a foundation for what used to be the main office of the shrimp farm, and lots of remains of concrete and structural steel that gives it a feeling of walking through a historic time in the Keys. You can walk, albeit carefully, atop one of the old concrete beams from one side of the canal to the other section of the Key, then follow an overgrown road and see the other canal. It is quite picturesque!
On Cudjoe Key, seen southwest of Tarpon Belly, the great Fat Albert makes it home. Many have seen it from afar, a big weather blimp high in the sky. However, from Tarpon Belly’s vantage point, you have an incredible view of Fat Albert as it’s docked.
Hope you enjoy the pictures of this most unique area of the Keys! There are so many places like this where you can anchor and enjoy the beauty, wildlife, and solitude. Open your anchoring choices by remembering that surrounding shoal waters can also offer great protection!
Charmaine Smith Ladd, s/v September Sea
SSECN Correspondent, Florida Keys
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