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Channel Key Pass – Navigational Conundrum (Florida Keys Inside Route, Statute Mile 1179.5)

Another GREAT article by our very special Florida Keys correspondent, Captain Charmaine Smith Ladd. And, in this missive, Captain Charmaine is asking for input from fellow Florida Keys Cruisers. Please read on, and if you have any knowledge of the channel across Channel Key Pass, please click the “Comment on This Posting/Marina/Anchorage/Bridge” link below, and share your information.

May 11, 2011
Channel Key Pass (ICW through Channel Key Banks) – Navigational Conundrum
N 24 48.768 W 80 54.708 (Green #5 & #7 and Red #8)
by Charmaine Smith Ladd

The weather in the Keys has been in the high 80s. Not a bad thing when there is wind to blow off the waters and keep one comfortable while aboard. A few weeks ago, looking at the extended forecast it became apparent the wind would be saying goodbye for a while. That’s the time when flags which otherwise fly proudly become as limp as last week’s wilted flowers. Hardly a breath of wind to lift anything. Marinas and Harbors can get quite stifling during such times, unless one has the option and decides to run air conditioning.

September Sea has that option. But instead of closing the boat up and turning on the central air, we find it much more adventurous to leave the confines of marinas and Harbors and head offshore in search of cooler days and nights. Most probably wouldn’t think it…but it’s a great time to take off for adventure even when the seas are calm and the breeze is gone.

---- Calm Seas and No Breeze (just outside Boot Key Harbor in Atlantic)

Florida Bay was our choice this time, as it would be calmer waters for anchoring in the event any weather happened to surface. Gorgeous waters say hello to coolness! There seems to always be air out here in the Bay, even if it means going five to ten or more miles offshore. It is worth it. Not only for cooling off, but how one can cool off is what is so wonderful about getting away: the farther one goes the more one gains with total privacy, solitude, and no irritations. LOL

We’ve been out and about for over three weeks and loving it. When we departed Boot Key Harbor (Marathon), we took the Atlantic side and sailed on the last day of wind before the calm…and it was a glorious sail. There’s nothing quite like the sound of movement along the water and not spending a dime on fuel. It’s as Green as it gets! At Channel Five we crossed over into Florida Bay. Glorious backwater areas!

We recently had to pick up some supplies so we headed back towards Marathon. We normally don’t take the Bayside route as we draw 5’8. The waters of Florida Bay average 7-9 feet, mostly 7-8 this far inshore, whereas traversing the Atlantic one doesn’t have to constantly watch the depth sounder. But we decided to do it, as it was new territory for us between Channel Five and Seven Mile Bridge, via the Bay. When charting our course, we came across an unusual navigational aid configuration along the ICW at Channel Key Pass:

Channel Key Pass (ICW through Channel Key Banks) N 24 48.768 W 80 54.708 (Green markers #5 & #7 and Red marker #8)

Look at the included chartlet as if your boat draws 5’8. All depths on the chart are optimal, as the tide does not fluctuate feet but only inches in Florida Bay. How would you have plotted your course in this scenario? I’d like to get some of your comments as this is an ICW Route and many of you have probably been here. I’m sure there are other areas along the ICW that are just as confusing. But this one really makes little sense to me.

What do you make of it and how would you have handled it? You can see my track (in black) through the Pass (channel markers) but after doing so and finding my keel within a very few inches of touching bottom; in hindsight perhaps I should have gone with my first inclination: going outside the red marker and navigating the 7 ft. waters to its starboard. But then again, imagine making this choice at night. That would be scary to come up to two lit channel markers and decide to go around them instead of between them!

This just goes to show how one must be alert at all times. Even after plotting my course, I had no idea what those markers would actually look like when approached. The view from the water actually looked more confusing than the chart… as the chart is correct and the markers are exactly where indicated. The markers are not directly across from each other but create more of an “S” curve as you pass through. Navigating the “S” curve brought September Sea precariously close to the shoal on port (Green #7). Perhaps I should have gone outside Red #8, as the chart shows the water consistently deeper there. I did watch a sailboat do just that about an hour later, long after we had passed through.

There must be some history of these channel markers. Perhaps it was for fishing boats to easily navigate between the two shoals. But if that were the case, then why such a narrow opening and “S” curve rather than moving the red marker closer to the northernmost shoal and creating a much wider and easier to navigate passage? Anyone out there have an idea of why this is set up in such a confusing manner? This writer would love to read what you think.

In the meantime, we aboard September Sea will be cool and comfy offshore. Of course I had to time this article while in internet range, so at this moment we are much much closer to shore than we prefer (well, I did need to get those supplies too, so it’s all good). It is so different near shore…very, very warm day! As soon as I click “Send” we’ll weigh anchor and be underway offshore again. Coolness, here we come!

Charmaine Smith Ladd
SSECN Special Correspondent, Florida Keys
“Bringing you the low down from down low!”

We have been through Channel Key Pass a number of times, most recently about a week ago. I agree that the position of the marks looks pretty strange, but we always follow them, and we have not seen anything less than about 6.5 feet.
Unless I have specific knowledge I always follow the marks rather than the chart or the purple line. The soundings were taken many years ago and rarely get updated. The marks may have been moved since the chart was created.
Our boat needs somewhere between 5.2 and 5.4 feet to avoid fraternizing with the bottom, depending on how much water, fuel, and beer are on board. We made it from Marathon to Miami and back within the last few weeks. Channel Key Pass was one of the easy places for us. The skinniest water was found in two places. The worst was near Isla Morada, between marks 80 and 86. We could not find anything more than about 5.6 feet, even though the tide was up and the wind was light. The other place was at mark 50, just north of Grouper Creek. We were not much more than a boat length from the red mark when the alarm suddenly went off. A quick jog even closer to the mark quickly restored about 9 feet of water. We have been through there before without incident. I don’t know if there is shoaling or if we were simply a few feet closer to the existing shallows.
Gene Fuller
Punta Gorda
Yorkshire Rose, Catalina 42

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