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Crossing Florida’s Big Bend

I have said it before, and will probably say it many times again. If you get six veteran Western Florida cruisers together, they will express seven different opinions about the best way to cross the Sunshine State’s waterwayless “Big Bend” region. There are two basic strategies. You can cut the corner and head straight for Carrabelle or Panama City (if you are northbound), or for Anclote Key and Tarpon Springs (if you are southbound), OR follow the coastline around as it curves, staying well offshore. The advantage of the “corner cutting” route is that it’s shorter, and the “Big Bend Route” allows you to duck into one of the coastal rivers if the weather turns nasty. However, all of the Big Bend rivers have shallow, sometimes tortuous entrance channels.
Few know these waters better than Captain Alan Lloyd, so I’ve copied his note below from the AGLCA mailing list.

I would not wish make a 180 mile run across open water in a 25 foot boat. For one thing, I could not be certain the weather would be consistent all the way across. As a minimum, I would make an intermediate stop at Steinhatchee. A second option would be stops at Crystal River and Steinhatchee. Although a 20 mile side trip, Crystal River is a popular stop for loopers and manatees! A third option is a stop at Suwannee River. This is halfway between Tarpon Springs and Carrabelle. Loopers do not normally include Suawannee River since the entrance is too shallow but I believe a C-Dory could make it in and then enjoy 20 miles up river to Springs State Park. I have made this crossing three times using each of the above options.
Alan Lloyd
Author, Great Loop Navigation Notes

I’ve only crossed once, and going south – but we made the crossing in a 23’ 5” cuddy-walkaround with a single 225 HP outboard with a WOT top speed of ~35-37MPH. It was at the end of June (2008) and indeed, we ran into
weather. Weather bad enough to cause us to look for a safe harbor; and we found one that no one ever talks about or mentions – Horseshoe Beach. Luckily, we worked our way there with sufficient tide to navigate the
channel in a skinny part of the Gulf. A call to “anyone familiar with the Horseshoe Beach channel” gave us the confidence to run the channel after a Sea Tow operator answered our call.
Aside from what Alan mentioned, and Horseshoe Beach at higher tide, I know of no alternatives for a safe haven. (There’s the Withlacoochee River, but that’s not too far north of your departure and near Crystal River.) Since
the storm we tried to avoid gave us some warning, we were already trying to stay closer to shore than originally planned.
Our crossing was fine without the storm and many similar size boats make it easily. That doesn’t mean that you may not want to stop and smell the roses. It’s just those darn storms and sometimes higher winds that require
vigilance and good risk management skills are in order.
Stats and info from log: (We only went from Carrabelle, to my home inHudson Florida.)

• Total mile run expected to cross the Gulf, (slip-to-slip)
o 170
• Total miles to actually cross the Gulf to the Sea Pines channel marker #1
o 188
• Total elapsed hours from Carrabelle, through Horseshoe Beach, to mooring
at Hudson public
o 11 ½, including about a 2-hour layover in Horseshoe Beach
• Average underway speed across the Gulf
o 20.8 statute MPH (18.1 knots)
• Total gallons of fuel to top off the tank at the near-completion of our
journey (including
replenishment of the 3 extra gallons we carry for emergencies, and used)
o 99.5 – the fuel tank holds 101

As you can see, the seas slowed us drastically from the WOT capabilities of the boat. BTW, Horseshoe Beach has virtually no services except a restaurant where we had the best Gulf shrimp I’ve ever had in my life.
Kitty Nicolai

I made this run in Dec 2008 – same direction you’re travelling. Due to sea conditions we had to seek a safe haven. We went into the Steinhatchee River. This is a friendly port as long as you enter and
depart in daylight. We left Steinhatchee the next day and completed the trip into Appalachicola.

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