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Important – Captain Charmaine Tells How to Correctly Navigate Through The Channel 5 Bridge (Florida Keys)

Channel 5 is ,arguably the most important of the Inside Route to Hawk Channel, or the other way around, passages in the Florida Keys, north and east of Marathon and Moser Channel. And, Captain Charmaine has found a real possibility of dangerous navigational error in these well traveled waters. ALL Florida Keys cruisers need to read the article below CAREFULLY!!
We would very much like to hear about your Channel 5 cruising experiences. Have you had a similar/dissimilar experience from Captain Charmaine. Please click the “Comment on This Posting/Marina/Anchorage/Bridge” link below, and share your information.


April 29th 2011
“Channel 5 Bridge Passage – Chart 11449 Recommended Route in Error”
24 50.281 N, 80 46.401 W
by Charmaine Smith Ladd

The Channel 5 bridge spans between Long Key and Lower Matacumbe Key. It has a fendered underpass for vessels needing clearance (65′). Being the first opportunity for boats coming down to the Keys from the West coast of Florida to cross over from Florida Bay into the Atlantic, Channel 5 is understandably heavily traversed. For those desiring a calm anchorage while traveling the Atlantic to those wanting to explore the backwaters of Florida Bay, crossing via the Channel 5 bridge underpass has its reward of a calm night in the shallower waters of Florida Bay and does not disappoint with its access to the serenity and beauty of its backwaters.
September Sea and her crew have used Channel 5 for such purposes for nearly a decade. From the first time, it became apparent that the bridge underpass was marked incorrectly on my paper chart (#11449). There is a recommended route on that chart that is in error. The recommended route takes you between the wrong bridge pilings and dangerously close to a massive utility pole piling. I made note of it directly on my chart and drew a line to show the actual route.
The next time we passed through Channel 5, we had a chartplotter and had plotted a course based on the recommended route of the vector charts in the chartplotter. Of course the vector charts had propagated the same error, and we once again had to adjust our course to pass between the correct fendered bridge pilings. This is when the reality of the true danger became much more apparent. Charting a course based on an erred recommended route could find one in a very confusing situation, especially in foul weather or at night. The intersection of the black tracks in the photo below show where to properly cross (24 50.281 N, 80 46.401 W).
Each time we’ve come here, it never fails that we observe other boats attempting to follow the recommended route of the chart. Just the other day, s/v Restless (shown above) was spotted on the wrong course to cross beneath Channel 5 from the Atlantic, while September Sea (also shown) was on the correct course.

I tried to hail the vessel on Channel 16 but the couple in the cockpit either could not hear me or did not have the VHF turned on. Their vessel continued and just as I thought the Captain would try to pass beneath between the wrong bridge pilings, the realization of a huge utility pole piling staring back at him from the other side proved to quickly change his mind. The vessel turned hard to port. That was when the fenders lining the proper bridge underpass were noticed by its Captain. I am sure the vessel’s Captain then noticed that the boat behind him (we aboard September Sea) were on the proper course.
This is a dangerous situation. The huge concrete pilings (foundations for communication cables) run parallel to the bridge on Bay side and do not give a boat much room to maneuver if the bridge is crossed anywhere but at the proper fendered opening. Those pilings are very difficult to notice from the Atlantic side.
Yesterday, checking online with NOAA’s most recent charts, I saw the error still exists (see photo below). I’ve added a red dot on the NOAA chart to indicate where the proper crossing is actually located.

I have learned from this that navigational chart changes do not take place unless we as cruisers report potentially dangerous errors when we see them. In the meantime, please make note on your current chart (#11449) and manually update any pertinent routes in your chartplotter.
Cruisers helping cruisers, it’s what we’re all about!
Charmaine Smith Ladd, s/v September Sea
SSECN Correspondent, Florida Keys
“Bringing you the low down from down low!”

Question for Captain Charmaine:
Is water always deeper in the middle of a channel when crossing? And when approaching a bridge to cross, how far in advance do you choose which pilars or opening to go thro? Maybe questions a rookie sail person might ask like me. Thank You
Skipper Burr Bault

Captain Charmaine replies:

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my article, Burr. Local knowledge is often handy when navigating channels. Over time, areas of a channel can be silted in (due to hurricanes, usually) and not have the minimum depth as shown on charts. So the answer to whether or not the middle of a channel is always where the deepest waters are is: not always. Most of the time, especially in wide channels, you will find deeper water in the middle. The narrower the channel, the more local knowledge one should seek.
On the charts, the opening beneath bridge spans for boats needing height clearance is well indicated. At that area, in most cases, boats with a mast height of up to 65′ can clear safely. In the case of Channel 5, I believe that the chart is still showing where a drawbridge of the old bridge span opened and allowed boats to pass through. When the new elevated bridge span was built, it was done so that boats could pass beneath without the need of a drawbridge and bridge tender to raise it. Therefore, the recommended route for Channel 5 shown on the charts is outdated, as it is in line with a drawbridge which no longer exists.
At Channel 5, the placement of the new fendered opening for vessels is on the opposite end of where the old drawbridge used to be. Pilings are shown incorrectly. It is therefore very important to pass through where height clearance is optimal and the opening is clear of obstructions. Such areas are well marked on the charts and usually correct. However, in this particular case the recommended route is in error because it has not been updated since the new bridge span was built.
Hope this helps!! Hugs!
Charmaine

Very informative article. Your knowledge of the 5 Channel Bridge, of the Florida Keys, is awesome!
Linda Honore-Pitts

I have read many of your articles and appreciate your advice and warnings. My husband and I are bringing our s/v, draft 4’8″ from Tampa Bay to Ft. Lauderdale the last week in November. What passage would you recommend from Marathon to Miami? We have limited sailing experience on the Atlantic but we like the greater depths. We do like to anchor and are not overly excited about visitng any towns or marinas unless necessary. And as always we are under some time constraints. Thank you for any suggestions!
Beth Falkenhagen

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