Florida Keys to Western Florida Coastline (Cape Sable) Via the “Yacht Channel”
There are at least three routes that cruisers might choose to sojourn from the Florida Keys to the western mainland coast of the Sunshine State, or the other way around. Two depart from Marathon and the Moser Channel, and then join as they meander their way north. The easternmost passage is known as the Florida Bay Yacht Channel. It is the best marked of the three and also features some protection from eastern, northeastern and southeastern winds, by way of the shallow water and banks in Florida Bay. However, it is also the shallowest of the three passages.
We did the Florida Bay Yacht Channel in 2007 on the advice Of Sterling Kennedy, a Looper who has now been around twice and also is a resident of Key Largo and proprietor of a marine touring/guide service that covers the Florida Bay and other areas in the Keys. Point of all this is ,he is very knowledgable of the area waterways.
He advised that we run along inside the National Park boundary till we got to the Yacht Channel to avoid all the crab traps(they can be place inside the park boundary-we did and it worked) then cut over the short distance–about 400yds or so as I recall–to pass thru theYacht Channel. We did the passage around Dec 1. The night before we anchored inside the mouth of Little Shark River and with a nice stiff North Eastern breeze it was a great anchorage–beautiful lots of wild life, no misquitos–highly recommend with breeze existing. Stirling advised that the “depth finder would drive us crazy due to sand being kicked up by the props”. When we passed thru there had been a strong Northeastern wind that had blown a lot of water out of the bay so it was quite a bit shallower than normal. We draw about 36 inches and never bumped but had Stirling not warned us about the depth finder going off and that large yachts routinely run this passage we would have been a lot more concerned. This route offers a lot more weather protection than the Seven Mile Bridge or Key West passages and is substantially shorter if your objective is only to make the passage from the west to east coast and/or upper keys via the tip of Florida.
I had a look at my charts that are downloaded from the NOAA site, plus my paper charts (Maptech) and did not see any recommended sailing line. The only line I could see was the COLREGS demarcation line which is a dotted magenta line, and does end up at East Cape, but is certainly not a sailing line. Is there any chance that you have mistaken this COLREGS line for a sailing line? If so, it is important to understand that this is in no way a recommended sailing line, and only demarcates the “Inland” versus offshore rules, and has nothing to do with channel guidance.
Some of you may have seen parts of this report in other places yesterday evening or this morning. This is the “final” version, including an addendum and editorial change posted elsewhere….
There are three routes from Florida’s West Coast to the Keys and on towards the East Coast:
1. West Coast departure location direct to Key West, then east,
2. West Coast departure location direct to Marathon via Channel 7, then east, and finally
3. West Coast southeast across Florida Bay to Islamorada via the “Yacht Channel.”
This report focuses on choice no. 3. If time is of the essence, this option involves the shortest distance and travel time. It sounds difficult, but it’s not, and I think this will give you the planning information you’ll need/want. Deep draft boats – greater than 5 ft – may choose to forgo this option.
Sanctuary and crew traveled from Key Largo to the Little Shark River on 11/30/2010. Our direction of travel was westward, toward the West Coast. Our distance traveled was 82.5 StM and our transit time was 9.86 hrs. at 8.35 avg. mph. Sanctuary draws 4′-3″. We departed Gilbert’s (Jewfish Creek, StM 1135) at 07h00 and arrived at G”1″ at ICW StM 1173 (the Yacht Channel) at 11h00. Determining “Low Tide” time is slightly imprecise, because Florida Bay is large and not all tides occur at the same time, but the approximate average time of low tide on 11/30 on Florida Bay was 11h00, so I ***hope*** our experience was worst-case. Florida Bay tides are in the range of 6″ – 9″, so do not help much.
Overall, westbound, we found that depths in the area between StM1149 and StM1162, and the cuts in that section (Cross Bank, Ramshorn Cut, Peterson Key Bank) were more marginal than depths in the Yacht Channel itself. Watch in particular the turn from south to west at StM 1149.5. We got very slightly – and I mean ***very*** slightly – off the line there and found 4-1/2 ft of water. In that whole stretch, we saw mid-channel depths as low as 5-1/2 ft. And, for at least 10 miles, we left a pronounced, obvious “sand trail” from our prop wash.
At StM 1170, westbound, the ICW divides. The main ICW route proceeds west inside Florida Bay, and the other goes SW to the Hawk Channel via Channel Five. Starting at that divide, the Florida Bay route is completely encrusted in crab traps. We departed the magenta line, diverted to the north, and ran along and inside the the Everglades National Park boundary in 7 – 8 ft of water. Crab pots are not allowed within the park.
We stayed inside the Park boundary at StM 1173, and made the turn NW into the charted “Yacht Channel.” Minimum depths there were 6 ft, but mostly in ‘humps’ that could have been sea grass. We saw no sand trail from our prop wash. Northwest-bound from the main ICW channel at StM 1173, The first set of lateral nav. markers on the Yacht Channel are at Arsenic Bank, at the pair G”1″ and R”2.” That cut through the Arsenic Bank is oriented approximately east/west. Approaching the cut from the “recommended sailing line” requires a “slalom-like” approach. Both northbound and southbound on the “recommended sailing line,” markers G”1″ and R”2″ can create a deceptive impression; follow ICW marker rules here, and keep red to the inland side of the channel and green markers to the seaward side of the channel. If approaching them in a NW direction from inside the park boundary, they appear visually correct (Green left, Red right), but if approaching them from the Yacht Channel’s “recommend sailing line,” they appear backwards; the unwary could easily try to go between them the wrong way. There’s no doubt that that unfortunate soul would run hard aground.
At Sprigger Bank, 3 miles NW of Arsenic Bank, is G”5.” The shoal in that area ***APPEARS TO ME*** to have grown very substantially east of the marker and east of the charted sailing line – perhaps 1/2 mile in the SE quadrant off the G”5″ marker. We had a bright sunny day with the sun behind us (to the S and SW), and we could see fingers of the shoal way further east than charted. I stayed east of that marker by 1/2 mile, and saw 7 – 8 ft of water. Similar story at R”6,” Spooner Bank; give it lots of seaway ***to the west.***
IMPORTANT NOTE: it appears that some chartplotters contain proprietary electronic charts that are missing the recommended sailing line for the Yacht Channel. That discrepancy between the paper and electronic charts is just another reason to ***always*** run with both electronic and paper charts at the helm.
Sanctuary’s Garmin chartplotter ***does not*** show a recommended sailing line” for the Yacht Channel. However, our paper charts of the area (NOAA 11451, corrected to April 18, 1998, Maptech, Region 8, “Florida West Coast and the Keys,” Eleventh Edition), show the Yacht Channel as a dotted magenta line that runs from G”1″ at A-ICW StM 1173 NW to R”4″, the “East Cape Light.” From R”4″, it then diverges N and ends in what appears to be an anchorage at East Cape on the Florida Peninsula. I have verified that the ***raster*** chart I have for use with Offshore Navigator and Coastal Explorer (11451_14, “MIAMI TO MARATHON AND FLORIDA BAY PAGE G RIGHT SIDE”) and the ***vector*** chart I have for use with Coastal Explorer (a1508645.vc) both ***do*** correctly show the recommended sailing line.
The Yacht Channel “recommended sailing line” is shown on the “official” NOAA 11451, and S-57 versions, in the same manner as “alternative ICW routes” are shown in other geographical areas of the A-ICW. In the areas of the cut through Arsenic Bank, and at Sprigger Bank, Schooner Bank and Oxfoot Bank, the recommended sailing line runs through or near and through the shoal areas. Sanctuary ignored the sailing line, and diverted widely around the areas of Sprigger Bank, Schooner Bank and Oxfoot Bank to clear the shoals with plenty of seaway. That is the approach which I am recommending to others, and particularly those with drafts of 4′ or more.
Finally, there are several extensive fields of crab pots along the Yacht Channel, and some areas without pots as well. We found that they run in 1/2 mile wide strips along the Park boundary. There are no pots inside the park (except occasional rogues) and mostly no pots a mile of so off the park boundary, but in that narrow strip, there are thousands. Yes, you can pick your way through them, but it’s very tiring.
Sanctuary and crew hope this is helpful.
Peg and Jim Healy aboard Sanctuary
Currently at Everglades City, FL
Watching our plotter and depths, we usually run inside the park boundary marker, there are usually less pots.
Although it’s illegal to trap in the Everglades National Park , on several occasions ( I even posted a fisherman on my web page) I have witnesed traps being pulled and set in the park.
See you on the waterways!
We last transited that area on a low tide in 2007. We realized just how shallow it was when the autopilot had a hard time steering. Switched over to hand steering and still had a hard time steering. Slowed down a bit and things got markedly better. The pressure wave under the hull was reflecting back and pushing the hull around. Our boat doesn’t like to run aground and really tries hard to stay out of trouble! Like you, we left a sand trail in our wake.
We came down through Hawk Chanel into Marathon and that way is also almost blocked with traps. What a pita steering through that area. It extends all the way into the boot key channel.