When I was planning and researching the Great Loop, I spent a lot of time cruising it on Google Earth and visualised a series of natural waterways, charted as "Sounds" interconnected by man-made canals that, together, would make up the Intra Costal Waterway. Indeed, this is the case, but what I didn't appreciate was just how shallow these waterways would be. I visualised the "Sounds" to be like the Marlborough Sounds with steep-to cliffs rising vertically out of deep water. Where you could pull over to a shore and tie to a tree and rest comfortably for the night. The reality is that the ICW is made up of a series of shallow ponds (albeit some big ones) joined together by man-made canals that sometimes are actually dredged from the "sounds" themselves. The charts state that there are minimum water levels of 6ft at low tide, but we have seen that degrade to as little as 5ft and less in some parts of the ICW. It is very eerie being in an enclosed stretch of water where you can hardly see both sides, and being in a 200ft wide channel knowing that to venture a few yard outside the demarcation lines, you will be aground. Despite the fact that the waterway is quite straight in many of these places and you can use auto pilot (George maintains a better course than I ever can), you cannot afford to loose concentration for any time, or you will be on the putty - which makes navigating in this part of the world interesting, but stressful. Here's a pic of the iPad chart of Pine Island Sound that is typical of the ICW
The day before we left Tarpon Springs (you know..the place where Carolyn broke her arm), we got up in the morning to find the boat was not moving. That was because it was sitting on the bottom, in the mud. The trawler next to us had both his chines about 2" out of the water. We were told it was the lowest tide they had seen at the marina and it was 3 hours before anyone could go anywhere. We made sure we left late he next day and got out with plenty of water. BTW "plenty" is now anything that is deep enough for us to not hit the bottom with our props while underway. That night we stayed at an anchorage just north of Boca Ciega Bay next to an American Legion (USA equivalent to an RSA) in plenty of water. There were 2 keelboats anchored there so we felt pretty safe. The next day we departed and travelled about 40 miles to the city of Sarasota. Here we stopped at a mooring field where a multitude of mooring buoys were available on a "first come, first serve?" (served, surely) basis. It turned out however, that the field was under the control on "Marina Jack" who seemed to have a monopoly on where you can put your boat in Sarasota, and we had the option to pay a mere $23 for the privilege of hanging on the buoy to get slopped about by every local loonie that ignored the Colregs, no wake signs and common courtesy or pay $2.65 per ft to go to his marina. Ultimately we opted to do neither and continued another 1.5 miles to an anchorage shown in Skipper Bob's waterway guide. The problem was that the depths had changed at the entrance to this anchorage since the last publication and we were involved in one near grounding and a tense entry into what turned out to be a very peaceful and secure place to stay. The next day we delayed departure until we had a rising tide at 11.30 and managed to get out without seeing less than 6ft of water (WOW).
After another day involving one actual and another near grounding on the waterway (long story.....won't go into it now), I decided we would "play it safe" and stay at a marina that night. We chose the Royal Palm Marina at Englewood and turned into the marked channel off the ICW at 4.30pm, just on full tide. Most of the way down the channel to the marina, our depth sounder showed we were in 5.5 ft of water, but went as low as 5.2ft. We draw 4.3 ft, and the tides for that evening were 1.2ft. You do the math!!! To get out the next day meant we had to leave a 7.00am the next morning to have the same depth that we had on the way in, but on a falling tide, or leave in the afternoon. We opted for the afto' and left at 1.30pm seeing depths to 4.5ft on the way out meaning we had 2" of water between our props and the bottom. That night we stayed behind an island in the Pine Island Sound called Useppa island. It had a deep channel around to the back of it and plenty of water to spend a secure night (BTW "deep" was 7-9 ft). The interesting thing was this isolated patch of land in the middle of nowhere was absolutely covered in multi million dollar houses!
The next day, as we plodded our way down the ICW, we heard a call from a boat gone aground on his way in to Royal Palm Marina. This was 10.30 in the morning and on a falling tide. Despite his calling Towboat US (equivalent to AVCG), he was not going to get off there for at least 4 hours.
I watched a program on TV while we were at Tarpon Springs on the local "Florida" channel that explained how all the canals and waterways in Florida came about. Apparently, 100 years ago, most of Florida was swamp (which explains why the capital is in Tallassee in the pan handle - nobody lived much further south) Then the Federal Government decided it was a waste of land, so they commissioned the Army Corps of Engineers to build a bunch of canals to drain the swamps - which later became useful for transport. Then the developers moved in and started selling off the land as "some of the most fertile farmland in the USA". A number of them went to prison for perpetrating that myth upon an unsuspecting population. They also began digging their own canals and laying the spoil alongside as canal-type housing developments. This all fell over when the depression, then WWII came along and the developments sat around for decades unused. Then came the advent of cheap production fibreglass boats which rekindled interest in waterside property and resulted in the proliferation of canal developments with expensive housing with which Florida is riddled today.
Yesterday we left the Gulf ICW and are now on the Okeechobee waterway at Fort Myers. We are stopping here for a week and will drive up to Orlando to spend Christmas day with our good friends Jack and Denise from JADE. We will then depart for our last stretch of Stage 1 to Indiantown where Loopy Kiwi will be hauled out while we return to New Zealand to "settle our affairs" (as it were).