The art of leisurely cruising from place to place without a schedule and spending the nights anchored in out of the way coves, creeks, marshes, inlets and rivers, instead of a marina.
Cruising should be entirely for pleasure, and when it ceases to be so it no longer makes sense. Of course those who want to beat out what little brains they have in a night thrash to windward should have a strong, stiff racing machine, a very expensive contraption, one which sacrifices the best qualities of a cruiser. But the little yacht that can snuggle alongside some river bank for the night and let its crew have their supper in peace while listening to the night calls of the whippoorwill will keep its crew much more contented. They will be particularly happy and contented when the evening rain patters on the deck and the coal-burning stove becomes the center of attraction. Then if you can lie back in a comfortable place to read, or spend the evening in pleasant contemplation of the next day’s run, well, then you can say “This is really cruising.” —- L. Francis Herreshoff
Gunkholing, almost by definition, requires a boat with shallow draft.
The waters on the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida are ALL shallow. A boat with a six foot draft can easily run aground several miles off shore. The Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway (GICW) is well delineated with easy-to-follow day markers. They end north of the Anclote Keys but pick up again in the eastern panhandle. It doesn’t take long realize why experienced Gulf Coast boaters follow the channel religiously. They have to. Straying just a few feet off the line can leave a boat hard aground. I’ve done it myself. Nevertheless, there are countless nooks and crannies along the coast that are wonderful places for a quiet night’s break from coasting or simply a secluded place to enjoy a stress-free weekend. The shallower your boat’s draft the more places are available. Even so, here are plenty of places a boat with six feet under the water can creep into if careful. While the goal of gunkholing is to be secluded, many of these spots are smack dab in the middle of urban areas. You will be surrounded by houses located on artificially created “islands” and condominiums which I call “per-interment mausoleums.”
This guide is not meant to be comprehensive. It covers the waters from the beginning of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway where the Caloosahatchee River enters San Carlos Bay in the south, to Carrabelle in the eastern panhandle. An area I have personally sailed.
Many of the locations mentioned here are a long way from the relatively deep water of the Gulf. In all cases it is prudent to seek the seaward-most marker despite the appearance of open water up to the land. It’s often extremely shallow in those places.
While the aim of gunkholing is avoiding staying in marinas I’m listing some here because we all have to get fuel, ice, and junk food along the way.
Keep in mind that many of the locations listed here are VERY popular spots during daylight hours on the weekends, but after sunset you may often be the only boat still around. At Cayo Costa I’ve seen as few as three other boats sharing the large anchorage on a sunny Saturday and as many as 67 in the same place on a big holiday weekend like Memorial Day.
Locations marked with an * are places I’ve actually anchored