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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
At the beginning of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, where the Caloosahatchee River enters San Carlos Bay and the journey northwards enters Pine Island Sound, there are enough places to anchor for a month of Sundays.
Leaving the river you can find shelter from winds from any direction except the southwest at Glover Bight in 6 feet over a sand and mud bottom.
To the northwest of Punta Rassa there is good anchoring between Fisherman Key, Kitchen Key, and Big Island. Enter from the south a little past day marker G”11”. Depth is up to 11 feet over a shell bottom.
Dipping down into San Carlos Bay and Estero Island, you’ll find spots at Matanzas Entrance in a “No Wake” zone in about 8 feet. East of the bridge drop anchor in the deep water of Matanzas Pass, or go further down to day marker R”4” and find good holding in mud at 5 to 7 feet.
If you run straight out of the river to get into the GICW (Gulf Intracoastal Waterway) you can spend the night off pricy Sanibel Island in good-holding sandy mud. This spot is open to winds from the northeast through east, though.
At Buck Key by Captiva Island you’ll find good holding in 4 to 5 feet over sandy mud. There’s good protection from all directions except north winds. Then, at the north end of Pine Island Sound you will find a number of spots to drop the hook in and around Cayo Costa or at mile 28.5 of the GICW on Boca Grande.
Pelican Bay at Cayo Costa, is one of the many fine anchorages in the Pine Island Sound area. It is easily approached from the north or south. It is a large, very popular spot with good protection from winds in any direction. Holding is good with a sand/muddy bottom.
There are good, sandy beaches over on the Gulf side of the island and in the small lagoon on the northeast corner of the island. Cayo Costa is a state park. There are a few docks on the west side of the island that will accommodate small boats.
A small concession stand sells a limited supply of ice, sun tan lotion, bug spray, tee shirts, postcards, etc.
I have seen as few as three boats at anchor in the middle of the week and as many as 60+ on Memorial Day weekend. There are no facilities on shore.
Venice is a special place for me. Some of my father’s ashes were scattered at the mouth of the inlet. Each time I’d pass it on my way north and south I’d always say, “Hi, dad.”
The best place to anchor is off the yacht club a bit south of the inlet. There are a lot of boats anchored there in 4 to 6 feet of sandy bottom. Tuck in close to shore and you have good protection from winds from all directions. You don’t have to worry about wakes because the area is a “No Wake” zone. DON’T anchor in Roberts Bay on the east side of the waterway. It is a designated water sports area and anchoring is prohibited.
Gulf Harbor Marina to the north of the inlet and Fisherman’s Wharf Marina are both convenient places to stop and fuel up.
On the GICW in Lemon Bay, coming from the south turning west at Green 17 or 17A. From the north you will be headed to Stump Pass. Just before you get to the open waters of the Gulf there are a couple of islands with white sandy beaches and anchorages well protected from winds and wakes from all directions: Peterson Cut between Whidden Key and Peterson Island and between Peterson Island and the barrier island just before the Gulf on the north side of the pass, and on the south side by Thornton Key and the island just to the northeast.
Englewood, about 15 miles south of Venice Inlet, or roughly 20 miles north of Cayo Costa, offers a choice of good places to hole up for a rest.
Just south of the Manasota Key (Tom Adams) Bridge, on the west side of the GICW there is a channel between two islands. On the north side is a long row of apartments or condos. To the south is a mangrove covered island with several boats anchored off it. Favor the left hand side of the channel going in as the north side is very shoal and you can run into trouble real fast. That’s experience talking. Holding is good and protection from the wind is excellent in all directions. You can edge further along the southern island and there are plenty more places to drop the hook. Over on the northwest corner of the anchorage is a restaurant that will let you tie up for a bit if you stop in and at least buy a drink before heading across the street to where other restaurants, dive shops and a convenience store can be found.
On the GICW in Lemon Bay, turn west at Green 17 or 17A. You will be headed to Stump Pass. Just before you get to the open waters of the Gulf there are a couple of islands, Whidden Key and Peterson Island, with white sandy beaches and anchorages that are well protected from winds and wakes from all directions.
A little further south, at Green 11, you can follow private markers that will lead you into the shallow waters between Thornton Key and Knight island.
Just before entering the south end of Sarasota Bay there are two safe, sheltered spots where you can anchor in about 6 feet over a good sandy/mud bottom. Both spots offer protection from winds coming from all directions. The spots are surrounded by homes and are not the tranquil getaways the idea gunkholing brings to mind.
At the southwestern corner of Sarasota Bay, near the Big Sarasota Pass, is Lido Key. The anchorage is tucked up between Lido to the west, St. Amands on the northwest and the mangrove Otter Key to the northeast. Anchor in 6 to 15 feet over a sand bottom. There’s excellent protection from winds from all directions.
Located at about Mile 84 of the GICW, Longboat Key is just south of Anna Maria Island and connected to its larger neighbor by a bridge over a pass that gives access to the Gulf of Mexico. With Longboat between the anchorage and the Gulf of Mexico to the west, and Sister Keys protecting it from Sarasota Bay to the East, this is a good gunkhole for a quiet weekend. About a dozen boats are more or less permanently anchored here but only a couple of liveaboards since there is no shopping or convenient public transportation ashore.
Be careful entering from the waterway and favor the island to starboard as you come in between markers R40 and G39. It’s VERY shallow there. Lots of grass, but once you’re well inside the anchorage the bottom is sandy and depths of around 8 to 15 feet. There is a good restaurant and lounge at the anchorage edge to the northwest that is very popular on the weekends. There is a fish cleaning station on the little beach where fresh, potable water is available.