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CRYSTAL RIVER*

Spotting the entrance to Crystal River is fairly easy…just look for the huge stacks and cooling towers of the electrical power plant to the north.

The channel from the open waters of the Gulf into Crystal River is longer than most, but a quick glance at the chart shows that coming in from the south you have good, deep (well for this coast, anyway) water all the way up to flashing Red 28 day marker. There are spoil islands to the north all the way up to the land. 

Just as you get inside the land there is a very pretty, white sand, palm studded island to your right. It’s extremely popular on the weekends with dozens of boats anchoring there. Many people pitch tents on the beach. While there’s a constant parade of boats on the river the island is protected by a “No Wake” zone. On the north side of the channel a small islet bisects a stream headed towards the power plant. It is safe to enter on either side of the islet at half tide and rising. There’s sufficient water inside to anchor on the muddy bottom but be careful exiting. Do it again on a rising tide as there are oyster bars on both sides.

If you need fuel you can go a couple of miles up the river. Twin Rivers Marina sells gasoline and diesel at their floating docks. The channel into the marina from the river is well marked, but be careful. They have a well stocked supply of junk food treats.

Pete’s Pier, with one of the most brilliant marketing strategies, is at King’s Bay, at the end of the navigable part of the river Pete’s sells both gas and diesel. It’s six miles up the river from the Gulf so you have to use up a lot of fuel getting there and back to the Gulf. They’re not a friendly lot, either. After buying $30 worth of gasoline they wouldn’t let me tie up so I could walk to a store and buy some groceries.

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October 29, 2021 · 6:58 pm

PORT RICHEY*

The long haul up the Pithlachascotee river (say that fast three times) from the first day marker of the channel into Port Richey is well worth the effort. In the open water around the channel before you come inside the land there are a number of what are referred to as “Shacks” on the NOAA charts. They’re far from that! These structures are reminiscent of the old “Stiltsville” of Biscayne Bay long ago before devastating storms like Andrew erased the place.

As you make your way up the river you’ll pass American Marina on your left. Can’t miss its large, blue dry storage building. They sell gasoline and diesel. A little further along on your starboard side is the Port Richey Marina, a much smaller operation but selling gas and diesel, too. 

Go a little further and the river makes a right hand turn and a fixed bridge a few hundred yards along will stop sailboats from continuing on. Just before making that right hand turn there’s a Hooters restaurant and a seafood place with boat docking.

If you’re not hungry when you get that far up the river take a hard turn to the left and go into Miller’s Bayou. It’s actually a small lake surrounded by houses. The sand and mud bottom is around eight feet deep and there’s unlimited swinging room. This is a very quiet anchorage. You’re likely to be the only one there. Occasionally some people in small boats will come by to fish the mangroves on the west bank of the bayou or a jet ski might buzz through and leave after a single turn about the basin. That’s it.

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CEDAR KEY*

A lot of people love Cedar Key. Actually it’s the Cedar Keys as there are several in the group. I’m not a fan. It might be fine if you have a small, easily trailerable boat, but if you’re cruising on your own bottom it has little to offer. There’s no marina, there’s no fuel, and the cruising guide anchorages are iffy.

Heading north from Crystal River it’s nearly a 30 mile voyage with a bit more than 22 miles of that on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

On my run up the coast after I got to Cedar I explored around a bit and didn’t see any really good place to anchor. The anchorage at Otsena Otle Key, recommended by Waterway Guide, is open to wind, waves and wakes from nearly every direction. Didn’t appealing to me at all. Luckily it was summer so Daylight Savings Time saved me. I decided to make the 20 some odd mile dash up to the Suwanee River.

A couple of months later, heading south from the Suwanee, I hoped to make it to Crystal River. But rising winds and waves causing my 9.9 hp short shaft to cavitate every couple of waves, meant I needed to hole up until things calmed down a bit. The Otsena anchorage was too rough to even think about. 

I skirted Cedar Key heading east when I saw a couple of fishing boats duck into an opening. I decided to follow them. 

There was a cut between the developed land to port and mangroves to starboard opening up into a secluded little pond. There were rental apartments on the land and several piers jutting out into the water. I dropped anchor, backed down on the motor to set it, said my usual “Honey, I’m home,” and settled in. 

It was a secure anchorage protected from winds and waves, but, as the tide dropped, the rusted hulk of a steel boat began to appear from the mud flats only a few feet away . I just missed it! It seemed that by sheer good luck I’d picked the only decent place to anchor in the whole area. At dead low tide I was in no more than 3 feet of water. I had to stay through the night and the next day as well as the winds continued blowing close to 20 mph. 

If you can, plan your route to avoid Cedar Key. 

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SUWANEE RIVER*

For those who can’t, or don’t want to make the 150+ mile, open-water jump across Florida’s Big Bend from Anclote Key to Carrabelle, in the panhandle, there are some nice gunk holes along the “Forgotten Coast,” One of the more interesting has to be Suwannee River. That’s RIGHT, the one Stephen Foster wrote about! 

Whether you’re coming into the river from the Bradford Island Pass, or West Pass, the scenery is very reminiscent of the bayou country in South West Louisiana. It’s all flat, salt marsh, reeds and rushes. Shallow little creeklets flow into the larger channels. There are two islands separating Bradford and Hog Island channel and Day Marker 27 is at the Hog Island end of the cut. Holding is good in about 8 feet or so with a sandy bottom.

Several miles up the river the scenery changes to thick cypress swamp much like that of the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana or the Waccamaw in South Carolina. There are two marinas in the town on your left as you go up river. They were hard to find when I was there. No signage from the river. Had to ask one of the passing fishermen where. 

Gateway Marina is the first one going up river. They sell gas and diesel, have floating docks and allow liveaboards. They also have a travel lift for haul outs.

Suwannee Marina is about a half mile or so further up the river and well hidden. You have to exit the river into a creek then make a left hand turn after a hundred yards into a canal and then a right hand turn into the marina. They sell gasoline only, have some marine supplies and a restaurant. They rent dock space but you can’t stay on your boat over night. The restaurant is open for breakfast seven days a week but lunch only Monday through Saturday. DON’T order the meatloaf! Everything else is okay. If you ask they will give you their password to their WiFi.

About a half mile up the road from the Suwannee Marina is a small store that will rip your eyeballs out on pricing. But it’s the only place around to buy any kind of canned goods or frozen foods. In back of the store they carry a limited assortment of marine supplies and fishing gear.

Going a bit farther up the river there are plenty of quiet, out-of-the-way places where you could drop the hook. One place I enjoyed was a mile or so up the river from the town by Lock Creek. There’s good protection from the winds, plenty of depth, and very little problem from the wakes of passing fishing boats.

While I enjoyed the four weeks I spent in the Suwanee, two going north and two returning south waiting for a weather window, there isn’t much here. Be prepared before you go. You’ll be 25 miles from the nearest REAL grocery store, but you can buy liquor a mile away from either of the marinas. A doctor or dentist is 25 miles away while the nearest hospital is 60! A pharmacy is 38 miles away. 

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STEINHATCHEE*

The entrance to Steinhatchee (pronounced STEEN hatchee) is located off the ominously-named Deadman’s Bay. From early July through September Steinhatchee is a Mecca for recreational scallopers seeking the succulent blue-eyed bivalve and literally hundreds of boats are out on the water at the start of the season and on weekends afterwards. Even in the off season it’s an endless boat parade coming and going to and from the Gulf.

The run into the river from the Gulf is several miles long and the waters on either side of the marked channel are very shallow. Shortly after you get inside the land you come to a No Wake Zone that extends for a couple of miles up to a fixed bridge that would stop any boat with a mast.

There are two marinas in the town, Sea Hag on the left and Good Times Marina and Hotel just beyond on the right. Both sell gas and diesel and have restaurants. Docking can be a little tricky with the swift current running in the river.

The anchorage for boats begins a little ways up river from Good Times Marina. The holding ground is good sand and mud. There are a dozen or more boats anchored in there on the right hand bank of the river. Since it’s tidal don’t try anchoring too close to the bank if you’re not sure of the height of the tide or you’ll find yourself aground. 

On the left side there is a small restaurant with a floating dock where you can tie up and dine and they’ll let you leave your boat there for a while so you can hike to the small store about a half mile away to do some basic shopping.

Since the river is basically a long No Wake Zone in order to get an early start into open water in the morning it’s easy to stage yourself by anchoring around Red Day Marker 22 near the start of the No Wake Zone. You won’t be bothered by wakes.

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KEATON BEACH*

Listening to weather forecasts on your VHF radio, Keaton Beach is used as a reference point. Unless you have family or friends living there the only reason for a cruising sailor to pull into this place would be to escape a threatening squall line.

No marinas, no fuel, no food, no reason to be here. You can anchor just past red marker “20” by the seawall on your left, but be careful. What seems like a fairly large tidal pond almost completely disappears at low tide.

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ECONFINA RIVER*

For those cruising Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” the last gunkhole before swinging west for a roughly 15 mile jump across open water to the entrance of the long channel to St. Mark’s or the 36 mile run over to St. James Island and what could be considered the easternmost end of the panhandle, the Econfina River is where you’d want to spend the night resting up.

Though the river entrance is marked by a 20 foot high wooden tower it’s not easy to find this place. It’s all flat marshland with no landmarks. In general I avoid listing Lat/Lon in this guide, but if I don’t do it here you’ll get lost and there’s no real alternative if you miss it…so, try and find N 30° 1’ 55” W 83° 55’ 27” Those aren’t “spot on” numbers but they should get you close enough to see the tower.

This is definitely a gunkhole. Be careful entering the river. There are lots of large submerged rocks to port. Many are well buoyed, but prudence should have you giving them a wide berth. To starboard it’s all sand and mud. Good holding and well protected from wind in all directions. Small boats whiz in and out of the river to and from the Gulf and are the only indication there’s any life nearby. There isn’t a sign of civilization to be seen. It’s a nice, peaceful place to spend a night or a couple of days communing quietly with nature.

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SAINT JAMES ISLAND*

Cruising around the Big Bend most people would want to make a dash from the Econfina River over to Carrabelle in the eastern panhandle. If you have a slow sailboat you might consider pulling in to the sheltered anchorage at Saint James Island which is about a 15 mile shorter run. With my boat making about 5 mph under ideal conditions that’s saving three hours travel time.

With a shallow draft boat you can run westwards parallel to the sandy beach and pull into the sheltered waters behind and anchor over a sandy bottom. You’ll be well protected from the wind in any direction. There are some wakes to contend with from small boats out fishing but not too bad. There’s nothing convenient ashore but this is a good, peaceful place to hang out for a couple of days.

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CARABELLE*

Other than Pine Island Sound, no area on Florida’s Gulf Coast has more gunkholes than the state’s panhandle. Carrabelle and Saint James Island are the eastern-most of the sheltered waters that continue westwards all the way to Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border.

I’m ending this book here. The area between Destin and Carrabelle is unknown to me. I’ve traveled between Destin and the Sabine River, the dividing line between Louisiana and Texas. These are all semi-protected waters with a long string of barrier islands between the mainland and the Gulf of Mexico. The only hitch in traversing the entire GICW is getting across the Mississippi River; especially if your boat is low-powered. You lock into the river on the east bank from the New Orleans Industrial Canal and then have to shoulder your way a couple of miles upstream to lock through on the west bank.

Dog Island to the South and West of Carrabelle starts the chain. Tyson’s Harbor, tucked away on eastern end of the island presents a good anchorage in 7 feet or so of mud and sand bottom sheltering boaters from everything except a north wind. Close in to shore on the northeastern end of the island you can anchor in 7-9 feet of water over a sandy bottom. Watch your weather. It’s wide open from north to southwest winds. Shipping Cove, near the western end of the island has a deep-water anchorage of some 17 feet of more above a sand and mud bottom. It’s open to any winds out of the north. 

Up close to the mainland, you can anchor not too far east of the channel leading into the Carrabelle River in six feet or so with sand and mud for holding. This is fine to get out of north winds but open to just about everything else. 

Inside the river you can anchor south of the green marker #17 in five feet of water over firm sand. If you choose to do this be sure you don’t swing out into the channel and block traffic. 

There are a couple of marinas on the river, both offering gas and diesel. The largest is The Moorings and they offer an excellent free breakfast if you tie up there. An IGA grocery store and an Ace Hardware store are practically across the street. Within a mile there’s a number of restaurants, banking and a post office.

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