Many of the most interesting cruising areas in Florida are inaccessible to the average cruising boat. The Florida Bay between the southern tip of Florida and the Keys is a minefield for boats drawing more than three feet, as is much of the peninsula’s Gulf Coast. The panhandle area is riddled with shallow bayous and sounds that would take years to fully explore. Even the broad waters of Biscayne Bay seem constricted to the owner of a fin keel boat.
Florida is hardly unique. Anyone who has made the southward voyage and spent time in the Chesapeake, Carolinas, Georgia, or anywhere on the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama would likely come to the same conclusion I did years ago. The North American continent is a gunkholer’s paradise.
And of all the gunkhole destinations in Florida, the Florida Everglades stand apart. Twenty years ago, only a few sailors bothered with the 10,000 Islands area near Florida’s southwest tip. But with the help of GPS navigation and better charts, sailors in swing-keel cruisers or in coastal campers like the Mudhen 17, are pushing deep into the maze of mangrove islands.
Nearly two decades ago, I set out in a Lyle Hess-designed Balboa 20 to poke around the 10,000 Islands. The experience of tacking with the tide up a mangrove river into a broad tannin-stained lake was like entering a lost world. I was lucky. The weather window for such a voyage is small—early January to mid- March. February is prime time. By April, the rains arrive and the swamp becomes intolerable. The trouble isn’t weather—it is bugs. As long as there is a hint of rain, the mosquitoes will be out in force.
With no shoal-draft boat at my disposal this February, I set out in a canoe from the Everglades Gulf Coast Visitor Center for a few days of escape on Picnic Island, one of many deserted gulf islands within the park where camping is allowed. My companion was an old friend, Dennis Montalbano, son of the late Los Angels Times foreign correspondent Bill Montalbano, who decades ago nudged me toward my present occupation. We arrived on Thursday after a half-day paddle, feeling like kings with an island to ourselves. The fantasy lasted through the next day when a Catalina 22 sailed in and tucked behind a sandy spit.
The owner, John Taguiri, had sailed down from Naples in his 1983 Catalina, Far Fetched, which he’d bought and fully equipped for coastal cruising for about $10,000. It was the start of another year of sailing for Taguiri, who logged more than 180 days on the water last year.
Three days after our trip began, Taguiri sailed past us as we were paddling back to the visitor center. Wing-on-wing he rode a brisk easterly out the channel that would take us a couple of hours to paddle. I watched until his sail disappeared, marveling at the places a small boat can take us—if we only make the time.