The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is part of the United States National Wildlife Refuge System, located in southwestern Florida, on Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico. It is named for the cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. You can access it by land from Sanibel Island, but the most extensive part of the refuge is a large expanse of shallow waterways and lagoons which provide habitat for a large number of aquatic birds. We anchored just off the eastern edge of Sanibel Island and took the dinghy into the maze of canals in about 2 feet of water. I brought my new Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II with a 300mm f4 IS Pro lens to try it out for bird photography. Here are a few examples.
Boot Key to Shark River
The wind was predicted to shift around coming out of the south for the next few days, so we decided this would be a perfect weather window to head back north from the Keys. It was also a good weather window to head to the Bahamas and our friends Randy and Rose on Contessa Rosa were planning on doing just that. We wished we were also going to the Bahamas, but we need to get the boat in storage by April 15th or so. The sail up to Shark River was great. We had about 15-20 knot winds from our stern and following seas. We sailed most of the way with our sails “wing on wing” with the main let out to port and the genna to starboard. The only negative were the bugs in Shark River. Once the sun went down, we needed to get inside the boat and put screens on all the hatches.
Back Boot Key Harbor
We decided to go back to Boot Key Harbor for a few days and get ready for the sail north to Punta Gorda. We like Boot Key Harbor a lot: super friendly boating community, mooring balls are reasonable at $18.00 a night, the City Marina has good showers and services, and there are lots of businesses close by, like Publix and West Marine. I worked on some wiring projects on Terrapin, we went to Sombrero Beach, and we ate some great seafood at Keys Fisheries.
The weather forecasts all said that the weather would be perfect for sailing across the Florida Bay from Shark River inlet on the lower part of the Florida Mainland to Vaca Key, the middle of the keys where the city of Marathon and Boot Key Harbor is located. The wind was predicted to be 15-20 knots out of the east and we were headed due south. This would put us on a beam reach on a port tack. The Florida Bay is a huge bay made up of the Florida Keys archipelago extending south from the southeast tip of Florida then curving to the west, about 25 miles across from the tip of Florida to Vaca Key. One of the noteworthy features is that the entire bay is shallow, only 10-12 feet deep. That means that the effect of the wind on building waves is magnified significantly. We are used to sailing in deep Caribbean waters in 15-20 knot winds and the sea state is generally mild with long rolling swells. What we discovered in the Bay of Florida was a steep chop of increased period. That made for a bit of an uncomfortable ride. In addition, the wind ended up being 20-30 knots instead of 15-20. So, we found ourselves sailing a beam reach in 20-30 knot winds with fairly rough seas, with boat speeds of 8-10 knots. When I realized the wind speed was that high, I reefed both sails (reducing the sail area) and tried to set a relatively comfortable course, doing a bit of a zig-zag to keep the waves from hitting us directly on the beam.
The other thing we had to deal with was that the bay is full of lobster/crab pots. Fisherman lower the metal trap with a small buoy attached by a rope. If you run over them, the rope can snag on your prop, or rudder. We have dealt with these all over, including the Caribbean, but the effect of the wave chop was that we had a very hard time seeing them in time to avoid them. Well, you guessed it, we snagged not one, but three pots. We were sailing along at 9 knots and all of the sudden we slowed down to 4. I guessed we had snagged a pot, but couldn’t see anything from the deck. So, we dropped the anchor and I went in the water with my mask, snorkel and fins and life vest tied to a line attached to the boat. Sure enough, the starboard prop had not one, but three lobster pot buoys snagged. I was able to unwrap them and set Terrapin free. This delayed our trip about an hour and a half but we still made it into Boot Key Harbor in daylight.
Lobster pots are a real problem in this area. They are everywhere. You have to be on constant watch while sailing or motoring. Nautical charts and books refer to all sorts of “hazards of navigation” but of course there is no charting of where lobster pots are and there are no apparent regulations for where they can be placed. You find them right in the middle of entrances to harbors and well-marked waterways. In fact, the pots probably represent the biggest hazards to navigation as they have the potential of disabling your boat. If your boat is disabled in rough seas near the coast line you could end up on the rocks. Most regulations on the books protect the lobster/crab fisherman. It is a felony to tamper with these pots. However, there needs to be some sensible regulation on where these pots can be placed. At least have some corridors where pots are prohibited so boats and the lobster industry can co-exist.
We are anchored off Bahia Honda State Park inside the old railroad trestle that is now a National Historic monument. The section that is open was removed so sailboats could get inside the bay.