Following a month’s stay in Naples, it feels good to be underway again. Today’s journey takes us through Gordon Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico for the 34-mile run north to Fort Myers Beach. The weather is sunny and warm today with light winds from the south. North of Naples Pier, our course affords an excellent view of the high-rise condo buildings on Gulfshore Boulevard that served as our primary bicycle route during our visit to Naples.
By 2:30 PM, the Fort Myers Beach Bridge comes into view as Cutter Loose rounds Bodwich Point and into Matanzas Pass. Fort Myers Beach is a popular destination for cruising sailors and the mooring field is packed with boats today. To our good fortune, the mooring manager at Matanzas Inn assures us that two moorings remain available in the east mooring field. After circling and re-circling the field, it eventually became clear to us that the mooring manager was mistaken. All 70 moorings are occupied today.
Necessity being the mother of invention, we opt instead for an anchorage along the green side of the channel near the Coast Guard Station. This proved to be an excellent, calm-weather anchorage with manageable tidal current. From here, it is a short dinghy ride to the City dock under the bridge.
The long walk to Publix along Estero Boulevard is made longer by a massive sidewalk reconstruction project. Laden with groceries, the 75-cent fare on the air-conditioned trolley proved to be an excellent investment for the return trip to the dinghy dock. The following day, we enjoy lunch with cruising friends Alan and Kathy of s/v Flatlander with whom we cruised the Bahamas in 2012.
On Wednesday, the anchor is up in Fort Myers Beach at 9 AM. Our course today takes us north into San Carlos Bay, under the landmark Sanibel Island Causeway Bridge, past the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and into Pine Island Sound. This route is part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway where a series of dredged channels make it possible to meander through low-lying islands between Sanibel and Captiva Islands to the west and Pine Island to the east. Once past Cabbage Key and Useppa Island, it is a short run to Cayo Costa State Park.
After negotiating the interesting entrance channel that passes just a few yards from a white sand beach, the anchor is down in Pelican Bay. The prime attractions here are the protected anchorage and a deserted beach on the Gulf side of Cayo Costa. A hike along the beach reveals green can “5” from Boca Grande inlet which relocated to Cayo Costa as a victim of a winter storm.
On Thursday, the anchor is up in Pelican Bay at 7 AM. Cutter Loose battles an opposing flood tide as she powers her way into the Gulf of Mexico through Boca Grande Pass. Our objective today is to reach Sarasota before the arrival of a strong cold front which is forecasted to arrive by early evening. During the morning, the pre-frontal wind has been building and clocking from SE to S to SW under increasing cloud cover. While the increase in wind contributes to boat speed, these subtle changes are a constant reminder that the cold front is approaching rapidly.
At 1 PM, Cutter Loose arrives at Big Pass, the entrance channel to Sarasota Bay. Here, vessels must cross a shallow sand bar in order to gain access to the deeper water inside. Since the bar is constantly shifting, the entrance channel is not charted. Instead, boaters rely on guidance published on the Sarasota Yacht Club website which defines a route comprised of four GPS waypoints.
The entrance to Sarasota Bay through New Pass turns out to be one of the most frightening experiences we’ve had on Cutter Loose. Turning northeast from the Gulf of Mexico into New Pass and following the Sarasota Yacht Club’s suggested waypoints for crossing the shallow bar, waves are breaking to the north and to the south of the narrow entrance.
Now beyond the point of no return, waves lift the stern of Cutter Loose, sending her surfing and pitching fore and aft towards Sarasota Bay. Simultaneously, a 20-knot southeasterly wind on her beam is causing her to roll from side to side. The resulting corkscrew motion makes it extremely difficult to steer a course to the prescribed waypoints under these conditions. At the shallowest section of the bar, there was less than a foot of water under our keel. This is way too close for comfort.
Once over the bar and after breathing a collective sigh of relief, a marked channel of deeper water leads to Marina Jack at the head of the Bay. All in all, Cutter Loose performs admirably today, covering 50 NM and arriving at our mooring in downtown Sarasota by 1:45 PM.
A dramatic wind shift to the northwest at 5 PM signals the arrival of the cold front, bringing showers, much cooler temperatures and wind gusts to 30 knots. Bouncy conditions in the mooring field abate overnight when the wind shifts to the north, causing Cutter Loose to fall into the lee of the ubiquitous high-rise condo and office towers lining Sarasota’s waterfront. Gusty 20 to 25 knot winds continue well into the day on Friday, keeping us boat-bound in the mooring field. By late afternoon, the wind gradually diminishes to 15 knots.
Under sunny skies on Saturday morning, Cutter Loose moves to her slip at Marina Jack where we have signed on for a two-week stay. With over 300 floating slips and three popular restaurants, Marina Jack is a very well-maintained and secure marina with floating docks, clean restrooms and a polite staff. Our slip is within a ten-minute walk of a long list of downtown amenities. For more remote destinations, Marina Jack offers a free shuttle service for its guests.
Every morning just before sunrise, hundreds of noisy black crows blacken the sky above the marina. These are the southern variety of crows, chanting “uh-uh, uh-uh” at the top of their lungs. Each morning, the crow cacophony awakens us immediately upon their arrival. For dramatic effect, they prefer perching themselves high in the rigging of sailboats, although power boats are not exempt from their invasion. The sole purpose of their visit is to work up a healthy bowel movement, dropping their bombs on the decks of Cutter Loose. They seem to take great delight in achieving their intended objective, chattering and “crowing” noisily about their accomplishment.
Discouraging the varmints from lighting in the rigging of Cutter Loose is a real crapshoot. Every morning at the first sound of their arrival, we jump out of the sack and assume our defensive positions, shaking the shrouds and stays vigorously in an effort to interrupt their mission, and in doing so, sending them squawking to other vessels in the marina. After 20 minutes on poop patrol, we begin to relax as the bombardiers gradually depart the marina in search of ammunition for tomorrow’s poopfest.
While marina-hopping may lack the allure of island-hopping, it is not without its benefits. Our morning routine includes a brisk walk through city streets with obligatory stops at Whole Foods, Starbucks, a delightful little French restaurant, C’est La Vie, for croissants and baguettes and, of course, a sampling of the colossal espresso muffins at Art of Pastry.
To shed calories added during morning strolls, our afternoons are frequently devoted to bicycling, including jaunts to Lido Key, Longboat Key, Siesta Key, and a delightful, 38-mile round trip from Marina Jack to downtown Venice, FL via the impeccably paved Legacy Rail Trail.
The downtown luxury condo market is thriving in Sarasota with demand apparently exceeding supply. Downtown housing in Sarasota is not quite as pricey as Naples, but the market here does not lag far behind. A new, 18-story condo tower currently under construction on the waterfront is completely sold. Sales prices range from $900,000 to $2.5 million for two and three bedroom units ranging in size from 1700 to 2400 square feet. Many of these dwellings will be occupied only a few months of the year by snowbirds.
Downtown residents enjoy being able to walk to restaurants, galleries, high- end retail, decorating and design establishments, Whole Foods, the $6 multiplex-cinema and other cultural events, including the symphony, opera and theatrical performances.
Sidewalk cafes are filled with residents and tourists from mid-morning until late in the evening. Downtown Sarasota serves as the dining and entertainment epicenter of the region extending from Bradenton in the north to Venice in the south, including the outlying barrier islands.
Apparently, the homeless also have a strong preference for wintering in Sarasota. During daylight hours, they congregate near the library, the public transit center and at intersections on Main Street.
While loitering is prohibited by statute in Florida, it appears to be tolerated by City officials sympathetic to the plight of the homeless. Uniformed peace officers have established a noticeable presence on Main Street to deal with occasional acts of aggressive, threatening or erratic behavior.
Pittsburgh friend and sailing mentor Chuck Berrington graces Cutter Loose with a brief visit during our stay in Sarasota. Together, we take in a showing of the movie Concussion starring Will Smith. A considerable part of this interesting film is set in the City of Pittsburgh. Later, we revisit the Ringling Circus Museum located just three miles north of the marina.
Cruising friends Alan and Kathy aboard IP 420 Flatlander also pay a weekend visit to Marina Jack. Together, we tour the orchids and lush tropical vegetation at Shelby Botanical Gardens.
Except for the crows, our fortnight in the delightful town of Sarasota has been a very pleasant and enjoyable experience. It has been entertaining exploring the nooks and crannies of this attractive, walkable community.
The time has come to pack up the Bike Fridays and prepare for departure. On Saturday morning, we will pull up stakes at Marina Jack and move further north to St. Petersburg.