Travel Destinations

Crossing the Gulf of Mexico


Our Journey Around the Big Bend Route

For those traveling the Great Loop or cruising from Florida’s panhandle to its west coast, crossing the Gulf of Mexico is often one of the most anticipated stages of the trip.

You can generally choose between two ways to approach the crossing—the Direct Route or Big Bend Route. Both routes typically start in Carrabelle, FL, and end at Anclote Key/Tarpon Springs, FL. The direct route is 150 nautical miles in open water with zero stops. The Big Bend Route covers 224 nautical miles that keeps you closer to the coast and includes several stops.

During our Great Loop, we always had our eyes set on the Big Bend Route. We wanted to see the towns along the coast, and cruising at 7 knots for 20+ hours straight didn’t sound very appealing. The preference for each route depends on the boater, boat (some channels can get skinny) and weather. Because both routes involve cruising in open waters, a good weather window during all of your travel days is highly recommended. We had a great weather window, a 3.5-foot draft and a very fun group of boats to travel with, making the Big Bend Route a perfect choice for us.

Starting Point: Carrabelle, FL

After filling up our fuel and water tanks, we attended the nightly meeting-turned-docktails of cruisers who planned to cross the Gulf the next day. At the meeting, we divided into groups based on preferred routes and boat speeds, so we could find our “pack” to travel with. Some boats can go 20+ mph and can do the direct crossing in a day, others may go a little slower and decide to start at night. We had countless options.

We stayed at The Moorings of Carrabelle and formed our pack with two other boats that had a fun crew, went our speed and chose to take the same route as we did. If looking for something to do while waiting to cross, walk or bike to the Bottle House, a pentagon-shaped structure with an accompanying lighthouse made with more than 6,000 glass bottles built by a retired art professor in his backyard. On your way, take a photo at the world’s smallest police station.

Stop 1: Dog Island

Estimated mileage: 7 NM

Instead of starting our crossing directly from Carrabelle, we decided to spend a night at Dog Island East Anchorage, the farthest protected waters from Carrabelle before entering the Gulf. While some start their Gulf crossing straight from Carrabelle, we wanted to have fun on the beach and dinghy around. Plus, it helped take an hour off the longest and most exposed leg of the journey. When approaching the island, follow the charts and use Google map satellite imaging to see where the shallow sections end.

Stop 2: Steinhatchee, FL

Estimated mileage: 65 NM

Steinhatchee is undoubtedly a sport fishing town. When we pulled up to Sea Hag Marina, we were captivated by the huge fish cleaning stations where fishermen were cleaning their catch from the day. Some restaurants were located about a 1.5 mile walk from the marina, but otherwise we didn’t find much else to see within walking distance. But the marina is protected and a secure place to tie up for the night after accomplishing the longest open water crossing of the Big Bend Route. The four-mile channel for your approach is well marked, but it can get busy with fishing boats.

Stop 3: Cedar Key, FL

Estimated mileage: 52 NM

Home to some of the best clam chowder in the country, Cedar Key has no shortage of things to do. It is almost entirely surrounded by water, tucked away in between islands where the town was originally located in the 1800s. You can find coffee shops, art co-ops, seafood restaurants (clamming is the big industry), a wildlife refuge and a local grocery store that has surprisingly good baby back ribs.

Also be sure to check out the cemetery on Atsena Otie Key Island to discover graves of early residents of Cedar Key from the 1800s. We stayed at Atsena Otie Key Anchorage and noted that a few channels flowed in and out of Cedar Key. We took the southern main shipping channel and didn’t have any issues with depth. The anchorage does not have a lot of protection if weather becomes rough.

Stop 4: Crystal River, FL

Estimated mileage: 36 NM

Manatees can only tolerate water temperatures above 68 degrees, so when the Gulf gets cold in the winter, manatees head up to Crystal River where natural freshwater springs guzzle water at a constant 72 degrees. This means more than 400 manatees come each year to hang in the Crystal River waters and protected areas without being disturbed.

It’s not uncommon to see manatees swim right up to your boat in the anchorage, but the best place to swim with them is a short dinghy, kayak or paddleboard ride up to the entrance of Three Sisters Springs. No boats are allowed in the protected springs, so bring your snorkel set, tie up your boat near the entrance and hop in for the chance to get up close with the manatees. If you’d rather see them by land, grab a shuttle from the Three Sisters Springs Visitors Center downtown to the park.

The town also hosts a selection of fun restaurants and shops, making it worth a stop. Coffee at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, lunch at Tea House 650 and seafood at The Crab Plant are some favorites. During this stop, we dropped anchor at Crystal River Anchorage, which is very protected and easy to get into town. Fuel is available nearby, and the pump out boat comes to you. We also noted that the marked channel is about 10 miles long and can be narrow and shallow at parts, so avoid going at low tide.

Stop 5: Tarpon Springs, FL

Estimated mileage: 64 NM

Anclote Key is the start of the intercoastal waterway on the west coast of Florida and where many boaters anchor for the night after their Gulf crossing if they can’t find a slip in Tarpon Springs. We luckily got a slip and were so glad we did, otherwise we would never have experienced Tarpon Spring’s rich Greek history and natural sponge markets. Attracted by the sponge harvesting industry, Greek immigrants came to Tarpon Springs starting in the early 1900s, and now it has the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the entire country. That means no shortage of excellent Greek food, pastries and culture, as well as a robust natural sponge market. We stayed at Belle Harbour Marina, but Tarpon Springs City Marina is also a great spot.

While the two routes provide different experiences, there really is no “right route.” Whichever way you go, the waters guarantee dolphin action, crab-pot dodging (hopefully not snagged like happened to us), and a celebration when you make it into port.

Article and Photos by Kate Carney

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