Cruising Stories

From the Gulf to the East Coast of Florida

12 Months, 22 Marinas and 6 Feet Under

By
Kevin & Hope
DeNicola

Our journey started as we pulled out of Waterford Harbor Marina in Kemah, Texas, in May aboard our sailing vessel Fidelity, a 42-foot Valiant. My husband, Kevin, Windy, our Boston terrier, and I were excited to cross the Gulf of Mexico and explore the many towns that dot the shores of Florida with hopes of finding our future homeport. Oh, the places you'll go with a 6-foot draft and 60-foot mast!

After crossing the Gulf of Mexico, our landfall was Clearwater Harbor Marina, which provides easy entry from the Gulf and plenty of deep water for a 6-foot draft (as long as you stay in the channel). The marina's floating docks are key, especially when the swift current catches. The facility is conveniently located near Cleveland Street, Clearwater's entertainment district. It's an easy trek to the beach by water taxi or a stroll over the bridge. Frenchy's Original Café is a must-do for the famous Florida grouper sandwich.

dog

After a lovely day cruising about 40 miles offshore, we made our way to the Harborage Marina at Bayboro in St. Petersburg. We arrived after closing and were greeted by Leon, the night guard, who provided us with the ever important "keys to the gate." Windy thoroughly enjoyed her time at the marina, given the surplus of dog treats provided by the staff, which made it one of the most pet-friendly marinas we visited. It's number one on our list of possible homeports after our adventures on Fidelity wind down.

Just a short walk from Harborage is historic downtown St. Petersburg. Among other don't-miss spots, The Chattaway has great burgers and cold beers. No car is needed -- unless you want to make the trip to Mazzaro's, the best Italian market ever. Nearby, Island Nautical does great service work and repairs. We installed new dingy davits from MarTek and bought a new dinghy to hang off them.

After our stay in St. Pete, it was time to get Fidelity a little farther south. We made a quick stop at Longboat Key then continued on to the Venice Inlet to Crow's Nest Marina and finally arriving at Boca Grande Marina on Gasparilla Island. The approach into Charlotte Harbor was easy, the narrow channel and turn into the marina well marked, and the marina staff talked us into the harbor to avoid the shallows. The marina's docks were pristine, and the on-site restaurant, Miller's Dockside Bar & Grill, was the perfect place to settle into upon arrival.

Golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation in these parts Windy loved riding around and eating at the Loose Caboose, where she ordered from the doggie menu. The landscape's many banyan trees are remarkable, and the pastel-colored "old Florida"-style homes are atmospheric and beautiful. It was a great spot to slow down and enjoy the quieter side of things.

car

Before we got too settled in this lovely place, we decided to move on. We awoke to a thick layer of fog that lifted by mid-morning, when we were already well underway to our next stop, Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach. On approach, the busy port was full of commercial and recreational boats but provided a good depth for Fidelity and was extremely easy to navigate.

Dave, the marina's harbormaster, was incredibly hospitable, but unfortunately we were forced to leave early due to an approaching storm front. We set sail for Marco Island Marina, which would be our home for the next couple of months. As we approached Capri Pass, we were thrilled by the sight of boats sailing in the waters of Marco Island.

Marco Island is a great port with easy access to Gulf sailing, deep water and plenty of dining and entertainment options. The channel into the marina is well marked and the fairways are wide enough for an easy docking experience. Some of our favorite spots for a bite to eat during our time there were the Island Gypsy Cafe´ (a dinghy ride away from the marina), the Italian Deli (excellent New York-style pizza) and the Esplanade.

After several months on Marco Island, Fidelity was ready to head to Key West. By now, Chris Parker, the weather guy, had become Fidelity's most important satellite crew member. There was a small window between storm fronts so we took it and sailed to Stock Island Marina Village in Key West. We had a fun stay, and the marina shuttle was more than sufficient for exploring downtown Key West.

Marathon Marina and RV Resort was our next stop. The marina has new, concrete floating docks, and the on-site Lazy Days South was the perfect spot for happy hour and dinner.

Then it was on to Miami. We cruised past Key Biscayne and downtown Miami to Miami Beach Marina. Giovanni, the dockhand, was a pro with the lines, which came in handy because a strong current surges through the marina but the prime location makes the effort worth it. We enjoyed South Beach's Art Deco architecture, not to mention the bars, restaurants and beach, and then decided it was time for our next destination, Fort Lauderdale.

Bucking the current through Government Cut, Fidelity had her first sail in the Atlantic. Our timing was near perfect with the 17th Street Bridge opening, and a quick turn put us into the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six Marina. The on-site restaurants, Grille 66 and Pelican Landing, were both great dinner spots. A little bit farther aheld, Louie Bossi's Ristorante Bar Pizzeria, 15th Street Fisheries, and South Port Raw Bar rounded out our top picks for food, atmosphere and price in Fort Lauderdale.

Soon enough, it was time to get underway to Jacksonville and up the coast before hurricane season. A few quick stops we made during this leg of the trip deserve mention. Lake Park Harbor Marina, just north of Riviera Beach, is a great stopover, with floating docks and a low-key atmosphere. Fort Pierce City Marina in Fort Pierce is another wonderful destination the floating docks were in excellent condition and the staff knowledgeable. At Cocoa Village Marina in Cocoa Beach, the dockmaster and crew greeted us personally and made us feel right at home. And Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast was a true luxury with swimming pools, restaurants, and doggie treats for Windy.

After the 20-plus-nautical-mile, winding ride past Matanzas Pass, we pulled into the St. Augustine Municipal Marina, and the masterful docking crew handled everything like a finely tuned machine. St. Augustine was a particularly lovely stop and is number two on our list of top ports of call, offering everything from history to dining to shopping. Windy loved her morning walk through the historic part of town, and almost every restaurant we visited welcomed her with a bowl of ice water.

But hurricane season was approaching. It was time to move Fidelity to her summer home. We sailed offshore and then motored up the St. Johns River to Jacksonville's Marina at Ortega Landing. And then we immediately began to look at locations where we might put her in the winter, and to make plans to explore the East Coast in the spring. With so many great ports to chose from, we have some homework to do.

Related Articles
Our Adventures between the Great Lakes from Detroit to Port Huron
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My husband Tim and I spent 2021 traveling 8,000 miles around the Great Loop. Like many, we wanted to cruise in Canada, but we didn’t get the green light for entry in time. We were initially bummed, but our mood quickly shifted as we discovered some of our favorite stops on the stretch that kept us in U.S. waters, including our journey between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

Stop 1: Belle Isle

Estimated Mileage: 2 NM

Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in America, located on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. The island’s only marina is the Detroit Yacht Club, which has a limited number of transient slips for reciprocal members, so it’s best to explore while keeping your boat at Milliken Marina. 

Roughly 1,000 acres, Belle Isle is home to an aquarium, maritime museum, botanical garden, beach, picnic areas and playgrounds that provide a plethora of options to explore. You won’t find great spots to grab a bite to eat, so we recommend stopping at Atwater Brewery on the way back to the marina.

Stop 2: Harrison Township, Lake St. Clair

Estimated Mileage: 24 NM

Often referred to as the Great Lake’s smaller cousin, Lake St. Clair is large enough to easily keep your distance from freighters yet small enough to explore in a day.

By boat, you can visit several of the lake’s swimming spots in Anchor and Bouvier Bays (or “Munchies” Bay as the locals say), popular for their clear water and hard bottoms. After an afternoon of swimming, cruise through the Clinton River and tie up at one of several restaurants catering to a lively boater scene for a drink and meal. Crews Inn is one of our favorites for their fun atmosphere and great food.

Lake St. Clair Metropark Marina is a popular spot for transients. The marina is located in the park, so after docking, enjoy the expansive park’s beaches, trails, picnic areas and swimming pool.

Stop 3: Port Huron, MI

Estimated Mileage: 44 NM

Port Huron is home to the start of one of the longest fresh-water races in the world called the Port Huron to Mackinac Sailing Race, and the port is a charming and boater-friendly destination.

Ideal for its central location and friendly members, Port Huron Yacht Club is a great place for tying up, sipping a drink at the clubhouse and avoiding the drawbridges on the Black River. Another popular spot is about a mile farther down the river at the 95-slip River Street Marina.

Port Huron is home to the Island Loop Route National Water Trail, a 10-mile loop through the Black River, Lake Huron and St. Clair River. Your dinghy is a must through the Black River and for exploring the town and clear waters by boat.

Walk a mile along the Blue Water River Walk that runs along the St. Clair River. Be sure to leave enough time to watch the freighters go by and delve into the area’s history that is shared along the route. Continue a couple of miles farther to Lighthouse Park, where you can enjoy an afternoon at the beach and swim in Lake Huron’s crystal clear water.

During a stroll downtown, check out the Knowlton’s Ice Museum of North America to discover the history of local ice harvesting that took place along the Great Lakes.

When you’ve done enough activities to work up an appetite, Casey’s is the place for delicious breadsticks and pizza. For a more upscale option, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu at The Vintage Tavern. Maria’s Downtown Café offers a hearty breakfast, and Raven Café or Exquisite Corpse Coffee House are great options for a cup of coffee.

Kate Carney is a writer and Great Gold Looper who traveled 8,000 miles on Sweet Day, a 31-foot Camano trawler. Learn more about her and her husband’s adventures on lifeonsweetday.com

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Cruising Cartagena: A Worthy Destination
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Route planning can sometimes be more about what you choose to miss rather than what you include. Time in country can be surprisingly short for many cruisers, as seasonal weather requires you to plot a destination and move toward it on a relatively strict timeframe. Often you leave little room for detours and deviations. If a country isn’t on your track, it is left in your wake forever. 

The problem is, unplanned destinations often crop up and fitting them in can become a priority.  Colombia was never a name on our cruising destinations list until we arrived in the Southern Caribbean, but the closer we got to South America the more frequently the name Cartagena cropped up. At the time our focus was on transiting the Panama Canal and cruising the remote Pacific Islands, so detouring to a big city didn’t appeal. However, we were going from low-key islands in the Atlantic to low-key islands in the Pacific, so an injection of high-speed would be a nice change of pace. With a large, sheltered bay, busy metropolitan city, UNESCO World Heritage Site and the vivacious Latin culture, Colombia was our unexpected add-on. 

As the date for our transit to Colombia neared, rumors started to spread concern. We heard reports of strong winds, poor anchorages and crime off the north coast of Colombia, as reasons to avoid the country. The winds that funnel around the coast create a wind acceleration zone, resulting in high winds and steep seas. Would we be driving our boat Aeta into a chaotic washing machine? Colombia has a history of violent crime. Would we lose everything not padlocked to the deck or hidden on our bodies? Everyone spoke of rough anchorages and the need to stay in marinas. Could our budget survive? 

The more we heard of Colombia, however, the more the sense of adventure outweighed calls for caution. As sailors, how could we not be drawn to a city steeped in piracy, conquest and gold? As travelers, how could we not fall under the spell of a vibrant city thriving behind old, fortified walls? Plus, we’d get a break from our lazy sun-drenched Caribbean beach days to drink “aquadentes” under the twinkling lights strung above Cartagena’s rooftop bars and dance until dawn in the city’s famous salsa clubs. We re-drew the travel plan for the season and decided to sail for Cartagena. 

The Old Amid the New

Cartagena’s dramatic high-rise skyline rose up on the horizon as we closed our two-day passage from Bonaire to Colombia, giving our first indication of the different pace that lay ahead of us. As we entered through the eastern entrance to Bocagrande, our echo-sounder bounced from 10 to 3 meters, registering an underwater breakwater that was built in the mid-1700s to close off the northern entrance to the bay and force access to Cartegena by sea past the heavily fortified southern entrance. 

Old military forts that once protected the Spanish from foreign invaders now stood idle, welcoming inbound traffic from all over the world. Today, Cartagena is Colombia’s main container port and processes around 1,600 vessels each year, including container ships, cruise ships, bulk carriers and the odd cruising yacht. The cannons that point seaward are no longer a threat to foreign interest.

Sailing past these 500-year-old fortifications is a reminder that much of Cartagena’s past is deeply woven into its present. Old forts stand beside modern skyscrapers that line the shoreline of Playa de Bocagrande, Cartagena’s version of Miami Beach. Empty turrets stand next to busy modern housing complexes and sections of fortress break way to streets and pedestrian walkways. La Ciudad Amurallada, Cartagena’s historic walled city, is the most well-preserved and complete fortification in South America. As in the past, horse and cart roll down old cobblestone streets; however, they are now interrupted by lengthy traffic jams. 

Perfectly preserved colonial architecture has been repurposed into swanky cafés, upmarket restaurants, local residences and boutique shops. The 11 kilometers of old city wall are a unique feature, as you can circumnavigate the city by walking on top of them. The old, exposed brick covered in beautifully painted graffiti and covered in brightly blooming jacaranda is a perfect example of how the past has been woven into the present, creating one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We enjoyed every minute of our time in Cartagena. We wandered through San Felipe de Barajas Castle and learned about the constant pirate assaults and colonial invasions, then strolled through the convent and chapel of La Candelaria de la Popa, a beautiful church that sits atop the city’s highest hilltop, Mount Popa. We walked throughout the old walled city a dozen times, seeing popular landmarks from statues of Simón Bolivar and India Catalina that stand in central plazas to gold museums, theater houses, slave quarters and bull rings held within beautiful colonial buildings. We found a dozen or so Spanish colonial-style churches and cathedrals spread throughout the city. 

When we were done sightseeing, we soaked up the colorful Colombian environment. We relaxed in street side cafés, listened to buskers strumming local tunes, window-shopped outside upmarket designer boutiques, ate scrumptious local chow in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and gazed at the provocative murals and graffiti that are displayed throughout the city. 

While ambling through backstreets and staring at magnificent street art, I remembered the list of reasons not to come to Cartagena, and crime topped the list. When everything around me left me buzzing with delight, I wondered what the negative comments were about.

Little Reason for Concern

After gaining first-hand experience, we saw that many of the streets considered too dangerous 20 years ago are now popular hangout spots filled with funky cafes and swanky bars, trendy artisan shops and local art galleries. Rough turned bohemian, and the historically volatile neighborhoods had transformed into a hip, artistic quarter that drew international visitors by the thousands. While I was wary of pickpockets, I had no cause for concern regarding serious crime.

Poor anchorages and restrictions to marinas were also mentioned, but we stayed just outside the Club Nautico de Cartagena marina with our anchor buried deep in the mud. The only rough movement we experienced was created by daily tour boats rushing past us and stirring up significant chop. If you do Cartagena right as a busy tourist, daytime discomfort is irrelevant. By the time you return to your slip, tour boats are tucked in their berths and the peaceful quiet of a flat, calm anchorage surrounded by a city full of sparkling lights presents a view no fancy hotel could match.

Regarding caution with strong winds, the place of greatest intensity is the water between Punta Gallinas and Cabo Augusta. Approach the area with a good forecast, but it requires nothing more than standard good seamanship. The winds can be strong, and the swell can be large, but with a proper forecast you need not avoid the north coast of Colombia. We enjoyed remote, peaceful bays of the Tayrona National Park and the bustle of our anchorage in Cartagena’s busy port, but planned our movement between them with a quick weather check. With time and prudence, entry into the country doesn’t warrant precautions out of the norm.

After experiencing Colombia firsthand, we start a new rumor — Cartagena is a fantastic cruising destination. The winds are manageable, safe anchorages are plentiful and serious crime is a carryover from a bygone era. Take your time, check your weather, trust your anchor and go have big city fun. I came to Cartagena uncertain about what lay ahead, but in a matter of days I’d fallen for its charm. I could stay in the area for weeks, months, even years. Given a sturdy A/C unit, I could stay indefinitely. 

The people are friendly, the topography varied, the cruising options abundant. The city is a living history, blending the old and the new, the past and the present. It is radiant, vibrant and absorbing. 

Adding Colombia to our itinerary was a fantastic diversion, and if it lays as a detour from your route, do yourself a favor: rewrite the plan. Make sure you don’t look back and see it left behind in your wake. A dog-leg isn’t a detour when it holds all that Cartagena offers. It is the destination.

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Women Take to the Water In Boating Groups & Clubs
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It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Do you know where your wife, mother, daughter or sister is? She might be at the Chicago Yacht Club, launching off in a learn-to-sail lesson in the summer series that’s part of the Women on the Water Program.  Or, if she’s in the Florida Keys, you could find her relaxing ashore after a day casting about in a Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! tournament. Or maybe she’s cruising the Intracoastal Waterway in North Myrtle Beach on a pontoon boat with friends, all members of Freedom Boat Club’s Sisters group. 

Nationwide nowadays, many groups and clubs are oriented specifically toward female boaters. Some are exclusively for women, others are clubs within co-ed clubs, and still others are part of century-old all-inclusive organizations that now offer opportunities for the ladies.

“A boater is a boater; it’s anyone who loves being on the water. Still, for many years and often today, boating is viewed as a man’s sport. That’s changing as more opportunities become available for women to get out on the water,” says Mary Paige Abbott, the past Chief Commander of the U.S. Power Squadrons, rebranded as America’s Boating Club with 30,000 members — 30% of them women. The century-plus-old organization opened its membership to females in 1982.

Women making waves in boating isn’t new. New York-born Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female to win a medal sailing in the 1900 Olympics. Helen Lerner, who with her husband Michael and friend Ernest Hemingway founded the Bahamas Marlin & Tuna Club in 1936, recorded a women’s first record catch of a swordfish off Nova Scotia. In 1977, Betty Cook landed a first-place finish in the powerboat world championships held in Key West. These examples are extraordinary but only exceptions to the rule that boating is a male-dominated sport. 

Today, the tide is turning. Take sports fishing for example. About 36% of Americans who went fishing last year were women, an all-time participation high, according to the 2021 Special Report on Fishing by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing involvement in recreational angling and boating.

WHY WOMEN?

Why not? That’s what led Betty Bauman to start Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! in 1997. Since then, this organization of which Bauman is founder and chief executive officer, hosts weekend seminar series dubbed the No-Yelling School of Fishing, as well as tournaments throughout Florida and abroad. To date, Bauman has empowered more than 9,000 women to sportfish.  

“I attended ICAST (International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show) when I had a public relations agency. The American Sportfishing Association’s director asked in a speech why weren’t more women in fishing? After all, as he pointed out, the sport wasn’t reaching some 50% of the potential market. I thought to myself, women don’t want to feel uncomfortable or get yelled out. So, I came up with a way to teach women the basics. How to tie knots, how rods and reels work, and how to make value assessments when fishing, not just following what their husbands yell at them to do or going down in the galley to make sandwiches,” says Bauman.

Women learn differently from men, and that’s the benefit of learning boating skills with and from other women. Just ask Debbie Huntsman, the past president of the National Women’s Sailing Association (NWSA).

“My husband and I were taking a learn to sail class years ago. I saw another boat in the distance and asked the instructor, who was a man, what I needed to do to be sure we didn’t have a collision. He answered that it was just like going down the aisle at the supermarket with a shopping cart; you just know not to hit another cart. That didn’t do it for me,” Huntsman tells. 

The 1990-founded NWSA is a group of national and international women sailors. It supports its members via everything from a library of instructional videos taught by women, for women, to its annual conference, which features hands-on workshops and on-the-water coaching.

“I think women tend to be more meticulous in their learning. They want to know all the moving parts and why they move. They want to do it right and do it perfectly whether men are onboard or not. That’s what I see,” says Karen Berry, VP of operations at Freedom Boat Club (FBC) of the Grand Strand, in Myrtle Beach, SC.

FBC offers free boating training and safety education to all members, including those in the 2017-founded Freedom Boating Diva program, which Berry helped to launch. The group is now called the Freedom Boat Club Sisters group, and 40% of the clubs nationwide now have a Sister component. Members enjoy time on the water together, training activities, social events and boatloads of camaraderie.

CAMARADERIE & NETWORKING

More so than a one-and-done class, many women-centric boating groups and clubs feature ongoing and year-round events. A good example is Women on the Water, a club within a club run by the Chicago Yacht Club’s (CYC) Women’s Committee. The group’s Friday night learn-to-sail series in Sonar 23s only takes place during the summer. The rest of the year, the women (an eclectic group of boating-oriented 20-somethings to 70-plus-year-olds, singles and marrieds, professionals and retirees) meet monthly for educational programs, networking events and happy hours.

“We’ve done everything from a sunset powerboat tour to admire the architecture of the Chicago skyline to a cooking class taught by the club’s pastry chef. During the pandemic, we continued to meet virtually. We had the female president of the U.S. Naval War College speak. We met some of the crew of the Maiden Factor, which is sailing the world to promote women’s sailing, and we had one of our own speak — Maggie Shea, who raced in the 2020 Olympics. The fact that our events fill up and sell out almost immediately tells you there’s a need for this,” says Nancy Berberian, head of the CYC’s Women’s Committee.

Similarly, the nearly four-decade-old Women’s Sailing Association (WSA) at the Houston Yacht Club hosts a residential women’s sailing camp. The Windward Bound Camp, one of the first of its kind in the nation, organizes racing, educational and social events throughout the year.  

“Our sailing socials allow time on the water with other women in a non-competitive environment.  Yearly, we organize a ‘Sail to High.’ Yes, we wear lovely hats and gloves on the sailboat and dock at someone’s home for tea and trimmings,” says Jane Heron, WSA president.

More recently, Women on the Water of Long Island Sound (WOWLIS) was born, made up currently of more than 250 women from 14 yacht clubs in Connecticut and New York who love to sail, race, learn and socialize. 

“It started as a Supper Series, as a way to connect women across our venues,” says Cathleen Blood at WOWLIS. “Now, there is regularly held one-design racing on Ideal 18s, team and fleet racing events, chalk talks and clinics, summer regattas, frostbiting in the spring, and an annual winter meeting to plan for the year ahead. 

To participate in most of these events, you must be a member of one of the yacht clubs. In this way, it’s all about getting clubs to commit to training and get more women on the water. There’s a real advantage. Say there’s a race I want to sail. I’m never stuck for crew. I have a pool of over 200 women, whether I know them or not, I can ask. We’re all united by a shared love of sailing.”

A SAMPLING OF WAYS FOR WOMEN TO GET ON THE WATER

Chicago Yacht Club’s Women on the Water


Freedom Boat Club Sisters Program


Houston Yacht Club Women’s Sailing Association


Ladies Let's go Fishing


National Women’s Sailing Association


Women on the Water Long Island Sound

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