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Florida: The Sunshine State

Ranging from the southern tip of Florida, near Flamingo in the Everglades, to the Mexican border, the United States portion of the Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico offers a premier boating experience. From numerous and varied inland waterways to classic open water cruising, the Gulf of Mexico and accompanying coastline is southern cruising at its best. This feature covers the Florida portion of this spectacular boating region.

There’s more than 600 miles of coastline between southern Florida and the Alabama state line and it all provides a variety of boating experiences. As for water mass, the Gulf of Mexico is about 1,000 miles wide from Florida’s shores across to the Texas coast. Much of the Florida coastline features excellent coastline cruising, as well as a wide array of inland boating opportunities in the intracoastal waterway and elsewhere

Along with charts, by far the best way to stay safe and happy while boating in the Gulf of Mexico is with Intertec Publishing’s Southern Waterway Guide. Founded in 1947, the Waterway Guide is a comprehensive full-color resource. The fun-to-read guide offers more than 450 pages packed with information on boating from Florida to the Mexico border.

Buying this guide provides the perfect introduction to Florida Gulf Coast boating. Whether you’re along the entire coastline or just around the so-called Big Bend of the Sunshine State it’s a great start to a great adventure on and off the water.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) runs for a total of more than 1,000 miles through five states to its terminus at Brownsville, Texas. It starts in Florida, which features some of its most interesting sections. The minimum depth is stated to be 12 feet, but dredging brings it only to 10 feet (and sometimes less) in some spots. There’s a minimum overhead clearance of 50 feet.

The Florida coastline of the Gulf Coast starts down in the swamps of the Everglades and runs north up through several great boating communities and large cities before hitting the Big Bend and turning westward along the Florida Panhandle. As stated, there’s about 600 miles of coastline, as well as several nice stretches of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (which starts where the Okeechobee Waterway, a popular cross-Florida route, ends).

The boating adventure starts in the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park, where Flamingo Lodge is an ideal stopover. From there, the route from the Cape Sable area to Fort Myers Beach (about 130 miles) includes Everglades National Park, the quiet Ten Thousand Islands, the mangroves around the Marco Island area, and a Gulf trip up to San Carlos Bay and the start of the GIWW.

From here the run up to Sarasota (86 miles) along the protected GIWW is more interesting, though going into the Gulf in good weather is quicker (just watch for the bars and shoals that make up many passes and inlets along Florida’s Gulf Coast. At mile zero of the GIWW (at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River), boats from Florida’s east coast, the Keys, and the southwest coast all meet. Interesting stops along this stretch include many offshore islands, like Sanibel, Captiva, and North Captiva.

The next 50 miles up to Clearwater features interesting cities and harbors around the Tampa Bay area, before reaching Dunedin (where the Gulf Coast starts to get less developed). After completing the GIWW, boaters must leave the protected inside passage and use the open Gulf for the run up to Carrabelle (about 175 miles).

From here, the options go back to an offshore run or the GIWW along the Panhandle to Pensacola (about 170 miles). One of the many favored boating stops on this stretch is Apalachicola, where oysters and boaters reign supreme. After Pensacola, the beach resort areas of Alabama and Mississippi are further along the GIWW.

Generally, Florida’s west coast over to Alabama is different from Intracoastal Waterway boating on the east coast. Inland waterways tend to be less stable, in general, with more bends and turns and varying channel depths. Off the coast, though, Gulf of Mexico cruising is very much like open water Atlantic Ocean cruising on the east coast of the Sunshine State, though with more barrier islands and lots of shoals to keep boaters alert.

The southern portion of Florida’s Gulf Coast, up through the Dunedin area, is marked by small towns, large cities, and many barrier islands. There are dozens of marinas and anchorages from which to choose all along the way. North of Dunedin and leading up to Carabelle, the Big Bend coastline is low, marshy, and quite undeveloped. Many boaters choose to make the 170-mile open water run from the Tampa Bay area, which is well marked by a string of navigational aids. The Panhandle over to the Lousiana line features deep and uncrowded waters, great beaches, and many excellent marinas.


As mentioned above, the Southern Waterway Guide (800/233-3359, www.waterwayguide.com, regularly $36.95, but just $XX.00 for ABA members) is a great resource for Gulf of Mexico cruising. They also publish the Mid-Atlantic Waterway Guide and the Northern Waterway Guide.

Upcoming Issues: More Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes boating coverage.