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1st in a Series

Ranging from the southern tip of Florida 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.

Though its hard to come up with an exact figure, there’s more than 1,500 miles of coastline between southern Florida and the Rio Grande River marking the border between Texas and Mexico (the Gulf of Mexico is about 1,000 miles wide from Florida to the Texas coast). Much of the coastline features excellent coastline cruising, as well as a wide array of inland boating opportunities.

Along with charts, 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 Gulf Coast boating. Whether you’re heading across the Gulf or just around the Big Bend of Florida, it’s a great start to a great adventure on and off the water.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway runs for a total of more than 1,000 miles through five states to its terminus at Brownsville, Texas. 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. 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).

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.

From Pensacola to the Rio Grande, the GIWW arcs 870 miles. There’s a wide variety of inland boating, with the open water of Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound contrasted by several narrow canals. Of course, actually boating in the Gulf of Mexico can bring the heavy effects of wind and waves, as well as lots of commercial traffic (vessels are often 1,000 or more feet long and sometimes travel in packs). With the Gulf, it’s important to monitor weather and traffic both offshore and inland.

From Pensacola onward, the Gulf coastline is marked by modern southern cities like Mobile, Biloxi, New Orleans, and Galveston, as well as long stretches where marinas are scarce (watch the fuel tank carefully). After Pensacola, the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, lead to the long curve of the Texas coastline. Many mariners choose to make the 240-mile open water run to New Orleans, but the inside GIWW route if prettier, easier, safer, and actually shorter (180 miles).

After New Orleans, boaters enter true Cajun country, where radio traffic can include a mix of English, French, and more. The quiet run to Galveston must be planned carefully, with few facilities along the way.

South of Galveston, the stunning Texas coastline offers quiet and inexpensive marinas, nice anchorage opportunities. Outlying islands make the GIWW easy to navigate, with it’s end at South Padre Island and Port Isabel actually marking an exotic launching point to further Gulf boating adventures in Mexico.


As mentioned above, the Southern Waterway Guide (800/233-3359, www.waterwayguide.com, regularly $36.95, but a discount 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