Millions of Americans will enjoy the day as we celebrate the birth of our nation, and many Southwest Floridians will take advantage of the holiday to have fun on the water. Fishing, cruising, beaching, kayaking, paddleboarding, sandbar parties, Punta Gorda’s Freedom Swim and fireworks viewing are some of the activities which will draw us to the water. Have fun, but be careful. Law enforcement will have a busy, busy day today.
Pulling your boat onto a friendly sandbar so you can hop overboard and play in the shallows has been going on for about as long as there have been boats. But group sandbar partying has really become a thing locally in the last decade or so. One of the most popular spots in our area is the sandbar just to the east of the Boca Grande Causeway, sometimes called the trestle sandbar because it’s near the old railroad trestle at Placida. It can be crowded and sometimes gets a little rowdy, but it is a place where lots of people have lots of fun.
There are endless arguments about which beaches are the best. Florida’s entire Gulf Coast is lined with beautiful beaches, so really, there are no bad choices. But there are some beaches that might be better than others.
If you’re going by car then you might consider heading out to Boca Grande. The toll bridge seems to discourage some people, so paying six bucks for access to a less-crowded beach might be a good investment today. Plus, if you go to the lighthouse beach at the south tip of the island, you can watch the tarpon fleet doing their thing right in front of you.
If you are going to the beach by boat, there’s no question that Cayo Costa is a great choice. The only downside here is there’s almost no dockage, so you’re going to be beaching your boat (or anchoring just off the beach and wading or swimming ashore with your beach gear).
This can be dicey if there’s any surf, but most mornings in the summer we have a light easterly wind which is perfect for this. However, when that afternoon seabreeze starts to build from the west, or if a passing afternoon thunderstorm kicks up the wind, boats can get pushed up on the beach and swamped pretty quick.
An alternative to putting your boat on the Gulf beach is to go on the inside (the ICW side) of the island near the southern tip. There is a stretch of sandy beach there where you’ll be on the protected side if the wind is westerly, and from there you can walk over to the Gulf side.
Punta Gorda’s Freedom Swim is one of the biggest non-events in our area. I say non-event because it’s an informal happening with no sponsoring or organizing group. Hundreds of people just show up and swim, float, paddle or whatever. Some make it a race to see who can finish first, but most take a more casual approach and meander down the river at a leisurely pace.
This year’s event, like last year’s, will see groups of people starting in two different locations. Those with escort boats will use them to travel to a starting point near the north end of the U.S. 41 bridges by boat, then go in the water there. Participants without boats will go in at the little beach next to the PG Waterfront Hotel. Regardless of where they start, everybody ends up at the take-out point at Harpoon Harry’s at Fishermen’s Village.
This year’s event kicks off at 2 p.m., when there will be a pretty strong incoming tide. Most years an incoming tide would be countered by the downstream flow of the Peace River, but the lower-than-normal rainfall during June this year means that the river is not running very hard yet. So participants will probably be bucking a current against them for at least the first part of the swim.
Those starting on the Punta Gorda side of the river can avoid the worst of the current by staying closer to shore on the south side. Those starting on the north side will just have to deal with it until around 3 p.m., when the flow will begin to subside. Slack high water is predicted to occur around 4 p.m.
When many of us hear “Fourth of July,” the first mental images that we get are of spectacular aerial fireworks displays exploding far overhead. “Fireworks on the Fourth” displays are scheduled in just about every town in the region. In Charlotte County the major displays will take place at Englewood Beach and at Laishley Park in Punta Gorda. Fireworks start at about 9 p.m., and yes, they usually do go off even if it rains a bit.
Watching the fireworks from your boat is very popular — so popular that there may be hundreds of boats anchored in the Peace River between the U.S. 41 and I-75 bridges during the Punta Gorda display. If you go, make sure those running and anchor lights are working.
A couple hints: Sometimes being in the front row isn’t the best seat in the house. If you lay back a bit, you can see (and hear) the fireworks just fine, and you won’t have to crane your neck so much. And, don’t be in a rush to leave once the show has ended. It gets hectic with all those boats trying to raise anchor and get underway in a small area. Sitting tight for 15 or 20 minutes to let the traffic clear can make for a much more relaxed journey home. Have fun!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.