There are three kinds of boaters on Charlotte Harbor: Those who have run aground, those who will run aground, and damned liars. Pretty much everyone who has been boating in Southwest Florida for more than a year or two has run aground at some point — maybe not bad enough to get stuck, but for sure enough to know they kissed the bottom.
The good news about this is that the Harbor’s bottom is mostly sand or mud. Only a few spots are hard enough to wreck your prop or scar your hull. Still, it’s not good that for some reason, a lot of people who are good, careful drivers on the road become lunatics on the water. Thing is, there are a lot more unknowns out on the water, and a lot of things hidden just below the surface.
Nobody wants to run aground. Fortunately, there are some solid steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting stuck. The best thing you can do is get as much on-the-water experience as you can, but here are a few tips that will help keep you out of trouble while you do that.
Winter tides are low, especially right after a cold front. Even though it’s chilly out, that’s the time to get educated — bundle up and hit the water. Winds out of the northeast push water out of the Harbor, exposing a good bit of the seabed.
That’s a great opportunity for you to identify sandbars, humps, oyster bars and all those other potential obstacles that are usually underwater. You can also take note of deeper cuts, sandholes and any other areas that will hold a bit more water — very useful when the water is shallow and you’re trying to find a slightly deeper path. Go slowly with a chart, GPS and bottom machine. Mark locations both mentally and mechanically.
You may think running aground isn’t a problem if you don’t take your boat out on the flats. Not true. If you are just cruising around, being a half-mile from shore doesn’t mean you can’t run aground. Our sandbars can be up to a mile away from the nearest shore. Take a look at the Cape Haze Bar on a chart. That one gets a lot of boaters who aren’t expecting it.
The Intracoastal Waterway is pretty well-defined with channel markers. Once you get outside of the channel, be careful and go slow until you’re confident of where the safe areas are. Pine Island Sound is an especially tricky area, with shallow rocky areas from channel-dredging. These spoil piles can ruin your day, and they come up very quickly — in some places, the depth goes from 10 feet to less than a foot faster than you can say it. There are also some oyster bars out there that can easily rip your lower unit right off.
When you are running anywhere in the Harbor, a good rule of thumb is to start slowing down when you see 4 feet or less on the bottom machine. That way, if you do start to skip the bottom, you can turn around or trim the motor up, which you should do as soon as you kiss bottom. We have manatees to mow our grass, so you don’t have to, and we definitely don’t need any more prop scars out there.
Another reason for slowing down: If you get stuck, most of the time you won’t be stuck so hard that you can’t push the boat off. If you run into a sandbar at full throttle, you might end up high and dry. If the tide’s going out, you might be there for a long time.
Truly the best option for learning the Harbor’s waters is to hire a captain to take you out on your boat (not his boat — your boat). Not every captain offers this service, and we are lucky to have several real good ones at Fishin’ Frank’s. Time is money for these guys, and it’s going to cost you to have one on your boat, but a crash course like this can ultimately save you huge amounts of time, fuel and aggravation.
Be safe while you’re learning. Use your head. Take the time to learn safely with maps and GPS and bottom machines. Try to commit as much as you can to memory. Your chart might blow out of the boat, and the cable on your depth finder might fray. But if you can keep a decent map in your head, it’ll always be there when you need it.
And remember, Sea Tow is a boater’s best friend. Boats break down, run out of gas and get stuck in the mud. I happens to everyone. All you can do is try to be ready for it.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor, and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.