Our Boat

Caloosa Spirit

Catalina 42 mkII

Ft. Myers Beach—The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

For anyone who cruises Southwest Florida, the Matanzas Pass anchorage at Ft. Myers Beach is an important stop-over. When traveling south on the Gulf ICW, it’s the last harbor before going outside on the Gulf to reach Naples, Marco Island, the Ten Thousand Islands, or Cape Sable. It’s situated at just the right distance to make an overnight passage to Marathon or Key West. Just about anything a cruiser might need is within dinghy, walking, or bus distance. The beach is delightful, and the sunsets are spectacular. We have enjoyed many stops at this well-protected anchorage.

The city of Ft. Myers lies on the Caloosahatchee about twelve miles upriver. For those of us with masts higher than 55 ft., Ft. Myers is inaccessible, due to the four bridges spanning the river that are all 55 ft. in height. So the 65-ft. bridge at Ft. Myers Beach that spans Estero Bay makes the Matanzas Pass harbor all the more significant for many cruising boats.

Upon entering the harbor there are two marinas, one on each side of the channel, just before passing under the bridge. Both provide fuel, water, and pump-out services. Just beyond the bridge on the eastern side is Bonita Bill’s—a favored cruiser’s watering hole, which also provides free dinghy dockage. A short walk from Bonita Bill’s is a stop for the LeeTran Trollee, which goes to a shopping center hosting West Marine and Winn Dixie, and where connecting buses make getting to Ft. Myers a done-deal. Several other stores and services are also available on the route. During the winter this Trollee (called the Park & Ride) is free. On the western side—Estero Island—dinghy “dockage” is available just behind the Topps IGA grocery store in the mangroves of Matanzas Pass Preserve. Within easy walking distance on the island is the library, post office, propane refill at an RV park, bicycle rental, internet café, and even a fruit and vegetable market—not to mention the numerous restaurants and shops along the beach. The LeeTran Trollee that runs up and down the beach is a real boon for reaching destinations out of walking distance. A 25- or 50-cent Trollee ride can take you to Publix, a very nice laundromat, a movie theater, Lovers Key State Park, or K-Mart—not to mention other numerous restaurants and shops along the beach.

Oh, yes, the beach. Aaaah, the beach. A more peaceful and restful beach close to civilization one would be hard-pressed to find—as long as it’s not Spring Break time, anyway. The white sand is as soft and as fine as sugar. Most mornings it’s apparent that a large population of the beach gets its primary exercise from beach-walking. And there’s no better place to enjoy a breath-taking sunset than from the fishing pier extending out into the Gulf.

No place is really Paradise, however, so every anchorage has its down-side. Matanzas Pass certainly has had its share of warts. At times selecting a spot to anchor has been a risky proposition, due to several half-sunken derelicts and unknown detritus on the bottom. Also, most boats have used two anchors to limit swing room in the fast-flowing current. We prefer to use only one anchor, and will go to almost any length to avoid putting down two. Untangling two chain rodes is something we’ve done once, and don’t want to do again. We have managed to find room in the anchorage to swing freely on just one anchor, but have been harassed by another boater for doing so. And the derelicts haven’t been all half-sunk; some have been still floating and inhabited—by human “derelicts”. The water has been ugly and polluted, often smelling of diesel with a noticeable slick. The shrimp boats on the east side of the bay are purely utilitarian, and do nothing to enhance the visual ambiance. The view from the cockpit has usually been less than pristine, to say the least.

Despite its down-side Ft. Myers Beach has a lot to offer, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the times we’ve spent there, so we looked forward to a return visit this year. Things were different when we arrived this time, though. We came into the harbor on January 8, after returning from a Christmas trip north, and were greeted by the sight of mooring balls stretching as far as the eye could see. We knew that the moorings were planned, but we hadn’t seen or heard any confirmation of their existence as yet. It seems that we should have done more research. Upon cruising all the way to the back of the anchorage, it soon became apparent that room to put down an anchor in any sufficient depth had been effectively all but eliminated. When we called several times to the harbormaster on the VHF as the signs indicated, we got no answer. Some kind listener suggested that we call the name of the nearby marina, Salty Sam’s, and, sure enough, we then got a response. Upon asking for information on using the mooring field, we were told that we had to come into the Marina Store to fill out forms, present our registration and insurance documents, and pay fees. We explained that we needed to take a mooring in order to do that. After several minutes of waiting, the guy tending the radio—surely not the harbormaster!—informed us that, despite the mooring field being only about one-third full, there was no mooring space available for our size boat. What?! Jim asked, “How many moorings do you have that would accommodate a 42’ cruising sailboat?” (Not an unusual size, by any stretch of the imagination!) The response came back, “Two, and they’re both in use.” To Jim’s incredulous outburst of “That’s ridiculous!” the response was “Salty Sam’s going back to channel 16.” The situation was incomprehensible and maddening, and with no other anchorage reachable before dusk, our options were limited. With the encouragement of a live-aboard in the anchorage with whom we’ve talked before, we picked up a mooring that seemed to have sufficient space in its immediate vicinity. By the time we got the dinghy down and motored to the marina to register, the marina had closed early, sparing us a frustrating argument.

The next day when we went back to the marina and got to talk with a live person, her response to our location was, “Perfect!”. Later that day, however, we found that the 20-ft. tether from the mooring ball to our cleat had allowed our keel to tangle on the mooring cable as the wind and tide played out their daily tug-of-war. When Jim attached one of our own lines to the mooring to keep us much closer to it, he realized that the huge galvanized shackle on the top of the ball could do a lot of damage to our fiberglass hull. We don’t recall ever seeing moorings with such large shackles or such long tethers. Conventional wisdom suggests that tethers should be relatively short, and that each vessel should attach its own line through the eye of the tether to adjust for height and to allow for emergency exit. We eventually shortened the tether to avoid tangling our keel, but that didn’t end the infernal bumping of the mooring ball against our hull when the wind and tide were opposed. The bumping was not only unpleasant during the day but, at night, sometimes made sleep impossible.

In our opinion the management of the mooring field by Salty Sam’s can best be described as dismal at this point. Concern for accommodating larger cruising boats and/or boats without insurance is non-existent. When we registered for a week they were charging a deposit of $50 for use of showers and laundry, which we promptly declined. There was also another $50 deposit, the purpose of which they could not explain, except to blame it on the “town rules”. Fuel and water are available at the marina, but Jim was told that we would be charged $.25 per gallon for water—outrageous in Florida by any standard. The staff managed to overlook recording our second week’s rental payment, and several days later presented us with a notice that we were overdue—twice. The rental rates for the mooring balls are reasonable, however—$10 per day or $50 per week—and a free pump-out boat is included. In fact, the pump-out boat is the best thing the mooring field has going. The operator is a friendly, eager-to-please guy, who puts the best face on Salty Sam’s. As it turns out, though, the pump-out boat is not allowed to service—even for a fee, as in Marathon and Key West—any of the boats that are anchored in the pitifully small anchorage area still available.

On the upside, the mooring field is relatively quiet, the water seems cleaner, we don’t have to worry about being hassled for using only one anchor, and most of the derelict boats (and boaters) are gone. However, it seems that cleaning up the harbor could have been accomplished in a better way than by crowding out virtually all of the anchoring area with moorings. Vessels should be inspected and condemned for being unseaworthy and a threat to the environment. We were disappointed to see that a few of the wrecks were simply towed around the corner or further away from the mooring field, where they can still pollute the water as they disintegrate and obstruct legitimate anchoring.

The story on Matanzas Pass is hopefully not yet over. While we were there we attended a meeting of the Anchorage Advisory Committee—a group of local residents who seem deeply committed to making the anchorage safe, clean, and hospitable. They are presently engaged in an uphill struggle with the owner of Salty Sam’s and the town managers in meeting their goals, however. After listening to a plethora of concerns from numerous boaters, the AAC is hopeful that the town managers will soon put some pressure on the marina owner to make some changes and accommodations. To us the marina owner didn’t seem the least bit amenable to any suggestions from boaters, so only time will tell.

At this time we can recommend this valuable anchorage only with some caveats:
1. We suggest that any boats over 40 ft. should attempt to make prior arrangements with Salty Sam’s before entering the harbor. The signs do say “First come, first served”, so picking up a mooring and then confronting the marina staff may be a viable alternative. That worked for us. If moorings are completely unavailable, the closest protected anchorage is in Glover Bight in Cape Coral on the Caloosahatchee, approximately 10 miles away.
2. If approaching at the end of a day’s passage, the vacant mooring balls on the east side of the harbor appear to be a better choice than those in the west field if the marina reports that they have no room for larger craft. Many of the mooring balls have no tethers, however, so care must be taken in selecting an appropriate one.
3. Proof of insurance is a must for occupying a mooring ball. The Anchorage Advisory Committee is working on dismissing that requirement, but it sounded as though it wouldn’t be dropped from the rental agreement any time in the near future.
4. Salty Sam’s expects vessel operators to come to the marina to register. There seems to be no system in place to allow registration or payment to be made on the water. It seems that any vessel stopping only for one night and not planning to deploy a dinghy is still expected to do so merely for Salty Sam’s convenience—one more example of an inhospitable attitude. Sadly, we recommend either deploying the dinghy or seeking protection in a different anchorage, rather than evading payment, as might seem the easiest choice in some instances.

We still think Matanzas Pass and Ft. Myers Beach are worth the effort to spend some time there. We share the hope that conditions will continue to improve in the harbor, and that cruisers can anticipate a warm reception after a long passage. We can only wait to see what the future holds when we one day return.

Posted Saturday February 5, 2005

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