On-Trail Issues & Hazards


River Mouths & Crossing Tampa Bay


The Trouble with Small Craft Advisories

At the beginning of our circumnavigational trip, Dan and I listened to NOAA broadcasts on our weather radio every morning and took its information very seriously. After all, a kayak is even smaller than the small craft in the "small craft advisories," right? Soon we realized though that our attitude toward weather radio bulletins needed to be trust but verify. The coverage area in a weather report is very large, anywhere between 25 and 100 miles of coastline. In a kayak, one travels only 10-20 miles a day. So we needed extremely specific, pin-point accurate weather forecasts. 

 

To get a weather report specific to your location, go out to the beach, assess the winds and water, and make your own determination as to whether it is safe to paddle or not. Ignore the small craft advisories.


The Trouble with NOAA Charts

beach erosion due to storms in the panhandle

I took this picture in the panhandle, where a single storm had dramatically eroded the beach. The exposed pine tree roots show where the forest floor had once been.

 

As with the weather radio, your attitude toward NOAA charts should be "trust but verify." Storms regularly reshape the coastline. Sandbars and shoals also fluctuate in depth and location regularly. Along the entire coast, there are inlets and passes that fill with sand and become impassable, only to be cleared by the next storm. Locals call these places "midnight pass" or something similar.

 

So it should be common sense that NOAA charts are not updated often enough to be 100% accurate. This only presents major problems to kayakers in a few locations such as the Big Bend and Florida Bay, which are discussed below.


The Shallowness of the Big Bend

the shallow big bend - photo by Mike Ruso

The seafloor along the Big Bend is very shallow. Often during our trip, Dan and I would be miles from shore but paddling in a only 18 inches of water. Sometimes, we hit a stretch that was so shallow it was easier for us to get out and drag the kayaks behind us as we walked in the ankle-deep water.

 

Except for Rock Island, all the Big Bend campsites are along rivers or creeks that feed into the Gulf. The flow of these rivers cuts a relatively deeper channel of water.

Mike Ruso standing in front of an extreme low tide

This picture was taken at the Dallus Creek campsite. We had easily paddled to the campsite the day before, but when we woke the next morning, the tide had gone outall the way to the horizon. Open water was literally miles away. A consequence of such shallow water is that it creates dramatic tides.

 

So keep in mind that NOAA charts are outdated, show average water depths, and cannot tell you water depth at extreme low tide. You may get stranded or find yourself dragging the kayak through mud.


Florida Bay

Florida Bay is also shallow, but not consistently so. It's depth varies and there are numerous passes and natural channels between the mangrove islands. These natural channels shift with the currents and are not identified on NOAA charts. Local knowledge is invaluable here.

mats of dead sea grass - photo by Mike Ruso

There is also a curious phenomena we did not see anywhere else in Florida. We encountered huge mats of dead sea grass that had been bleached white by the sun. In the picture above, you might think that is sand in front of the island, but it is miles of sea grass. The mats are not solid groundyou can't walk across them or camp on them, and they present a massive challenge to navigation. Suppose you wanted to reach the island in the picture. How would you get there? Dan and I were forced to take huge detours around these mats.


Unofficial Channel Markers

unofficial channel marker in Florida Bay - photo by Mike Ruso

Throughout Florida Bay and the Keys, locals have marked the shifting, natural channels with PVC pipes or branches shoved into the mud. Empty bleach buckets and other junk are often tied to the branches. Boaters use these unofficial channel markers so be on the lookout for them.


The Trouble with Atlantic Beaches

In kayaker speak, the Gulf Coast is a "low energy" coastline, meaning the waves aren't very big. The Atlantic Coast however, is a "high energy" coastline. A surfer might complain that the waves aren't all that big. But sitting in a kayak, the top of your head is just two and a half feet above the water. The boat itself floats mere inches out of the water. A two-foot wave soaks you; a three-foot wave challenges you; a four-foot wave towers over you.

 

It is not impossible to launch through this kind of surf, nor is it impossible to safely land on the beach through these waves. But suppose you did, you'll be disappointed by what you find. The Atlantic beaches are thoroughly owned and controlled, littered with highrise hotels, condos, mansions, and crowded public beaches. To protect swimmers, it is illegal to land a boat on many beaches.

 

So it may be disappointing, but stay in the Intracoastal Waterway while on the east coast. That's where the camping's at.


Can You Get Swept Out to Sea?

It’s unlikely. There aren’t many strong currents that head out to sea. There are however strong currents that will push you up and down the shore.

 

You will encounter the most danger at the mouths of rivers, as the current from rivers never weaken. Also, at the mouths of bays and the gaps between barrier islands, currents collide and create confused seas. Cross them carefully. The most dangerous open water crossing is Tampa Bay, due to currents, confused seas, and shipping traffic. Time your crossing to coincide with a slack tide or incoming tide.

 

Kayaks are pushed around by wind more so than tides and currents. Fortunately, the prevailing winds in Florida are on your side: winds from the west push you toward land on the Gulf side. On the Atlantic side, you will be inside the protected Intracoastal Waterway.

 

Of course, if disaster strikes and you find yourself pulled far from shore, unable to paddle back, have signal flares on board and/or a VHF radio.