LARGO CANAL- CRUISING WITH FUN & CAUTION
By Karl Sydor
THAT COMPELLING FEELING
Have you ever felt that you had come upon some boating knowledge that you should have passed on to others, but just kept putting it off? I feel compelled to write this article as both a warning and an invitation to boaters, who may use Largo Canal (in Key Largo, Florida) for the first time. I have been to this location in Key Largo, by boat, two years in a row. My destination has been a marina on Largo Canal. The first time I cruised there on Tropical Pleasure, my 34 Californian trawler, was for a 4th of July week, 2001, vacation with my kids and grandkids. The second was with a couple of buddies in May 2002 when the Gulf Stream was ten to twelve feet and caused us to make a quick change in our plans to go to the Bahamas (See “Get Radar???” http://www.weekendcruiser.com/get_radar.htm)
CONCERNS ENTERING LARGO CANAL
For the July 4th week, I was looking for somewhere my family could scuba dive, not too far from my home in Deerfield Beach, FL, yet convenient and interesting. After examining my Florida Upper Keys chart, I spotted this area that was just south of Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo. The location seemed ideal and there were a couple of marinas from which to choose. I decided to get a berth at a marina that was located on Largo Canal and made a reservation; however, I became concerned because a channel to Largo Canal was not marked on my chart. I called the marina and asked if they could fax me a sketch or instructions to get from marker "2", which is just off Hawks Channel marker "35", to their marina. They did not have a sketch or instructions to fax, but told me not to worry and to call them on channel 16 once I arrived at the marker, and someone would give me instructions.
Feeling uncomfortable with that status, I called the marina back the night before we departed and insisted that someone give me instructions then, rather than waiting until I arrived there. The young lady who took my call asked someone in the background for instructions; she then told me to make a turn to the 360 degrees compass reading at marker "2", keeping the marker on my starboard side, and then follow the channel makers in. Well, …at least I had that much. I wrote down the instructions and read them back to the young lady on the phone; she said I had them correct.
When we arrived at marker "35" in Hawks Channel, I swung the boat westward and proceeded to marker "2". However, when I came up to marker "2" it appeared that the compass direction of 360 degrees would take me away from land through shallow water, back out into Hawks Channel. That did not make sense, so I called the marina on 'Channel 16' and asked for better directions. Another woman got on the radio and told me to forget about those directions and just look for a building with an aqua-blue roof and head for it; she said I would see the entrance to the canal next to it.
My fourteen-year-old grandson Troy, and I,
scanned the horizon and found an aqua blue roof and headed for it. Troy
exclaimed that the depth was getting shallower on the depth sounder. I actually did see a canal entrance and just figured I was
out of the channel and if I navigated the boat more to port I would be all
right. Well, that was a mistake. The hull went aground and stopped. I placed the
engines in neutral. I had recently read a BoatUS article about how boat owners
can be fined tens of thousands of dollars for chewing up the grass beds in the
Florida Keys, so I made a decision to stay put and called the marina for help.
The marina sent a commercial towboat out, and 650 credit card dollars later I was towed to deeper water and tied to a mooring while the tow operator called the Florida Marine Police to inspect the grass for damage. He said he was obligated to do this or risk losing his license. What could I say or do, I had no choice. He came aboard and recommended that the booze I had in the bottle racks be placed out of sight, or the marine police might accuse me of drinking. I took his advice and put the bottles away very quickly; I never drink alcoholic beverages while operating my boat, anyway.
The marine police came, checked my papers, examined the grass, concluded that I had not done any damage, made out their report, and issued me a warning ticket. I breathed a sign of relief! The tow operator directed me to the Largo Canal. Yes, there was a building with an aqua-blue roof about 80 degrees north of where I had gone, but not visible enough for me to see initially, and not as noticeable as the one I had spotted.
That's right…there are two aqua-blue roofs on land. Once in the channel to Largo Canal, it was so easy I could not believe it. I realized the direction from marker "2" should have been 350 degrees magnetic and not 360.
That does not sound like a big difference, but Largo Canal is just west of a narrow strip of land that's wide enough for a couple houses and a one-lane road. East of this strip is open, shallow water to Hawks Channel. 350 degrees magnetic points you right towards the canal entrance, but 360 will take you away from land. Close, but no cigar!
To wrap up this part of the story, I had to have my props changed; luckily I had a spare set with me and all told, this experience cost me about $1,400 to include reconditioning of the props. Friends have advised me (of course, male friends) that the lesson I should learn from this is to never accept navigational instructions from a female. It was also suggested that I buy a chart plotter GPS with sufficient detail of the entrance and markers to the canal. I must admit I had played it cheap and was using the old GPS unit that came with the boat when I bought it a few months ago (not a chart plotter, but it did operate accurately). I now have a new chart plotter GPS; unfortunately, since markers 4 thru 8 to Largo Canal are maintained privately, they are not on my navigational chart or my new chart plotter.
NAVIGATIONAL NOTE FOR ENTERING LARGO CANAL
When proceeding westward from Hawks Channel and approaching red marker "2", keeping the marker on the starboard side of your boat, turn your boat to 350 degrees magnetic and proceed ahead; you will then pass red markers 4, 6, & 8 (privately maintained), successively, keeping them on the starboard side. You will see the entrance to Largo Canal marked by a green house on the right and a stone jetty on the left. Keep the stone jetty on your port side and enter the canal at idle speed. The entrance is narrow and typically wide enough only for one large boat, so watch for other boats closing on the entrance.
BEWARE OF CRASH CORNER
After one navigates passed the markers described above and makes their way into Largo Canal, about a quarter of a mile inbound, is a 90-degree turn to port, which is called Crash Corner. Several months ago I was at a Bally's gym riding the life-cycle machine when I couldn’t help seeing that the guy next to me was reading a boating magazine article about Crash Corner. I apologized for looking over his shoulder, and found out that this was the same Crash Corner that is on Largo Canal. Yes, I've been there and recognize the apparent danger of that turn. It has apparently been the scene of some disastrous collisions when boats have not heeded the warnings and did not communicate a 'SECURITY-SECURITY' call over Channel 16.
When you are within a couple hundred feet of Crash Corner the call should be something like the following, but identifying your own boat, "Security, security, this is Tropical Pleasure, a 34 foot trawler inbound (or outbound) on Largo Canal approaching Crash Corner. Standing by on 16." This call should be made both when inbound and outbound. So boaters, beware, make this call and keep your eyes open when navigating Crash Corner and be prepared for taking emergency action. No, I did not experience any problems at Crash Corner nor observed any. Most boaters were very careful, but I did witness some who were oblivious of the dangers and just motored through it without concern.
THE FUN NEWS
The marinas on the Largo Canal (Key Largo, FL) are in a very good location with many boat slips, hotel accommodations, restaurants, bars, swimming pools, barbecue grills, music, and stores on US #1 highway within walking distance; however, surprisingly it provides a secluded feeling. Largo Canal is about ninety miles south of Hillsboro Inlet, Pompano Beach, Florida, and took us about six hours cruising time at 14 to 15 knots.
There are many exciting snorkeling and scuba diving sites, such as the popular Molasses Reef, that have moorings to tie your boat to. Check your chart for markers due approximately 150 degrees magnetic from marker “2”, for a passage to Molasses Reef, and then, passed the ocean ledge for deepwater fishing. This is a common route for most boats to take, but it must be charted and navigated with caution. There are shallow inshore fishing locations, but you will need a fishing chart to find them.
Yes, I will go back again as I did with my buddies last May. This location has turned out to be a great oasis when we could not get across the Stream. Cruising Hawks Channel is great, just chart your route ahead of time, use a good chart plotter GPS judiciously and keep your paper charts handy.