Paddleboarding the Lower Keys

Paddling the Florida Keys felt like entering a dreamscape—the horizon stretched out endlessly over calm clear waters. Kevin and I had come to the Lower Keys for a real vacation, defined as no training, no ambition, and no goals. The Lower Keys, broadly defined as the islands west of the 7-mile bridge to Stock Island (MM40-5), offer paddlers miles of bays and tiny islands to explore—perfect for Kevin’s 16′ Dagger Meridian kayak and my 14′ SIC Maui RS SUP.

Sunrise from our room aptly named ‘Flamingo,’ my watertribe name

Kevin and I checked into Parmer’s Resort, located north of Route 1 on Little Torch Key, MM 28.5. This location gave us easy access to numerous paddling routes both bay/gulf side or oceanside, or north or south of Route 1. Almost every morning, I paddled my SUP right from Parmer’s, and from my paddleboard spotted schools of parrotfish just north of the resort. That perspective is one reason I love paddleboarding so much. I saw parrotfish, nurse sharks, barracuda, baby black tip sharks, and a fairly sizable bonnethead.

Where Should We Paddle?

Over the week, Kevin and I explored areas around Little Torch Key, Knock ’em Down Keys, Little Swash Keys, and Big Pine Key. We carried paper charts as well as a GPS for onwater navigation, but prior to paddling we consulted both the GO Paddling app and the FPTA website for information. GO Paddling provides information about and directions to launches across the US. The Florida Paddling Trails Association (FPTA) website offers more detailed information about specific routes across the state of Florida. FPTA provides a brief description of the route and its difficulty, the launch site, and kmz files. The kmz files can be translated to gpx for Garmin or imported into a variety of navigational apps.

Perhaps my favorite trip was our launch from Cudjoe Key, home to Fat Albert the blimp, where we explored the Little Swash Keys. We paddled, floated, and watched fish until darkening skies hinted that it was time to return to our launch site.

As we paddled under Fat Albert, Kevin noticed that Fat Albert was descending. I looked up and, indeed, Fat Albert was getting lower, a unique and slightly disconcerting experience. Later, we discovered that Fat Albert is lowered when storms approach, so it turns out to be another source of weather information. Fat Albert was initially set up to counter drug-smuggling. I wonder if the presence of the restaurant Square Grouper at the end of the road is a commentary on its effectiveness.

Wind and Tide

Each day when deciding where to paddle, we checked wind and tide predictions. This is especially important for paddleboards because, in general, SUPS are more affected by these conditions than kayaks. Inflatable SUPS even more so. There are no shortage of apps for wind and tides, but few apps give information for tidal currents in the US. Boating HD (or Navionics) offers speed of tidal currents in some locations in Florida, mostly larger passes such as Boca Grande Pass in SWFL.

While tidal variations in the Florida Keys are generally not large, currents can be swift in small channels. And some areas are impassable at low tide, especially on a paddleboard with a fin, such as the south end of Little Torch Key.

The winds blew in a southerly direction for most of the week, so we launched from the north ends of the islands when we could. Fat Albert was flying high in clear skies when we droves to the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key. This kayak launch brought us to the Knock ’em Down Keys, just across the Kemp Channel from Cudjoe Key.

Splendid Isolation

Kevin and I love this part of the Lower Keys because it feels so remote. Few houses dot the northern ends of these keys, and it was quiet. We saw very few boats and very few people.

There’s More Than Paddling

We visited the Turtle Hospital in Marathon where the rehabilitate and release a variety of turtles. Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center brought us the Florida’s cleanest reef to snorkel. Other than looking beautiful, coral reefs help buffer coastlines from storm surge. Kiki’s Sandbar provided great food and drink as well as a reality check. The boat and placard demonstrated the tenacity of immigrants and refugees to reach the freedom of North American soil.

Next Steps

Kevin and I have been to the Florida Keys numerous times before, first with Paddle Florida and then later with our 18′ sailboat KneeDeep 1. In those early visits, we explored with our sailboat and my 10 1/2′ inflatable paddleboard, and each time we quickly realized the limits of our skills and equipment. Now, with years of SUP and sailing expedition experience under our belts and better equipment, we’re eager to explore the more remote islands of the Lower Keys. We always say that all our trips are scouting trips. I suppose we had more ambition that we thought.

A fate to avoid