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

SUP Training Camp in the Keys

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Glassy seas in Key Largo

Paddleboard training in the Keys…sign me up! Scott Baste, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida Keys,  posted a Winter SUP Camp focused on strokes, speed, and efficiency. The timing was perfect. I had been training for the Watertribe Ultramarathon, a 62-mile race from Fort De Soto to Camp Haze Marina. But I knew I had gaps in my skills, and I really really wanted to get faster.

New boards
Trying out new boards!

Part of the fun: trying out new gear! Testing shorter paddles and narrow boards made for a wobbly, but surprisingly dry, start.

Jill getting feedback
Jill getting feedback

Practicing strokes
Practicing strokes

Coach Scott
Coach Scott

Once we got our board, or sea, legs, the real fun began. Scott began with land drills to improve our strokes. Then we practiced, paddling up and down the canal behind his shop incorporating what we had learned. Later, we reviewed our progress, analyzing form and strokes through video footage. The camera doesn’t lie.

Key Largo mangroves
Key Largo mangroves

 

Shallow waters
Shallow waters

That afternoon and the following day, we practiced our skills on Tavernier Creek and nearby waters. The wind was gusting from the west around 20 mph, so we kept to the sheltered Atlantic side.

Eddy
Any eddy will do. Photo credit: Scott Baste

As we talked technique, Scott pointed out the rich biodiversity of the mangrove shallows. Eagle rays, barracudas, and bonnet head sharks, among others, swam around and under our boards. Paddleboards provide a perfect vantage point for viewing wildlife.

The following day, Paddle! the Florida Keys sponsored a SUP race and a post-race mini-clinic taught by Zach Rounsaville of Orange Beach, AL. Watching the race and joining the clinic revealed a new side of paddleboarding to me: racing and stroke finesse. In the clinic, Zach worked on body mechanics to make the forward stroke more efficient, and I am still working to incorporate what I learned.

Mangroves
Nine Mile Pond canoe trail

On our final afternoon, we paddled on the Nine Mile Pond kayak trail near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. High winds still challenged us, but I saw an ecosystem entirely new to me: Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ ‘River of Grass.’

Everglades
River of Grass

 

Where's the trail?
Where’s the trail?

Getting low in mangrove tunnels

As we ducked under branches, I picked Scott’s brain about Watertribe. So far,  Conquistador (his Watertribe moniker) is one of two people to complete the 270-mile Everglades Challenge on a paddleboard. Completing the Everglades Challenge requires a broad range of skills, including navigation, backcountry camping, paddling in wind and waves, and endurance. I’ve been paddling in Everglades and 10,000 Islands to enhance my skills, but gaps remain. Nonetheless I (Flamingo) will be on the beach in Fort De Soto next March for the 2021 Everglades Challenge.

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Friendly Everglades gator

This is why I was so happy when Scott announced his Winter SUP Training, and I hope there will be more of them. SUP is still a relatively new sport, and training opportunities seems focused on racing and SUP surf. Paddleboarders are venturing into conditions, including coastal, whitewater, and multiday expeditions, typically paddled in kayaks or canoes. Some skills such as navigation are transferable from kayak to SUP, but others might require a SUP-specific focus (paddling in wind, for example). I need to work on paddling a loaded SUP through swells, a skill I have in a kayak. As the SUP world grows, ideally SUP-specific training opportunities will follow. Right now I’ve got my eye on a SUP trip down the Salmon River, an entirely different form of the sport. These are exciting times for paddleboarders!

world
The world from a SUP