Navigating Florida Bay by Night

Shark Point colors

I promised sun, sand, and beach camping. Nothing epic, I said. Yet there we were, on boat and board, paddling overnight across Florida Bay, the 28-ish miles from North Nest Key to Flamingo. But, to put it in perspective, our overnight paddle, including fish with big teeth, side chop, and hallucinations of trees, was less scary than driving home on I-75.

Florida Bay (courtesy of Google Maps)

Several days before, we launched from Flamingo in the Everglades National Park and paddled 9 miles to the Shark Point Chickee. Windy days and the low waters of a new moon made navigating the shoals around Joe Kemp Key challenging, but we followed the Tin Can Channel east towards Shark Point. Learning my way around Florida Bay would help me prepare for the 2021 Everglades Challenge, a 270-mile expedition/race from Tampa to Key Largo.

Our original plan: one night at the Shark Point Chickee, three nights at North Nest Key, and then a final night at Rabbit Key before paddling back to Flamingo. This route gave us proximity to the Everglades Challenge route as well as a campsite with cell service so Janice could phone into her Wednesday night board meeting.

Shark Point Chickee
Janice in our ‘living room’
From boat and board to platform above

We set up our tents on one side and kitchen/living room on the other. The light breeze—perfect for keeping mosquitos at bay—made putting up the tents a challenge as the wind transformed tents into sails. My biggest fear was dropping something through the slats of the platform into the water below. That night, shooting stars danced across the sky, and we saw the multitudes of stars normally obscured by light pollution and moonlight.

The following morning we had coffee under stars and prepared for our 22 mile paddle to North Nest Key. I loaded my gear onto the board while it was on the platform, thinking I could carefully lower it into the water. Epic fail. Janice heard a splash followed by some unprintable language, then another splash as I jumped into the water to right the board. Lesson learned, and a test of my attachment points on the board.

Skating across a glassy sea

What are these strange things?

A picture perfect day as we navigated Crocodile Dragover and Madeira Point en route to North Nest Key. The waterscape near Madeira felt like a painting—a flat expanse of water punctuated by emerging mangrove islands that resembled boats from a distance.

Hidden beaches

We wound our way around shoals and through passes, continuing our trek east. Oddly enough, we missed Lake Key Pass in broad daylight, but found it in the dark two days later. And, in another navigational highlight, we circumnavigated North Nest Key, looking for the camping area. Construction and day boaters had obscured the signs. Oh well, more training miles!

Our back yard
North Nest camp

North Nest Key is the only designated camping spot in the east part of Florida Bay and is considered a ‘ground’ site as opposed to a beach site. Nonetheless, the sand and clear water had a distinct Caribbean feel to it.

Tuesday morning, a dense fog passed through, a good warm-up for our night navigation. We reached the official Everglades Challenge finish—the Pelican Hotel in Key Largo—and ordered lunch from Mrs. Macs Kitchen next door, a 14+ mile round trip, which felt like a rite of passage.

Sated with fish sandwiches and key lime pie from Mrs. Macs, we checked the weather and realized that the predicted cold front was moving in faster than planned. Was heading south to Rabbit Key, then paddling 20 miles north into a really our best option? We re-evaluated our plan and decided to leave immediately after Janice’s board meeting on Wednesday evening. Until then, it was beach life for us.

Cold front? No worries.

We launched at 6 pm onto a blissfully glassy bay. The lingering light allowed us to see islands immediately westward, but soon the light faded and stars emerged. I had attached my red and green navigation lights to my Yeti bag behind me, but left dark the blinding white light on my PFD. Between GPS, my Garmin Fenix watch, and our deck compasses, we found Lake Key Pass that had eluded us in the daylight.

We retraced our path westward past Madeira Point and Crocodile Dragover, taking a quick break in the shallow waters near Madeira. In the long crossing towards Buoy Key, the wind and sidechop kicked up enough to make tracking my board difficult. Just one stroke on the left turned me north, surfing the board, so I paddled and paddled on the right. Far south in the Atlantic, distant lightning punctuated the darkness, revealing the cause of the southerly winds. We trusted the VHF radio weather forecast that placed those eerie storms far far away.

About 10 miles from Flamingo, we saw Flamingo’s red lights. Yet, occasionally those red lights appeared closer, in a tunnel of trees that reminded me of the Narnia Chronicles. My height on the board let me see things I wished were hallucinations. One very large fish, probably sporting many teeth, shot by and bumped Janice’s boat. And strange songs ran through my head, which I dared not sing out loud.

Our track

Finally, that light, our grail, was within two miles! Strangely, both my GPS watch and Janice’s GPS went wonky for about 5 minutes, guiding us in directions we knew were wrong. And suddenly we were back at Joe Kemp Key and entering the Flamingo Marina somewhere around 4 am. We made it!

Keeping it classy in the campground

The next day, we dried gear, ate ice cream, and explored the park. A 28.81 mile overnight crossing was a big accomplishment for us, both in terms of fitness and navigation. I realize that I have much training remaining before the Everglades Challenge, but this trip got me much closer. I hear the drums!

Sunburst