One of the most anticipated stages of cruising the Great Loop is crossing the Gulf of Mexico. The waters along the coast of Florida’s panhandle after Carrabelle are too shallow to cruise close to shore, which means loopers are required to make a relatively long open water passage (compared to any other segment of the loop).
There are generally 2 options:
Direct Route: A single 170-mile crossing from Carrabelle, FL to Anclote Key
The Rim Route: A ~260-mile crossing that is spread out over several stops and days
# Overnight Stops
2-3 (Steinhatchee, Cedar Key, Crystal River, but don't have to hit all of those)
Anclote Key/Tarpon Springs, FL
Anclote Key/Tarpon Springs, FL
# Days (cruising @ 8 mph)
3-4 (can be longer)
Need a shorter weather window, faster, no navigating narrow channels
See cool towns, travel during the day, closer to shore
Most have to travel overnight, not much to see, miss cool spots, more time in open water
Some channels can be skinny in low tide (ideal draft is < 4.5 ft), need longer weather windows, takes longer
We get that the preference for each route is totally dependent on the boater, boat (some channels can get skinny), and weather--and sometimes deciding factors are outside of our control. In fairness, we had a really great weather window, a very fun group of boats to travel with, and Sweet Day has a 3.5 foot draft. But we always had our eyes set on the Rim Route and we are so glad we did.
Here's how we crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the Great Loop
Stop 1: Prepped at Carrabelle
We did laundry, filled our water tanks, and attended the nightly meeting-turned-docktails of loopers that were planning to cross the next day. We divided into groups based on our routes and boat speeds so we could find our “pack” to travel with. Some boats can go 20+ mph and can do the direct crossing in a day, others may go a little slower and decide to start at night–there are countless options (some don't even start at Carrabelle but cross sooner). We found our pack, Sabot and Alvin James, two boats with a fun crew that go our speed and wanted to take the same route as us. We named ourseles “Peggy’s Pack” after Sabot’s dog, Peggy, and we were ready to go!
Where we Stayed: Moorings at Carrabelle
Approach: Well marked channel
Things to Do: Walk or bike to the Bottle House, built by a retired art professor and open to the public, take a picture at the world’s smallest police station.
Stop 2: Explored Dog Island
8 miles from Carrabelle
Instead of leaving directly from Carrabelle, we decided to travel 8 miles to Dog Island anchorage, the farthest protected waters before entering the Gulf, to shave off an hour from the next day’s journey and have some fun on the beach. Plus, it was easier to leave early in the morning as we didn't have to navigate a narrow channel or marina. We were hoping to kick off our adventure with a beach fire, but a few residents on the island popped over on their boat and kindly asked us not to as the wrong shift in wind suddenly makes the fire a threat to their homes. So we enjoyed an evening of dinghing around instead.
Where we Stayed: Dog Island East Anchorage
Approach: Follow the charts and use google map satellite imaging to see where the shallow sections end
Things to Do: Walk along the beach, dinghy through the coves, pretend like you are making a fire if you want to get a chance to talk with the locals.
Stop 3: Saw the fresh catch at Steinhatchee
75 miles from Dog Island
Steinhatchee is a sport fishing town. When we pulled up to Sea Hag marina, we were captivated by the huge fish cleaning stations where guys were cleaning their catch from the day (and unfortunately were not willing to sell, so we had meatloaf instead of fresh fish for dinner that night). The docks were occupied by airboats and center consoles with 4x the amount of Sweet Day’s horsepower, serving as a reminder there are many different ways to enjoy the water besides travelling at 8 mph. Not much to see within walking distance, but protected and secure place to tie up for the night after the longest open water crossing of the Rim Route.
Where we Stayed: Sea Hag Marina
Approach: Well marked 4 mile channel, but can get busy with fishermen
Things to Do: Not a ton, but if looking for a walk, can walk about 1.5 miles to a few restaurants in town.
Stop 4: Taste Tested Clam Chowder at Cedar Key
60 miles from Steinhatchee
Home to some of the best clam chowder in the country, Cedar Key has everything you would want in a small coastal town. It is almost entirely surrounded by water, tucked away inbetween islands that used to be where the town was originally located in the 1800s. It's home to coffee shops, art co-ops, seafood restaurants (clamming is the big industry), a wildlife refuge, and a local grocery store that has surprisingly very good babyback ribs, definitely worth a stop.
Where we Stayed: Atsenia Otie Key Anchorage
Approach: There’s a few channels in and out of Cedar Key. We took the southern main shipping channel in and out and didn’t have any issues with depth. Not a ton of protection though if weather becomes rough.
Things to Do: Hike to the cemetery on Astena Otie Key island and discover graves from the 1800s where early residents of Cedar Key used to live. Decide which restaurant has the best clam chowder (Steamers and Tony's were pretty exceptional). Grab a cup of coffee (and special Cedar Key roasted beas to go) at 1842 Daily Grind & Mercantile. Take home some art from local artists at two of the islands art co-ops. Try some ribs to go at the grocery store and enjoy at the pier by the water.
Stop 5: Swam with Manatees at Crystal River
41 miles from Cedar Key
Manatees can only tolerate water temperatures above 68 degrees (who knew we could be so relatable). When the Gulf gets cold in the winter, manatees head up to Crystal River where there are natural fresh water springs guzzling water at a constant 72 degrees. This means over 400 manatees come each year to hang in Crystal River waters and protected areas without being disturbed. It also means there are places where you can jump in the water and swim with them–how cool is that. If swimming isn’t your thing, there are parks where you can view the manatees from land. Fun restaurants, shops, definitely worth a stop.
Where we stayed: Crystal River Anchorage
Approach: Marked channel is about 10 miles long and can be narrow and shallow at parts. Would avoid going at low tide, but the anchorage is very protected and easy to get into town. Fuel available nearby and pump out boat comes to you.
Things to Do: Swim with manatees (Three Sisters Springs was our favorite), grab coffee at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, eat lunch at Tea House 650, get seafood at The Crab Plant
Stop 6: Shopped for Sponges in Tarpon Springs
74 miles from Crystal River
Anclote Key is the start of the intercoastal (aka protected waters) on the west coast of Florida and where many anchor for the night after their Gulf crossing if you can’t find a slip in Tarpon Springs. We luckily found a slip and so glad we did, otherwise we would never have experienced Tarpon Spring’s rich Greek history and natural sponge markets. Attracted by the sponge harvesting industry, Greek immigrants came to Tarpon Springs starting in the early 1900s, and now has the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the entire country. That means no shortage of excellent Greek food, pastries, and culture, as well as a robust natural sponge market, well worth a visit.
Where we stayed: Belle Harbour Marina (but recommend Tarpon Springs City Marina)
Approach: Marked channel about 5 miles long
Things to Do: Dine at Dimitri’s, grab pastries at Hella’s Bakery, get a cup of coffee at Fournos Bakery, walk the Sponge Docks, grab a beer at 5 Branches Brewing, walk, bike, or run along the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail.
While the two routes provide different experiences, there really is no "right way," as whichever way you go, there is guaranteed to be some dolphin action, crab-pot dodging (hopefully not snagged like happened to us), and a celebration when you make it into port!