Panther Key, FL – April, 2018 Ever since we got our boat Jim and I have been saying we wanted to camp out on it or on a deserted beach. We are in our last full month in Florida for this winter and we figured we better get on with it before it got too hot or the rainy season kicked into gear. We chose a weekday just after Easter and made it happen.
We just wanted to sleep under the stars as far away from light pollution as we could, so we planned to go out one afternoon and come back the next morning. We took a tent and an air mattress to sleep on the beach but agreed we could sleep on the boat instead. We left it till we got there to decide. If there had been any other campers on the beach we might have slept on the boat. There weren’t. There was quite a surge where the boat was parked so it probably wouldn’t have been too comfortable.
We kept the meal plan simple. We only had one dinner and one breakfast to worry about so we picked up fried chicken from the grocery store to eat cold and made a pasta salad to accompany it. When dinner time came we were roasting. It was almost 90 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That cold dinner tasted better than any hot meal we could have dreamed up. We planned to have cereal for breakfast.
We reached Panther Key, which is about 8 miles from Goodland as the crow flies, around 3. It took us about an hour to get everything we wanted off the boat and the tent set up. It wouldn’t have taken that long but we’d get a little done, stop to drink a cold beverage, and then work a little more. Did I mention it was hot?!
Once we were set up we wandered the beach as far as we could in both directions. Here is Google’s satellite view of Panther Key and the orange arrow shows about where we camped. The beach stretched less than a half mile on either side of our camp.
We walked all the way to the north end of the beach. But we only went a short distance to the south before having to walk out into the surf to get around trees. We hoped to walk all the way to the south end of the key in the morning when the tide was lower.
There were few other visitors to the beach while we were there. We probably saw a half dozen people all afternoon. After 6 we had it completely to ourselves. There were 3 boats we could see anchored offshore for the night.
Around 5:30 we couldn’t wait any longer to dig into that fried chicken. Soon after that, we caved to the enticing shade offered by our tent and the falling sun. We pulled our chairs, and the cooler of course, into its shadow and reveled in the relief from the blazing heat.
We hid in the shade for the better part of an hour. When the sun got lower, the temperature dropped precipitously, and we pulled our chairs back to the water’s edge for the big show.
We had the perfect location for a brilliant sunset. It was spectacular and the colors were incredibly intense. With so few clouds in the sky, however, it was far from our most photogenic sunset.
It was also remarkably swift, seeming to have only just started sinking before disappearing altogether. Some of the best colors were reflected in the sky to the north where two of the three boats within sight were anchored.
The third boat, a sailboat, was on the Western horizon, seemingly in the thick of the setting sun.
Right before last light you could see a few puffy clouds in the sunset and Venus rising to the right of it.
Next came the part of the evening we were really there for. In a very short time the stars started appearing and within the hour the sky was covered. The moon wasn’t scheduled to rise until after midnight so we had plenty of stargazing time.
It wasn’t in the same league as some of the most memorable nightscapes we’ve encountered, like our Colorado River float or boondock at Flaming Gorge, but considering how little effort it took to get here it was a pretty spectacular view. We could see the glow of both Marco Island and of Naples in the distance so if we go even further away from civilization next time the view will get even better. Sadly I wasn’t successful at getting any pictures.
We stared and ooohhhed and aaahhed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore and then we retired to our tent. We both thought that after all that sun, water, and wind we would have no choice but to sleep like the dead. Wrong! Even compared to other nights we’ve spent in a tent and on an air mattress, this had to be one of the most uncomfortable.
Our biggest concern had been being hot while we slept so I didn’t bring enough covers. The sea breeze was constant and pretty chilly. We weren’t too cold, just uncomfortable. When the moon did rise it was unbelievably bright in there. And of course the air mattress deflated throughout the night.
Around 5 am Jim had had enough and he crawled out of the tent and started collecting firewood. I joined him as soon as he got the fire started and it kept us toasty until the sun came up.
It was about then that Jim realized that the boat had drifted in the night and we had a problem.
We had a rear anchor on her and a line from her bow tied to a tree on the island. Her anchor hadn’t held and so she had drifted south and closer to shore. She was only just stuck. If we had paid attention and caught it as soon as we awoke we probably could have corrected the problem. But we mistakenly thought the tide was still coming in so if she looked a little high in the water the tide would soon lift her. When Jim realized the tide had turned and was going out, he became alarmed.
We jumped in and tried everything we knew to get her into deeper water: rocking her, using a limb for leverage, adding the power of the motor. It was a no go. We were good and stuck and the next high tide wouldn’t be until 4 that afternoon.
We could stay all day. We had enough snacks and water. But 8 more hours in the blazing sun did not sound like a very good time.
Our boat insurance with Progressive includes a towing endorsement called Sign and Glide. We decided to give it a try. We called their 800 number and they dispatched a Seatow boat which reached us in about 45 minutes. In that time though the water dropped another foot and there was no way he could get our Bella off the sand bar.
We had spent that time packing everything up. We asked the captain, Eric, if he’d give us a ride back to civilization and then bring us back with him at high tide to pick her up. It turned out he was our neighbor and docks his boat at the other end of our canal. He agreed, so we locked Bella up, made sure her rear anchor was really, really secure, and abandoned ship.
He dropped us off on our dock and we drug our tails into the house. I made a big breakfast and then we took a much needed nap. We spent the afternoon puttering around the house trying not to worry about our girl out there all alone.
A little before he was supposed to pick us up at 3 the captain text that he was on a call in Everglades City and might be a little late picking us up. Everglades City is about the same distance as Goodland from Panther Key but in the opposite direction. So he would be going right past Bella to come back and get us in Goodland. We suggested that if he wasn’t towing a boat on his way back, maybe he could just get Bella and tow her home. He said he would.
So we waited, and waited, AND waited. About 7 Bella finally made it safely home. A different Seatow captain brought her and put her right in her slip. We spoke to him briefly and the gist was Eric was tied up on calls, he asked this guy (who turned out to be his father) to go get her and said he could pick us up if he wanted. He said the water had turned rough and if we had gone we would have been miserable and very wet so he did it alone.
We were ecstatic to have her back. She was a big salty mess, but she was home with no damage. We were extremely grateful to Progressive’s Sign and Glide team who checked in with us throughout the day and to both Seatow captains.
So what’s the take away from this experience? 1st: We need a better anchor or anchoring system before we take Bella out for another overnight. Jim has had his eye on something for a while and this will probably seal the deal. 2nd: We really didn’t know if a free towing endorsement on our boat policy would offer very reliable service when we needed it. So it’s reassuring to know they have our back.