Guide to Navigating Florida Inlets & Water Channels
By Doug Sease
Florida is blessed with hundreds of miles of inland waterway that give boaters a protected route up and down the entire east coast and much of the west coast. Here's your guide to navigating Florida's inlets, big and small.
Florida is blessed with hundreds of miles of inland waterway that give boaters a protected route up and down the entire east coast and much of the west coast. There’s just one problem: getting from the ocean to the inland waters through the inlets that link them.
Most of the time, there’s nothing the least bit worrisome about entering or leaving through an inlet. True, the tide can run fast and there may be a lot of boats coming or going at the same time, but many Florida inlets are wide, deep and well marked, especially those on the east coast.
Here’s my own rundown of what I consider the safest inlets and some of the more questionable inlets on both of Florida’s coasts. But don’t take my word for it. Remember, you’re responsible for navigating your own boat.
The Big Ship Channels
These are considered all-weather (by big ships, not little boats) channels from the ocean that ships can safely use. They are deep, wide, well-marked and often protected by jetties (which can be their own source of danger in bad weather or low visibility). Because they are wide and deep, tremendous volumes of water flow through them and, as a consequence, the adverse conditions created by wind-against-tide can extend considerably into the ocean or gulf.
Florida Inlets are listed from north to south on the east coast, then south to north on the west coast.
St. Mary’s River
The river marks the border between George and Florida and its currents flow fast. Several years ago, the U.S. Navy built a nuclear submarine base at nearby Kings Bay, Ga., and undertook extensive work dredging and marking the St. Mary’s River entrance. Now, as long as you stay clear of subs coming and going, it’s a relatively easy passage, well marked and deep.
St. Johns River
This river has long been used for heavy commerce and for military vessels. The channel is deep and well marked with long jetties extending to sea. Buoys and range lights help mariners stay on the proper course. The biggest danger is from the large cargo ships that come down the winding river. Give them a wide berth and everyone will be happy. There’s a Coast Guard station near the mouth of the river that can provide advice about conditions.
Cruise ships, Navy vessels and lots of fishermen use this deep and well-marked inlet. I’ve had to put in there unintentionally in the past when a scheduled rocket launch from nearby Kennedy Space Center prohibited any boats from entering the launch hazard area.
Lake Worth Inlet
Also known as the Palm Beach Inlet, its short entrance and deep water make this an easy inlet to use. It’s a major staging for pleasure boaters since Lake Worth offers extensive anchoring spots near the inlet. It’s also a great jumping-off point for anyone heading to the northern parts of the Bahamas.
Wide, deep and well marked, this inlet takes you into Fort Lauderdale, the heart of luxury yacht country. Pleasure boats are thick in the inlet on good days and some very large ships, both cruise and cargo, use it, too.
This is the last major inlet on the east coast, leading boaters into the thriving port of Miami. Given the amount of cruise and cargo ships that pass through here, the main danger is not giving them enough room. Government Cut may be the best inlet on Florida’s east coast for pleasure boaters, but I’ve still tacked back and forth off the cut waiting for daylight so I could eyeball conditions before entering.
Boca Grande Channel
The first real big-ship channel you come to moving from south to north on Florida’s west coast, Boca Grande Channel was a major port of call for ships transporting phosphate mined from central Florida. You don’t see so much ship traffic anymore. For pleasure boaters, Boca Grande Channel opens the door to Charlotte Harbor where you’ll find dozens of marinas in Punta Gorda and Burnt Store.
Tampa Bay Entrance
Tampa Bay is by far the biggest ship port on Florida’s West Coast, with a big-ship channel called Egmont Channel that is wide, deep and well-buoyed. But there are two other ways for small boats to get into and out of Tampa Bay. The first and best of the two choices is Southwest Channel, running just south of Egmont Key. At about 17 feet, it is plenty deep for pleasure craft and you won’t have to share the road with big ships, but it isn’t well marked. Even less well-marked is Passage Key Inlet, the southernmost of the three routes into Tampa Bay. It’s deep, but narrower than Southwest Channel.
St. Andrew Bay Entrance
This manmade pass joining St. Andrew Bay with the Gulf of Mexico handles big ships carrying a variety of products from the wharves at nearby Panama City. It’s really the only big channel in Florida that you have to worry about a south wind creating any serious chop.
St. Joseph Bay Entrance
It isn’t an inlet at all, just wide open water, albeit with a ship channel marking the way to Port St. Joe. Since St. Joseph Bay does not have a narrow inlet to constrict tidal flow, it’s unlikely that dangerous currents will occur here and create any serious dangers for small boats. On the other hand, its width and relatively shallow water depth may allow moderate to strong winds to cause rougher sea conditions than one might expect.
The final big-ship entry point into Florida waters is the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Pensacola is the home of naval aviation in the United States. The carriers that are used to train Navy flyers have historically been berthed in Pensacola. Thus, the entrance to the bay has all the navigational accoutrements you would expect of a harbor catering the Navy and would be difficult for most boaters, but when the seas are calm, the pass is very accessible for smaller boats.
Small Craft Inlets
These Florida inlets don’t handle big ships and thus aren’t as wide or deep, but are nevertheless perfectly safe for the transit of small craft in normal conditions. I’m only offering up those inlets that are marked by the Coast Guard, not by privately maintained aids to navigation. Even then, be aware that shifting bottom conditions can result in marks being moved from time to time.
If you have any questions before entering one of these Florida inlets, call the local Coast Guard station on your radio, or talk to boaters familiar with the area. Inlets are listed from north to south on the east, and south to north on the west coast.
St. Augustine Inlet
Shallow waters and shifting bottoms make this inlet at least a little questionable. Plenty of sport fishing boats use it all the time, but they make the run out often. If you’re coming from sea in anything less than a seven-foot draft, you probably won’t have any problem. The Coast Guard moves the entrance channel buoys to following the shifting channel. But when the weather gets rougher, you’re better off going north to the St. Johns River entrance or staying offshore.
South of Daytona Beach, Ponce Inlet is much like St. Augustine Inlet: safe to use with caution. Again, you’ll see lots of boats coming and going and, in settled conditions, everything should be fine. But as the wind pipes up, take care.
St. Lucie Inlet
Local knowledge only! Dredging operations began recently to deepen this channel and that will probably make it usable for many more boats, but I wouldn’t aim to escape rough weather through this inlet. Even in settled weather you probably want to chat up a local fisherman about depths.
Fort Pierce Inlet
I consider Fort Pierce Inlet my home inlet. Deep and well-marked, with jetties on both sides, it’s a welcome sight after a long cruise. A Coast Guard station and several marinas just inside the inlet can provide advice in rough weather.
Better than St. Lucie, but still a little dicey for someone unfamiliar with it. A bar extends across the mouth of the inlet that creates breaking waves even when conditions don’t seem particularly nasty.
Boca Raton Inlet, Hillsboro Inlet and Bakers Haulover Inlets
Lots of local South Florida fishing boats use these three inlets routinely, but they can get very crowded with boats on good days and very rough on bad days.
The Keys don’t have inlets as such, just passes between the many islands. Most of those passes are protected to some extent by the reef that separates the island chain from the deeper waters of the Florida Straits. Nevertheless, when the tide is running south out of Key West Harbor and there’s a south wind blowing, the wind-against-tide effect can clearly be felt in short, choppy seas.
The place to be especially wary is Moser Channel, the wide channel that runs under the famed Seven Mile Bridge connecting Knight Key (Marathon) and Little Duck Key. There, the fast tidal currents, shallow water and long fetch can, in the worst conditions, create overfalls, short, steep breaking seas that can overturn a small boat.
Little Shark River
Moving north from the Keys, the first real inlet you come to is the entrance to Little Shark River. If you have a yen for wild places, Little Shark River offers entre to the Everglades. It’s well marked, albeit in shallow water running as little as five feet in some places.
Indian Key Pass
This is the doorway to the Ten Thousand Islands area. Without this buoyed passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the old Florida village of Everglades City, chances are good that casual visitors would never see this historic part of Florida’s southwest. As it is, it’s still twisting haul from the Gulf to the docks at Everglades City, but a trip worth making.
Big Marco Pass
Big Marco Pass leads to the Big Marco River and the bustling and upscale Marco Island, which includes the village of Goodland and City of Marco Island, both with boaters, friendly waterfront restaurants and marinas.
Gordon Pass is the main access to the busy waters of Naples, one of southwest Florida’s premier boating destinations. It’s well marked and should present no problems except for heavy boat traffic, particularly on winter weekends.
The entrance to San Carlos Bay is wide and mostly deep except for shoals to the west. Before passing under the long bridge across San Carlos Bay you will find Matanzas Pass on your starboard side, providing access to the back bay of Fort Myers Beach.
Once you pass under the new 65-foot bridge (that may not be marked on your charts), you’re in boating country, with Cape Coral and its seemingly hundreds of miles of canals to starboard and famed Sanibel Island to port. This area is the west coast beginning of the Okeechobee Waterway that takes boats from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast via Lake Okeechobee, a much shorter route than going around the Keys.
I mention this inlet only reluctantly. There appears to be sufficient water in the channel, but that deeper water is surrounded by shoals outside the channel. This is one of those channels subject to change. The chart doesn’t show any marks, so make your approach with extra caution.
Venice to Bradenton
A small but easily navigable passage, Venice Inlet is the gateway to the attractive city of Venice. Next up are Big Sarasota Pass, New Pass and Longboat Pass that place you inside sheltered waters running from Sarasota, past Longboat Key and up to Bradenton.
North of Tampa Bay, the aptly-named North Channel carries you into Pass-a-Grille Channel and the upscale community of Tierra Verde. Further north, John’s Pass delivers you to the marinas at Madeira Beach. Clearwater Pass naturally provides entre to Clearwater, a longtime destination for snowbirds seeking relief from cold northern winters.
Florida’s Big Bend
There’s much to recommend about visiting the Big Bend area, but boating wouldn’t be my preferred method to see it. Waters are shallow and few inlets are inviting—mostly just narrow, shallow channels dredged between even shallower banks. Steinhatchee and St. Marks are the only well-marked channels that I would consider using without local knowledge.
The eastern end of St. George Sound isn’t an inlet in any sense of the word, merely open water between the mainland and Dog Island. But it, like East Pass at the western end of Dog Island, provides access not only to the town of Carrabelle, but also to Apalachicola, famed home of some of the tastiest oysters to be harvested from the sea. Apalachicola can also be reached through a narrow cut that separates St. George Island from Little St. George Island.
The final small-craft inlet in our survey is at the entrance to Choctawhatchee Bay through a narrow inlet that is home to the world-famous sport fishing community of Destin.