By Kris Hundley
Go under the Seven Mile Bridge and run up the Florida Bay. But the water is shallow, the channel narrow and often booby-trapped with fish pots and the cuts by bridges frequently shoaled. Take the bay side in a boat with five-foot draft and you’d better keep Tow Boats US on speed-dial.
The other options are on the opposite side of the Key chain: A few miles out in the Atlantic, where the Gulfstream adds speed but swells can mean a rocky ride. Closer to shore, between land and the reefs is Hawk Channel, with plenty of water and protection from big waves.
We chose Hawk Channel for the 100-mile run from Marathon to Miami, anchoring for the night at about a mid-point south of Key Largo. Pulling the anchor at dawn, by 11 a.m. we could just make out Miami’s skyline, visible in a haze in the distance.
But as we sailed north, we could see storm clouds rolling south down the shoreline, blotting out the high-rises, erasing them from view. By the time we reached the entrance to Miami’s harbor, black clouds had converged overhead and a wall of rain was rolling our way. We were entering one of the busiest commercial channels on the East Coast in the middle of a white-out squall.
Gusts that spiked at over 40 knots per hour buffeted our boat from every side, ripping the canvas over our cockpit to shreds. We quickly changed course, steering away from the channel to avoid a collision. Our instruments showed a tugboat close by. It sounded its warning horn, haunting in the howling wind. The rain was lashing our faces. We could not see a thing.
For 10 minutes, then 20, then nearly 30, we steered a course along the edge of the shipping channel, trying to avoid markers, spoils and other vessels. At last, there was a break in the clouds. The wind abated.
We steered back into the channel, with Miami’s skyline once again in our sights.