Most of this article originally appeared in Small Craft Advisor.
- Name: Fort Walton Beach/Destin, Florida.
- In brief: One of the premier cruising areas along the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
- Where: Ramp at Liza Jackson Park. Map and Chart.
- Ramp: Free, though nearby shallow flats may be unsuitable for deeper draft boats.
- Weather at the base camp.
Northwest Florida has a great deal to offer the small boat sailor, and these two centrally-located small cities make an excellent base for exploring the main attractions. In the summer, the waters around Destin’s East Pass rival the Keys for clarity and color. Summer is the tourist season here, though spring and fall offer the best weather. Fall is the absolute best, since the air has grown cooler but the water is still warm. However, late summer and fall visitors must be alert to the possibility of hurricanes and tropical storms, which sometimes visit this coast.
Although the temperature may fall to freezing a couple of times each year, the semi-tropical climate will provide many shirtsleeve days even in January, and the bug population drops dramatically. The small boat sailor can find perfect protection in Santa Rosa Sound when the weather is bad, and wide open Choctawhatchee Bay beckons when the weather is good. Sailing to the east end of the bay, you’ll arrive at a
river delta complete with mysterious swamps and a maze of twisting waterways. Sailing west on the Sound, you’ll reach the pristine dunes and beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Both destinations are only a good day’s sail from Ft. Walton Beach. In between are many other attractions.
Last summer my two teenage sons and I took our 16 foot beachcruising catamaran Slider down the Sound to a string of spoil islands just a few miles from our home in Ft. Walton Beach, the day before the Fourth of July. We left our dock at 5 p.m., but arrived at our little island with enough daylight left to set up our tent, eat
supper, and gather firewood for a small campfire on the beach. Slider spent the night anchored just off the shoreline, in the lagoon between the spoil island and big Santa Rosa Island, which belongs to the Air Force and is completely undeveloped here.
No lights obscured the stars when we looked toward the Gulf, and the phosphorescence in the warm dark water of the lagoon was spectacular. To the north of the spoil island lies the Intracoastal. Once or twice in the night, I was awakened by the throb of a towboat’s engines, pushing a barge string down the channel. In the morning I sat by our tent and listened to two crows having a conversation with a red-winged blackbird in a dead tree, while my sons splashed in the kneedeep shallows behind the island. It’s hard to imagine a
better one-night cruise, and the coast along here is thick with destinations just as nice.
For small boat sailors who plan to sleep aboard, there are many pleasant anchorages available within a short sail from either Ft. Walton Beach or Destin. For example, between the two cities are miles of
undeveloped bayfront belonging to the Air Force. In settled weather, a small, shallow-draft boat can anchor almost anywhere along the bay’s scenic edge, well out of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which enters the bay at Ft. Walton Beach and passes to the north of Destin. Of the two cities, Ft. Walton Beach is a bit more small craft friendly– it has several free or low-cost boat-launching ramps, while Destin has just one good public ramp, and there’s a charge for launching. Ft Walton Beach also has many services near the water, including a Publix supermarket a block from the city-owned park at The Landing, just west of Brooks Bridge on the Intracoastal. This park also features a free pumpout at the city dock. A supermarket can be found just across the road from the new public library, which offers computer access and an air-conditioned place to relax and read.
A West Marine store is only a few blocks from the water, and there’s one in Destin too.
Destin is only 5 miles down the coast from FWB. Destin’s lively harbor and pass to the Gulf give this “luckiest fishing village in the world” its own appeal. Unfortunately, East Pass is considered to be the most dangerous pass along Florida’s Northwest coast, and small boats should only consider using it if they are well suited to sailing offshore, and even then, only in settled weather. East Pass is notorious for sudden big breakers, because Gulf waves rolling in through the deep water just offshore can trip on the relatively shallow bar, making for conditions no small boat will find comfortable. Aside from these breakers, the charter fishing fleet and many private power boats make sailing in the Pass more of an adventure than it should be. The wakes can be violent and the chop can become chaotic even inside the jetties on a busy day. Tides sometimes run strong in the Pass, when all the water from Choctawhatchee Bay sluices through the narrow entrance. If wind opposes tide, conditions can deteriorate rapidly. My son John and I once sailed under Destin Bridge, only to be seized by an outgoing tide and propelled toward a line of breakers stretching right across the Pass… just as the wind went very light. We maintained just enough steerage to move us over to a shallow sandy patch just short of the east jetty, where we were able to get an anchor down. We spent the next three hours twirling around our anchor in a violent eddy, until the wind came back and the tide eased. It wasn’t much fun, but we felt fortunate not to be sailing into big rollers in an open 16 foot boat.
Apart from East Pass, area waters are usually peaceful, with many sheltered refuges available to boaters caught out in deteriorating conditions. For example, the shoreline of Choctawhatchee Bay is indented with bayous large and small. To the north of Destin, large bayous run up into a couple of other small friendly towns.
Heading west from Ft. Walton Beach, the sailor reaches the Narrows, where the spoil islands my sons and I visited can be found. There’s a dogleg in the Intracoastal here that can give towboat captains trouble, so keep an eye out for barge strings and monitor channel 16 on the VHF. The line of spoil islands stretches from Mary Esther on the outskirts of Ft. Walton Beach to Hurlburt Field, an Air Force installation. On the night we were there, Hurlburt Field had their 4th of July fireworks celebration, and it felt as if they were putting on the show just for us.
Past the Narrows, the Sound opens up and provides reasonably deep water from bank to bank, with the occasional sandbar jutting out toward the channel. A shallow-draft boat will not be confined to the channel and can run along the barrier island, which belongs to the Air Force all the way to Navarre Beach. Ospreys nest in the ragged, hurricane-damaged pine trees, and the shallows are alive with wading birds, crabs, and other sea life. The only developments along the island are a few Air Force radar installations. Going ashore is discouraged, but no one will mind if you’re just sailing past.
At Navarre Beach on the barrier island, there’s a great anchorage just off the free public boat ramps, as well as Juana’s Pagoda and Sailor’s Grill, a pleasant beach bar and restaurant that sponsors a beachcat regatta in September. It can can be noisy on the weekends. A county park with good restrooms and picnic pavilions has just reopened here, after being heavily damaged in recent hurricanes. Across the Sound on the mainland side is a shopping center with fast food, a grocery store, and other necessities.
I spent a night here, anchored a little too close to the beach. As the tide fell, my rudders began to thump on the sandy bottom, waking me up around midnight. I had to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag, lower myself into the dark cold water and wade the anchor out, all the while thinking about the big bull sharks that are sometimes seen in the Sound.
Continuing on to the west, Navarre Beach with its condos and beach houses is soon replaced by an almost-pristine segment of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. A road used to run along the barrier island from Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach, but hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 destroyed the road, which has not yet been rebuilt. For that reason, a boat is really the only practical way to enjoy this wilderness of white sand and clear shallows.
Update: the road has recently been reopened, and there is a National Seashore park halfway between Navarre and Pensacola Beach.
One place of particular interest to the small boater is Big Sabine Point, which encircles a lot of marshland and shallow seagrass beds. Snorkeling over these flats is an amazing experience, the nest best thing to snorkeling a coral reef. When our oldest child was a toddler, we spent a wonderful night here in the Catalina 22 we owned then, after a long wet beat from Pensacola Beach in the dark. My wife and daughter stayed in the cabin and laughed every time a wave broke over the foredeck and the boat tossed it aft to land on me in the cockpit. I can’t describe the joyful relief I felt when we were finally able to nose into a quiet anchorage behind the point.
Pensacola Beach, and Pensacola Bay are the gateways to yet another great cruising ground. In September of 2008, I took a few days and cruised Slider west to the beautiful lagoon behind the ruins of old Fort McRee. I parked Slider on the beach, in an area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore where internal combustion engines are prohibited and there is no development at all. Pensacola was only a few miles north of my deserted beach, but looking out over the Gulf, the only lights I could see were the markers in Pensacola Pass, and the only sounds were the tolling of the bell buoys in the Gulf.
In the morning, two pods of porpoises escorted me out into the pass, through water so clear I could see them swimming deep beneath the boat.
Heading east from Ft. Walton Beach, you pass the undeveloped Air Force shoreline, and then the Destin Coast Guard station. Just past the CG station is the Destin bridge, under which you must sail to reach Destin Harbor and East Pass. On the north side of the bridge is Crab Island, which is actually not an island at all, but a shallow area in the bay where on summer weekends literally hundreds of boats anchor and socialize. This is one of my teenage sons’ favorite scenic spots along the coast, primarily because of the large population of attractive young women in bikinis. There’s a lot of to and fro traffic too. There’s usually a beer barge anchored on the flat and they do a good business. If you’re in a small boat, you’ll need to be careful. Destin Harbor is lined with restaurants and nightspots, many of which will allow you to dock if you plan to have a meal. There are chandleries, seafood stores and tackle shops along Destin’s main drag, all within walking distance of the harbor.
Continuing past Destin, at the south end of the Mid-Bay Bridge, there are a number of upscale stores and a large cineplex in a shopping center called Destin Commons. The southern shore of the bay is scalloped by extensive bayous, some of which are well worth a detour. Hogtown Bayou is the largest of these, and however it came by its name, there are no longer any hogs in evidence along its lightly-developed shoreline. A small county park deep in the bayou provides a ramp and a few picnic tables.
Another attraction along the south shore of the bay can be found at Point Washington, where Eden Gardens State Park borders the quiet bay waters. A lumber baron in the 19th century built a magnificent Southern mansion here, and tours can be arranged for a nominal fee. There’s also a small church here, where my youngest sister was married. Some of the system of pilings the lumberjacks devised to catch the logs floating down the river are still there along the east end of the bay, and should be accounted for carefully if
crossing the bay outside the marked channel. The Intracoastal landcut begins here, and takes you east to the remarkable estuaries clustered around Panama City, but it’s only suitable for craft with reliable engines.
Services are a little scarce along the bay’s southern shore, once past the opulent Sandestin resorts, but at the eastern end of the bay, convenience stores and restaurants can be found along the south end of the Highway 331 causeway, which divides the bay from the Choctawhatchee river delta and its myriad waterways. Many years ago, my wife and I anchored behind the safety of this causeway for a couple of days when ferocious west winds made beating home across the bay an unattractive prospect. We were in a 27 foot boat with three small children, but we had a fine time exploring the muddy shorelines, fishing the oyster bars, and visiting a nearby convenience store for ice cream. Days could be spent exploring the river system, which is navigable a long way north, all the way into Alabama. The river is an important spawning
habitat for the Gulf sturgeon, and has a reputation for good freshwater fishing. Dealing with mosquitoes as hungry as vampire bats may be necessary, unless you cruise the river in the winter right after a hard frost. Some of the river islands are actually ancient shell middens, where bits of 500 year old pottery can be found.
Coming back west along the north side of the bay, you come first to LaGrange Bayou. Following this narrow twisty waterway leads you to the town of Freeport. There are several small stores here for re-provisioning, and some undeveloped shoreline. This is one of the better hurricane holes along this stretch of coast, so you can expect a quiet night as long as you’re well off the channel, which is sometimes used by commercial traffic.
Several other bayous indent the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay. Some are developed only lightly, with mostly large homes, but there are also a few fishing camps and rusty trailers. Much of this shore is controlled by Eglin Air Force Base, and is preserved from development. Eventually, after passing several small hamlets along the shore, you can turn north into the big bayou just east of Niceville. Passing under a bridge with a 20 foot vertical clearance, the sailor will arrive at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park. This little park features an intimate setting along the bay, modern campsites, a boat ramp, a park store, and sufficient isolation that it’s not obvious that you’re only a couple of miles east of the small but busy cities of Niceville and Vaparaiso, and just across the bay from Destin. The park would serve as a pretty good base for exploring the bay and the waters to the west, if you can get under the bridge, or if your mast is easily lowered.
The Ft. Walton Beach/Destin area has a great deal to offer the small boat sailor seeking sun, sand, and solitude, but you’re never far from civilized conveniences. The area has many reasonably-priced motels and
condos, if you want to take a break from cruising. It has fine restaurants, lively nightlife, a waterpark and other amusements, the Gulfarium, and the Temple Mound Museum in downtown Fort Walton Beach. The area even has a decent bus system. For a small fare, Okaloosa County Transit can take you from Destin Commons near the Mid-Bay Bridge west to Fort Walton Beach and north to Valparaiso and Niceville.
Increasingly, Florida’s beaches are being closed off by walls of condos and resort developments, and it’s happening along the Emerald Coast as well. But here the old laid-back Florida, with its uncrowded white sands and warm clear waters, still exists. For a while.
Cruise it soon, before it fades away.