Site  Updated:
June 13, 2013

Cruising the Panhandle

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Florida's Panhandle is a unique geopolitical feature, gerrymandered westward from the state's capital of Tallahassee along the Gulf shore for 230 miles as the coastal crow flies, blocking Georgia from the Gulf and nearly landlocking Alabama in the process. It owes its existence to the former colony of West Florida (that had its capital in Pensacola), which was separate and different from East Florida, whose major port was St. Augustine. Troops were garrisoned in both of these cities and a steady sea trade flowed between them, creating a strong common bond. Though this was during the so called “English Period” (which came between two stands of Spanish control) of 1763 to 1784, Pensacola and St. Augustine were both initially Spanish settlements dating back to the early 1500s.

The two Floridas were sufficiently interrelated that they were accepted as a single territory when Spain ceded the land to the U.S. in 1821 and the consolidation became permanent when Florida attained statehood in 1845. 

For cruising boatpeople, the Panhandle is a long series of beautiful and diverse waters, often with a choice of staying inland, cruising the bays inside the barrier islands, or running offshore along some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Either route leads past some of the most hospitable ports in Florida, and represents a cruising ground of unique beauty and charm equally far removed (in style, if not actual distance) from the highrise canyons of the Gold Coast and the wilderness of the Big Bend.

Beyond any question, the outstanding physical feature of the Panhandle is its beaches. Built of finely pulverized white quartz deposited by the receding glaciers at the end of the last ice age, they stretch along the entire coastline from Alligator Point on the east to beyond Alabama on the west. Sometimes these beaches are on the mainland but more often they form the seaward side of the other outstanding feature of the Panhandle — the barrier islands that create a sheltered waterway and a veritable cornucopia of bays to explore and anchorages to enjoy. Many of the islands are state preserves or parks or have been designated as National Seashore, and as such remain out of reach of the developers who have stacked so much Florida waterfront with condominiums.

Perhaps the most outstanding non-physical feature of the Panhandle is the attitude of its residents toward visitors. This area IS a part of the “Old South” (the “Stars and Bars” flag of the Confederacy still flies here in some places), and true “Southern Hospitality” abounds. While other parts of Florida get more attention as tourist destinations, no other region will make you feel more welcome than you will here. Service people and tradesmen will go out of their way to accommodate your wishes or needs, yet they don't think they are doing a thing but being decent. Couple this with the outstanding scenery, plentiful good food, and an almost overwhelming sense of history, and you'll see why we say this is a cruising area not to be missed.

If you are westbound and have taken the scenic route up the Big Bend shore, your Panhandle begins at St. Marks. If you follow the buoyage system or take the Rhumb Line, it starts farther west at Carrabelle — and you have missed one of the nicest ports in Florida.

About 30 miles up the empty Big Bend coast from Keaton Beach, you can turn northward into the St. Marks River, past the remains of its historic white lighthouse, which is still a major landmark despite being unlit. Its history goes back to 1831. The lighthouse is within the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge which has a Visitor Center about seven miles north of the light. It's open 7 days a week, closing only on Federal Holidays. The phone is 850-925-6121. The entrance channel  is well marked (starting with the lighted sea buoy “SM”), but it snakes its way around numerous shoals, so heed the chart and the markers — and don't attempt passage after dark; it's too easy to miss a marker when you can't see them clearly.  (Continue...)

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