Already dreading the doldrums of winter? Dreaming about a hammock siesta surrounded by white sand beaches and palm trees? How about paddling 120 miles through crystalline blue water, hopping from one island paradise to the next? This incredible adventure-vacation might be a little closer than you think…right here in the good ole USA. That’s right, the Florida Keys are the perfect introductory sea kayaking experience. The tides only shift about a foot, and usually the seas are calm, particularly in the summer months. If you’ve ever considered testing your mettle in the ocean, here is what you need to know before you go.
While the paddling is fairly straight forward, there are a few basic skills that you absolutely must master before heading out into the ocean. You must be able to re-enter you kayak in the open water. While capsizing at sea is highly unlikely in the relatively calm waters that surround this sub-tropical archipelago, it is irresponsible to venture into open water without knowing how to self-rescue in the event you find yourself separated from your kayak. It is not a difficult skill, but is certainly something you should master before leaving shore.
Aside from the basics of a kayak (Jackson Kayak - Journey 14’), paddle (Werner Paddles - Cyprus Bent Shaft), spray skirt (Snap Dragon Design - Trek Series) and life vest (Kokatat - Naiad), there are a few other essentials you need to carry with you at all times when paddling. A communication device is critical. We brought both a VHF radio and a Garmin InReach and carried them in two separate boats. We also each carried a signal mirror, flare, whistle, headlamp and bilge pump.
The Keys are comprised of over 1700 islands that span almost 200 square miles, and navigation proved to be the most difficult part of our expedition. Prior to the trip, I used GoogleEarth to establish our route through the islands, and downloaded that information to my Garmin InReach device for reference throughout the trip. The birds-eye-view allowed me to plot the most efficient course through the islands and utilize the multitude of short-cut channels through the mangroves. However, the Keys are an ever changing landscape and both the islands and mangroves shift over time. The satellite imagery was a great starting point, but not 100% accurate.
In addition to our GPS, we kept nautical charts at the ready. It took some practice to familiarize ourselves with how to read the charts, but after a day of comparing the environment to the chart, we were pretty adept at interpreting the map. However, just like the GoogleEarth mapping, the paper chart was not 100% accurate either.
Surprisingly, we had cell service for the duration of our journey, and the mapping on our phones proved to be the most effective as we neared our nightly accommodations to pinpoint their exact location, as the signage for each resort was directed toward the street rather than the sea. In the end we used a combination of all three tools, GPS, nautical chart and phone for navigation.
Meticulous planning can help mitigate most of the hazards in the Keys, but regardless of how prepared you are, there is no changing the weather. There are two seasons in the Keys, the windy season that runs roughly November through March, and the hot and humid season which comprises the rest of the year. Neither option seemed too appealing to us, so we split the difference and targeted the shoulder season of early April hoping to avoid the winds of winter but also escape the oppressive heat of summer. Our gamble paid off and we were rewarded with 80 degree highs and only a few instances of high winds. There is an excellent website that illustrates the wind speed and direction and includes both current conditions as well as a forecast. We kept this bookmarked on our phones and checked it regularly to ensure that we were not setting out in dangerous conditions.
While the tides are minimal in the Keys, shifting only about a foot, the waters are quite shallow and the difference between low and high tide can leave you stranded in the muck of a shallow bay if you are not careful. We used an online tidal chart, and planned any shallow water crossings during the high tide.
For the most part, the currents in the Keys are negligible, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions. When the tides shift, the water moves between the islands, causing a current to form in the channels that link the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. It is important to coordinate any significant open-water crossings between islands with the slack tide (the transition between high/low tide where the water changes direction) to minimize the currents. The Bahia Honda channel is particularly deep and should be crossed with caution.
When I first envisioned kayaking the length of the Florida Keys, I pictured camping on deserted white sand beaches. However, every-single inch of the entire archipelago is either privately owned or heavily regulated public lands. While there are several state park and private campgrounds scattered amongst the islands, they are often completely booked a year in advance. The same is true of the many island hotels and resorts. We found that a combination of camping and resorts was the best fit to balance expense, daily mileage constraints, and comfort. The table below outlines our itinerary and nightly accommodations.
Day 0 / packing day / Amoray Dive Resort
Day 1 / 18 miles / Conch On Inn
Day 2 / 11 miles / Pines and Palms Resort
Day 3 / 15 miles / Lime Tree bay Resort
Day 4 / 22 miles / Vacation Rental Home
Day 5 / REST DAY
Day 6 / 8 miles / Camp at private Island (Molasses Key) with permission from owner
Day 7 / 7 miles / Bahia Honda State Park
Day 8 / 11 miles / Parmers Resort
Day 9 / 13 miles / Geiger Key Marina
Day 10 / 15 miles / Zachary Taylor State Park- finish
It is difficult to make a recommendation on how many miles to cover in a day because so much depends on the wind speed and direction, which fluctuates daily. With a tail wind, we were able to cover 11 miles in a couple of hours, and with a strong headwind, it took more than 8 exhausting hours to cover the same distance. It really just depends on how much time you have to dedicate to this experience and how much you want to stop and take in along the way. The only days we really struggled with making our miles were the days we battled a headwind. On calm days or with a tailwind, is was easy to cover 15+ miles in a few hours.
There are a variety of shuttle options that serve the islands ranging from Uber and Lyft to buses, and airport shuttles. We had a friend drive our car to our final destination in Key West so that it was ready and waiting for us when we arrived.
The waters surrounding the Keys are teaming with an abundance of wildlife. If you’re an angler, be sure to bring your gear as the fishing is world class. And when the water is calm and clear, there are several patch reefs that are worth stopping to explore with a mask and snorkel. Other than that, just stay alert while paddling and you might spot a sea turtle, shark, manatee and a wide variety of sea birds.
This information will get you safely headed in the right direction and the rest you will learn and discover along the way. So get out there and go on your own adventure vacation!
"Dreaming about a hammock siesta surrounded by white sand beaches and palm trees... How about paddling 120 miles through crystalline blue water, hopping from one island paradise to the next"