10 Tips for Navigating Sarasota Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway

Navigating Sarasota Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway

Sarasota Bay is the perfect place to relax and spend some time with friends or family. Although these waters can appear calm, they are not without challenges. Shoals, sandbars, and passes to the Gulf of Mexico notoriously cause trouble for boaters of all skill levels. You may not be able to control the ocean and the tides, but a few tips, tricks, and tools can make your time on the water stress-free and more enjoyable. Here are our tips for navigating Sarasota Bay!

It’s Not All Sunshine and Good Times

If you venture out on Sarasota Bay or the Intracoastal Waterway, you’ll quickly see that there is a lot to learn. Shallow waters, hidden tidal shoals, intense weather, and the notorious Red Tide are more than enough to keep you on your toes while on the water.

Sunshine and good weather can put you at ease, but don’t let that stop you from thinking about what’s around you. Make sure you have the skills, confidence, and the right mindset when you step on the boat.

1. Dealing with Shallows

Sarasota Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway are notoriously shallow. Throughout most of the area, water depths range between 7 – 12 feet. The water becomes even more shallow as you move closer to barrier islands.

A digital GPS with an up-to-date chart can save your prop, but the water’s color is also a quick indicator for depth in a pinch.

If the water is brown, you’ll run aground. The brown color indicates the presence of shallow seagrass beds that can tangle your prop. White-tinted water means that an underwater sandbar is nearby, and these are typically shallower than they look. Green-hued water is generally safe for a boat with a shallow draft (3 feet or less). Blue water means it is deep enough for most boats. However, you should always consult an accurate nautical chart if you are concerned about water depth when navigating Sarasota Bay (or anywhere, really).

2. Pay Attention to the Tide

In Sarasota Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway, the difference between high and low tide can be as little as 2 feet. However, the already shallow water means that even a small change in water height has a significant impact.

That means a sandbar you passed over at high tide could cause you to run aground later in the day. Always know when the tide is coming and going.

3. Navigating The Intracoastal Waterway

The Intracoastal Waterway runs down the Eastern seaboard, around Florida, and along the Gulf Coast all the way to Texas. It provides a buffer for smaller vessels from the often rough seas. In Sarasota, it’s one of the best ways to get around safely. It is relatively shallow, with water depths ranging from four to twelve feet, depending on where you are. Keep an eye on the water depth, as this channel is often busy and you will have to navigate through potentially shallow areas and other boaters.

4. Manatee Zones

Yes, Manatees. This is a critical step for navigating Sarasota Bay. These endangered animals like to hang around Sarasota Bay in the summer, feasting on seagrass. Watch for designated Manatee Zones where you will be required to move at a Minimum Wake Speed or slower to avoid the lumbering Manatees. Be extremely cautious because these sea-cows will often not move out of the way.

5. Keep an Eye on the Horizon

As we all know, Florida is no stranger to hurricanes and intense natural phenomena. Smaller storms typically move quickly, so what seemed like a nice day on the water when you left the dock, can turn into a rough ride.

Look out for Red Tides. Caused by algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, the Red Tide sometimes moves in from the sea. If you see patches or streaks of red colored water, turn around. That is where the algae is highly concentrated. Red Tides kill fish and are toxic for humans. Swimming in the Red Tide will leave you with an itchy rash, and breathing in the toxins can cause health problems for people with respiratory conditions.

The solution is an easy one. Tune in to the weather channel before and during your time on the water.

6. Learn Your Reference Points

When you head out on the Bay, you will always see the barrier islands to the west, but the John Ringling Causeway, Big Pass, and New Pass can help you orient yourself. Pick some landmarks around where you boat and commit them to memory.

7. Know Who To Call

If you have a radio, channel 16 is for distress and safety calls. For non-emergency support, you can become a member of organizations like Sea-Tow or TowBoatUS. Your navigation aids will likely have emergency assistance functions/instructions as well.

8. Navigate like a Pro

Nautical charts, a digital GPS device, and community information are critical for getting around on the water. Familiarize yourself with apps like Wavve Boating or the US Coast Guard mobile app. They will help you stay on track and out of trouble.

9. Traffic

There are a lot of recreational boaters in Sarasota Bay (thankfully, most commercial boats stay out of the Bay). It can get pretty congested on the weekends, so watch out for other boaters and follow the rules of the road. Remember the boat approaching your starboard side (right from the wheel), has right away over you.

10. Be friendly

We all want to enjoy the beautiful waters of Sarasota Bay. Keep that in mind when interacting with other boaters. Check on other boaters if it looks like they are in trouble and help out if they ask for it.

Those are the basics. Now all that is left is to put your knowledge into action. Get out there and enjoy the sunshine and warm seas as you navigate Sarasota Bay!

Wavve Boating is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store via two subscription options of $7.99/month or $45.99/year. New users are offered a 14 day trial to see if the app is a fit for them.

About Wavve Boating

Founded in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Wavve Boating (Wavve) is a mobile application designed for the recreational boater. With nautical charts from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Canadian Hydrographic Services, Wavve has been growing their consumer base across North America since May of 2018. Available on all Apple and Android devices, Wavve offers a simple platform so anyone can boat like a local. For more information visit wavveboating.com.