View looking northwest from Cayo Costa. We enjoyed a long afternoon of beach-combing here after anchoring out a few miles away and bringing Mudcat over to the park docks in Pelican Bay.

Throwing off the lines after a fine visit to St. Petersburg, we made our way out into a choppy Tampa Bay again, then under the impressive Sunshine Skyway Bridge and briefly out into the Gulf of Mexico before turning south into Florida’s west coast intracoastal waterway on our way to Sarasota. We arrived at Marina Jack’s just moments before the skies opened up with whipping winds and horizontal pelting rain. That sequence usually happens when docking the boat not afterwards, but this time we were all tied up, connected to shore power and settled-in before the aerial barrage began. We gave thanks to the boating gods for the free fresh-water boat wash and for allowing us in before the weather gods got, um, wind of our arrival. Those two Olympian figures in the minds of all boaters battle daily. And the weather deities don’t often lose.

We spent the following day walking through the pretty downtown, which blends historic storefronts and modern buildings remarkably well. Not surprisingly, we spent a fair amount of time in a local bookshop, chatting with the owners as well as a few other patrons. Lost in the allure of literature to be consumed, we forgot that our next stop was the grocery store for fresh produce. We asked the bookshop if we could pick up our stash later in the day. They kindly obliged, promising to think of even more titles for us until we returned.

While in the bookshop, Jennifer noticed an announcement in a local paper for a free event at the fancy Sarasota Ritz-Carlton – bring a toy for needy kids, see a giant gingerbread house by a famous pastry chef, and enjoy fresh cookies and hot cider. Right next to all things weather related, cruisers like us also monitor all things…free! We’d been planning on giving away books the kids had already read and this seemed the perfect opportunity. We would’ve put on fancy clothes, but…we don’t have any so we did our best, walked over to the Ritz, gave our gifts of literature, chatted with a few elves, and enjoyed delicious gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider.

We then decided to catch a cab to the local theater to see a movie with the kids. We’ve missed most the big pictures this year, so we decided on Hugo, a fine tale by master movie maker and story teller Martin Scorsese. (One of my favorite Scorsese works is The Blues, a Musical Journey.) As we made our way through the crowd and into the lobby and asked if we might find a taxi nearby, the kind concierge insisted that the Ritz limo drop us at the movies. No argument from these guests of Sarasota (if not necessarily of the Ritz). Not wanting to push our luck, we decided to walk back to Muddy Waters, stopping to listen to a local blues-rock band play a foot-stomping version of Irma Thomas’ hit (“You can have my husband but) Don’t mess with my man!

We set off from Sarasota the following morning, headed south again on the ICW and then making our way back into the Gulf of Mexico through the Venice inlet. It was a fine sunny day with a light offshore breeze and a mild Gulf swell. We enjoyed the cruise south in the emerald green waters, accompanied by scores of dolphins swimming in our bow wave, the bigger ones muscling out the others. We returned through the inlet just north of the beautiful island of Cayo Costa.

We followed the good advice of the Riggs, who are the Great Loop Cruiser Association harbor hosts for Fairhope, Alamaba and also regular Florida west coast cruisers, and turned south back on the ICW and made our way to the edge of the private Useppa Island, anchoring in ten feet of water just off both the island and the ICW and nestled in with seven or eight other sailboats. With a strong northeast wind kicking up, we were happy to be in the lee of an island – even though we couldn’t visit the island itself since it’s private. The following morning, we lowered the dinghy and cruised through Pelican Bay to Cayo Costa State Park. We spent the afternoon walking the quiet beach, searching for shells, enjoying a picnic we’d brought along and reminding ourselves how much we relish exploring places like this not far from home.

After a full afternoon on the island, we pushed off in Mudcat and made our way to Cabbage Cay, tying up at the local restaurant’s dock. We said hello to a few fellow Loopers tied up at the small marina and then walked along a pretty nature trail and climbed to the top of the local water tower for views of the island in all directions. Dodging a sea plane taking off in the channel, we made our way back to Muddy Waters for another peaceful night at anchor. A healthy meal, some essay-writing by the kids and then we all settled into one of Muddy’s many comfortable corners with a book.

More and more we realize how much we’re going to enjoy returning to Florida’s west coast for cruising. Fine towns and remote anchorages both work just fine for Muddy Waters and crew.