A Day of “Grateful” Sailing
By Kelly Dean
Perhaps there isn’t a perfect word to describe how Jeff Soshnick feels about being a sailing charter captain in one of the most naturally beautiful places in Florida: But grateful certainly describes how he feels about the people who came in and protected the area around Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor, the area he calls home. So much so he made it his parting words, after a day on his boat, “The environmentalists made all this possible.”
Grateful is the name of his boat, and the name not only represents his personal internal attitude but also his external attitude toward protecting nature in general. Captain Jeff operates Sailing by Nature charters. As a University of Florida Certified Master Naturalist (in addition to being a U.S. Coast Guard licensed Master Captain), the coastal environment is what he talks about the most while navigating his two-sail, 32-foot charter sailboat across a 22-mile long sound that is so quiet – so very quiet — and unfettered by heavy boat traffic, personal watercraft and motor boats.
The city of Port Charlotte, sets the northern end of the Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor estuary, which then extends south through a collection of protected shoreline and islands southward to the Caloosahatchee River estuary, joining up at Matlacha.
There are other protected areas further south and west, connected and readily accessible by boat or car around the area of Cayo Costa Island, Pine Island, Sanibel Island and the Captiva Islands. Many of these have areas that are managed by the state and federal parks systems. The whole area is rich with wildlife.
“I don’t allow too much boat traffic on my water.” Jeff says jokingly. Although, I’m not sure it’s completely a joke. I saw very few other boats on the four-hour trip and it was “in-season.”
Just one look at the expression on his face when the sloop is making a nice 5 knot clip in peaceful wind says it all. The sky is bluebird blue and a gentle breeze blows over the deck. “It’s a perfect day,” he says.
Folks like Jeff also help police the water to make sure an errant commercial shrimp boat doesn’t accidentally venture into forbidden water. Unabashedly radioing, “We see you,” to the interloping commercial boat for all to hear. His passion is quite evident. He has nothing against fishing; he eats fish daily; he just doesn’t believe in “taking them all” — or taking them from protected spawning areas.
Jeff isn’t “green” — he’s “blue.” Well, he’s “green” too (but that’s another article).
Tomatoes and fresh salad are just examples of the organic foods he grows at home, with no pesticides and no other chemicals. He proudly serves them aboard his vessel. “If the bugs or birds eat them, we just have to eat something else.”
The subject of natural organic gardening easily brings him back to his favorite topic, sailing the local waters.
Charlotte Harbor and the sound are unique because 72 miles of shoreline and 42,000 acres will never be developed; there will be no more dredging; no canals; no condos; and no boat docks.
The tarpon will be able to spawn in the freshwater Myakka and Peace Rivers; they’ll naturally move south through increasingly brackish Gasparilla Sound into saline water coming from Boca Grande Pass as they mature; they’ll gravitate out to the Gulf of Mexico; they’ll repeat the spawning cycle; and they’ll continue to be what has put this area on the map: the legendary behemoth leaping fish historically sought by Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and occasionally Ernest Hemingway — yes, all the way down to Ernest in Key West. It’s the estuary making the tarpon’s live cycle possible, as well as 200 other fish species, 150 shore bird species, and 100 invertebrate species.
Tarpon is a catch-and-release game fish and not table-tasty anyway, but Gulf mackerel are easy to catch at the right time of the year and they are abundant and quite good eating from these southern waters. The same applies to other inshore fish such as snapper, redfish, and snook — and dozens of other offshore Gulf species coming from Boca Grande Pass as well. Southwest Florida has the best year-round fishing in the world, largely due to proper management. The estuary environment creates the best of both worlds.
And there are birds, lots of birds. Loons, roseate spoonbills, banded Caspian terns, and American white pelicans will continue to migrate here in the winter as well. The water will stay wide-open. Additionally, patchwork barrier islands are protected too, leaving other birds and marine life a peaceful place to breed and prosper.
That’s what makes Jeff’s harbor special and why he moved here from Massachusetts via Vermont several years ago. It’s not easy to find unspoiled shoreline, but there’s plenty of that in Charlotte Harbor.
Specifically, Jeff docks his boat and runs his charter business out of Burnt Store Marina south of Punta Gorda. Jeff and his girlfriend, Bobbie Allees, who often runs the helm, command the two-sail sloop, capable of making six folks comfortable while they seek the quiet peace of the water – only the sound of pattering sails and sloshing waves against the hull break the absolute serene silence of the bay.
Serenity isn’t always the case with other tours in Florida, where the vistas consist of towering, man-made, beachside structures — and the sounds of motorboats and buzzing personal watercraft fill the air. The only tall buildings I saw on this venture were left behind at the marina. This is what makes Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor sailing unique.
On the cruise, I saw dolphins, brown pelicans, turns, gulls and cormorants, in addition to the aforementioned seasonal loons and white pelicans. I saw them all – and trees – lovely mangroves lining the bay in the squint-eyed distance, miles away. Manatees often play in the bay as well.
In the Sunshine State, places with names like Cape Haze are exactly what many people are seeking: a place to tune out and just — be. If this describes you, this is the place for you.
Captain Jeff tries to cater the tour to the client’s liking, so long as weather and wind cooperate, of course. With Boca Grande Pass just a few miles west, he even ventures out into the Gulf at times, but due to the peacefulness, the enormous Gasparilla Sound was enough for me. Water stretched out on the horizon as far as I could see with little else in sight, except more water, mangroves, dolphins and loons. It’s easy to be grateful here.
If you’re interested in booking a sailing tour, check out Captain Jeff Soshnick’s Sailing by Nature website here.