Rules of the Road for Boaters- Times Square on the Water

By Dave Sully

Lee County waterways have their own versions of Times Square, with one of the most telling being the well-marked “slow speed” channel at the entrance to the Caloosahatchee River in the area around Little Shell and Big Shell Islands.

On most weekends conditions during “rush hour” (morning and evening), boat traffic is traditionally heaviest, as it is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, and it’s the gateway to all the coastal waters for boats traveling the river. What makes the area trying is that lies in the midst of a broad swath of shallow water manatee zones, making this channel the only exit from the river that can be traversed by medium (roughly 18 to 30 feet) and large boats (30 feet plus), plus the fact that the “slow zone” is long, (close to a mile), beginning just east of Little Shell Island and extending just past Big Shell Island. For folks eager to get to open water where they can go “hammer down,” it can be frustrating to putt putt along.

Add to that the mixture of boats of all sizes occupying the same narrow space and you have a recipe for impatience and a challenge to navigate. Fifty foot cruisers and 15 foot skiffs often find themselves in close quarters during busy times, which tests the mettle of even the most experienced boatman, which actually makes the “slow speed” (fully settled in the water with minimum wake) a necessity even if it wasn’t a manatee zone.

The rule of thumb, recommended by the Lee County Sheriff’s Marine Division, which often maintains a presence in the area, is “go with the flow.” Most local boaters comply with the restricted speed in that channel. If you find yourself passing other boats, you can almost be sure you are not in compliance. When the area is experiencing high traffic, try to be courteous to the smaller craft, which will be challenged to maintain course due to the sheer numbers of other boats.

Once you clear the slow speed zone on both ends, signs will indicate your options. If you are exiting the river for open water, you may resume normal operation. If you’re going up river, the next stretch will allow you to increase your speed to 25 MPH. Please observe posted speeds as you proceed. Once you get to crack the throttle, the memory of the tedious trek past Big Shell and Little Shell will vanish, and the fun will begin again in earnest.