Continual change: Hurricane Ian’s ongoing impact on Marco’s waterways

Lance Shearer

The nautical chart for Marco Island includes a warning just outside Caxambas Pass at the southern tip of the island. “Note: This area is subject to continual change.” Boaters transiting local waters would do well to heed the advice and take caution.

If you recently returned from your northern home, and are putting your boat in the water, you should be aware that there have been significant changes to area waterways caused by Hurricane Ian, necessitating greater caution. While the waters around Marco Island were not impacted to the degree, they were following 2017’s Hurricane Irma, and have nothing that compares to the devastation and destruction found further north in Lee County, this latest “I”-named storm emphatically left its mark around Marco.

Much of the damage and many of the changes, though, are underwater, like a missing buoy or a shifted sandbar, and won’t easily be spotted until your boat runs into the obstacle. One of the most noticeable changes regards putting your boat in the water, specifically at the Collier County boat launching ramp adjacent to Caxambas Pass. Fuhgedaboutit, as New Yorkers say. The facility suffered significant damage, and is completely closed until further notice, which has not been determined.

“Caxambas Park/Marina on Marco Island still remains closed due to excessive damage from Hurricane Ian,” reported County Commissioner Rick LoCastro, who said he is working with county staff to reopen it as soon as possible. Damage included destruction of the fuel system, the docks, damage to the launching ramp, pavement and seawalls, and flood damage to the dockmaster building.

For those looking to launch a trailered boat, the Goodland Boating Park is fully open, except for the east side boat ramp dock, the Collier County Parks & Recreation Dept. reported in a Jan. 17 update. The Collier Blvd. Boating Park, and the Isles of Capri Paddlecraft Park are open. The ramp at Port of the Islands is also open, although Cliff Winings of the Marco Island Sail and Power Squadron reported that some of the aids to navigation, or ATONs, in the channel leading from there to the Gulf have been damaged.

“There are two or three pilings that are down – at high tide you can’t see them,” raising the possibility of serious boat damage, he said. The Power Squadron conducts surveys of local ATONs – 230 of them – and reports their findings but has not published any report since Ian struck on Sept. 28. A significant number of squadron members have only recently returned from the north, and they will be out on the waterways checking, said Winings. “Many of the ATONs have been damaged or are missing,” he said.

Collier County’s Coastal Zone Management Dept. is working to local waters back to safety, said county spokesperson Connie Deane in a Jan. 20 email.

“The county’s contractor is currently working around Marco Island replacing and repairing channel markers starting in Caxambas Pass. Once those are repaired, they will continue south as far as Everglades City to address any channel marker repair work related to Hurricane Ian,” she said. “Debris washing up on the beaches has slowed down but still occurs from time to time.  Boaters and beachgoers are still urged to exercise caution and be on the lookout for debris that may be covered by shifting sand and could potentially pose some harm. The Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM) is currently managing the waterway debris cleanup efforts throughout the county.”

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Shifting sand can also occur underwater, especially in the passes around Marco Island, so nautical charts and even previous electronic GPS tracks might lead boaters into dangerous shoal waters. Some of those are around Capri Pass and Big Marco Pass north of Marco Island.

“Shoaling continues to grow in Marco Pass with many of the channel markers being represented with cans placed by the USCG,” said Sgt. Jim Vliet of the CCSO Marine Bureau in an email. 

The Tigertail Beach/Sand Dollar habitat was already in trouble before Hurricane Ian, and the storm added significant damage, overwashing Sand Dollar Island and contributing to filling in the lagoon.

“We’ve lost 15 to 20 acres of wetlands since Irma,” said Mohamed Dabees, vice president of Humiston & Moore Engineers, and project engineer for the Hideaway effort. “We are moving roughly over 400,000 cubic yards of sand to restore Sand Dollar Island and recreate the sand spit and barrier system.” The $4 million project is causing obstacles for boaters seeking to access the popular Tigertail Lagoon, but work is scheduled to be complete before May 1 so as not to impact the shorebird and sea turtle nesting seasons.

One of the most notable impacts of Ian, even reported in national news media, is the final collapse and destruction of the iconic Cape Romano dome home. The distinctive white igloo-like domes, subject of countless photos, are no longer standing above the water, said Capt. Al Rapp of the Marco Island Coast Guard Auxiliary (CGA). Instead, the fragments and pilings that held them lurk below the water, posing a hazard to navigation adjacent to the Cape Romano Shoals.

“The domes are not visible, but they’re still there,” said Rapp. He also said that temporary floating cans had been placed in Capri Pass.

North of Marco Island, Ian “dredged” a new pass through Keewaydin Island, cutting the island in two and opening a new egress from the backwater channels through the mangroves, available only to shallow draft vessels and at high tides. In Naples Bay, a few sunken vessels still protrude above the waters, including a good-sized trawler and a cruising sailboat. In a few spots, fenders or temporary floats bob in the water, indicating obstructions below, including one opposite the City Dock that yielded a substantial “thump” when a curious skipper – this reporter – ventured nearby for a close inspection. More sailboats and one of the floating tiki bars that offer cocktail cruises around the bay are thrown up on shore near Crayton Cove.

These artifacts, along with numerous docks, pilings, and waterfront property showing visible damage or complete destruction, are reminders of the hurricane force winds and unprecedented storm surge that brought saltwater flooding into some homes and businesses, along the beach and around Naples Bay. One of those structures is the headquarters of the Naples Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 9-3, adjacent to the Cove Inn in downtown Naples.

“We had five feet of water in the building – we lost everything,” said CGA Commander Dick Hartig. “We lost all our radios and our dock,” but moved their boats away before the storm hit. The CGA is continuing to offer their safe boating courses from a temporary facility on Goodlette-Frank Rd.

“The City of Naples has repaired and replaced the missing/damaged channel markers in Doctors Pass,” reported Deane. “Wiggins Pass channel markers that were missing or damaged due to Hurricane Ian have all been replaced. The Wiggins Pass light has also been repaired and replaced. A few channel markers heading north to Hickory Bay have also been repaired/replaced.”

The most egregious damage visible in Naples is the devastation to the famous Naples City Pier, which had its outer seaward half torn up, and remains closed four months after the storm. It is at least easy to see, although debris could remain underwater.

“Some of the biggest challenges in the local area from Cape Romano to Wiggins Pass continue to be aids to navigation. Many channel markers and regulatory markers such as manatee zone signs are still damaged or in many cases missing,” said CCSO Sgt. Jim Vliet. “We encourage all boaters to become reacquainted with the waterways they are going to transverse.   

“Gordon Pass and Doctors Pass are relatively unchanged with the exception of channel marker discrepancies. While much work has already been done in removing navigational hazards, there is still much more work to be done. It is still common to see pieces of debris becoming dislodged from the mangroves and drifting, particularly after lunar tides and wind events associated with cold fronts. 

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“The best advice we at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office can offer is to remain vigilant while boating. It is each vessel operator’s responsibility to keep a proper lookout and be familiar with regulations.”

“There is still debris in and around the navigable waters in Collier County. The majority of the debris has been removed, but the debris varies from vessel parts, to floating docks, water tanks and lumber. Some areas have changed in terms of water depth and shoals,” said Ashlee Sklute of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, in an email Jan. 17. The FWC, asks boaters to report missing or damaged waterway markers by calling 866-405-2869 or by filling out an online form at https://myfwc.com/boating/waterway/markers/damaged-or-missing/.

On Marco Island, the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers boating education. For more information, and a full range of safe boating and area-specific boating classes, call 239-384-7416, send email to cgauxcourses@gmail.com, or go online to USCGAuxMarco.org. The Sail and Power Squadron also hosts classes, with more information at their website, https://marcoboatingclub.org/boating-courses.