Fall 2008—Passage Key
Fall 2008—Passage Key—‘Naturally’ Magazine—Internaturally
One of the best-kept secrets in the nudist world is Passage Key, a tiny island just south of St. Petersburg, Florida, which on warm weekend days attracts hundreds of boaters.
The captains drop anchor in five to seven feet of water and form a laid-back partying flotilla. Though the area is patrolled by sheriff boats from three counties, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nudism has long been tolerated.
The Tampa Bay area is known for its many nudist resorts in the northern suburbs of Pasco County. But despite having several of North America’s most beautiful beaches, social nude recreation in Tampa Bay is confined mostly within the walls of nudist clubs.
The exception is Passage Key, which was one of the first national wildlife refuges. When established early in the 20th century, it was a mangrove island with a fresh water lake, farmhouse, and island caretaker. A hurricane in 1920 severely damaged the island, leaving only 30 acres.
Still, that was more than enough to serve as a habitat for numerous exotic water birds, including laughing gulls, royal terns, black skimmers, sandwich terns, brown pelicans and oyster catchers. For the next eight decades, Passage Key was a roosting and feeding site for thousands of shore birds.
To preserve the island, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted signs forbidding boaters from walking ashore. Visitors, most of whom were nudists, complied. Then in 2004, the Tampa Bay area received the aftershocks of the four hurricanes that hammered the Sunshine State and Passage Key all but vanished.
All that’s left is a giant sandbar about 100 yards long that disappears during high tide. Since birds no longer could nest on the island, human restrictions were lifted and the nudists could come ashore.
Rusty Barcelona and his wife, Vanessa Bucy, have been visiting Passage Key for years. They typically drop anchor off shore and soon are surrounded by other familiar nudist boaters, many of whom display flags of the “Passage Key Yacht Club.” Someone usually posts a volleyball net in the water, and a spirited game begins.
“Passage Key has always been a best-kept secret kind of place,” Vanessa says. “But now that more people are finding out about it through the Internet, it’s getting more popular.”
Last year, the couple purchased a larger boat, a 34-foot trawler, and launched “Grin & Bare It Charters,” catering to nudists. Rusty, 41, is a licensed captain and Vanessa, 44, serves as first mate and cook. The boat can take up to 10 passengers and departs from Gulfport in southern St. Petersburg.
“It’s one of the few places you can drop anchor and go nude without getting harassed,” Rusty says. “With the amount of nudists in the area, we figured there were plenty who would like to go out to Passage Key but didn’t have access to boats.”
The leisurely trip to Passage Key takes about 90 minutes and it’s possible to be nude within a half hour, once free of heavy non-nudist boating traffic. Along the way, boaters often see dolphins, turtles, and stingrays.
The trawler is a stable, comfortable boat that provides an easy ride. Unlike many boats of comparable size, it’s possible to lie on the deck while the “Grin & Bare It” is moving. Vanessa likes to refer to the vessel as her “wine and cheese boat” since it’s usually possible to enjoy a glass of wine without worrying about spills.
“You don’t get thrown across the water, which is nice,” Vanessa says. “You won’t break any records getting to where you’re going, but it gives you a comfortable ride.”
Vanessa creates a lunch, appetizer, or dinner menu based on input from the clients, who rave about her efforts.
“I do whatever people want,” she says. “I seem to be good at picking recipes that people tend to like.”
Grin & Bare It Charters offers half-day (four-hour), full-day (seven-hour), and sunset cruises. Since there’s only a modest price difference between the half-day and full-day rate, most guests opt for the full-day option. Rusty and Vanessa provide food, water and non-alcoholic beverages. Guests can bring their own alcohol. The only things they must bring are towels and plenty of high-SPF sun screen.
Many nudist clients hear about the charters through the company’s Web site – www.grinandbareitcharters.com. The company also does non-nudist charters, boating to destinations other than Passage Key. Water temperatures in Tampa Bay are comfortable for swimming from early May until at least mid-October. The charters operate all year.
“We went out New Year’s Eve and it was very pleasant,” Rusty said.
The couple first experienced nude recreation at Passage Key during the mid-1990s. After dropping anchor, a fellow boater swam over nude and introduced himself.
“He asked us to come over and meet everyone and we were reluctant at first,” Rusty said. “He told us we could keep our suits on, but in no time we were comfortable.”
The couple hopes the charter-boat business can flourish to the point where it can become a full-time endeavor. For now, they continue to work full-time in Tampa and take charter groups out on weekends.
They do make an occasional exception. On a recent weekday afternoon in June, the couple hosted a group of 10 “youth ambassadors” from the American Association for Nude Recreation who were meeting at the Lake Como Family Nudist Resort.
Vanessa and Rusty, besides working as captain, first mate, and chef, also serve as tour guides. They’ve collected several old maps and photos of Passage Key and are often called upon during trips to explain the history of the island.
The AANR group waded through the warm waters to the remnants of Passage Key. They picked up sand dollars, tried to stay clear of sea urchins, and even buried one of their members in the sand. Dolphins were seen about 20 yards from where the boat was anchored.
Back on the boat, the group discovered the joy of jumping from a perch above the deck into the water 10 feet below. Rusty and Vanessa just shook their heads.
“It seems whenever we take a younger crowd out, they manage to find that same spot to leap off of,” Rusty said.
Throughout the trip, the guests took a break from the sun and rested in the spacious air-conditioned cabin, where Vanessa had prepared a buffalo chicken dip and a three-layer Italian dip.
The Grin & Bare It has three levels: a lower cabin level with a bathroom and two small bedrooms. There’s the main cabin and also an upper, open canopied level from where the boat is controlled. (The boat also can be operated from the cabin during bad weather.)
All afternoon, Rusty and Vanessa play music CDs that provide ambiance and, in the case of the AANR youth group, a soundtrack for dancing on deck. Other than the sound of birds and the occasional passing day, it was virtually quiet.
“This is amazing,” said one member of the group, munching on Vanessa’s delicacies during a mid-afternoon break from the sun. “I can see how this would be very popular among nudists.”
By late afternoon, the tide began to swallow Passage Key and Rusty spotted dark clouds in the distance. It was time to return to land, with full stomachs, tanned skin, and memories of a nudist desert island experience to cherish.