Note to Myself
Thursday, December 1, 2005 - Mobile
We had originally planned to leave today but there was just too much work to be done, and as usual I had done very little of it. I climbed the mast to straighten the antenna and examine the anchor light following its meeting with the bridge on Thanksgiving (the bulb was broken and the housing pushed over, but on the whole it could have been worse). I changed the engine and transmission oil, finally installed a ground wire on the new seacock in the aft locker, and smeared silicone and 5200 around in various places trying to make the locker less likely to leak into the living spaces of the boat. Steve and Jerry (the latter had arrived a couple of days ago on his Island Packet) had rented a crane and I tried to help them as they put their masts back up where they belonged. Finally Annie, Laura and I jumped in the courtesy car for a trip to West Marine and Walmart, both of which I had just visited the previous day while returning the rental car. I found out that Annie really goes wild in West Marine, and Walmart wasn't much better as she was seen purchasing four huge boxes of Cheese-its.
Reading Skipper Bob and Claiborne Young's advice and looking at charts has convinced me that it is impossible to go further and we ought to stay right here in Mobile, but the weather just isn't warm enough for that. We will shoot for a day on protected waters to reach Ingram Bayou tomorrow, but then will need to go out into the Gulf to get further east. There are a whole slew of 50 foot fixed bridges on the Intracoastal Waterway, and as faithful readers will know, I am more than a little paranoid about bridges at this point.
Friday, December 2 - Imgram Bayou
Indeed, it was getting quite dark as we entered the "Alabama Cut" of the Intracoastal Waterway, and the radar and binoculars became our best friends. Towboats with barges were surprisingly frequent in the narrow channel, but we did our best to get over as far as possible and stay out of their way. Around 7:30 PM, we arrived at a ghostly Ingram Bayou. A powerboat was high on the shore in front of us, while a small sailboat showing no lights and a fair amount of growth on the anchor chain hung in front of us. Still, it was a beautiful and protected anchorage, worth the nervous night-time navigation it had cost us.
Saturday, December 3 - Pensacola
Professor Godwin had described the Ft. McRae anchorage, adjacent to the Pensacola Cut (which we will probably use to enter the Gulf when we get up the courage) as "super." Although the chart shows almost no water, this is the former "South Cut" which has eight to ten feet for a quarter mile or more. We dropped the Delta and took Nemo over to the beach and the ruins of Ft. McRae. The protection looks good from north and south, with some exposure to the east and west. There is bound to be some current, which should switch with the tides, but it doesn't look like a problem...a fine, beautiful anchorage. (Postscript: the anchorage got a bit rock-and-rolly that night as the tide came in, allowing the waves from the pass to bounce in, but by low tide at morning, all was calm and beautiful again. Between the beach, the ruins of the fort, and the decent protection, I still rank this high for an anchorage.)
Annie says: A beautiful day on the beach. Well, at least an afternoon. I prefer to forget about the earlier hours of the day. Laura had a grand time hunting shells, being chased by waves and wading in the water. We have made a rule that only one item from each beach we visit can be collected. That leaves us a hope of not increasing the draft of the boat any further. Have you ever fed sea gulls? It is really neat to watch them catch a chunk of bread in mid-flight. We can hear the crashing waves of the gulf across the beach as we sit in the cockpit and relax.
Sunday, December 4 - Pensacola
Both girls were in the cockpit but feeling queasy. Annie and I were wearing scopolamine patches, while Laura had taken some motion sickness medication earlier. Then our customized Walker Bay Dingy, the Marlin, came loose on the foredeck and first Annie, then I, went up to secure it. Standing on the foredeck was a roller coaster ride with some real stomach-sinking, free fall moments. With Marlin secured, it was time to head to shore! We came back in with no problems (indeed, the swells had moderated with the slack tide). We motored just east of the pass and anchored for a trip ashore on Santa Rosa Island where we found tons of seashells and two translucent blue jellyfish--the floats from Portugese Man-o-Wars--washed up on the beach.
Around 3:00 PM I told the girls we needed to get going so we headed for downtown Pensacola. We ended up at the Bahia Mar Marina on Bayou Chico, which was $1.50/foot but a pleasant and well-sheltered place to spend the evening.
Annie says: Laura kept saying, "I told you we should have gone back to the beach today." When we talk of the lessons learned today, Laura sums it up: stay away from the big waves. She really is quite the trooper. Laura has started a quest to find an intact sand dollar (for good luck).
Monday, December 5 - Pensacola
It was now quite dark and we'd sailed a considerable distance back towards Pensacola, so our best option seemed to be to continue back to the Little Sabine Bay area just the other side of the Pensacola Beach Bridge. After an hour of motoring along in winds that kept getting stronger, we cleared the bridge and started looking for the narrow, allegedly shallow channel into Little Sabine where there might, or might not, be a marina or place to spend the night (the guidebooks were inconclusive on this point). I wasn't happy taking the boat into unknown waters in the darkness with the wind pushing us towards shore. Even with the radar, all we could find was one channel marker with nothing else to line up on. Our next plan was to seek shelter in the English Cove area a mile west of the bridge, but when we arrived the winds there were still gusting 15-20 knots. I went forward twice to drop the Delta but each time the wind blew the bow off before I got the anchor down. Reluctantly, I told Annie we needed to recross Pensacola Bay and return to Bahia Mar Marina. We knew the trip would be rough in the exposure of the Bay, but it was the only sure bet we had left for a good night's sleep.
At this point, a month into our trip, I had the first doubts about our plan to sail away. What we were doing out here, looking at high-rise hotels and waterfront palaces where people were relaxing in comfort in front of the television, while we bashed into four foot waves, cold and wet? When I stood with my head up above the dodger the scene was one from those documentaries showing the bow of a boat crashing into wave after wave as the wind howled all around. On one hand, it was exhilarating. On the other wet and cold hand, it was miserable. Every minute or so a wave of spray came into the cockpit. My face and hair were wet with salt water; I could taste it on my lips. Against the wind and waves, we were making only four to five knots over the bottom. Finally, around 10:00 PM, we were back where we had started, tied to the dock at Bahia Mar. We'd been turned back first by the Gulf and now by the Intracoastal. Either way, it's not going to be easy to get further east.
We were bored, we said. We wanted adventure, we said. Only we didn't really want adventure every single day, and as Annie pointed out, this makes three days in row we'd learned just how little we know about cruising.
Annie says: There were several times in the dark hours that I questioned what we were doing. Then I realized (after we were docked) this was all part of the adventure. We had been lulled into the easy life as we cruised on the inland rivers, but this was the kind of situation for which we need to be prepared. Tomorrow we will re-group, evaluate some decisions, and continue. After all, Laura has yet to find an intact sand dollar.
Tuesday, December 6 - Pensacola
I had never appreciated how much difference the phases of the moon make in the significance of the tides. If we wait until the low tide gets low enough to clear the bridges at Navarre Beach and Ft. Walton, we'll be waiting well over a week. Although we've got another front coming, the Gulf is forecast to be down to 1-3 foot seas by Saturday. In the meantime, we'll get the boat ready and wait.
Thursday, December 8 - Pensacola
We spent last night at the Beach Marina in Little Sabine Bay, the refuge we had tried to enter on Sunday after our unsuccessful attempt to clear the Navarre Beach Bridge. We docked right at the Gulf side of the bridge to Pensacola Beach. Entrance yesterday afternoon was a lot easier, although we did run aground when nearly at the fuel dock. The rates weren't any better than Bahia Mar ($1.50/foot) but there was a very well stocked little store and deli on the premises. We did some work on the bimini and dodger this morning, fueled up (almost 17 gallons!), and left around Noon at low tide, touching bottom once on the way out. Laura, meanwhile, has become a big fan of Green Acres, which I'm not certain can be worked into the home school program or not. I saw an entire little pod of dolphins (three came over to play in our bow wave for a while) but Laura couldn't be enticed to come on deck, so intent was she on the latest episode.
The winds and seas (high since we got here) should die down tomorrow. The forecast for Saturday is good (seas 1-3 feet instead of the 6-9 we've been having) so if we don't make it across the Gulf to Destin tomorrow we'll very likely try it on Saturday. From Destin we've got a second day in the Gulf to get to Panama City and then, I think, we can make some Intracoastal miles without bridge troubles. However, we are running out of Intracoastal and will eventually have to make that overnight passage across the Gulf to Tarpon Springs or Tampa. I think perhaps now we're all more used to the boat bashing around in actual waves and feeling at least a little better about our prospects. Hard to believe we've been here for almost a week, but as our friend Tom Pride says, the trick is to "always, always, always wait for the weather window."
Saturday, December 10 - Destin
We let Wind Dreams negotiate the tricky inlet to Destin first (not that we really had much of a choice since the Island Packet goes so much faster than us). This inlet has it all: tricky currents, shifting sandbars, and shallow depths. Since the tide was coming in with very light waves, we had an easy time of it, but I'll breathe a little easier once we've gotten back out again. Two more sailboats, North Star and Shabu, followed us to anchor here in Destin Harbor. After hearing the friendly captain of Rain B help direct the latter arrivals to a good spot, we called him on the radio and soon thereafter were joining him for seafood at A.J.'s. Jim Brown had many tales to tell of living in the Virgin Islands, taking his boat up to Slidell, Louisiana for hurricane season only to be wiped out by Katrina (the boat had to be sent to Texas for $13,000 of repairs), tangling his anchor in an entire sunken bass boat here in Destin Harbor, and a doomed attempt to leave Destin last week into ferocious swells. With his 50HP engine flat out, his big Hunter was unable to climb one of the swells and slid backwards onto the rudder, breaking it off to just a stub. On Monday he goes to Gainesville to pick up the replacement and then, as we, he hopes to get further south to warmer weather. [Postscript: we crossed tracks with Jim on Rain B as he motored south across the Caicos Banks south of Provo the next April, so he did eventually get underway again.]
Pensacola was an interesting place despite the weather, but we met no other cruisers at Bahia Mar and felt very isolated. Teaming up with Jerry and Ruby on Wind Dreams gave us a boost and meeting Jim and his trusty canine, Chrissy, helped make this day a big success. If we haven't hooked a bass boat or some other sunken wreck (there are lots of them here in Destin Harbor) we hope to press on through the Gulf to Panama City tomorrow.
Monday, December 12 - St. Joe's Bay
We've been either following or being followed for the past three days by the sailing vessels Shabu and North Star. I believe we met the crew of Shabu at Dog River but strangely we haven't had any real contact with them lately beyond just seeing their mast off the distance. After our parade of our boats (in keeping with our racing heritage, we were about a mile behind the others) entered St. Joseph Bay, the other two yachts anchored just around the corner from the inlet. Wind Dreams did the same, but Seaductress continued about three miles down the beach to Eagle Harbor. We've got decent protection from the west, which is where the wind is supposed to be tonight, no better or worse than where the others are tonight. The advantage here is that we could dingy ashore to a small park and visit the Gulf-side beach. Annie and Laura had a fine time beachcombing, as usual, finding all kinds of shells, fish bones, horseshoe crab shells and the like. Most of this area is a wilderness preserve and the deserted beach was wonderfully wild and windy.
Tomorrow I believe we'll cross the bay and enter the Gulf County Canal, a five mile ditch that will reconnect us to the Intracoastal, Apalachicola, and finally Carrabell, the jumping-off point for the overnight trip across the Gulf down to Tarpon Springs. All our books still list a 50 foot bridge blocking the route, but the Maptech map clearly shows the old bridge gone and a new, higher one in its place. And that's good news because the Gulf is going to be rough again for a few days according to the forecast.
Tuesday, December 13 - Apalachicola
We set out across the bay and entered the Gulf County Canal, five miles of waterway that's straight enough to see one end from the other, then rejoined the very scenic Intracoastal Waterway. For the next few miles we enjoyed blue skies, coffee-colored water, cypress trees, and "impenetrable swamp" in full technicolor. Around 2:30 PM we arrived in the metropolis of Apalachicola and docked at Deep Water Marina. The rest of the "Boatilla" from St. Joseph Bay (Wind Dreams, Shabu, North Star, and Anticipation) settled in just a hundred yards away at Scipio Creek Marina. Rumor has it that our former neighbors (as Laura calls them), Living Well are just a half-days travel behind us as well. Although all the boats have the same vague destination (someplace warmer), there are many opinions on the best route to achieve that goal: go wait at Carrabelle, cross the Gulf from here, or take the Big Bend Route and avoid the long crossings altogether.