Happy New Year from Stout!
After staying tied up for 6 weeks in Tarpon Springs, FL, we are thrilled to be cruising again, heading south along the west coast of Florida. For most of the last 6 weeks, we were either home for the holidays or biding our time in Tarpon Springs for this reason or that, so there haven’t been many looping experiences to share. Now that we are moving again, I hope to return to more regular blogging.
Having said that, I do believe our experience before reaching Tarpon Springs is worth sharing. I last posted just after Thanksgiving when we left Pensacola to head east along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) toward Carrabelle. The GIWW ends near Carrabelle before it picks up again at Tarpon Springs, with open water in between. Loopers with slow boats like ours have an important decision to make when getting ready to leave the Panhandle for Florida’s west coast – whether to make several daylight only hops along the Big Bend of Florida or do one overnight passage across the Gulf, a trip lasting more than 20 hours, most of which is out of sight of land and, at this time of year, in the dark. We chose the latter for a couple of reasons. First of all, we have become very comfortable with Stout’s seaworthiness. In reasonable weather, the boat can easily handle the Gulf waters. Also, the Big Bend presents challenges of its own – long, shallow inlets (perhaps too shallow at low tide) at Steinhatchee and Crystal River and a relatively unprotected anchorage at Cedar Key. Then, there’s the need for several good weather days in a row. After much consideration, we decided on an overnight passage and prepared accordingly.
The trip from Pensacola to Carrabelle was all inland cruising and pretty uneventful. We spent the first night on the hook in Baklava Bay. We did a little fishing (unsuccessfully) watched the sunset and relaxed, with time to discuss the upcoming overnight passage.
The next day dawned overcast and gloomy, a fitting backdrop for our return to the hurricane-ravaged areas near Panama City. The pictures tell the story – swamped boats and miles upon miles of broken trees lining the waterway.
We felt very fortunate to find a marina with a slip for us with power, though it may have been the only transient slip available, and the marina offices were fully out of commission. They were grateful for our business and offered a very nice restaurant next door that, inexplicably, was untouched by the storm. During the Captain’s conversation with the dockmaster, he learned that more than 150 boats were lost in the marina-owned storage area just across the river.
The following day was gloomy as well, and a storm taunted us as we worked our way through Mexico Beach, the hardest hit area, to Apalachicola. A good section of the waterway there is quite narrow, and we spent several hours passing between damaged river banks that must have been quite lovely before the trees were split in half and scattered like toothpicks. The not-too-distant thunder and occasional flashes of lightning served as an eerie reminder that Mother Nature could impose her will at any time. How must that feel to the people living here facing the daily task of picking up the pieces and moving on? Hard for a couple of northerners to imagine.
My mood declined even further when I called the marina in Apalachicola to confirm our reservation. A lovely woman named Thelma answered the phone, confirmed our spot and then explained that power may not be available given the water damage they’d sustained. I told her we understood and were grateful simply for a place to tie up, power or no power. Apparently, the 48’ yacht one day ahead of us had complained several times about the power situation and followed up with a phone call after their departure to rant about the absence of oysters in the restaurant. Wait, what?!! How could someone cruise past all the destruction and then complain about compromised service? It boggles the mind. We experienced a secure night in Apalachicola, with power, and enjoyed a super fresh seafood dinner in the restaurant. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to meet Thelma and express our appreciation in person.
From Apalachicola it was on to Carrabelle to wait for the next weather window that appeared to be opening the following day. We made one more marina reservation then changed our minds when we got there. With building winds from the west, a very small slip, questionable docks and no way to contact the dockmaster, we decided this location was a no go. After a couple of grumbly minutes that go part and parcel with a trip of this nature, we settled on an anchorage off Carrabelle Beach. The spot we chose was lovely. However, the steady winds kept us rocking all night. Tolerable, but bouncy enough to encourage an early departure the following day.
In the morning we were ready to get going. The trick with this overnight crossing is not to leave too early on the day of departure, as doing so could set us up to arrive with the morning sun in our eyes. That plus fatigue could make it difficult to navigate through the crab pots and up the shallow river at the end of the trip. Most of the guidelines we’ve read recommend an early afternoon departure. We made it to about 1030. The Captain ran his checklist, I secured the interior and we weighed anchor with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
For context, here’s what we expected.
Many loopers look to “Eddy” first for crossing guidance. Eddy Johnson is a former air force pilot and a loop veteran who voluntarily analyzes weather data from various sources and shares his opinion on comfortable crossing days through the looper forum. He has a lot of credibility among loopers and is an appreciated resource for those of us trying to make our own decision. We also checked our usual sources and found that they were generally in agreement. We would have a very narrow crossing window on a moonless night with higher winds/waves on the front end diminishing a few hours into the crossing and resulting in calmer seas overnight and in the final hours. That all seemed reasonable to us, so off we went.
I have to say that cruising out into the Gulf knowing we would lose sight of land at some point was pretty exciting. Our route took us out through East Pass and into the Gulf. Soon we began to leave the shoreline behind. To start we had 2’ to 3’ waves off our port rear quarter which resulted in something resembling following seas. That kept us relatively comfortable but the auto-pilot and rudder were both working hard to maintain a course. And they did so all night long. In these early hours before sundown with auto-pilot engaged, the two of us spent the afternoon on the foredeck with the waves at our backs and the unobstructed sea in front of us. It’s hard to describe the feeling of cruising aboard a stout vessel in open water with the person you love beside you and the sun warming your neck as it sets behind you. Suffice it to say that you feel very much alive.
Right before the sun set, we found ourselves surrounded by a huge pod of dolphins, mothers and their young, all riding our bow wake or gliding through the water alongside us. I know when recounting moments such as this it’s easy to get sentimental. But this truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We estimated there to be more than a hundred dolphins around the boat (though the video shows only those off the starboard bow). And this was their territory, not ours. We maintained our course and speed, took as many pictures as we could and mostly just appreciated being part of what was happening around us. Not something you see every day.
And then the sun set. At 1730. It is winter after all, and the days are short. Despite all of our planning, we hadn’t given any thought to the Captain’s occasional struggle with motion sickness. After all, we’d been nearly 3,000 miles with not even a hint of discomfort. But when it got dark with no moon and he lost sight of the horizon, there it was. I was oblivious. Instead, I was paying attention to the wind which was getting stronger despite predictions that it would start subsiding around this time. Instead, it increased to a max of 18 knots just after sunset and stayed in that range for several hours causing me some concern.
The Captain eventually drew my attention through the act of being quiet. Very quiet. When I asked, he told me what was going on and at my urging took respite on the daybed in the pilot house. I took the helm. We had planned to get through the night by alternating 2-hour shifts – 2 hours at the helm followed by 2 two hours of sleep and so on. My first shift just happened to start a little earlier than expected. There wasn’t much for me to do. The pilot house was dark and quiet. We were still on auto-pilot, and my only responsibilities were to watch the course, radar and depth sounder and make sure I didn’t see anything on the water that might represent a hazard. I took my job very seriously and “manned” the helm while the Captain took some time to acclimate to his surroundings. Happily, the wind began to subside by 2030 and remained steady at 11 knots for the remainder of the trip. Much more comfortable. The Captain resumed control of the helm at 2200 hours, at which point I caught some shuteye. At 0200 I wiggled myself awake and fixed us both a light meal. I took over again at 0300 so the Captain could catch his needed winks, though I think he only dozed with one eye open. I watched the instruments, jumped up and down and stretched to get the blood pumping and made a point of peering out into the darkness to stay alert. Still, there was absolutely nothing on radar … no ships, no land, no junk in the water. All good for purposes of navigation but really boring when on watch in the middle of a dark night. The Captain woke up and took over permanently at 0500. I made him some coffee and then crashed … hard.
When I woke again at 0700, we were back within sight of land and beginning the approach to the Anclote River which would happily take us from the Gulf to Tarpon Springs. The Captain had adjusted our speed to time our arrival without the sun in our eyes. We cruised to our slip at Turtle Cove Marina at mid-tide – we probably couldn’t have made our way in at low tide – and were grateful to have helpful hands to guide us into our slip. We tied up, followed the dockhand like tired puppies as he led us to the office – to pay and to shower – and then returned to our vessel for a long nap in a secure location. And what a great nap it was.
Tarpon Springs was an excellent place to leave Stout when we flew home for the holidays. We spent time in Vermont and Maine over a 3-week period and immersed ourselves in family and friends. While it was wonderful to catch up with our loved ones, Vermont was cold and gray and both of us had colds for the duration of our stay. After New Year’s we were ready to return to our floating home and warmer weather.
One final week in Tarpon Springs allowed us to take care of some necessary boat projects. The hot sun is tough on varnished wood, and the cap rails around the foredeck were in dire need of attention. Neither the Captain nor I have experience with this kind of work, so during our first week in Tarpon Springs we drove to Sarasota to seek guidance from Bill Turner at Teakdecking Systems. There we were given great advice and acquired the materials we needed for the job.
We were blessed with favorable weather and got busy with a heat gun, 2 coats of stain, 8 coats of topcoat and lots of sandpaper and elbow grease. We finished last Saturday quite pleased with our work. On Sunday, we were ready to cast off our lines and get cruising again. Finally!!
So far the GIWW on the west coast of Florida offers wonderful cruising. We’ve spent 3 nights at anchor, first in Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport, then off Otter Key in Sarasota followed by a night at Cape Haze. Then yesterday we made our way to Burnt Store Marina just south of Punta Gorda to spend a wonderful evening with friends. We have slowly regained our cruising rhythm after 6 weeks in port. South Florida awaits.