After exiting the river system, we made tracks to Fly Creek and the Eastern Shore Marina in Fairhope, Alabama. It was time for some R&R! One of the ancillary benefits of having done the Loop before is having boating friends scattered throughout all corners of the country. One such couple is Mike and Carol Gordon, who live in Fairhope. We met them in 2005 in Chicago, where they were on their Nordhavn, Evelyn J, shortly after starting our first Loop. We had them over to Kismet for an evening of reminiscing about our past and present boating travels, their desire to downsize their boat and focus on future construction plans for a new house, we shared our current Loop’s plan, drank wine, and savored one of Lisa’s home-cooked meals — lasagna, one of my favorites.
Brendan and Jena (Lisa’s niece) are relocating to Mobile and while out shopping for housing stopped by Fairhope to visit — a nice surprise.
It’s amazing how fast three days can fly by, and before we knew it we’d shoved off to enter the protected waters of the Gulf Coast ICW. As we’re traveling east to a secluded anchorage in Ingram Bayou I made a routine visit to Kismet’s engine room for an inspection, something I do once or twice per day when traveling. I found an oil leak coming from the transmission’s oil water cooler. The leak was not bad enough to cause an immediate problem, but if left unattended it could become serious. Once we were settled into this beautiful secluded anchorage, I phoned Cummins, who in turn set us up with a warranty repair appointment for the next day in Pensacola, a short 25 miles away.
When we woke the next morning in Ingram Bayou we were greeted by a couple of dolphins swimming near the boat. We lingered in the early morning, drinking our coffee while enjoying the playful dolphins as they entertained us with their rhythmic swimming patterns. We finally had to pull anchor to make our way to the Ship Yard in Pensacola and our repair appointment.
Facing a repair can be a little scary when away from home. How long will it take? Will they have the necessary parts? How much will it really cost? Is it going to be covered under warranty? Are the mechanics qualified? In this case everything went very smoothly, the job was completed in a few hours, and we were able to be on our way the next morning.
Our short-term goal was to navigate another 210 miles to Carrabelle, Florida, which is a popular jumping off point to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Before we ended up there though, we still had several stops we wanted to make on the way. Our next day’s travel brought us to an anchorage at Santa Rosa Island. Snuggled comfortably behind Santa Rosa we had the ICW on the north side of the island with protection from the Gulf by a narrow barrier island to our south. Nearby is the Elgin Air Force Base, which is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. While watching the sunset over the Gulf we had the added visual of watching the very large military transport planes practice their landing skills almost right over our boat. Apparently we were anchored just under the flight path. Another touching event occurred at dusk when taps were played over the base’s massive speaker system, reaching us even though we couldn’t see any buildings or activity from our anchorage.
After a short stay at the free city dock in Ft Walton Beach, not far from Santa Rosa Island, provisioning for our Thanksgiving feast, we were off to Destin, Florida, a short six-mile trip. Destin sits just off an inlet to the Gulf of Mexico; it has some beautiful sandy beaches and crystal clear, shallow waters before you enter a protected bay. About a mile before Destin, while traveling in water eight feet deep, we could see the white sandy bottom and a school of six dolphin, which started to swim with, under, and in front of Kismet. They would jump out of the water in unison, swim with us as if our boat was their mother. The calm waters and the angle of the sun enabled us to see the entire bodies of the dolphins as they played in the turquoise waters just outside the entrance to Destin’s bay. This experience and has been one of our best dolphin encounters so far in Florida waters.
Destin’s harbor is completely protected and provided us with a very nice setting for our Thanksgiving dinner. Lisa prepared a traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings. We both agreed we are very fortunate and therefore thankful for all we’ve been able to do, having good health and being able to see America from Kismet. As we counted our blessings we agreed that the only way this year’s Thanksgiving could have been better for us was to have been able to be with our three sons — Bart, Ross, and Skyler — but we know that they’ll be joining us at the end of the year and we will share our holidays then.
We left Destin the next morning with foul weather slowly creeping up behind us as we made our way to Panama City Beach. It was in Panama City Beach that we started to pay closer attention to the Gulf weather, for our impending crossing. We knew that once we left Panama City we had only one stop in Apalachicola before we arrived in Carrabelle. It becomes paramount to know what the wind and waves have been as much as what they are forecasted to be, including cold and warm fronts. You want to be aware of the patterns forming so that you can time your arrival in Carrabelle appropriately.
In Panama City Beach, Lisa’s second cousin Norma Schreffler and her always-witty husband Herb came over for a visit at Bay Pointe Marina, where we were docked. Although their home is in Michigan they’ve been wintering in Florida for 15 years. It was our good fortune to get hugs and see some smiling faces from home. Norma and Herb let us borrow their car so we could run errands, and find Lisa a birthday present. When Lisa and I returned their car we were treated to a great dinner, wine, and good company at their twelfth-floor condo overlooking the raging Gulf of Mexico. We had a wonderful time.
Bad weather kept us from leaving Panama City Beach for Apalachicola on the appointed day, but once the weather cleared we were on our way, only one day off schedule. When you’re in Apalachicola, one of the oyster centers of the south, it goes without saying you need to sample the oysters. When in Rome do as the Romans do seemed to apply for us as we had our fried oyster dinner at Papa’s, and picked up an order to go the next day. We only got to spend one night here due to a weather window forming that looked promising for our Gulf crossing.
Our last stop before crossing was a short, uneventful 27-mile boat ride to Carrabelle, Florida. Carrabelle is a sleepy little fishing village that sits at the eastern end of the Gulf Intracoastal Water Way. The ICW does not start up again until you reach Tarpon Springs, southeast by 160 miles — the reason Carrabelle is the launching point most favored to make the crossing.
There are two options to get back into protected waters after leaving Carrabelle. Option one is called the Big Bend route, which a boater navigates from Steinhatchee, Cedar Key, and Crystal River. This route takes three to five days, assuming no weather delays, and gets you into port each night. The advantage being that you’re closer to shore and therefore closer to safety. The disadvantage being that it takes more time, weather can sock you in, and the water levels into each port can be very challenging. The second option is to travel the 160 miles straight to Tarpon Springs. The advantage here is that you’ve made the crossing in one day with the disadvantage being it’s a 16-hour day at 10 MPH. This means in December, when we have 11 hours of daylight, we’d need to travel the first five hours in darkness. But hey, this isn’t called adventure for nothing.
We found ourselves with Gulf stage fright as we arrived and waited in Carrabelle, even though we’d made this crossing once already in 2005. The Gulf is so big, the waters are shallow and the weather can be brutal, therefore the Gulf needs to be respected by taking precautions. Our Gulf fears were mostly in determining what day would be the best to cross. When would the waves be three feet or less (preferably one to two feet)? When would the wind be less then 10 knots? Would there be fog? Would the weather predictions be accurate?
Gulf stage fright is a good thing to have; one should never take a Gulf crossing lightly. One of the necessary precautions we take is to go through the boat and put everything that is loose somewhere where it will not roll, fly, or bang around. We never know what the conditions will end up being, and when bad circumstances arrive it’s sometimes too late to take action because you’ll most likely be unable to safely move around the boat. This meant that we had to hold all the holiday boat decorating until the crossing was behind us.
A good weather window opened after we’d been in Carrabelle two days, so we decided, along with Larry and Margie on Wandern’ L&M, to leave in the cover of darkness at 4 a.m. to venture out into the dark morning. Up at 3:30 a.m., off at 4, as we snaked our way out the Carrabelle channel, carefully maneuvering between the moonlit channel markers. After seven miles we entered the East Pass into the Gulf, all the time not knowing what would be in store for us as the day wore on. The initial waves were tolerable so we pressed on into the abyss of darkness with the only light coming from our night-shaded GPS.
My anxiety about encountering big waves or bad weather was ill founded. The waves, as much as we could tell, in the initial three hours of darkness, were three-footers or so. As the horizon began to brighten with the rising sun, three and a half hours into our trip, we found ourselves surrounded by the Gulf waters with no land in sight. The higher the sun rose into the morning sky the calmer the waters became, making for a better then expected crossing. Our anxieties were all washed away; we could finally relax and enjoy a long day on the open water.
Before we left Carrabelle, Lisa and I had decided to make the crossing in two days, a combination of option one and option two. Our first day’s goal was a 117-mile trip to Cedar Key, making the 71-mile Tarpon Springs leg on our second day. At 10 MPH our first day was a 12-hour day. Because we left at 4 a.m., this put us into Cedar Key at 4 p.m.., a couple of hours before sunset. It was nice to have this extra time to get settled into our anchorage and enjoy the sunset.
We were thankful we had a repeat weather day for the final stretch into Tarpon Springs the next day. With any pick up in wind added to the shallow Gulf waters, conditions can change quickly and not in the best interest of boaters. Our only dilemma during the final 71 miles plying the coastal Florida waters to Tarpon Springs was navigating away from crab pots and their floating buoys. They seem to show up out of nowhere so we had to be vigilant watching out for them. We made it without entangling any onto our prop. However other cruisers we’ve talked to haven’t been as fortunate, and have had to brave the waters themselves or pay a diver to take care of the problem.
As we look back on our trip so far and see how far we’ve come, and all the different kinds of challenges already presented to us, we find ourselves welcoming the ever-renewing circumstances that will surely test our problem-solving skills again and again over the coming months. We managed the flooding, debris, and closings of the Illinois River during the aftermath of hurricane Ike; dealt with timing and negotiating the locks and bridges and tug boat passings; we’ve found obscure anchorages when there were no marinas for long stretches. We have a lot to look forward to while secure in the knowledge that each previous challenge has made us stronger, a bit more confident, hopefully wiser, and hopefully better boaters because of it.
We’ve finally hit calm waters and warm breezes. We’re soaking up the sun and salt air while we plan and chart our way through new territory, through the Everglades, and settling in at Key West for the month of January.