Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything. -Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 57 thru Day 61

Big Water

Day 57. The next section of my trip, from Mobile, AL to the Tampa, FL area, would involve crossing Mobile Bay to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), following it to its eastern end at Carrabelle, FL, and crossing the Gulf from that panhandle jumping-off point to Tarpon Springs, just north of Tampa. The GIWW is a system of canals and bays protected from the Gulf by barrier islands, thus a relatively comfortable transit for barge and pleasure boat traffic. My nephew Bryan Ingersoll would join me from Pensacola back to Tampa, his hometown, and I would do the first seventy-mile day to Pensacola on my own.

I said goodbye to my Australian friends Brian and Susan, who were flying home that day, and discussed the next days with Capt. Bruce, who was taking their yacht Invictus along the same route I was planning. Bruce said, about the transit to Tarpon Springs, that he'd feel better if I followed him across. The northern Gulf can get ugly, and in a hurry, he advised. I said I'd feel better too, so we agreed to meet in Carrabelle in 2-3 days.

Advised about a course to set to short-cut across Mobile Bay, and setting a GPS waypoint on the GIWW near the southeast corner of the bay (30-odd miles away), I set out in a calm morning. I ran along up on plane making good time, exhilarated to be offshore, knowing my way, on a beautiful day. I was so excited I emailed this first shot home with the subject line "Hoo Hah!".

At the south end of the bay I entered the Intracoastal and proceeded east along a sequence of alternating canals and bays.

I was happy that the GIWW was marked by dotted line on my GPS chart, because the physical markers out in the bays were often far apart and difficult to spot. But for a few NO WAKE zones in the canals, requiring idle speed, I made good time. I was to see many such zones in the coming days. The barrier islands on my right were increasingly populated with resort high-rises, but in some areas were just sand barriers.

I was looking for an eatery recommended by Elizabeth the looper called Floribama at the state line, and at one point pulled close to some young boaters on a dock and asked if I was in Alabama or Florida. "Florida -- Alabama's back that way." I said "Don't want to go to Alabama -- been there." They laughed and applauded. Easily amused. I moved on.

Bahia Mar Marina was a good place to stay overnight in Pensacola. I spent the afternoon staying relatively cool in my covered boat slip and worked on blogging and emailing. At day's end an excellent duo started singing in the open-air on-site sports bar. I enjoyed the entertainment, and continued what was becoming a nightly seafood diet. The other thing I enjoyed about the marina was watching the incredibly efficient process of moving boats between dry-storage bins in a tin building and the water. These kids had the technology.


Day 58. Bryan showed up early, and after discussing the destinations for the coming days, we set out for Panama City, some ninety water miles to the east. The day was overcast, and afternoon thunderstorms were forecast by the NOAA channel on the VHS radio. We progressed through several bays and canal stretches. On some of the barrier islands we could see trees killed by hurricanes.

Here again, the manufactured stretches of canal were referred to as "the ditch". Between the long Choctawhatchee Bay and West Bay near Panama City we motored through a long stretch of the ditch.

By the time we crossed West Bay and came into St. Andrews Bay at Panama City, a following storm overtook us. As the wind, waves and rain hit us we ducked into an unidentified boat slip along the shore, tied off, zipped up, and waited it out. I was impressed with how a storm cell could quickly boil up a relatively narrow bay. After the storm blew by we found the marina, fueled up and tied off in our slip.

We were in luck for a place to stay, because a close friend of Bryan had made his house available to us in his absence. And, the friend's mother Marian also lived in town and came and took us to the house. Then Marian further shuttled us to the store to pick up supplies and dropped us in an area with restaurants. And all this while interrupting her very lucrative run at the bingo hall!

Bryan and I ate supper twice. The first waterside spot got my vote with a dozen big oysters on the half shell for $5. The second, nearby Captain's Table, had wonderful fish dinners, and sitting at the bar we were entertained by the banter with the guys shucking oysters (dangerous pastime, I thought) and dishing up the good chow.

Our walk home took us through the city park, where we happened upon Panama City's prized four-headed Pindo Palm, the only known one in the world. Definitely worth the price of admission. It was very hot through the night, so we were thankful that the house was air-conditioned.

In the morning Marian picked us up and took us to the marina in the rain. She reported that she had returned to the bingo hall and had continued to rake in the big bucks the night before, so we didn't feel so bad about interrupting her run of luck. She also reported that the weather outlook was not good and thought we should stay over. We deliberated at the marina, but decided to push on as the rain slackened.

We ran out of Panama City through good-sized East Bay, seeming to outrun the storm cell over the town. At the east end of the bay we made our way through the longest stretch of "ditch" so far encountered in the Panhandle. During this stretch, I was pleased and puzzled to see SUPERTUG tied up along a dock. Someone yelled "JON!" as we slowed, and we swung around and came alongside. Skip and Katy greeted us and I introduced Bryan to these buddies from the Tenn-Tom. Skip said they had developed a problem with the towboat's steering, and were delayed a few days waiting on parts. We were invited to tie up and come aboard, but we begged off because we had much of the hundred-mile run to Carrabelle yet ahead of us, and an approaching storm behind.

The rain caught us by the time we came out of the canal into Apalachicola Bay and approached the little town of Apalachicola. I had set a waypoint on the coordinates of the town marina, so we pulled in there and tied up at the public dock. Since we were wet just from getting the boat secured, we zipped Little Sadie up and walked into town as the rain abated. Bryan had been here years earlier with his dad (my older brother Al), so we made our way to the Ore House restaurant to see if they still had the to-die-for buffalo wings. They didn't, but we had a good cheeseburger lunch as we dried out.

By the time we left town and ventured out into Apalachicola Bay, the wind was up, and we had a couple of hours of pitching and rolling as we made our way across that bay and up the length of St. George Sound. I was constantly thinking of my friend John William Davis's song "Hurricane", warning of death and destruction across Apalachicola Bay. This was giving us both food for thought about getting out fifty miles offshore in the Gulf in a day or two.

We motored up the river into Carrabelle in late afternoon and checked into The Moorings, where we put the boat in a slip and retired to a very nice on-site motel room. Later we walked the several-block length of town, noting the many signs of a local economy that had dried up. So many Closed and For Sale signs on businesses of all sorts. The town was almost eerily quiet. We were unable to find a place to eat, other than maybe a Subway, so we went into the town's lone watering hole, Harry's Bar, for a beer. It was an ancient place, delightfully full of character. And characters.

Joel, an enterprising pizza vendor sitting next to us at the bar, hearing our plight, offered to go back to his closed establishment, make us a pizza, and bring it to us. We agreed to an exotic type that he recommended, and off Joel went. Sure enough, in 25-30 minutes he rolled in with our pizza. It wasn't the odd one he'd suggested, but was the house "Everything" model. We were famished and thought that was just fine and tipped Joel handsomely. We took the long walk back to the marina and turned in, happy to have good beds in an air-conditioned room.

Day 60. By this time Bryan and I thought it best to take Bruce up on his offer about crossing the Gulf. So, since Invictus had not pulled in yesterday, this was a layover day in Carrabelle. One fine-looking establishment was the library, so Bryan holed up there most of the day and prepared for his upcoming opening days as a math teacher in Tampa schools. I did my usual downstream logistics and blogging, and some odds and ends on the boat -- where I got caught for the afternoon downpour.

Invictus motored in by late afternoon, and Bryan and I went aboard and visited with Bruce and Ryan, his second-in-command who had joined him in Mobile. We all found a nearby fish house that was open, and over dinner arranged to meet before daybreak and be ready to embark at first light.

Day 61. I did not sleep well anticipating this day's trip, and did not welcome the early alarm. We cleared out of the motel, pulled out of the slip, gassed up the boat, and with some final instructions and coffee, shook hands with Bruce and Ryan, and started down the river in the first dim light. The early start was to improve our odds of beating late-afternoon storms in our 160-mile passage.

We fell in line behind Invictus across the Sound and past Dog Island into the Gulf, then set a southeasterly course for Tarpon Springs. Waves were choppy, but we were making 20-23 mph and in their wake we enjoyed more rolling waves than choppy. (My GPS readout computes mph, so I don't talk about knots - nautical miles per hour. Pretty much the same, 1 kt=1.151 mph.)

Things went well until late morning, as we headed toward a very broad cloud mass, and Bruce radioed "We're gonna get wet in 7-8 miles." Bryan zipped the side panels closed all around and we went on. In a few minutes things changed rapidly. The skies darkened incredibly, heavy rain started pelting us loudly, and the oncoming waves rose to 3-4-5 feet. Invictus slowed to maybe 10 mph, but I had to slow much more, as the slamming through waves became steeper and more jolting. There was no Hoo Hah about this open water -- more like Oh Hell! I radioed Invictus "I'm losing sight of you in the rain." Bruce coached "Just keep on this heading and when you get out of it, we'll find you." They had radar.

The slamming was so intense I was concerned Little Sadie might split a seam, but Bryan was confident because these welded aluminum boats are made to go fishing in the Pacific off the Alaskan coast. We labored on for another 15-20 minutes until skies ahead started to lighten and the rain and waves started calming. At this point for the first time Bryan freed up his grip and shot a picture.

Capt. Bruce let us catch up and announced the decision to run east toward Steinhatchee, to get to shallower water and so we wouldn't be "taking it on the nose" so badly. Further, we would try to make Cedar Key for the night. To my protestation that we really kind of needed to get to Tarpon Springs, he advised "In boating in open water, you can't have a schedule -- you have to take it as it comes." Chastised, I replied "Okay. Thanks, Bruce." We'd just have to work out our downstream scheduling problems.

True enough, things were much calmer in 25 feet than in 50 feet of water, and we started making good time down the coast. After a while, though, I radioed that the slow going had used up so much gas that we were going to have to refuel from some of our five Jerry cans, and we would catch up with them. The gas tank is at the rear corner of the boat, so leaning out on the motor cuddling five-gallon gas cans in rolling choppy water was challenging. Bryan held the back of my belt and I got ten gallons decanted without dropping a gas can overboard. The operation was a success.

The instruction had been to follow course 165 degrees to catch Invictus. My too-small, mounted-crooked compass was little help, and I hadn't learned how to use the compass functions in the GPS, but I found I could line up my iPhone with the edge of the "dash" and do quite well staying on course using its compass app. We pushed as fast as we could and eventually caught sight of the yacht, and soon fell back in line.

The anticipated afternoon squalls were apparently not materializing ahead on the radar, and we were relieved when Ryan radioed that he was setting a course for Tarpon Springs. We were happy to run along at their speed in that direction. We watched thunderheads form and dissipate along the horizon, but nothing threatened for the rest of the afternoon. It was sunny and the seas were again moderately choppy.

As we approached Anclote Key, where the Intracoastal resumes heading south, Bruce said he was going to stay out in the Gulf and run on south to Clearwater. He gave us instructions about how to find the starting markers for the GIWW, we wished each other safe travels, and our courses diverged.

I had little trouble following the day marks past the inside of the Key to the turn into Anclote River, and as the sun went lower behind us, we motored the few miles up the river into Tarpon Springs. I had been there before, on other people's boats, so knew my way fairly well. The problem was to find our arranged mooring for the night.

My DuroBoat friend Larry had put me in touch with a fellow boat manufacturer in Tarpon Springs, John Stamas of Stamas Yachts. After some wandering around the channels in town, I got in touch with John by phone and he graciously guided us to his company's dock. I knew I already liked the guy. Bryan and I tied up Little Sadie and were glad to step onto dry land.

We had had a good run together, with varied experiences and an exciting day to top it off. Bryan's friend arrived and took him home, and my wife's sister Cathy arrived soon after to take me to their house. My wife Delly was simultaneously being picked up at the airport and would join us at Cathy and Ray's lovely place in nearby Land o' Lakes. Delly and Cathy and I would come back to the boat early tomorrow and continue south.


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