Crossing the Gulf of Mexico

We left the Wharf Marina outside of Orange Beach, FL and headed down the Intercoastal Waterway heading for our destination to make our Gulf crossing, Apalatchicola, FL. On our way we stopped for a few days in Pensacola. We stayed at a marina right downtown, so we were able to walk to restaurants, shops and museums. Pensacola is a wonderful city. Vibrant, historic and youthful…..not just us old farts.
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Floridian home in Pensacola

Floridian home in Pensacola

My kind of art festival - they serve Bloody Mary's

My kind of art festival – they serve Bloody Mary’s


We were lucky while in Pensacola to experience a fabulous art festival. And, my kind of art festival it was – they served Bloody Mary’s!! How great is that! I think they try to get you loosened up to get your wallet out. We did buy one piece. Lots of great things – hmmmm, if only we had a house!

Ming and Pema enjoyed watching the waterfowl in the marina. There were lots of pelicans diving in the water and also grey herons doing a little fishing.

White heron

White heron

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Beautiful sunset

Beautiful sunset

The next two days we worked our way further east along the coast. Primary undeveloped area with pine barrens and swamps. Spent the first night in Panama City, had supper at a funky over-the-water-on-stilts restaurant. Best sea food so far! We arrived at Apalachacola the following evening.

Apalachacola is the jumping off point to travel from the panhandle to the peninsula part of Florida. The Intracoastal Waterway does not continue along this part of the coast because it is too shallow. The water is less than 6 feet deep and extends out 20 miles or so. Also, there are few rivers to duck into in case of bad weather. So most boats doing the Loop, except for very shallow draft ones, must head directly across, a distance of 200 miles (and most Looper boats travel at 8-9mph). As a result this is the most stressful (and probably dangerous) portion of the entire 5500 mile loop cruise for most boats. Most Loopers, rarely if ever, travel at night on the water. Add that to the fact that during the crossing you never see land, it is no wonder that the “crossing” is the subject of much discussion at Looper “docktail” parties.

At 11:00 a.m. the next morning we began our crossing. The late start was to assure that we arrived at our destination in daylight. It took us about three hours to work our way thru shallow bays reach the inlet accessing the Gulf, where we were blessed by the weather gods with a partly cloudy sky, light following winds and fairly calm seas of 1-2 foot waves. We began our crossing with two other “buddy” boats, one a 53′ Selene trawler and the other a 40′ Mainship. The Selene was actually heading to Bradenton, FL, so they veered off shortly after we entered the Gulf. The Mainship travelled with us all the way to Clearwater.

The yellow boat is us in the big wide water

The yellow boat is us in the big wide water


The Mainship 40 traveling with us.

The Mainship 40 traveling with us.


At the helm at dusk on the Gulf

At the helm at dusk on the Gulf

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Salute to sunsets!

Salute to sunsets!

Gorgeous and peaceful

Gorgeous and peaceful

Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico during our crossing

Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico during our crossing


We had a great crossing. What can I say, but “stabilizers” are a great thing. Stabilizers are computerized, hydraulic, “winglike” things that stick out below the waterline on the side of the boat, that sense the waves and move up and down to keep the boat more steady in the waves. With the waves behind us, it is the best of all situations for us; the boat not rolling much at all. We also have what is called a “full displacement hull” – much like that of a sailboat. Again, this means that our boat is much more stable than many “planing” trawlers. Case in point – the Mainship trawler traveling with us. This boat has almost a flat bottom. They were rolling a great deal even in the small waves. When we arrived in Clearwater, the three people on that boat were exhausted, whereas Mark and I were feeling pretty good for being on the water for 22 hours. One of the crew members told us she had gotten sick and all three of them never left the helm station on the flybridge. She said all of them couldn’t wait until it was over. Mark and I took shifts at the helm – 2 hours on, 2 hours off until about 11:00 p.m. Then we did 3 hours on, 3 hours off during the night. For the most part, it is pretty boring but you need to keep your eyes open. You need to pay attention to what is going on around you, watching for any boat traffic on radar and watch the temperature gauge to make sure the engine is not overheating. We kept in contact with the boat traveling with us about every two hours just to see how everyone was doing. One of the crew members of the other boat said to us when we arrived that they were so amazed at how alert and upbeat Mark always sounded on the radio, where they were so tired. Next Dance performed flawlessly for our crossing. We love our boat!

We had planned to anchor off once we arrived, but Mark looked again at what time we would get in and what the tide situation would be. It turned out that it was going to be low tide and still too dark which would have made anchoring dangerous. So we decided to go on to the Clearwater Municipal Marina instead, which was another hour and a half further south. A good decision.

At about 8:00 a.m. we could see Clearwater, FL on the horizon. However, we couldn’t relax just yet – we had to dodge hundreds of crab pot floats as we neared Clearwater. Couldn’t they put those crab pots somewhere else??
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Bridge into Clearwater Harbor

Bridge into Clearwater Harbor

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We went under the bridge and officially were in Clearwater! We wound our way through the channel to the marina and found our way to our slip. The largest slip they had available for us was 17′ wide. Our beam (width) is 16’4″. With our fenders out, we could not actually get in all the way. So we settled for going halfway in, with our stern hanging out 15ft or so. But it is not a problem, because there is lots of space behind. Once we settled in we had some scrambled eggs and a Bloody Mary to celebrate our smooth crossing and then we hit the pillow for a few hours. Slept a bit, then got up to get the boat reorganized. We walked into the downtown area to a great little Italian restaurant, then back to the boat to take a sleeping pill to make sure we slept through the night. The next morning we awoke completely refreshed! A great feeling.

We liked Clearwater and the marina so much that we decided to stay a week. A great decision. Our slip in Fort Myers is not available until December 1, so we have time to smell the roses in getting there over the next couple of weeks. It is only 150 miles (by water) south of us.

During our journey, we travelled some 800 miles, with a couple who live in Clearwater. They had a second home in Charlevoix, MI which they had sold. They were taking their sailboat, Morning Star, back to Clearwater where they plan to get it “prettied up” to sell. We called Dave and Cheryl to tell them that we had arrived in Clearwater. They were thrilled to hear from us. Obviously they are a wealth of information on where things are in the area. We had a wonderful dinner with them in Clearwater Beach area. It was great to see them again and catch up. They are one of the couples we had been traveling with for over a month from the Illinois River down to the Tombigbee River. We all bonded and had so much fun together. One of the other couples is still behind us, probably holed up in Apalachicola waiting for a weather window. Unfortunately it looks like that won’t happen until around 11/21. We were VERY fortunate to have had the two-day weather window to cross in good weather. The cold front that is hammering most of the country has reached the Florida panhandle bringing strong winds, high waves and temps in the 40″s. Although Apalachicola is a cute town, it is not a place where we would like to spend a week waiting for the weather to break.

Mark has rented a car for the week and we went to a cute little town just up the road called Dunedin. We had a great lunch there. Mark found a barber to get a haircut while I explored the great shops. I found one shop in particular that was fabulous. So fabulous that the credit card company alerted Mark via text of my far too extravagant charge!! Damn – don’t they know that there are some things he doesn’t have to know about. What can I say – it’s been awhile since I’ve been in “civilization”!

A work of art that I just had to have!

A work of art that I just had to have!


We call it "Sparky"

We call it “Sparky”

We have run errands, a day in Dunedin and a day in Tarpon Springs (where natural sponges are harvested by divers and home to many wonderful Greek restaurants).

Fresh Red Snapper ala Plaka!

Fresh Red Snapper ala Plaka!

Moussaka!

Moussaka!

The latest on Ming and Pema – we were happy that since our arrival that they had been staying onboard the boat. We think that is because they are a little freaked out by the big birds that wander the docks and the loud noises they make. Unfortunately, while waiting for Dave and Cheryl to arrive last night, I went inside to do something and darned if they hadn’t jumped off the boat! That little Ming, who I always thought was an angel – NOT! She kept running away from me, but at last I caught her. Pema – who is generally a little devil – was nowhere to be found. We spent 20+ minutes scouring the dock for her. Even the dockmaster was helping us look for her. Finally, I went on board a boat moored across from us and there she was on the upper deck. Ugh! I think we need to get GPS chips installed on them!

Well, that’s it for now. We will enjoy the time we have here in Clearwater exploring, eating, drinking, and of course a little more shopping!

Until next time, let’s hope the market continues on it’s upswing so I can pay the credit card bills! And, of course, fair winds and calm seas.

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Mobile Bay and Beyond

We spent a few days in Demopolis, AL waiting until our boat insurance policy permitted us to go further south (hurricanes) and then continued on down the river. We spent a lovely evening at anchorage called Bashi Creek. It was a little narrow and we needed to raft up to each other. We had five boats in this tiny spot.
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Misty morning

Misty morning

Rafting off in  tight anchorage - dog needs to go ashore!

Rafting off in tight anchorage – dog needs to go ashore!


One stop we made was a place called “Bobby’s Fish Camp”. It is a real “in the woods” place right on the river. There is not a lot of dock space so boats end up rafting off of one another. Luckily we got in there early and were able to be on the dock with power – aka “Air Conditioning!”. Some were not so lucky. There was a tiny rustic restaurant there that served, by far, the best catfish that we have had – at least to our taste. We met a very fun group of people who rafted up to us. We joined them for dinner at Bobby’s. They had just purchased a Grand Banks in Michigan and are in the process of taking it back to Texas.
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Yea! We finished going through our last lock. From where we started in Norfolk, VA, through the Erie Canal, the Oswego Canal, the Trent Severn Waterway, Illinois River, Mississippi River, Ohio River, Cumberland River, Tennessee River and the Tombigbee Waterway, we went through a total of 99 locks! By far, the easiest were on the Tombigbee River. It is so nice to put all of the fenders away and not have them hanging over the sides. We look forward to getting the fenders cleaned at some point and purchasing new covers for them. I don’t think they’ll ever come clean with all of the muck, mud and slime imbedded in them!

Last lock! Yippee!!

Last lock! Yippee!!

Although the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers were gentle, safe and lovely, we are both glad to be off of them; if for no other reason than a change. When we entered Mobile we were lucky and did not encounter any large ship traffic (Mobile is one of the largest US ports), so we were able to continue through and into the bay. Here we ran down the large ship channel where we saw very large ocean freighters, towboats with barges and fishing boats. We also were lucky to get our first glimpse of a pod of dolphins in the water. They came over to our boat, but they didn’t follow us.

We stopped for a couple of days at a marina in Fairhope, AL. which is located on the east shore of Mobile Bay about halfway down. Neither of us had ever heard of the town, but we were delighted with what we found. It is a small, very pretty retirement/vacation community with great shopping, restaurants, upscale housing, art galleries and so on. It had drop dead views of the sunsets over the Mobile Bay. After a month of small river towns that were dying or already dead, it was a pleasant surprise.

From there we motored on down to the Gulf Coast Intercoastal Waterway which runs about 350 miles from Texas to the eastern end of the Florida panhandle. The GCICW is a series of canals, rivers and bays, all of which are for the most part protected from the waves and winds on the Gulf of Mexico. It passes Pensacola, Panama City, Destin and Appalachacola. Many sheltered anchorage and marinas along this resort lined coast.
The waterway is teeming with dolphins and other wild life. On the way here we had dolphins swimming/surfing our bow wave most of the way. Each night a pair of herons perch on the dock next to our boat and drive our cats crazy who watch out the boat windows. There are also two dolphins here popping up on the surface of the water from time to time.
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We stopped for lunch at LuLu’s on the way to where we are currently docked, The Wharf, in Gulf Shores, AL. Lulu is Jimmy Buffet’s sister and has a very popular, fun bars/restaurant/sports,shopping complex on the waterway, with adequate docking for a dozen large cruisers. Lots of family photos and Jimmy Buffet music playing.

The Wharf is a interesting place. Part large upscale marina, part condo/hotel complex with convention center, theme park, etc. and part upscale shopping/restaurant mall. We originally planned to stay here for 3 days just resting/relaxing after being on the go for weeks, but a cold front is passing thru as we write this bringing temps in the low 50’s and very high winds, so we may be here for a week. Couldn’t have picked a better place to be stuck, if we tried. There is even a brand new West Marine store down the road (you boaters will understand.)

Last evening was Trick or Treat night, which is celebrated in a interesting way here. The two block long, main street of the mall is closed to traffic and locals with SUV, pickups and station wagons come in and park close together at right angles to the curb. Both back of the vehicles and their occupants are highly decorated/costumed for Halloween, and they have abundant treats with them. They form a very long “U” up and down the mall main street. At 6:30, literally hundreds of children, ranging from infants to age 12, all in elaborate costumes, begin to parade down and back up the street, collecting their treats. The entire mall complex is extensively decorated and attractively lighted. The local fire, police and military units are all present, in their gear and are also passing out treats. There are judges awarding prizes for the best costumes by age group. It is a very safe, fun way to celebrate the holiday. We thoroughly enjoyed watching both the kids and their costumed parents as they marched by. The highlight was a group of 20 something, pregnant nuns in full habits! After that, we had a wonderful fish dinner at a little restaurant here.
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For some reason, all of the rental cars are taken. Not sure who is using them since it is off-season here right now. So, we are a bit stuck here other than the nearby restaurants and shops. Pauline’s in need of a few supplies, so if we are not able to rent a car tomorrow, then we will have to hire a taxi to take us to the nearby Publix grocery store.

Today is a day of doing inside projects and catching up. Pauline is baking Pumpkin Bread!

Don't jump Ming!

Don’t jump Ming!

Ming and Pema enjoying exploring the boat this morning

Ming and Pema enjoying exploring the boat this morning

That’s all for now. Until next time, hopes for warmer weather, soft breezes and calm water!
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