FL Panhandle (Sandestin) to Ft. Myers Area - 1/28-2/02/03
After a wonderful stay in the Destin area, we made preparations for venturing forth into "new territory" with a goal of reaching Key West for our two week reservation at A&B Marina in mid-February. With "wind up" dinners with all our Snowbird friends, and goodbye's to the friends and staff at Baytowne Marina, we fueled up and pumped out. Finally our 2nd Mate friend from our Practice Run last April, Bruce Abrahamson, joined us for a "sea trial" to calibrate our instruments (compass, GPS/Chart-plotter, auto-pilot, depth sounder, etc). With a final check of our charts and waypoints, we were ready to move out! It had been over three months since we had arrived.
Two little side-bars: Our last weekend in Sandestin, we had met a wonderful couple (Ron & Melissa Harris) from Pensacola with a beautiful new 42' Ocean Alexander docked on the pier right behind us. We enjoyed a couple of meals and the Super Bowl with them, and in the process Diane had mentioned something about "wishing she had tried to sell her car" (so it wouldn't just sit there until we came back to pick it up sometime!). We said goodbye, they went home, and we headed the other direction. Then we got a call from Ron saying Melissa was interested in buying the car. We made the deal, and they came and picked it up, so our land travels are now dependent on rentals! A good way to go.
Second side-bar: The story of the orange bike, created by some fun-loving friends at Baytowne Marina, shortly before we returned from our Holiday "home visit." Capn Bill from New Orleans used a rented bike while staying on his boat in Baytowne. He was surprised one day, when it got a beautiful coat of day-glo orange paint, with hand-painted white walls, and strategically placed black, white, and orange dots. It was a customized beauty that I inherited when Bill left to go home. I became so attached to it, with Billie Jo running along side, that "it was suggested" that I should take it with us when we headed south, as a "reminder" of good friendships. So I loaded it into the aft deck behind the sofa; and Billie Jo and I loved it.
Day 1, 1-28-03: With mixed emotions, we departed Baytowne Marina about 7:40 am, and set our course and auto-pilot for the east end of Choctawhatchie Bay where we would enter The Ditch to the West Bay approaching Panama City. We decided to take the ICW inside route to Apalachicola, expecting it to be one good day's easy cruise. The weather was decent; mostly sunny, in the 60s, with winds SE @ 5-10 knots, water calm to light chop @ 54 degrees. While we could have gone "outside," the route required a lot of "back-tracking" on the west end to Destin Pass and on the east end to go past Port St. Joe and around Apalachicola Bay to enter across the bay from the south.
As we entered The Ditch, it was a sad reminder of a day cruise we had taken last March just to check out the route. Our previous Golden Retriever, Wally, was with us that day on his last boat ride. It turned out to be his final day, but he seemed comfortable and enjoyed it. It wasn't until later that evening that he went "downhill" fast. Beyond that, there wasn't much notable about The Ditch. Not especially scenic or interesting, it did seem very remote from civilization. With very little boat traffic either direction, we were able to cruise on plane most of the time, so it didn't seem to take too long.
Entering the West Bay before Panama City, there were plenty of red and green markers with the gold ICW stickers as we wound our way back to civilization. As we approached the large Hathaway highway bridge, the new bridge construction became evident, as were the no wake markers clearly indicated on the charts. Surrounded by cranes on barges, and a myriad of workboats, we approached the bridge cautiously. Shortly after clearing the bridge, a work boat slowly approached the channel in front of us, apparently intending to cross from our port to starboard. After 3 or 4 minutes, we seemed to be on a collision course, and the work boat showed no signs of recognizing our presence. Thinking we had the right-of-way, I tried to call him on several VHF working channels as well as channel 16. No response. We literally had to bring Souvenir to a dead stop, as he passed directly in front us, totally oblivious. I had heard the Coast Guard's periodic warnings on channel 16 about the construction area, so decided to give them a call. I described the scene and asked them if the workboats had right-of-way under all circumstances. He said no, it sounded like something that shouldn't have happened, and asked for a more detailed description of the workboat. He said they would "look into it," and thanked me for reporting it. Have a good day!
Winding our way through the markers of St. Andrews Bay, we had another "awakening." Suddenly, cruising east directly in the middle of the channel, the reds and greens seemed to reverse themselves. Close examination of both our electronic and paper charts, initially added to the confusion. With encouragement from my First Mate, it was time to follow the sage advice of many veterans, "When in doubt, stop, look around, and figure it out, before moving on." It was one of those crossings, where the ICW intersects the incoming ship channel (in this case to Panama City). And at that point, it appeared the ship channel literally runs exactly in the "opposite" direction of the ICW for several hundred yards (i.e. two pairs of red and green markers). Reminder: Watch for the ICW gold stickers. No problem. It was daylight, good weather and no traffic. Good thing!
From there, winding through East Bay to the next portion of The Ditch that angles down past the cut-off to Port St. Joe, and on to Apalachicola seemed like the "long half" of the day. But we did arrive about 3 pm as planned, confirmed our reservation at Scipio Creek Marina, and got specific instructions about turning around the "downriver" side of the junction buoy (almost to the highway bridge), then up Scipio Creek to the marina fuel dock. After refueling for the next day's Gulf crossing, we moved the boat up the dock to it's resting place, and got acquainted with the "local knowledge." We learned about the restaurants, and taxi service, which led us to George and his mini-van guided tour of Apalachicola with Billie Jo included. It was a delightful way to get a quick look at a historic town with interesting background comments....and after an hour and a half, we decided George should take us back to Papa Joe's restaurant at the marina so Billie Jo could be close by on the boat. Asking George about the fare for the tour, he announced "ten bucks ought to do it." We gladly tipped him a BIG percentage! The seafood was excellent at Papa Joe's, and we turned in early to rest up for a big day ahead.
Day 2, 1-29-03: This is it; across the Gulf to Clearwater; 157 nm between the Green channel entrance markers! We're up at 5 am for final prep. Ready to go; waiting for the sunrise; weather looks good; fair skies, calm water in the Bay; winds SE 5-10 in the Gulf; National Data Buoy enroute says 1-2'. Let's go!! The sun pops up at 6:40 am. Should be in Clearwater well before dark.
The ICW heads straight south to the middle of Apalachicola Bay, then takes a 90 degree turn left to head east to Carabelle. We keep going straight (a little west of south) to enter the marked channel through Government Pass. We've heard it's "tricky" and subject to shoaling. So we obtained the latest "local knowledge" at the marina with precise instructions to enter the channel southbound to the right of the range markers, and "hug the greens." Easy does it. Weather's good. We see the range and channel markers. Real easy does it. Follow directions exactly! No other boats around. About 8:00 am, we're aground! Both engines shut down. We're on sand shoaling in the channel, about 30 yards NE of G"3" marker, between it and the nearest range marker. A slight tidal current is inbound through the pass. I check the depth from the swim platform with a boat hook. It appears only the rudders and props are in very soft sand. The hull seems clear. I carefully try to start the engines. No dice putting them in gear. I try the bow thruster which easily moves the bow both directions. Can't wiggle it loose. Meanwhile a sportfish boat comes by on our port side, to the east of the range markers, exactly where I was told not to go! He does swing over toward the Greens, but not till he gets half way through the channel. I swing the bow around toward the NE in the direction the sportfish cleared. Still stuck! Can't "pole" the boat forward. The boat hook just sinks in the sand. Stuck good! Call BoatUS! Good response, but they have to come from Carabelle. It'll be about an hour. We wait! Several sportfisher-boats fly by!
Over an hour-and-a-half later, BoatUS Tow arrives. No problem. They throw us a line; easily pull us off in the direction we were told to avoid! I start the engines; test the props; no vibration; rudders good, lock to lock. The Tow eases up to the swim platform so I can sign the bill --- $775!! He smiles (reacting to the look on my face) and says, "Not your problem; you're covered!" That $99 "unlimited towing" was my best investment in a long time! He offers to lead me through the Pass, which I gladly accept. There clearly was shoaling on the east side of the channel midway through, but as we proved, the shoaling on the north end was on the west side! At last, we're good to go in the open Gulf at 10 am, but with the delay we're now faced with arrival in Clearwater after sunset. Decision-time: Press on! Set the course on 130T, and plane out!
Within an hour, those 1-2' SE waves are definitely growing, and the wind is very "shifty" creating "confused seas." The wind is now clearly over 10 knots, and primary SE waves over 3', with surface chop and swells coming from different directions. First Mate and Billie Jo "crawling" from side to side on the bridge, and occasional waves breaking over the roof. Can't maintain the speed on plane without getting beat up more than we like. Gotta pull back to 9 knots. Looks like Clearwater WELL after dark. While plotting fixes every 30 to 60 minutes using GPS, supplemented by radar/visual contact on AF Horns positioned within 3 miles of our course, the wind decreases gradually. Within two hours, waves are back down to 2' or less, and we can get up to cruise speed again. IF we can maintain it, we should make Clearwater about one hour after sunset, depending on negotiating the crab pots we've heard about. Five hours later, the wind has diminished and seas are calm as the sunsets at 6:15 pm. An hour later, we make the G"1" marker at the Clearwater channel entrance, in the dark, dodging crab pots at 9 knots, with the First Mate focused ahead using the search light, directing "Go right! Go left!"
Radio contact was gratefully established with the Clearwater Municipal Marina (after hours!) to obtain detailed instructions to follow the channel in through two left turns amidst many markers. It was clear and calm, reflecting many lights on the water, with moving traffic on a causeway, parallel to our channel. Again, easy does it, while identifying each numbered marker with the search light. By 7:30 pm, we were safely docked on an end-T, after a long day! No damage; no casualties! A successful Gulf crossing!!
Day 3, 1-30-03: It's a perfect Florida day; calm, mostly sunny, mid-70s! And we're in no hurry, but we need to fuel up and make it down to Longboat Key. We've decided to avoid the "tedium" of the ICW across the mouth of Tampa Bay, so about noon, we head back out the Clearwater Pass and set a course to keep about 5 to 8 miles offshore in 35+ feet of water. No problem cruising on plane about 16 knots. It's a nice ride, and about 1:30 we cross the Tampa Bay ship channel, 8 miles out. From there, it's a direct line to the channel entrance market at Longboat Key Pass. By 3 pm, we're through the bascule bridge, looking for the intersection with the ICW, and turn south. At times narrow and shallow, with increasing boat traffic, we begin to appreciate the ease of traveling "outside" in the Gulf on good days. By 3:30, we're in radio contact with the marina and following directions to turn past G"15" right to a heading of 255 degrees. We see plenty of other boats "cutting corners" outside the markers, but we carefully follow the marked channel and directions, and safely gain entrance to Longboat Key Moorings. A gorgeous marina, with lots of gorgeous boats, as we had heard from many veterans. Definitely worth a stop.
We docked in slip D9, right next to another Carver 506. And during a nice walk with the dog, discovered a Carver 564 in the marina (exactly like our 506, with the addition of a sizeable cockpit on the back). First one we had seen in the "flesh." Nice boat!! The grounds were beautifully manicured, with a first class office/ships' store/restaurant/swimming pool complex at one end. First Mate was having "mall withdrawal" with no wheels, so we called for a rental car to be delivered, even though we planned a short stay. We were familiar with the Sarasota area (by land), so there was plenty of shopping (e.g. St. Armand's Circle) and restaurants to explore. A very nice place to stay, with perfect weather.
Day 4, 1-31-03: Another perfect day, and it's very enticing to stay another night. But the winds and waves were forecast to pick up the next day, and we didn't want to be confined to the ICW, so we decided to move on. After a lazy morning, we took advantage of a mid-day high tide, and a short trip to Gasparilla Island, and left the Moorings about 1:30 pm. We had been advised to re-trace our course north on the ICW back to Longboat Key Pass. Normally heading south, we'd use the New Pass out to the Gulf, but heavy shoaling and dredging operations made it worth avoiding. So it was 2:30 before we got out to open water, then turned south for a nice three hour cruise to Boca Grande Pass into Charlotte Harbor. As we rounded the southern tip of Gasparilla Island and intersected the ICW northbound, we could see the development that had occurred since our last visit to Boca Grande (by land) more than ten years earlier.
Radio contact with Uncle Henry's Marina where we had reservations provided directions and warnings about low water in the channel. As we approached the defunct railroad trestle, immediately followed by the bascule bridge on the causeway connecting Gasparilla with the main-land, we prepared to make a sharp left in between the two, following the channel markers over a mile to the marina. It was two hours after low tide, and just about sunset, and we'd been warned about staying exactly in the middle of the channel, and close to the ends of the docks as we entered. Just as we rounded the final corner to our designated slip 40 on the "condo-side," the starboard prop touched bottom. Another close call on timing, but a safe landing.
Our plan was to stay two nights, so we could spend a full day with our good friends from back home, Dick & Bonnie Slomkowski. They have a beautiful condo near the south end of Gasparilla Island, and gave us a terrific tour in their two unique golf carts: one a model of a '57 Chevy, and the other a classic antique! It was Dick that we had visited ten years earlier when he had a 45' Californian in Uncle Henry's and took us on a cruise to Cabbage Key. Our boat was in desperate need of a good bath, and Dick knew exactly how to get a local service to do it on short notice. What a relief! The hospitality was wonderful, and a visit we had talked about for many years, finally was a reality.
Day 5, 2-02-03: Another short day "inside" to Ft. Myers allowed us to wait for departure to within two hours of high tide for the water depth required in the channel. So about 1 pm, Slomkowski's showed up to see us off. We made it out with 6" to spare, and entered the ICW southbound at 1:45. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, in the mid-70s, with a light SE breeze. What a treat, cruising in our own boat through familiar waters after more than twenty years of vacationing in the Ft. Myers/Sanibel area. Passing by Captiva and Sanibel Islands, this was a dream come true. As we entered the mouth of the Calusahatchie River, through the Manatee no wake zone, boat traffic on this beautiful Sunday afternoon was very heavy. We had been warned about potential cross currents trying to push us out of the channel, but didn't have any problems heading up toward the Cape Coral bridge. We had considered finding dock-space in a small marina connected to The Landings condo's where several Minnesota friends were staying. But radio contact with the dockmaster indicated water depth for our 54" draft was marginal. So we took his recommendation to contact the Ft. Myers Yacht Basin downtown between two bridges, and kept motoring upriver. They had space and directed to a tie-along in the West Basin at the renovated City Pier, right at the foot of Hendry Street. It looked like a pretty good place to stay for a few days. So we hunkered down, and contacted our MN Snowbird friends.
The visit stretched into five nights, with many good lunches and dinners, including a birthday party for yours truly. We enjoyed the hospitality of Ken & Connie Sanville, Wally & Mary Rea, Tom & Heather Rousse, and Dan & Colleen Aspinwall; all boaters from back home, vacationing in the Ft. Myers area. One day, we "hoisted" the tender down from the top of Souvenir, and took Billie Jo for a swim at a county beach across the river. But there were two regrets to our stay at Ft. Myers Yacht Basin. The palm trees were in a direct line between our dish and the satellite. So without cable, we were stuck with "intermittent" TV. Then there was the end of the story of the orange bike. I had been warned that I shouldn't leave it out overnight without a lock. So each night, I hauled it into the aft deck of the boat. Wouldn't you know, one day around noon, in bright sunlight, with us on the boat, the orange bike disappeared!! Easy come, easy go. But it was a very fond memory.
So, Stage 2 was really a big success. The flexibility of retirement allows for a wonderful feeling of freedom of choice; about what to do, when, and where. But we did have one commitment; the slip reservation at Key West that I had made last October. It was time to leave the Ft. Myers area.
The end of Stage 2 of our Great Loop Adventure!