It has been so nice to be back on the water. A different boat, a different journey but oh so reminiscent of our Loop journey, in that it is the two of us alone again sharing sights and experiences unique to us.
Arriving in Mandeville by rental car allowed us to bring a lot of provisions with us and it was a good thing we had because we arrived at the height of the first wave of panic over C-19, which had people hoarding food and paper products. We went into a Walmart neighborhood market to buy what we still needed. There were zero paper products on the shelves, and no meat, eggs or milk. Fortunately, we don’t use a lot of meat when we are cruising so we were able to find most of the things that we consider to be staples and though we did check a more upscale market for eggs and TP, the story was the same there.
We dropped our provisions back at the boat and because we had left home at 3 in the morning, gained an hour of time change and arrived in Mandeville in the early afternoon, with the rest of the day before us, we decided to go to New Orleans since Jerry had never been there. We made our way across the 25 miles of bridge that spans Lake Pontchartrain and were able to see the Super Dome and downtown as we came off the bridge. Passing a number of extensive cemeteries, Jerry got to see how gorgeous all of the above-ground mausoleums are. The ones on the east side of the road were the upscale marble numbers while those on the west side were of crumbling concrete, demonstrating how social inequality follows people even into the afterlife.
We exited the highway and followed a gorgeous tree-lined, azalea popping boulevard that had us passing sweet ante-bellum mansions cheek-to-jowl with modest shotgun houses, sporting peeling paint and crumbling stonework. We dumped out on the waterfront and traversed it until we came to Jackson square. The whole experience was like something out of a post apocalypse movie. Where there are usually bustling crowds, there were empty streets, with a few people here and there but nothing like what is normal. The bars and restaurants were mostly shuttered with a few half-heartedly trying to make rent by hawking food to-go. I absolutely cannot imagine what the economic fallout of all of this is going to be.
We parked the rental car and explored on foot, taking selfies along the Mighty Mississippi and in Jackson Square and then one more on Bourbon Street, which was so empty you could have shot a cannon down the street and not hit a soul. There is a hollow feeling here that I fear is but a preamble of the devastation yet to come. We grabbed a couple of ice cream cones from one of the only establishments still open and headed back across the bridge to get ready for departure the following day.
Up early, we returned our rental car to an Enterprise lot that was bristling with cars jammed into every conceivable space on and around the lot. The young man who gave us a lift back described how lack of business was forcing branch closings right and left. We got Easy Wind warmed up and spooked a gator off the twisty-turny channel that took us out to the lake.
The lake resembled frothy chocolate milk and a few hours later after a pretty rough ride we reached the Rigolets where we fueled up. This boat is new to her owners and I guess the seller hadn’t used her in a while and so no one had any idea how much fuel was in the tanks. We were pleasantly surprised to only need about 112 gallons. On we went out into the Mississippi Sound where we were greeted with more of the same. Not much to see, partly cloudy and sort of grim, the day passed and we tucked in out of the wind finally at the Gulfport, Mississippi Municipal Marina.
This marina was completely rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina and is a really nice facility that can hold about 700+ boats, according to the young man who checked us in and loaned us a splitter cord for the night. I would come back to visit sometime in the future when we have more time, as there are lovely white sand beaches on either side of the marina and it looks as if the town might be fun to explore but we are tired after a long day and tuck in pretty early.
Up early the next morning, with a goal of getting to a free dock in Gulf Shores (if crossing Mobile Bay doesn’t look too awful), we leave with the flags still standing straight out and brace ourselves for another kind of gray and windy day. At least it isn’t raining. We pass oil platforms with no evident activity and wonder if this is due to the catastrophically low oil prices, the C-19 or whether it may just be normal for this time of year.
There isn’t a lot to see and we chug along, chatting about the cataclysmic events that are rocking the world right now. The economic fallout is almost more frightening than the possibility of reducing our world population by a couple of percentage points. I know this is not politically correct to say but I really wonder where our leadership is right now. An incredible opportunity has been lobbed up to lead with strength to reunify our nation with itself and rest of the world and it has resulted in finger pointing and blame shifting – a swing and a miss by any account. Nothing unites a people faster than a common enemy but truly our enemy is not another nation and that seems lost on the current administration. I don’t know what the answer is and sadly I don’t see it in any of the other candidates running for office either. Time will tell, I guess.
We get our first glimpse of Mobile Bay and it looks totally doable so we continue on across. It is windy and bumpy but not terrible and we make it across and safely into the ICW.
Thank goodness! I like cruising much better when there is something to look at and we cruise a couple of miles to an abandoned warehouse dock where we tie up to the pylons for the night. The current is swift so this is a little challenging but we work well together and after adjusting lines and fenders for a while, we are satisfied that we will hold well, even when the tide turns.
This area is amazing. We are right across from Lulu’s restaurant and just upstream from Tacky Jack’s.
The last time we were through here, these waterfront restaurants were bursting at the seams with people eating and drinking, playing beach volleyball to the live music that was pounding out from enormous speakers. It now resembles a ghost town.
Bars have been closed down by state and county edicts and restaurants can only serve to-go orders and while we know this is available, because we called thinking we might want to carry food out, we see absolutely no activity at all. We decide to make a meal aboard and we enjoy the view from the back deck of the boat while we eat. We sleep well, Jerry especially. I know this because I felt and then saw one barge and pusher pass us, rocking us gently on its wake and I whispered, “barge” and he didn’t even stir.
Leaving in the morning is a simple affair of just releasing lines and giving a gentle push away because we are at slack tide and off we go, passing the silent restaurants and moving along the ICW again under gray skies.
We pass barges loaded with the cutest little fish houses. They are square concrete pyramids with the top flattened and have openings on all sides. It is nice to see this dedication to re-establishing reefs that have been damaged or destroyed by human activity.
We pull into the Wharf for fuel and it starts to rain – typical! We don’t really need fuel but this is a new boat to us and we want an idea of our fuel-burn so that we are able to plan the trip better. We top off and fill our water tanks and when we do the math, we find that the boat is burning between 3 and 4 gallons per hour and since there is only one engine, that’s pretty good! We can now figure out our range capability and plan future fuel stops more efficiently.
The day is gray and uneventful and we decide that stopping at the Ft. Walton Municipal Free dock would make the most sense, economically and timing wise. We bypassed this stop on our Loop thinking that it was too full and possibly too shallow but we have read the reviews on active captain and we should have at least 8 feet of depth on the T-head, which is fortunately empty. We pull in and tie up. The other residents look like permanent sailboat liveaboards. One is occupied by a young woman, another by a young man and the third by an old man. There seems to be community here as they are chatting about needing ice and who is going to the market.
We call the local police to inform them that we are here (it is Saturday and the park system is closed) and lock up the boat to go re-provision at Publix. We are hearing horror stories about long lines and no products at home but here, all is normal. We buy the few things we think we will need to get from here to Tarpon, taking into account the fact that if the weather shifts, we may be stuck in Carrabelle for a few days.
Back at the boat we make a great feast of Publix fried chicken (we NEVER eat this at home) and some fruit and chips. A brief shower has driven the sketchies from the park but the drizzle lightens and people on paddleboards take advantage of the spotty sunshine as sunset approaches. We watch, a little puzzled, as the young man casts the lines off his sailboat. He leaves the lines on the dock and walks to the bow where he starts to haul on a line and his little boat moves gracefully out of her slip. It becomes evident that he has an anchor a few hundred yards away and when he has maxed out the allowed number of days on the free dock, he hauls his boat out and anchors it nearby to spend the required number of nights off the dock before he can legally return. It’s actually genius and it occurs to us that these folks who might have been considered on the “fringe” of society may be the ones expressly equipped to thrive if our world devolves into surviving by wit and will and not needing a lot to get by!
I sleep well but Jerry is vigilant due to the nature of the crowd attracted to a municipal park. He is up several times during the night to check on things but fortunately there are no incidents. We are up before dawn, making tea and coffee for the day. We tend to wait to eat breakfast until we are under way because it breaks up the day a little bit.
A little duck swims ahead of our boat towards the rising sun, wanting us to go with him but we give it a few more minutes to let the sun shed enough light so we can see the day markers.
The sun is trying to peek through the clouds and we wish we could clear them away to reveal the blue behind them but it is to no avail. At least we get splashes of sunshine here and there. As we approach one of the bridges to the beaches we see flowing movement at the waterline and aren’t really sure what it is until we get closer. Hundreds and hundreds of Cormorants must have overnighted on the bridge bases and are now in full-on migration mode. They fly just above the water in a black flowing line and resemble one long, undulating snake rather than a flock of individual birds all bent on reaching the same destination. Part of what I love about boating is seeing things that you otherwise would never even be aware of much less be lucky enough to see. This photo is of some stragglers who weren’t part of the water-line hugging group; the renegades flying in the face of conformity!
From a distance, coming through Panama City and Mexico Beach reveals the resilience of man and nature. Two years ago, this area was a sea of blue tarps and broken and twisted trees. The oaks were mangled, with no limbs longer than a couple of feet and the pines were either denuded or literally snapped off, leaving forests of protruding pencil-point stumps.
Now we see no evidence of blue tarps (though I am sure some probably exist on the non-waterfront homes), a testimony to decent insurance and probably some government grant funding. The oaks are still mangled but there are surprisingly abundant tufts of green along the broken branches doing their best to create the kind of shade that only an old oak can. The pines that were left standing have also sprouted a green fuzz along their branches and the undergrowth has rallied to hide the pencil-point stumps. It is amazing to see what has happened in two short years. It gives one hope that even after devastation, growth and abundance are still possible.
I spoke too soon because as soon as you enter the canal that ties the Panama City area to the Apalachicola area, the wreckage literally still surrounds you. Bent and twisted trees line this ditch which under the best of circumstances threatens to never end. It is 40 miles of narrow S-turns edged on all sides by a lot of devastation and swamp grass.
Our plan for the day was to try to get past Apalachicola and out the pass near Carrabelle because we have a weather window for this one 24 hour period and if we miss that, we either spend 3 or more days twiddling our thumbs in Carrabelle or we give the Easy Wind more of a rough crossing than we would ideally like to. We have been alternating driving and napping in anticipation of a possible crossing and have it timed perfectly so that this should be doable but the current in the ditch is much stronger than expected and we are losing time rapidly. Night falls as we get to Apalachicola and if that weren’t enough of a challenge (the channel is well marked), we come across an active dredge line that the NAV alerts mentioned might be there – we were hoping the job was finished and they would be gone. The dredge line is actively dredging right in the channel and remembering our Captain’s training, we radio to ask how they want us to proceed. We are delighted when we decipher the southern slur that is so common to watermen and understand that he is volunteering an escort to take us along his “hot line” and get us to the channel where he hasn’t got any men or machinery. We follow our escort and are finally clear. Over the years it has always been gratifying to have things that we learned during our training pop up in real life but we have lost some valuable time here and now need to reassess if attempting the crossing still makes sense.
We listen to the NOAA weather forecast, scour Marv’s Weather Service for his wind and wave forecast and it is pretty clear that we either go now or we sit for days. We feel good, the boat has plenty of fuel and is running well and we unanimously give it a thumbs up to proceed, wanting to give Easy Wind her best chance at a non-demanding crossing. Jerry goes into the engine compartment to check oil and give everything a once over and all appears to be good.
We head out the Carrabelle cut in pitch darkness, which actually doesn’t faze us because the last time we came out this cut we were in pea soup fog that barely allowed us to see the bow of our boat. At least now we can easily see the markers and we navigate the cut into open water to find the conditions as predicted; we can’t see it but we can sure feel the gentle swells with no large chop or rollers and now the die is cast, we are Tarpon Springs bound. The problem is that we have no cell service and so cannot let the boat owners know of our intent. We have family and a friend who know we were contemplating the crossing if all looked good so we know we aren’t out without a soul knowing what we are doing but I don’t like possibly causing the owners to worry about their boat.
The skies have cleared and the stars are amazingly bright here away from the small amount of light pollution this area produces. It looks like a child threw a handful of diamonds against the black velvet dome above us and while some stuck and glimmer there, others scattered over the surface of the water reflecting their light in a mirror image of those above. It is breathtaking!
There is no way to do the Gulf crossing without traversing a good part of it in the dark and this is the payoff. Last time we had fog the entire way and saw almost nothing, this time we have perfectly clear skies and tons of stars, maybe next time we will have a full moon (we have no moon at all tonight)!
We alternate two-hour shifts, taking turns staring at our chart plotter and a lot of blackness and napping and the time passes quickly. During one shift change I come up to see Jerry hanging out the top of the Dutch door talking to goodness only knows who! I edge up next to him and see that we have a pair of ghost dolphins riding along side of us. They look like white torpedoes racing through the water right by our side door and they jump as if to greet us. Again, these are the best parts of boating!
I am on shift as the sun rises and it is absolutely magnificent. I can now see the gently rolling swells as they bleed from gray to gold to rose and then to blue as the sun breaks free of the horizon. We each take one more cat nap but we both love this part of the trip too much to spend it asleep. We see the loons that we only heard in the foggy darkness on our last crossing, when we wondered if we had imagined the sound at 50 miles off shore in Florida! Because the water is so flat, it is easy to see any aberration and we see fish jumping, lots of Loons and a family of dolphin in the distance, though none of them wants to come and play with us just yet. Flying fish leap up and skitter away from us, sensing a danger that is all in their imaginations and we are overcome with awe for all the life we see around us.
When the sun is high, its rays dive deep into the water inking it the color blue I remember so well from my childhood when we would go fishing in the Keys and cross from the emerald green waters into the Gulf Stream. That cobalt blue has a richness and depth of color that is unmatched, and we soak it in. The day is magnificent, warm in the sun and cool in the shade, in other words…perfect.
Our auto pilot works well and has a remote control which allows us to sit on the bow and up on the flying bridge and keep our bow pointed towards Tarpon Springs.
The sun arcs high and begins to descend and through the distant haze we finally see the power plant stack that marks the mouth of the Anclote River. 300 miles and 33 hours later, we are almost home! What a blessing this daylight crossing has been. Last time we had left earlier in the day and arrived here in time for sunrise, missing all the beauty we have been part of today. Most of Jerry’s charter crossings have been going from Tarpon Springs to Carabelle and northward. This is the first crossing we have done together since we finished our own Loop and we are truly grateful for this opportunity.
We arrive at the newly renovated City Docks and our buddy Mike is there to catch lines along with Dillon who works there. It is slack tide and the wind mercifully decides to grant us peace by subsiding and our docking is smooth and easy and we have arrived at the end of the first week of moving Easy Wind closer to her owners. We will take some time to figure out what happens from here. Will enough marinas be left open during the C-19 lockdown to allow us to refuel? We don’t really need marinas but we do need fuel to finish this job.