Punta Gorda , Florida - December 20, 2007
After a few days relaxing and visiting the pretty town of Fairhope, Alabama we headed back out into Mobile Bay with m/v5th Quarter and s/v Restless Wind, a Beneteau 40 that decided to buddy boat with us for a while. Chuck (the dock cat) decided at the last moment that he wanted to come along too. While releasing the lines, André had to shoo him away before he jumped back on the boat. He looked really p..d-off! I guess we treated him as family and he was quite happy to warm himself on our duvet at night.
Once we entered the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway (GIWW), dolphins appeared, the waters calmed and mega-mansions again became the norm. For the first time in months we had turquoise blue salt water, good cell phone reception and WiFi almost everywhere.
We had an exciting moment one evening when we anchored in Ingram Bayou as Olga spotted an alligator on the beach not 100 feet from the boat. Excited, we called the other boats. On closer inspection the alligator turned out to be two raccoons. Now only a Canuck would mistake raccoons for alligators! Olga, of course insists that the light was bad because it was almost dusk.
The GIWW is pleasant with lots of anchorages and white sand everywhere you look. Lots of birdlife and dolphins keep us entertained as we make our way east along the Florida Panhandle. Now that we're on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico the sunsets along the coast are quite dramatic so we have a great view as we enjoy cocktails at the end of the day.
We spent one night at Fort Walton Beach 's city dock. This is a free service to transient boaters like us and a great place to do some shopping. We also spent a great night in Pensacola, although we had to pay to stay in the city marina there. The city had been devastated by hurricanes in 2004 and is still under reconstruction. The refurbishment of the downtown core is gorgeous and only lacks people and more of the shops to reopen.
We said goodbye to s/v Restless Wind and, after a couple more long days underway and quiet nights at anchor with m/v 5th Quarter, we arrived at Carrabelle for a couple of days of rest and provisioning. Although Carrabelle is a good spot to wait for a weather window, this whole area is part of the Gulf's " Forgotten Coast ". The locals even brag about it. The problem is that the stores reflect this impression and don't have much in stock. Not that we would ever starve on our boat: we always have enough food and drink stored on board to carry us over for at least a month.
Our plan had been to leave Carrabelle and stage out at a nearby bay before making our first leg of the Gulf crossing. We had planned to cross in three long stages along what is called Florida's " Big Bend ", making a long arc with stops at Steinhachee, Cedar Key and Crystal River before reaching Tarpon Springs. This part of the Gulf is a large open body of water which is very shallow. As a result, you need to run nearly 25 miles offshore along the coast and there are very few harbours of refuge if conditions deteriorate. The Gulf is reputed for these sudden changes in winds and sea conditions. At the main navigation marker before making a turn north to reach protected Alligator Bay, the conditions on the Gulf looked very good for the next 24 hours with quite a deterioration after that. We were worried that we would get stuck in a small anchorage for several days before continuing on. Decision time! After a quick check with other boats in the area and our buddy boat m/v 5th Quarter, everyone took the plunge and we decided to continue on with an overnight crossing directly to Tarpon Springs.
We ran for a little over 22 hours in good seas. Unfortunately, m/v's 5th Quarter and Mystic Bond decided to follow the recommended course line 25-30 miles from the coast while the other 3 boats (m/v's Blackdog, Gypsy Time and Sun Cat) stayed some 10 miles further offshore in over 50 feet of water. The net result is that we spent the night dodging thousands of crab pots. That sure got the adrenaline going! We quickly found out that our sophisticated zillion candelabra remote controlled spot light was at the wrong angle to see anything. Poor André had to stand on top of the cuddy cabin through most of the night holding a big handheld spot light in front of the boat to find the crab pot markers. Olga, at the helm, had to react quickly and warn 5th Quarter of where the pots were. It was quite an experience. The sun did not come up until seven in the morning when we were finally able to see the pots. By that time the wind had picked up, creating some choppy seas and the sun was in our eyes, again not too pleasant.
In any event, we made it safely to Tarpon Springs by 11:00am on Dec. 5th. After a quick sandwich at the marina grill, we crashed for a couple of hours. Once we caught up on our sleep, we stayed an extra day to play tourist in this predominantly Greek town, famous for its traditional sponge divers. Taking advantage of the oppportunity, we treated ourselves to some of the best Greek food we had eaten in months and picked up a couple of natural sponges at the city's sponge docks (nothing but the best to wash our boat!).
Now that we have arrived on Florida's West Coast, the temperatures have risen significantly, with most days in the mid-70's to low-80's. We anchored in a protected waterway just behind Clearwater Beach for a few days and enjoyed near perfect weather, so much so that Olga declared an official beach day so she could lie on the pure white sand and go swimming in the Gulf.
On Dec. 10th, we continued on to Madeira Beach with m/v 5th Quarter. Once we were safely tied up, we broke open the champagne and celebrated with them their completion of America's Great Loop, the roughly 6,000 mile journey that encompasses the eastern portion of North America - including the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America's heartland. Bravo, Joe and Jan!
On Tuesday, Dec.18th, we picked up Olga's sister Monica who unfortunately arrived two days late due to severe snowstorms that shut down most of eastern Canada and the northern U.S. She cruised with us down to Punta Gorda where we are now tied up at the Fisherman's Village Yacht Basin for a month of R&R, day trips to the barrier islands in Pine Island Sound and (as usual!) a few boat projects.
Hope everyone has a great holiday season and that our friends up North don't get buried in too much of the white stuff (snow that is, not sand).
Olga and Andre on board m/v Mystic Bond