December 11, 2016 – With a goal of the Florida Keys by mid-December, we set out from Mobile Bay on a clear, brisk early December afternoon. While in Mobile at Dog River Marina we had a new Bimini top installed and some of the vinyl windows (isinglass) replaced – Evening Star looks fantastic and ready for all weather conditions!
To get to the Florida west coast the preferred route is east along the panhandle about 250 miles from Mobile to Carrabelle, and then a straight shot of 170 miles southeast, crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa. This is the longest “ocean” crossing for the whole loop, and really, the only time you must be more than a few miles offshore (we max out at about 50 mi offshore when we cross). Much, MUCH trepidation and discussion occurs on the looper blogs about this crossing, and the weather needs to be just right to get across with a minimum of banging along on rough seas (and, of course, to be safe). It’s THE ONE that everyone talks about, and much study of the various wind and wave web sites and weather bloggers takes place prior to the crossing!
To cross in calm seas at this time of year many Loopers wait several days in Carrabelle for a good weather window. Fortunately for us, Bob has been the weather eye for the voyage and we will only have one day in Carrabelle before we head out. It does look like we will have a lot of Loopers strung out over that 170 miles as the weather window is very narrow this December and we see many Looper flags flying in and near Carrabelle.
Bob’s brother Mike joined us for the panhandle trip to Carrabelle. Our first day goal was to get through Mobile Bay and Pensacola Bay to avoid approaching rough weather. With steady north winds blowing over the water these bays can get rough. Once we were back in the narrow, dredged channels and rivers all was quiet and scenic. Passed world famous LuLu’s at Orange Beach – and , surprisingly to us, a couple of working tows pushing one or two barges. In the narrow confines of the canals we had some slight delays getting around the tows. It can be nerve wracking talking to many of the tow Captains over VHF radio – the southern dialect and clipped transmissions had us responding “say again, over!” many times. Generally, the radio transmissions sound something like “ Y’all com xs;fewoff,aodfjesoef, slfwe fine, askfdfjads, ahead”!! We encountered few pleasure craft and those we did were also Loopers headed east to make the weather window for the crossing.
Late in the day, as darkness fell, we made it into a marina east of Pensacola Bay. Early the next morning we headed over to Panama City where we stayed for two nights due to windy weather and concomitant rough waters. We were able to make our required pilgrimage to West Marine and caught a nice downtown Christmas festival in Panama City. Bob asked Santa for smooth waters for our crossing to Tarpon Springs!
From Panama City we had good weather for the trip to Carrabelle and Evening Star ran beautifully. Only a few last- minute adjustments to our magnetic compass were necessary to have all systems go. Big tip – It’s always best to have an accurate compass when on a boat! Well, sort of, as ours is covered by our navigation iPad when in motion and rarely used, but nice to get the compass heading accurate anyway!
We did have a bit of a delay just outside Apalachicola. The Corps was actively dredging the very narrow canal and as we approached we saw a shrimp boat at anchor hard by a dredge and almost blocking our way. Well, the shrimper was not at anchor, he’d run aground! The dredge instructed us to carefully steer to port of the shrimper and we “should” make it. Helmsman Mike got us through but we stirred up a bunch of mud and the depth finder alarm went off numerous times. Mike notified a looper boat we had passed earlier of the dangerous condition, but when they went through the dredge Captain instructed them to go to starboard of the shrimper! I guess he heard us say how shallow it was and decided the next boat should go the other way around the grounded shrimp boat.
Now at Carrabelle, brother Mike will depart and brother John arrives. John has sailed Gulf waters for many, many years and we welcome his company for tomorrows crossing over to Tarpon Springs. Looks like the seas will be mostly calm but we start out in darkness for several hours, so Bob plans on downing a triple expresso and several dramamine just in case!
Next stop Tarpon Springs.