by Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon
Editor's Note: Sharon & Joe took this trip in 2004. We took almost the exact same trip in 2004 too. How fun to re-live it. If you haven't done it yet, we highly recommend it.
In over eight years of living on a boat in Kemah, Texas, I have said goodbye to several cruisers. Sometimes, they leave and stay gone. Sometimes they leave and come back to take care of family, health or money matters then leave again. And sometimes they abandon ship completely, discover cruising "wasn't what they thought it would be," and become landlubbers.
First, you make the mistake of telling people you are "going cruising," and soon." Then, as the months become years and the years become more years, people often ask you "when" and you don't have any easy answers. Money. It takes money to go cruising, right? I've read that cruisers can live on anything from $500/month upwards. The fact is, what you can live on depends on too many individual factors to be able to set a dollar amount that is the "typical" cruising budget. How much money you need often depends on how well you can effect your own boat repairs. Boaters' egos seem to be particularly vulnerable, but occasionally you will find an ex-cruiser who tells it like it is: "We ran out of money," they will say, simply, and that's what often happens.
Boomers are hard workers. Often, our identities are more about what we do rather than who we are. Quitting your job and putting yourself and your financial security on the line is scary. Quitting your job, putting yourself and your financial security on the line and leaving land to travel on a boat full-time is quite an emotional leap for most.
How good of a boater do you need to be to be a cruiser? Not that good, actually. What's more important is being conscious of the risks involved and always operating the vessel with a safety-first attitude. I think the advantage of being an experienced boater lies less in skill and more in a better understanding of different options you can utilize when operating a vessel.
My husband Joe was a marathon runner. He wasn't a great marathon runner, but he worked at it and the year he turned 50, he ran the Boston Marathon. So he knows something about going the distance and he told me, "Sprinters look good starting out, but they don't always finish the race." It's the same with cruising. You can easily get all the equipment, provision the boat for a marathon passage and shoot out into the Gulf of Mexico to become cruisers, but if you are not financially, emotionally and realistically prepared for it, you just won't be able to finish the way you'd planned.
So we did it. Finally! After some decision-changes, career decisions, health delays and just plain laziness, Joe and I quit our jobs and devoted ourselves to a plan for traveling on our boat. It took us 8 years, but hey - life is good in Kemah, Texas! We often wondered why we felt the need to leave the kind of place most people are trying to get to. We are cruisers. And I am not going to predict where we will be cruising or when. I'm going to "go with the flow" and traverse waterways of one kind or another with S/V Rose of Sharon for as long as possible.
We are currently traveling eastbound on the Intracostal Waterway from Corpus Christi, Texas toward Florida. It doesn't matter if you are traveling north, south, east or west in the snaky Intracostal Waterway, for navigational purposes you are either "eastbound" or "westbound." I like it that we started near what is considered the bottom, or the end of the ICW and worked our way upwards. There are many excellent ICW cruising guides in and out of print, and we used three on our journey: Waterway Guide Southern 2004: Florida, the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico (the current edition is Waterway Guide Southern 2010 (Waterway Guide Southern Edition) ); Campbell's guide to cruising Texas; and Texas/Louisiana Coastal Cruising Guide, 2nd edition. One of the books was so old and tattered we lost a couple of pages in the wind and all of its area codes had changed. The Waterway Guide is the one I study the most but so far it's been difficult for me to follow, maybe because we are beginning where the book ends. Charts are easier to understand: There it is! Deep water, shallow water, obstructions, anchorages . . . just look at the chart!
At any rate, we study our books and charts carefully before starting the engine each day.
NOAA Nautical Chart 11309
The dolphin surrounded us leaving Corpus Christi and traveling toward Port Aransas. Sometimes one would dive up and down so close to the boat the water would splash into the cockpit and we would reward it with appreciative ohs! and laughter. One or two might travel alongside, and I assigned my own competitive nature to them; they must be racing us. "First in Show!" I wanted to shout to them, but I suspect they knew it already.
My favorites were the ones who seemed to charge our bow head-on. Two dolphin would steadily, up and down, up and down, drive directly toward the nose of our boat, then at the last moment, veer off to the right or left. Now, if it were humans doing the same thing, one human would say to the other human, "Let's split up at the bow, and see who can pass them the fastest!" and they would have separated, one going left of the boat, one going right of the boat. But these were dolphin, and they apparently had a plan in place or in some way one communicated to the other, "We're passing this ship on the one whistle..." and they would always stay together.
I wear a necklace with two dolphins on it; one is gold and the other is silver. As a baby, my granddaughter, whom I see infrequently, recognized the necklace before she recognized me and at each reunion she would see the bright dolphin on my neck then look up into my face and smile because she remembered. Older now, she touches the necklace and traces the lines of the dolphin and points to the gold one. "That's Grandpa Joe," she says. Then she points to the silver one. "That's you," she says. I agree with her because like the dolphin, Joe and I always stay together.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11314, 11315, 11319
I ran us aground in San Antonio Bay, but only slightly. It is vast, open water. In fact, if I took a photo of nothing but water and sky, I could call it "Aransas Bay," "San Antonio Bay" or "Matagorda Bay," and no one would know the difference.
The markers in San Antonio Bay were difficult for me to spot, but the visibility was excellent. The wind was picking up substantially and the boat was squirrelly. I squinted ahead and thought I was too close to the green (right) marker's side, so I eased the boat toward the left, which I thought would be toward the middle of the channel. Clunk. The marker I saw was in fact a RED marker (on the left side) and I was already skirting the channel's edge. My turn took us into the shallow bottom. I stopped the boat promptly and Joe eased us back into the channel and deeper water. As I've often said, years of getting cars out of snow banks creates a skill that is useful on the Texas Gulf Coast; Joe has managed to get us out of some humdinger run-agrounds. But this one was easy.
North of Aransas Bay and in-between land masses, there was a rickety fence surrounding a grassy mounded area on our right. The fence's original purpose appeared to have been to protect a single small tree in the grassy-mounded center. The tree was feeble, still standing, but the fence encircling it, along with grayed deterioration, had sections collapsing. The collapsed posts swirled in toward the tree then back outward into the upright posts, resulting in a rippling effect. "That's ART," I thought, as I looked at the lonely area adjacent to the stark stretch of Intracoastal Waterway. Then I looked up at the clouds. Directly above was a cloud mass that formed a ripply circle around a darker cloud mound, mirroring the fenced tree scene. I wanted to grab my camera, to try to capture a photograph. What a great shot! But I couldn't risk the disappointment that often comes when a flat photograph fails to reveal the depth and dimension of the original scene. The boat continued moving slowly, and the clouds shifted, and it was over in less than a minute. For now, the image is still a definitive work of art residing in my memory. Not a safe place for it to be, by any means.
Our docking at Port O'Connor was less than stellar. St. Christopher's Haven Marina is managed by the Tarpon Motel (not to be confused with the Tarpon Inn), and I called ahead to ensure availability. At this point, the winds were 20 knots. We came into the marina, where the girl on the phone had told us to take "slip A, B or C." We pulled into the first empty slip and Joe struggled for what seemed like forever to keep tying the boat, while I tried to get him to accept the fact that we were in someone's slip. There was a satellite dish and a kitchen TABLE on this dock, for heaven's sake!
Another call to the girl verified that "A, B, or C" were bulkhead spaces, not slips. I regret the way we docked the second time, but there was simply no other way to do it. The winds were wild and the boat had a mind of its own. Handling a boat is a lot like handling a horse; sometimes it just takes brute strength to get the thing to go where you want it to go.
Behind the wheel, Joe tossed lines to me on the dock and then he, too jumped on the dock and we both pulled as hard as we could to get her in. I am still recovering from major surgery, so as soon as he had a line secure, Joe rushed over and said, "Are you ok? Did you hurt yourself?" I assured him that I was fine. He went up to pay for the dockage and I got in the shower and said aloud to the boat, "Yikes, I think I HURT myself!"
Joe came back to the boat and reported that the Astros won a playoff game and the girl behind the desk was beautiful, had a pierced nose and he thought he might be in love with her.
NOAA Nautical Chart 11319
We still have to keep a drawing of examples of "passing on the one whistle" and "passing on the two whistle" in the cockpit at all times when traveling the Intracoastal Waterway. I've even drawn arrows on the drawing to help me in the event of a dyslexia moment. Those tows are working vessels and this is serious stuff. There's no time to discuss "your left or my left?"
It was hot and sultry east of Matagorda Bay, the kind of day where, even though you are not sleepy, it's difficult to keep your eyes open. The boat continued ambling up the quiet ICW. After the gusts of Matagorda Bay, nothing moved in the channel except the boat and it barely made ripples in the heavy, brown water. On the shore there was a soggy-looking beach area and a chestnut colored cow reclined on the damp sand, her eyes half open, half shut. Her long-legged cowbird buddy stood nearby, watching only her, and neither of them acknowledged our passing.
Do they still call the wind "Mariah"? Transit dockage at the Matagorda Marina is always tricky, but they are quick to send marina staff to assist. The bulkhead is the place for traveling boaters, and as I eased the boat toward the bulkhead, the wind caught the bow and took me opposite the direction I wanted to go. Joe came into the cockpit, took the wheel, and we circled the spacious harbor, changing our docking plan to accommodate the mischievous wind. I could almost hear Mariah taunting, "Gotcha again! Gotcha again!"
This time, with Joe at the helm and me on deck, I carefully tossed a line toward the man on shore and it did that humiliating mid-air jerk then splashed into the water. I won't be on the rodeo circuit anytime soon . . . I muttered my favorite cuss word, and as I scrambled to get the line out of the water and away from the prop, the man grabbed the bowline and we let the wind swing the boat into position.
After two days of battling 20-knot gusts in the ICW, we were happy to sit in the cockpit at Matagorda Harbor Marina, drinking diet beer and enjoying the music from our CD player. Joe and I are oldies, so we listen to oldies music. "The Age of Aquarius" was playing, not one of my favorites, and a somewhat raggedy-looking grackle flew over to us and perched on a nearby wooden pole. He immediately began a noisy sing-along with the music, opening his beak wide and shrilling, then concluding with a "cluck-cluck-cluck" at every stanza. This little guy was really enjoying The Fifth Dimension! He was harmonizing himself into near rapture! His passion for the music changed my mind about "The Age of Aquarius." It's a fine song.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11319, 11322
Important Note: There are no Dairy Queens® on the ICW! Also, cabbage is a vegetable that lasts a good while un-refrigerated. Joe said "just cabbage" isn't much of a supper, but I'm getting where I can't even stand the smell of potted meats already. For lunch, he had a lunchmeat tortilla, I had a peanut butter/honey tortilla. He wanted meat for supper too, to go with the cabbage. So I boiled a bunch of eggs and we ate some boiled eggs. Today I'll make some egg salad with curry powder. That's like meat, right? Joe is also eating cereal for breakfast now. This is the man who thinks breakfast is a pound of bacon and four eggs. By the way, he looks like he's losing weight.
I must have strained myself more than I realized, climbing around the boat and in the dinghy and out of the dinghy, because I needed a day of rest. I was a little guilty about my lack of stamina, but since I am post-op, I'm going with it. One thing is for sure: I will be too weak to carry laundry bags on and off the boat for a long time, at least ten years or more.
So, we spent an extra day at Matagorda Marina and while I rested, Joe installed another shower sump in the bilge, scrubbed tire marks (souvenirs from Port O'Connor!) off the starboard side, scrubbed carbon off the back of the boat, and unclogged the dinghy motor's clogged fuel line. Ladies, this guy is a Keeper.
There are many adjectives to describe marinas, but I think "gracious" is appropriate for the Matagorda Harbor Marina. The staff is professional and considerate; the site is clean and accommodating. They gave us an inscribed pen, too. But Freeport's Bridge Harbor Marina? "Luxurious" might be an apt description. Their transit slips have CABLE. They have a pool with a swim-up bar. They took our money and didn't give us anything but a slip and electricity and we were grateful.
Between Matagorda and Freeport's Bridge Harbor Marina continues a stretch of Intracoastal Waterway that is marked by mile markers, not channel or buoy markers. I saw that between mile markers 425 and 420, east of Live Oak Bay, the land between the ICW and Matagorda Bay had eroded more than the chart indicated.
We passed a tow on the two with two empty barges in "The Wiggles," a section of ICW that does exactly that - it wiggles a bit west of the Caney Creek Bridge and offers a challenge to boaters and tow boaters on a windy day.
We also thought the towboat traffic was light, and discovered why at the Brazos River gates. There were 15-20 tows and their respective barges lined up east and west of the Brazos River; apparently the current plus some kind of emergency barge repair had the tows backed up for more than a mile both ways. This particular crossing is never dull. You enter the Brazos River through one set of gates, then you are at the mercy of the river’s strong current and the tide and the tows, and you exit through another gate. Then you exhale.
None of our three guidebooks nor our chart revealed that the Bryan Pontoon Bridge no longer existed. It has been “upgraded” to a nice bridge over the ICW, accommodating traffic on highway 1495. We have a 51’ mast, and I have to say . . . it seemed a little close, but we cleared it.
The clay-colored Southwest architecture of Bridge Harbor Marina was a welcome sight after a hot day on the ICW. Temperatures were soaring at a record high for this particular time of year, and after a day of sticky sweat, insect repellent, and SPF 30 smeared all over us, the shower and the air conditioning and the Astros game in St. Louis on television were all we needed.
I have gone in and out of the Freeport jetties twice, and both times we felt like we were in a Cuisinart®. This time, as we puttered past the Freeport jetties toward Bridge Harbor Marina, the waters were smooth as glass. As we passed, I think I heard the Gulf of Mexico whispering, “Come on in! The water’s fine!”
NOAA Nautical Chart 11322
Freeport to Galveston is an easy run on the Intracoastal Waterway, and the day was lazy, the towboats were increasing in number, and occasionally a tow captain would offer advice: “You might want to get off those greens a little,” he would say, and we always thanked him. The captains of these working vessels know the ICW the way you know your own neighborhood, and can “steer you in the right direction” if they see a boater about to founder.
Our chart is old, circa 1998, and it showed two entrances into Offatts Bayou. One of them is nonexistent, and that’s the entrance we took while eastbound on the ICW. As Joe eased out of the channel, I studied the chart carefully, noticing the red markers that should have been there, weren’t, and just as I decided we had made a wrong turn, we ran hard aground.
Joe spent 10-15 minutes or so trying to back us out of the bottom, and then he swung into action with the energy of a man gone mad. He made a dive into the cockpit locker, throwing up things I hadn’t seen in years: bags of lines, buckets, a tackle box, my water chair/float, that old buoy he won’t let me throw away . . . and when he surfaced he gripped a shiny, never-used anchor and a huge bag of anchor rode. He raised the anchor above his head like a warrior and rushed for the dinghy, tossing chains and lines every which way and muttering something about the tide. Apparently his plan was to set an anchor, then winch us off.
I watched in complete bemusement as he tangled himself in one line, dropped another line in the water, and meanwhile drifted away in the dinghy toward the sunset. I saw him toss the anchor and start the dinghy motor. The motor died. He went into another gyration of flipping oars and lines and finally rowed his way back to the boat.
This time, he secured a line to the boat while getting the dinghy engine started, then handed me the line and told me to “hold this a minute.” He short-suited me, and as he drove off toward the anchor, the line pulled too tight and I had to drop it. It was like a Keystone Kops comedy, watching him wrestle the dinghy, the dinghy engine, the anchor, the anchor chain, the lines . . . but I got bored, so I turned around and put the boat into reverse one more time. She backed quietly into deeper water.
Hmmm. No captain and I was completely at a loss as to where the shallows were in relation to my position . . . I yelled at Joe, “I’m off and I’m moving!” and simply meandered around, barely in gear. He finally got the anchor back up, untangled himself from lines and got the little engine started, then fought a strong current and winds to get back to the boat. He kept making gestures at me to turn the boat around - first thisaway, then thataway and I didn’t know what the heck he wanted so I put it in neutral and let her drift.
When he motored close enough to be heard from the dinghy, he yelled, “Turn the boat THAT way!” so I did, and I yelled, “Do I aim for that RED marker or the GREEN marker?” and he yelled, “The GREEN marker!” and I yelled, “Do I go LEFT of it or RIGHT of it?” and he yelled, “RIGHT of it!” When he was close enough to grip a rail of the boat, I smiled sweetly. “Would you like to join me in here?” and put the gear back in neutral.
Joe was wet with perspiration and breathing heavily. He climbed in, secured the dinghy, and said, “You crossed the ICW! Where were you going? Hitchcock?!” I replied, “You looked like Barney Fife out there.” Later, we sat in the cockpit, letting the lovely sunset and gentle breezes of Offatts sooth our battered egos, and I picked up one of the guidebooks. If you are coming from the west, do not attempt to use the curved shortcut shown on the charts, it has filled in.
The Astros lost in the playoffs, too.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11324, 11331
Boaters on the Intracoastal Waterway should always contact the Galveston Railroad Bridge on 16 upon approach then wait for instructions to switch to Channel 10 (Texas/Louisiana Coastal Cruising Guide, 2nd edition) on your VHF radio. (I learned this the hard way, but that’s another story.) The bridge master told us we were safe to proceed, so we did so expeditiously. One westbound tow received the following bridge information: “There’s a train coming, but I think you can make it.” The towboat captain responded appropriately, but if it had been me, I would have responded, “You THINK I can make it? When will you know for SURE?” After the tow slipped through, the bridge was lowered to accommodate an oncoming train.
We crossed the busy Houston Ship Channel then circled in the ICW, waiting for a tow that had turned sideways in the waterway to straighten itself out. As an opening between the sideways tow and two other tows appeared, we weaved our way between them and entered the Bolivar Peninsula section of the ICW. We are learning and understanding more about the way the tows and the barges move, so we are becoming more confident in our ICW skills. But we always give them a wide berth.
We have docked at Steve’s Landing and their marina staff and restaurant personnel there are among the finest. But this time we wanted to visit the Stingaree Marina. A genuine family affair, the marina is managed by Jim Vratis and his son Brad; the restaurant is managed by Jim’s brother George Vratis. You should call ahead to ensure space availability and then call again when you are about 30 minutes away. The marina is so busy, with fishing boats swooping in and out for bait, fuel and meals “to go” from the restaurant, that Jim and his son will keep your reserved space boat-free to ensure your uncomplicated docking. I made my call to the Stingaree Marina as directed. “How will I recognize the marina entrance?” I asked Brad. “Just look to the heavens . . .” he said in a pious voice, “And you’ll see a light beaming down that says, ‘Stingaree Marina’.”
As we slipped into a space on the bulkhead, Jim assisted in securing the lines. “It looks like we have the penthouse suite!” I laughed, for we were in a perfect spot next to the bait house. The view of the ICW from a large covered porch area was delightful. I discovered that Jim and I share a taste for dill pickle potato chips; they aren’t easy to find, and the Stingaree Marina had them! I told him I have a friend who brings them to me from Canada, and Jim told me that so far, he and I were the only ones who had purchased the dill pickle potato chips at the Stingaree Marina. Before we left, I purchased four bags “for the road,” leaving one bag behind for Jim Vratis.
Jim has a quick smile and an easy way which is pleasing to fishermen and boaters; he’s also a knowledgeable sailor. He has made numerous Gulf of Mexico crossings and explained to me that his boat and experienced crew were key to a good passage. Jim reaffirmed what I had already suspected: cruising in a sailboat is more about motoring than sailing. He has a sturdy, seaworthy motor-sailer, a Fisher Pilot House, and leaves for another passage to Isla Mujeres November 2004.
As I expressed my delight at the Stingaree Marina, I shared with Jim Brad’s “look to the heavens” direction to the site. He laughed, “Hey, he stole MY line!.” He also offered me the use of his pickup truck to do laundry and grocery shopping, too. This is a very cruiser-friendly marina. Also, the dockage is accessible enough that my 81-year-old mother-in-law was able to climb on and off our boat easily and safely.
Our family drove over from Houston, took me to the local washateria and a surprisingly well-stocked grocery store, then we trooped back to the marina and over to the Stingaree Restaurant for supper. Have you been to the Stingaree Restaurant? Have you tried a Stingarita? If you haven’t, then you have something to live for: those margaritas are to die for! My steak was cooked to perfection. Our family sampled several kinds of seafood - fried, broiled and grilled - and every dish was excellent! The next morning we decided to continue our culinary celebration of Port Bolivar, and Brad suggested if we were in the mood for a Mexican breakfast, La Playita was the place to go. He was right; each of us had our huevos prepared a different way and all of us had a marvelous meal.
As cruisers, Joe and I voted absentee ballot this year and as we have in many presidential elections, we canceled each other out. One of us voted for Bush and one of us voted for Kerry. As I studied the names of the unfamiliar vessels at the Stingaree Marina, I reflected on how, truly, boat names are reflective of their owners. If presidential nominee Gary Hart had been entertaining a lovely blonde lady on a boat named “Glory of Christiansted,” then he might have been able to say the bikini-clad young lady dropped her Bible, tripped trying to retrieve it and fell onto his lap just as that notorious photograph was taken. Unfortunately, the boat’s name was “Monkey Business,” and the rest is history.
NOAA Nautical Chart 11331
As we continued eastbound on the Intracoastal Waterway, I went down below to upload our position report and send an email to family. The boat lurched to the right. “Hey!” Joe yelled down. “Are you on the single sideband?” I said I was and he said, “Me and the tow in front of me just turned south! I lost my autopilot and he’s probably wondering what happened.”
I’m not sure how it works, but I guess I need to: a) not upload on the single sideband when tows are near and b) let Joe know before I hit the binary upload button.
Joe and I believe security is greatly heightened along the ICW and sure enough, an airplane with the words, “PATROL” swooped down and examined us from the sky. We also passed an energy installation that had more than 10 visible cameras filming ICW and the site’s activity on the ground. I could tell you where it was, but then I’d have to shoot you.
Maritime Security follows many of the same guidelines as Homeland Security and our waterway protection agency calls this MARSEC. S/V Rose of Sharon carries a brochure from the U.S. Coast Guard for the Texas Waterways Watch Program, and I encourage all of you to get one. Basically, it encourages all of us, as Texas boaters, to be alert for potential threats to our security. For example, unusual, unattended boats or boats with too many people aboard anchored or transiting in an area not typically used for that purpose would be “suspicious.” Questionable activities might include using flashing lights to communicate with people onshore or diving near a vessel or bridge. The pamphlet has a guideline for the type of information you may want to jot down. For immediate response to suspicious activity, you can hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF or you can call the Coast Guard at 800-874-2145. You can also contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Terrorism Hotline at 877-283-1809.
Just west of mile marker 290, we turned north into the Taylor Bayou Outlet Canal. We motored along quietly for about ¾-mile then turned left into a well-cut but uncharted canal and dropped anchor. The canal’s average depth was 16’ and we nestled between two marsh areas that form part of the Big Hill Bayou Wildlife Management Area. A brisk breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay.
Joe and I hopped aboard our dinghy, Flor Gris, and went alligator hunting in the salt grass. Because I actually caught an alligator one time, Joe has changed the rules of the hunt and I am not allowed to carry my dip net nor even a boat hook. In the mid-’90s, I proudly sent out holiday greeting cards with a photo of me, standing waist-deep in Florida swamp water, beaming and holding up my “big lizard.” The response from friends and family was swift. “Do you realize you are holding a baby alligator?” one friend wrote. “Where was the mother?”
We returned to our anchorage and while we securing the dinghy, two fishermen motored over and asked us if we’d like “a couple of fish.” We said sure and offered money, beer or granola bars as payment but they demurred then plopped three big-o redfish on the deck! And there was plenty more where that came from in their cooler. We thanked them, and while Joe cleaned the fish, we discussed our amazing good fortune to be able to do this, at this time in our lives. This is cruising at its finest, and we are blessed.
We continued to feel blessed, right up until the winds died and the mosquitoes moved in. They sent scouts to survey the potential battlefield. The scout reported back to Commander-in-Chief God that the boat was an excellent target and that, once again, the woman appeared to be overly self-satisfied and needed some humbling. “Go for it,” chuckled God.
The battle raged all night. Joe and I quit spraying insect repellant on ourselves and took the lids off and began slathering. If there was one microscopic space of skin exposed, zap! A mosquito claimed the territory.
The next morning, I pointed to an empty bottle of mosquito repellant on the floor. “Look,” I said to Joe. “An empty artillery shell.”
NOAA Nautical Charts 11342, 11343
The current in Sabine River was strong, but the winds were mild as we continued eastward on the ICW. We began attempting to contact the Black River Pontoon Bridge by cell phone in order to schedule a time to pass through Ellender Bridge. Ellender Bridge has a 50’ clearance when closed and 135’ when open; they request you call ahead 24 hours in advance and again, 4 hours before your anticipated arrival. The number to call is for the Black River Pontoon Bridge, which will relay the information to the unmanned Ellender Bridge. No one answered our call, so I cell phoned my sister Gloria in Kansas. (My mother wanted to cover all the bases by giving me a “Jewish” name and my sister a “Catholic” name. She figured that gave us a 50/50 chance for heaven.) “See if you can find a number for the Ellender Bridge or the Black Bayou Pontoon Bridge in Louisiana,” I requested. She accessed the internet and returned my call. “You should call the Louisiana Department of Transportation,” she said. “But . . . uh . . . the website said the bridge isn’t working.
This was a bad thing. “The bridge isn’t working?” I asked.
“Yes . . .” she replied. “There’s some kind of problem with the bridge.”
I promptly called the Louisiana Department of Transportation. My first call was answered by a helpful young lady, Angela, who said she would find the correct telephone number for us. She was cheerful, but guarded as she said, “You really do need to speak with the right person. There’s been . . . a problem with the bridge.”
My next phone call was to the office of Gene Caldwell with the Department of Transportation. His assistant Stacy said quite simply, “There’s a problem with the Ellender Bridge.”
She told us the bridge was hit by a tow 5 days ago and had been closed since then. I had a brief panic attack and began babbling. “CLOSED? As in, nobody can go to Florida on the ICW, closed?” I gasped.
“Well, nobody higher than 50 feet,” she said cheerfully. “Let me talk with Gene and see what’s going on,” she continued. “They have been working on it and depending on the kind of damage . . . whether it’s simply electrical or also structural . . . I’ll get a better idea for you when it will re-open.” Stacy contacted us several hours later. “They are going to attempt some practice lifts tomorrow,” she said. “You might be able to slip through. Gene will call you tomorrow and let you know for sure.”
I asked Joe if maybe we couldn’t just anchor at the edge of the ICW near the Ellender Bridge. The moon was full and provided much light, and I was feeling safer on the familiar waterway. “If a tow’s barges can go out of control and hit a bridge, they can hit us,” he said. So we will continue to find anchorages off the Intracoastal Waterway and away from the waterway traffic at night.
We anchored off Pavell Island near mile marker 265. A channel encircles the island, but there is a stretch of spoil area and submerged piles on the east side of the island that boaters should avoid. The canal on the west side of the island provides an excellent wooded anchorage, and we nestled there that afternoon and watched the working vessels of the ICW. We sat in the cockpit until sundown, checking our charts to be sure we had the necessary one(s) for an exit from Port Arthur into the Gulf of Mexico. Once again, as if a battle trumpet had sounded, a battalion of mosquitoes swooped in and ran us down below.
The next morning, oyster boats made the only ripples on the calm waters. As I recalled my conversation with Stacy of the Department of Transportation, I realized she didn’t understand that we were 20 miles, or 3-4 hours west of the bridge. I made another call to the Department and this time spoke with Gene Caldwell, who felt confident we would make it through Ellender Bridge that day. He said there were more boats waiting for the trial run and said, “Once we get it open, we’ll probably keep the bridge up for awhile.” He encouraged me to call his office when we were closer. I thanked him for his and the Department’s consideration for our passage making. They were very professional and expressed genuine interest for our safety on Louisiana waterways.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11331, 11348
When we approached the Ellender Bridge near mile marker 243, we sighted a Hunter sailboat circling west of the bridge. It was about noon, and I was of the impression that the bridge was going to open any minute. We circled around for awhile, and I hailed S/V Harmony Isle, only to discover they were cruisers from Friendswood and members of the Waterford Yacht Club. They were en route to Florida and from there to destinations unknown, just as we were. Unlike us, they had been hanging out at the Ellender Bridge two days. “TWO DAYS?!” I responded.
Shortly after that, S/V Rose of Sharon was hailed on the VHF radio by the Department of Transportation. “We plan to open the bridge in an hour-and-a-half,” we were told. We thanked the anonymous voice on the radio and Vernon Downing yelled across the ICW that, “An hour-and-a-half is one of their favorite times!” The Downings were halfway into Day Three of the Ellender Bridge Saga, and I figured they knew what they were talking about, so I began losing hope.
A Coast Guard cutter on the other side of the bridge quickly tired of waiting and sped off. I fixed lunch then took a nap in the cockpit. We circled . . . and circled . . . at one point a tow we thought was continuing beyond us westbound on the ICW cut in front of us to dock. We got close enough to the pilot house that I could smell Dr. Pepper® on the captain’s breath. That’s too close. Several circles later, in 6 feet of water, we hit a rock. In the words of former President Nixon, “Expletive deleted.” I got on the radio to chat with Debbie Downing. “Do we know how to have a good time or what?!” we laughed.
They opened the bridge about 3:30 p.m. and we shot like a rocket underneath it, closely following our Texas neighbors. This is quite an interesting bridge: it doesn’t swing open like a pontoon bridge, nor does it separate and create an opening, like a typical bridge. The entire bridge section rises in one piece. In order to raise the bridge, sacks of water were stacked somewhere on or near the bridge and I don’t understand what the water-weight had to do with the electronic technical magic of the bridge raising, but I figured we needed to hustle in case the thing fell down. I waved to the engineers and workers above us and shouted, “Thanks, guys!”
The Downings of Friendswood, Texas continued on toward Lake Charles and the Kratzes of Kemah, Texas turned into Choupique Bayou.
This anchorage near mile marker 242 is not for the faint of heart. I was reading instructions to Joe. Joe thought we were supposed to stay on the starboard side of the marshy waters. I was reading a guidebook that was routing its readers from Louisiana to Texas, so when it said to make a starboard turn, I thought it meant starboard for westbounders, so that meant port for eastbounders . . . well, you know how it happens. Here’s the bottom line: ease in, hang to the right, and try to stay off the crab pots and good luck. We ran aground twice but our anchorage for the night was in 12’ of water in the middle of a circle of reeds, just 300 yards north of the ICW. It was a great anchorage, a comfortable night’s sleep, and we still aren’t sure how we got in there or how we got out.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11348, 11350
Devil’s Elbow at mile marker 240 bears close watch; there are two dead-end canals that are appealing to eastbounders, but they are just that . . . dead ends. Once we made the curve around Devil’s Elbow, we notified the Calcasieu Lock, as instructed. Cruisers are told to plan for a two-hour wait at the Calcasieu Lock, mile marker 238. This was an incredibly busy section of the Intracoastal Waterway and we were in a holding pattern about two hours, as predicted. After we passed the lock, the Black Bayou Pontoon Bridge lockmaster instructed us to proceed through. The stretch of ICW between the Black Bayou Pontoon Bridge and the Grand Lake Pontoon Bridge at mile marker 231 is not an area where you can put on the autopilot and relax. The ICW snakes around and the deepest area was only 14 feet, so the banks came up to meet me a couple of times. Still, it was an isolated and relaxing stretch because there was no traffic.
At each bridge passing, the bridge masters came to their windows or came outside to wave at us. “Where’re y’all goin’?” yelled one man as we motored through a bridge channel. “Avery Island . . . Florida . . . Mexico . . . Guatemala . . . as far as we can for as long as we can!” I yelled back. “Sounds good!” he responded.
It is good.
Bayou Lacassine at mile marker 205 is a sweet little anchorage. Simply enter the Bayou on the north side of the ICW and stay in the middle; you might see an orange sign that reads “TION.” That’s what’s left of a caution sign that was plowed into by . . . well, not barges, I hoped. Stay well to the left of it. When the bayou entrance widens into a large body of water, continue on if you wish according to the guidebooks. After collecting mud samples from all over Choupique Bayou, we were gun-shy. When the depth dropped to 6 feet, we simply turned around and dropped anchor, facing the ICW about 500’ feet south of us. We slept quite nicely in approximately 8’ of water.
The Intracoastal Waterway was busy - that’s an understatement - the next day. We felt more like workers than cruisers, as we plowed past and got passed by all the tows and barges. We tucked in behind an eastbound tow as we went through the Leland-Bowman Lock at mile 162; then we followed it to Intracoastal City, where the traffic picked up! I was getting a slight stress headache from the hard-traveling day; the handheld VHF radio went out and only the stronger radio down below would transmit, when two shrimp boats blocked the ICW. I handed off the wheel to Joe and rushed down below, “This is the eastbound sailboat; shrimp boats, are we safe to pass or should we turn around?" The only answer came from the tow with what seemed like a mammoth load of barges too close behind us: “Be careful,” he said, “They’re in the middle.”
When I returned to the cockpit from down below, prepared for sure disaster, Joe had already weaved past the two shrimp boats and was making preparation to turn into Shell Morgan, mile marker 160. A shore patrol boat zoomed past us toward what we later discovered was the foundering shrimp boat and his friend who was trying to help him. His friend begged the oncoming towboat not to “hit him,” but abandoned his buddy and fled for safer water. The drama continued without us, for we had our own situation. We had to ease into the Shell Morgan Landing, on the northwest side of the ICW with 20-knot gusts from the southeast, a tow in front, a tow behind, a tow pulling out of its dock to our starboard, and we had to do it without hitting anything. I tried and failed to ease in and handed off the wheel to Joe, who made it with little difficulty. “You’ll learn,” he said, as we touched ground for the first time in 5 days.
We needed fuel, water, and beer, in that order. After topping off the tanks, we eased over to the other side of the facility’s small channel and tied up. As a record-breaking heat wave continued, we were looking forward to air conditioning for the night, thanks to the 30-amp electricity available. A short walk to the Chevron® station provided a surprise: the little mini mart carried fresh vegetables and meat. I recommend you buy the hamburger meat, buns, and Edwards® ready-to-serve Georgia Pecan Pie. It was a great meal.
The Shell Morgan Landing is primarily a dock for shrimp boats and is located on the ICW, so dockage there was rolly that night. We could hear - and feel - the shrimpers leaving the next morning. I figure if you don’t like rocking and rolling, a boat is not for you in the first place, and I was grateful the shrimpers’ departures helped us get an early start on the new day. If you feel the same way, this is a terrific dockage for you.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11350, 11345
Avery Island! Getting there is half the fun. Turning north at about mile 146, Bayou Petite Anse will take you to the legendary island. Staying left of the red markers, we eased our way through an average water depth of 8’. There are many tempting turn-offs and I think I could probably spend several days in that area, exploring the cubbyholes and interesting small canals in a dinghy. This is clearly a fisherman’s paradise, and we passed numerous sportsmen in the bayou.
If Avery Island is your destination, make a starboard turn just past marker 14. If you have the time to explore, we were told continuing on northward up the Delcambre Canal is lovely and it opens into Lake Peigneur. This lake was formed by a collapsed salt dome. Water depth is not a problem for sailboats in this area; Delcambre Canal averages 9½’.
After the eastward turnoff, we saw barges anchored on the north shore of the channel. One of our guidebooks said to make a left turn north into another canal “before the barges,” but it was outdated and there are now more barges moored. Consequently, we made our left turn into a canal before the barges and the water depth plunged rapidly. We eased back out. We continued east with the barges on our port side and discovered another canal. Turning left into the center of that canal, the water depth continued at 8-9’, so we moseyed along at a safe speed, ever mindful that the bottom could rise up to greet us at any moment. “Do you feel like we’re in ‘African Queen’?” Joe asked me, and I laughed, “Yes! Especially since I know I’ll have to be the one to get into the water and tow us if we hit bottom.”
Beautiful white Snowy Egrets were in abundance. We passed a lovely blue heron staring into the water as if hypnotized, waiting patiently for his supper to swim by. I heard a jungle sound, “Caw! Caw! Caw!” reminiscent of Tarzan movies and excitedly asked Joe, “What do you think that was?”
“A crow,” he replied.
When we saw patches of pristinely manicured golf-course-green lawn, we knew we were heading in the right direction. Floating hyacinth plants seemed to greet us as we quietly motored along the scenic channel. A few moments later, the purple top of a tiny Buddha temple appeared. The Buddha is dated from 1000 A.D. and was a gift to the McIlhenny Tabasco® sauce family in 1937.
Then we saw it: the edge of the Jungle Gardens of Avery Island, a stunning hill-covered 200 acres of abundant plants, wildlife and waterfowl. While some walking is recommended, most people tour the Gardens by auto and as I hung over the lifelines with my camera, taking picture after picture of the Spanish moss-draped trees and tropical lushness, I saw that people were taking pictures of us from their cars! One lady on the shore and I laughingly took pictures of each other taking pictures.
We continued on until the canal opened into a small, round basin. A boater’s instinct (especially a sailboater’s) is to stay in the middle of any waterway, but at low tide there is a small mud flat directly in the middle of the entrance to the basin, so sailboats especially should hug the right side of the basin as they pass the private dock and motor over to the public dockage, which is adjacent to the road. That road is the only one which leads to and from Avery Island.
That night we met one of the private dock boatowners, Cameron Simmons. Cameron was dressed in workman clothing and as we chatted, he said his specialty was boat plumbing, so I thought he might be a plumber by trade. Even though we were sticky with perspiration and “travel-grime,” he invited us over to his big Hatteras powerboat. The air conditioning was a blessing, but nothing, and I mean nothing ever tasted as good as the light beer he served us. He keeps his boat refrigerator one degree above freezing, and after a day on the water in extreme heat, he could have served us swill at one degree above freezing, and we would have been in rapture.
We discovered Cameron was not a tradesman, but was in fact a city judge. More importantly, he said he is the 2004 Tournament champion in Marlin tournament fishing! I was fascinated by his explanation of how he and his fellow sports fishermen travel 50-100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico in his Hatteras, Tia II, participating in tournaments. Even with a diesel engine, the per-day fuel cost is high. I’m sure judges earn a fair salary, but considering how much a good plumber can earn, I wondered if perhaps Judge Simmons might want to subsidize his fishing hobby with a little plumbing work on the side!
We told Cameron about the fishermen who had given us the three large redfish, and he told us the proper way to grill the redfish is “on the half shell.” Instead of scaling and filleting the meat, the best way to grill it is to leave the scales on and lay the meat, scales down, on the grill. The sides curl up, forming a bowl, and the garlic-butter basting sauce (and of course you would use a garlic-butter sauce), remains inside the bowl, coating every piece of savory fish during the grilling process.
The next morning, we paid our fifty cents’ “admission” to Avery Island and walked about a mile to the Tabasco Pepper Sauce Visitors Center and factory. The tour was 20 minutes and included an eight-minute video. The video emphasized that a member of the McIlhenny family samples every batch of sauce before it is approved for bottling, and at the Country Store, free samples of the sauces were available. (My favorite is the green.) Joe and I then walked another mile to the Jungle Gardens entrance. There is an entry fee, and much as I wanted to, there was no way I could make the four-mile walk through the gardens, which is geared toward vehicular travel. But arriving by boat had given us a pretty good look, so we settled for a purchase of Tabasco-flavored crackers and really tacky Tabasco-themed Mardi Gras beads for the grandchildren then walked back to the boat.
Do not drain the canned tomatoes. Heat 2 Tbsp. of vegetable oil in a large saucepot over med.-high heat. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside. Heat remaining 2 Tbsp. of vegetable oil in saucepot. Add pork, sausage, celery, onion, green pepper, and garlic, stirring often. Cook until meat & veggies are tender then stir in remaining ingredients except the rice. Stir in the chicken, cover and simmer over low heat about 10 mins. Stir in uncooked rice and cover. Simmer about 30 minutes or until chicken and rice are tender. Add additional broth if rice begins to stick.
NOAA Nautical Chart 11350
This is where Joe and I disagree: I think we made a tactical error by leaving Avery Gardens at 11:00 a.m. and heading back into the ICW. Joe says it was “no big deal” that we didn’t have a clear plan for our destination that night and “it all worked out, didn’t it?”
One of the season’s first big cold fronts was headed our way and was taking longer than predicted. We knew we would have to find a good stopping place to let the weather pass through, and we’d thought Avery Island might be the place. But the sun was shining and the weatherman predicted a delay in the big storm, and because we were eager to be underway again . . . Well, we left beautiful Avery Island and as we turned eastbound into the Intracoastal Waterway, I said, “Now, where’s our next stop?”
Joe’s loosely-planned plan had been to spend the night in Cypremort. Both guidebooks claimed Cypremort had marinas and a yacht club, but neither one mentioned any by name or gave any contact information. As we motored along, I again cell phoned my sister and asked her to check the internet for information about Cypremort. She came up with a name and number of the Bayview Marina. It was the correct phone number, but it had been switched to fax. “The yacht club has a membership application, but no contact information,” she reported. When we were within range, I hailed Bayview Marina on 16 VHF and a man came back; he let me know there was no dockage available there.
Joe said, “I think we can make it to Morgan City.” I did the math, using worst-case scenario (5 miles/hour) and best-case scenario (7 miles/hour) and best-case scenario had us motoring for an hour after dark, and then coming into an unfamiliar dockage at Morgan City. I told Joe I thought he was being overly optimistic, and he said, “We’ll see.”
We did see. We saw heavier tow traffic, light barges, loaded barges, and “six-packs.” Then we saw wind gusts up to 26 knots. We saw whitecaps in the ICW. Eventually we saw lightning and torrential rain. We saw our rate of speed sink to 4 miles/hour. I went down below and rummaged through the first aid kit. “Where’s the Valium?” I shouted up into the cockpit. “Where’s lunch?” he replied.
“LUNCH? You can think about food at a time like this?” I exclaimed. “What do you mean ‘time like this?’ ” Joe replied. “It’s just raining.”
As I prepared lunch, I fussed about our travel plan for the day, which appeared to be not much of a plan at all at this point. After lunch, I poured through the guidebooks looking for a possible anchorage. Eastbound between mile marker 145 and Morgan City at 95, there was nothing that appeared to be a viable anchorage option. “We should have waited until tomorrow morning!” I fumed. Joe laughed. “You sure can turn on a guy,” he said. “Yesterday I was your hero and today . . .”
We continued to pass and be passed by working vessels as we pitched and heeled in the storm. The Cote Blanche Cable Ferry responds to VHF and it was as if they knew there was a hysterical first mate aboard; the ferry contact radioed Joe, “We’ll get that cable outta yer way, boss.”
When the weather deteriorated further, even Joe began to be concerned. He studied the charts carefully. There were plenty of canals and channels in the area, but their depths were uncharted. He began asking the towboat captains if they were familiar with the area and if there was anyplace we could “duck into to” to wait out the storm. The responses were discouraging; no one knew of anywhere deep enough.
Finally, a voice came on the radio and said, “You can get into the Charenton Drainage Canal,” he said. “It’s deep enough.” Joe replied, “I thought it was a barge traffic canal,” and the man said, “It is, but it’s not too busy. You should be safe if you anchor on the side.” Joe thanked him and we located it on the chart. It was at mile marker 123.
We reached it shortly and turned north into the canal. As soon as we left the ICW, the sun came out and the winds lay down to 15 knots. Joe raised his eyebrows at me and I could tell he was considering pushing on. “I can’t take the excitement,” I said, in response to his unasked question. “I don’t want to be moving in the ICW after dark today.”
The Charenton Drainage and Navigation Canal is considered to be a poor anchorage. It is a difficult one, because even though the water in the middle of the canal is 20’ deep, it quickly becomes a wading pool near both banks. There is a teeny, tiny section near the west bank with 6-9’ water, and that was where we were trying to anchor. Joe dropped the bow anchor in the shallows and we backed off to set it. With the winds unpredictably gusting, and because of the possibility of barge traffic, he decided to set our small Fortress anchor off the stern. He dinghied toward the shore with the anchor, tossing it out where it set well. Too well, as it turned out; we had to wrestle for a quite a while the next morning to retrieve it.
The winds dropped to 5 knots and as the sun went down, we sat in the cockpit enjoying our own “sundowners.” The bad weather that had seemed so scary became a distant memory. Only one tow passed us during the night, and we hardly moved.
The next morning, Joe wanted eggs to go with his bottle of Tabasco sauce, and once again he was My Hero, so I cooked a hearty breakfast and was eager to begin a new day on the Intracoastal Waterway.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11350, 11355
Where the Wax Lake Outlet crosses the Intracoastal Waterway at mile marker 108, the currents are strong and unpredictable. Boaters, especially sailboaters, are warned to hold up if a tow is crossing and wait until they have cleared the intersection before making your own passage. As S/V Rose of Sharon made the crossing, Joe and I couldn’t tell which direction the current was flowing. Joe said since the winds from the southeast were again gusting over 20 knots, perhaps they were offsetting the strength of the current. (I think that was supposed to be the good news.)
We entered the Berwick Bay Traffic zone at mile marker 102, and that was the first of several radio contacts with this marine traffic control service. I hailed them on VHF 11: “Berwick Traffic, this is eastbound sailing vessel Rose of Sharon, checking in at mile marker 102.” A woman’s voice came back and requested our destination. I told her Morgan City and she responded: “Check back in at the 99.” I thought I had called them too soon. “No, that’s how it works,” Joe said. “You have to check in at several points along the way.”
At mile marker 99, I called Berwick again on VHF 11. “Check back in at the High Lines,” she responded. The “high lines” are overhead power cables between two towers at mile marker 97. Now, at this point, we were dealing with some serious working vessel traffic. Joe listened closely to their radio transmissions, especially oncoming traffic, to determine if they were going westbound on the ICW or turning south on the Atchafalaya River. When we again contacted Berwick, she told us to “hold back” until another vessel cleared, then to proceed under the raised railroad bridge, which is 73’ when up.
After we passed the railroad bridge, we turned to starboard toward what we thought our dockage would be: on the wall where the words, “Morgan City” is visible, bigger than life. I had called ahead and was told there were four spaces with electricity available. This site was bow-to-stern crammed full of shrimp boats and one odd little boat that had a collection of potted plants and a porch swing! Uh-oh. We knew we were supposed to be in-between two bridges, and we were, but this didn’t look like the spot.
We were between the railroad bridge and the first highway bridge. We took our time, circling around, and finally figured out that the dockage was between the two highway bridges. The first highway bridge was supposed to be 73’ and the second highway bridge was 50’. Between those two bridges on the northeast wall were pilings without piers. Joe aimed our nose into one of the spaces and with 20-knot winds on our starboard stern, we clumsily but tightly secured the boat with one minor incident: our boat’s stainless steel figurehead, the vapid and buxom “Maggie the Mariner,” hit a piling and was spun sideways on her bow railing perch. Joe quickly retrieved her before she fell into the briny deep, and placed her temporarily on the deck. I think she was complaining bitterly about a headache.
The cost for dockage at the Morgan City Municipal Marina is $20/day. Fees are to be paid at the nearby City Hall’s tax office.
Joe and I showered and set out to explore a bit of Morgan City. I was tired, and trudged along willingly but slowly. As we walked down one of the side streets, we spied the library and it was all Joe could do to keep up with me as I rushed to it. With photo identification, we were allowed to use their computer terminals. Surrounded by nine-year-old students, Joe and I happily checked our email, bank accounts, and charge accounts. The librarian gave us a map of Morgan City, the phone numbers of the two rental car agencies in town, and walking directions to Rita Mae’s Kitchen, a must-visit for Morgan City visitors. The homey restaurant specializes in Cajun cooking and most entrees are served with homemade potato salad. Joe had seafood gumbo and potato salad, while I went for the Cajun pork chops and shrimp jambalaya. I strongly recommend the bread pudding with rum sauce for dessert!
Joe had expressed concern that the auto traffic on the overhead bridges would disturb our slumber, but not a problem . . . we slept quite well, thank you. The anticipated storm blew in the next day and all day, as we nestled snug in our dockage, I said to Joe, “Aren’t you glad we’re not out there in this?” It was November 2, 2004. The winds howled, the rain pelted the boat, and the visibility was seriously compromised but we were snug and safe in our Morgan City slip, where we were able to pick up two television stations. We eagerly awaited the presidential election returns.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11355, 11351, 11354
S/V Rose of Sharon left Morgan City, Louisiana and was back on the Intracoastal Waterway before 0800. We scrambled to find sweatshirts, knit caps and gloves, for it was cold! You’d think we would welcome a break from the heat, but nope, I’m okay with heat. When the water splashes up into the cockpit and on me during a heat wave, it’s like a gift from God. When we are traveling in an isolated area and the weather is hot, I can take off my blouse for awhile. I can spray refreshing lemon water on myself to cool down. But cold? The only defense against cold is to layer clothing and stay dry. I found my gloves and put a pair of red knit booties to accompany my Wal-Mart-blue sweatshirt and ski pants. I looked like a finalist for the Worst-Dressed contest.
“It will warm up today,” said Joe, but it never really did.
The Bayou Boeuf Locks were busy and the anticipated wait was more than an hour, so we went back the way we came and turned off the ICW at the 99, continuing southbound in the lower Atchafalaya River. The average depth of the river is 20-24’ and at the first turn, our depth gauge showed 120’. At the green marker 23, we turned left into Bayou Chene and resumed our eastward course. This was, so far, the most picturesque stretch we’d seen since leaving Corpus Christi. The banks were adorned with stately cypress trees and evergreens, all wearing Spanish moss that waved gently to us as we quietly passed.
The Bayou Chene flows into the ICW just west of mile marker 85. The traffic picked up again, but this time, there were fewer working vessels and more sportsmen in a parade of modified powerboats. There were plenty of those airboats, or swamp boats - you know, those tiny boats powered by huge, noisy fans. They go pretty fast! But my favorites were the duck hunters’ boats. We passed one that was so big, I couldn’t stop myself from hailing him on VHF. “Where are you going in that big-o Winnebago?” I asked him. “It’s not a Winnebago,” he replied loftily. “It’s a homemade duck-hunting boat.” He said he was going “duck hunting in the Delta,” and we chatted awhile. He said he had twin diesel engines and got about “three gallons an hour.” When we said farewell, I said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re in the Winnebago and we’re in a Toyota! Have a safe trip!”
We passed many additional, smaller “houseboats,” and I mean “house” in the literal sense - each one was a water vessel with a homemade shelter built atop. On this particular portion of the waterway, it is so wide that seaplanes use it to take off and land, and sure enough, one seaplane took off directly in front of us. But the best sight of the day? We spotted a total of four, majestic eagles!
A westbound sailboat passed us, bound from Florida to Corpus Christi, where he worked for a sailing school. Joe talked with him briefly and they laughed that we were essentially “trading places.” He told us the Harvey Locks were closed and we might need to plan an alternate route through the Algiers Locks. We thanked him for the valuable update and continued on toward Houma.
I usually wave at the tows and they usually wave back and it’s all very friendly on the ICW. This time it got a bit too friendly as a couple of randy towboat captains encouraged me to “show us your hooters!” I stayed off the radio and pretended to study my crossword puzzle with intensity, but it was difficult for Joe and me not to laugh.
At this point we were putting the “pedal to the metal,” for the DuLarge Bridge closes at 4:30 p.m. and does not re-open until 6:00 p.m. We got close enough to the bridge at 4:25 to begin a mad dash, but the bridge tender refused to begin the opening of the bridge because she could see that we would not be directly under the bridge at 4:30. She was right of course, but we still sulked.
And so we began our 90-minute circling as sunlight began fading to black. One of our spotlights needed a battery re-charged. “You need to do that,” I called up to Joe in the cockpit. “I know, but I’ve been busy,” Joe replied. He began his Saturday Night Live George Dubya Bush imitation that never fails to make me laugh: “I work hard. Come in weekends, work Saturdays.”
Our other spotlight plugs into the 12-volt socket in the cockpit. We tried it out and it worked fine. I contemplated the cord. “But how can I sit right on the bow, looking ahead? The cord won’t stretch.” Joe said I could ride sidesaddle next to him in the cockpit. In another life, this would have led to a lengthy discussion (see: argument) about the dynamics of navigating the ICW in the dark, but I simply let it go. Whatever happened, we would just deal with it. I did, however, discuss moving my jewelry from the safe box under the v-berth to the abandon ship bag just in case we hit something and sunk. “It’s no more than 20 feet here,” Joe said. “We’ll be able to see where we sink and you can get your stuff later.” Makes sense to me.
I turned on the steaming light and the tricolor light. “Red sky at night,” I chirped as we circled and sun eased down faster than I’d hoped. We were joined by a tow with two empties and listened as he begged the bridge master to open up. “Just like I told the sailboat, it’ll open up at 6:00 p.m.,” she replied. I hailed the towboat captain: “Lonnie B, we are going to tuck in behind you, so when she opens the bridge, please go on through and don’t worry about us,” I said, adding, “Wish you’d gotten here sooner, we could’ve played gin rummy.” He came back and we left the navigational channel 13 to chat on another channel.
As I told him of my love for Mexico and desire to spend more time there, he told me how he too had spent a great deal of time in Mexico, often in areas where he was “the only gringo.” Then he told us that when we followed him in the dark, he would let us know where to turnoff to the Houma City Marina. Great! We didn’t need a spotlight, after all.
It was dark, real dark, until the lights of Houma provided some visibility. We followed the Lonnie B, and when he reached two highway bridges, he radioed us. “That’s it,” he said. “Turn left between the two bridges.” We thanked him and wished him a safe trip.
What a difference between Morgan City and Houma! “Any port in a storm,” I know, and Morgan City provides safe, secure dockage, but this was scenic, new dockage adjacent to a nicely landscaped city park. As we tied up, Bill Ellender, the conscientious marina master, hurried over. He had been waiting for us and was unaware we had been trapped on the west side of the DuLarge Bridge. He had also been trying to call us, but I had turned the cell phone off. Then he reminded us that being on the ICW after dark is a no-no (I KNOW-KNOW!).
Bill Ellender is a WWII veteran. It turns out that his first cousin was U.S. Senator from Louisiana for almost 40 years and - small world - that’s who the Ellender Bridge is named after! He took Joe to a nearby fast food restaurant to get carryout chicken. Bill Ellender is a sweetheart (and a ventriloquist!) and the Houma Downtown Marina is a lovely stopover for ICW boaters.
The next day, we were joined by two more boats, both from Texas. One of them, a Catalina Mark II, Bearboat II, invited us over for sundowners. Mike and Betty Anne Ferris dock their vessel at Legend Point in Kemah, Texas. They were returning to Texas from Florida and had some good advice about anchorages and dockage east of the Harvey Locks. The following morning as we prepared to leave Houma, I pulled on my raggedy red slippers and blue sweatshirt again and recalled my first impression of Betty Anne: her clothes matched. She looked very put-together when they came into Houma. We had discussed clothes and laundry, and I discovered her sense of humor regarding cruising matched her sense of style: “Don’t wear clothes whenever possible!” she told me. “Go naked, and you’ll cut down on laundry.”
NOAA Nautical Charts 11355, 11367, 11369
The coffee is strong at Café Du Monde, and the doughnuts are too hot to touch.
Just like a fool, when those sweet goodies cool, I eat way too much.
’Cause I’m living for things that excite me, be it pastry, lobster or love .
- The Wino and I Know, Jimmy Buffet
Louisiana’s Intracoastal Waterway between miles 50 and 15 is lovely for the most part. The ICW is wide, wooded, and the ever-present hyacinths floated by as we continued eastward. Apparently the hyacinths are a problem for boaters in the spring, when their abundance poses a navigational hazard.
Joe hailed the “Blue Bayou” pontoon bridge at mile 50 and was politely but promptly corrected. “It’s Bayou Blue Pontoon Bridge,” he was told. Saying the bridge’s name correctly is not only common courtesy, it’s a rule of the road.
Between mile markers 45 and 40, I studied the chart. “Let’s see . . .” I said. “There’s ‘swamp’ over here.” I pointed to the starboard side. “And there’s marsh over there.” I pointed to the port side. “Except of course, when there’s marsh over here and swamp over there . . .” It was an easy ride with very little traffic.
The West Larose Bridge near mile marker 35 near opened promptly for us. At mile marker 15, we turned south into the Fleming Canal and fueled up then tied up in front of the now-abandoned Texaco fuel storage building. The Fleming Canal Store is located in the town of LaFitte. Though no electricity or water is available to boaters, this site provides a peaceful and quiet shelter. And believe me, that’s what is needed the night before the trek into New Orleans.
We left the Fleming Canal Store about 7:30 a.m. the next day. A slight haze on the water offered a bit of limited visibility, but nothing insurmountable, although we passed several moored tows waiting for the haze to lift. A sideways tow blocked our passage under the fixed bridge at Crown Point, and we waited patiently and carefully for him to get turned around. The ICW banks of LaFitte presented many lovely and some luxurious upscale homes. Joe spoke with one of the tow captains about the Harvey Locks. “The locks are fine,” the captain told Joe. “But they are putting a floodgate in the Lapalco Bridge, so it’s down for now.” This meant we would take the Algiers Alternate Route to get to New Orleans.
I learned most ICW eastbounders take the Harvey Canal and westbounders take the Algiers Alternate Route in order to go with, not against, the southern flow of the Mississippi River. I was also told the Algiers Alternate Route is the waterway most preferred by working vessels, which makes the Harvey Canal preferred by recreational boaters. In this case, we had no choice.
Within the first 90 minutes of our journey, we passed 11 tows and three “six-packs.” I began wishing I had gotten the teeth guard my dentist had recommended, because even though we were never in any danger, I found I was gritting my teeth because of the nonstop activity. Until we entered Lake Ponchartrain, there was never, not for one minute of this day, a time in which we could lean back, relax, and put the boat on autopilot.
These banks were lined with boats, lots of boats. Many were dead in the water, so to speak, and many were fixer-uppers. This was one of the busiest, most marine-oriented industrialized areas I’d ever seen.
The Belle Chase Bridge lifted upon request. As we prepared for the Algiers Lock, Joe and I had a discussion about which side of the lock we would be tied to. Since I was behind the wheel, it was important we had The Plan in place and both of us had the same plan. (Sometimes, one of us has a different plan in mind, and that almost always leads to a problem. So we have to talk a lot about The Plan.)
“I want to be tied to the left side of the lock because I have the dinghy secured more on the right side of the boat,” he said.
“It seems to me that if the tow ahead of us is locking on the left side, they will want us on the right side,” I argued.
“Well, the guy on the radio told me I could pick a side, so we’re going left,” Joe responded. Fine by me, I thought, then I launched into my dialogue about lines and cleats. “Bad things happen when you secure the boat with the bow cleat,” I said. “Bad things happen when you secure the boat with the stern cleat,” I added. “GOOD things happen when we secure first with a middle cleat.” Joe nodded. I thought it was one of his I-agree-with-you nods, but it turns out it was one of his shut-up-I’m-thinking nods.
As we entered the Algiers Lock and I eased toward the left wall, a man from above shouted, “I want you on the right side of the lock . . .” so I turned the wheel the other way and eased over to the right side of the lock, careful to keep off the tow in front of me. Joe grabbed his line (you know - the one with which he was going to secure the boat on the left side of the lock), and then hooked it to the bow cleat and the lock cleat, and sure enough, the stern swung into the middle of the lock. He struggled with the bow line and another wall cleat, while I put the boat into forward and reverse, following his instructions, and finally the lockmaster decided to heck with us and began closing the lock doors anyway. We finally - finally - snuggled into the wall as the waters rose. Joe chatted with the man on the ground above us. “You probably couldn’t tell this was our first time,” Joe joked. The man smiled. I thought to myself, We are doofuses and this guy knows it. I continued, Well, at least we’re humble doofusses. Nothing worse than a cocky doofuss.
We locked through the Algiers and entered the Mississippi River at 10:40 a.m. Joe checked in with Gretna Light Vessel Traffic, as we had been instructed. They wanted our destination and vessel type. I don’t know for sure, but I think this was a slow day, traffic-wise, for the Mississippi River. It was busy enough for us! We passed 2 tankers, one ferry, and 10 more tows and barges. “Well, at least we’ve got plenty of room to work!” I said cheerfully, as Joe slowed to let the ferry pass then eased left to let the big-o tanker have his space, and looked over his shoulder at the towboat with six empties bearing down on us from behind. Joe smiled. In fact, all day long, Joe responded to my witticisms with a smile that looked more like a grimace.
But we were in the mighty Mississippi! Beginning in 1959 and every year thereafter, my family crossed the Mississippi River from Texas en route to Florida and back. I would stare down from the huge bridge at the swirling, brown waters below and they had a magical appeal to me. Some years, we would visit a relative who lived on Canal near Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but my mother had a hard time - the stress of protecting her daughters from getting mugged or kidnapped kept her on alert 24/7 in New Orleans. It’s always been a wild town, and I’ve always loved it. So there I was, finally! IN the Mississippi River! IN New Orleans and IN it in my boat! I couldn’t have been happier.
We left the river and turned north into the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. We proceeded under the St. Claude Bridge, which opened in conjunction with the Industrial Lock. We passed an outbound tow and slipped into the locks, which we had, this time, all to ourselves. “Middle cleat, middle cleat,” I chanted to Joe as we entered the lock. The line handler tossed a line down to Joe and said, “You’re a single screw. Stern line first.” When he dropped the line, Joe hooked it on the stern cleat then went forward to receive a second line, which he secured to the bow. This time, we and the waters were lowered.
“What’s a single screw?” I asked Joe. “One propeller,” he replied. Oh.
The Claiborne Avenue Bridge lifted upon request, then the Florida Avenue Bridge lifted upon request, then the L & N Railroad Bridge lifted upon request. I-10 had a fixed bridge, so we motored underneath it and Joe hailed the I-90 bridge. No response. He hailed it again. Nothing. We began circling between I-90 and I-10. “Get on the big radio down below,” Joe said. His handheld radio has a limited range. I transmitted, “I-90 bridge, this is sailing vessel Rose of Sharon requesting permission to pass,” and a gruff voice came back on. “Don’t expect him to answer if you don’t say the bridge name right.”
Yikes! “Thank you sir,” I responded. “What is the correct bridge name?”
“Danzinger Bridge,” he responded.
I tried again. “Danzinger Bridge, this is sailing vessel Rose of Sharon requesting permission to pass.” Nothing. I tried again, louder, even though we were so close I could see the bolts and screws holding the bridge and the highway together. I got a list of bridges and phone numbers and began calling the bridge on the cell phone. No answer. We continued circling and discussing Another Plan. “We’ve only got so many hours of daylight left,” said Joe. “If we don’t get this bridge to open soon, we’ve got to skip New Orleans, turn around and make a run for Rabbit Island.” Even then, we would be pushing the envelope, sunlight-wise.
I went back down and this time, hailed the railroad bridge. “L & N Railroad Bridge, is there something I need to know about contacting the Danzinger Bridge?" No answer.
Well, heck. I had to either call my sister in Kansas or call the Coast Guard or the Department of Public Transportation. I called 411 and got the number for the Coast Guard. The first phone call led to another phone call, which led to another phone call, which led to someone in the correct jurisdiction who wanted to help. We spent some time confirming which bridges Rose of Sharon was in-between, which direction we were going, and I finally gave the Coast Guard our coordinates. Joe could hear the Coast Guard hailing the bridge on channel 13. I called the bridge phone number and this time it was busy.
||BRIDGE & BRIDGE TYPE
best of knowledge)
|Industrial Canal||Sen. Ted Hickey Bascule||504-242-7347|
|Industrial Canal||Seabrook Railroad Bascule||504-282-7070|
|Industrial Canal||Danzinger Verticle Lift||504-942-8355|
|Industrial Canal||L & N Railroad Bascule||504-945-3112|
|Industrial Canal||Florida Avenue Bascule||504-945-8113|
|Industrial Canal||Claiborne Avenue Verticle Lift||504-942-8354|
|Industrial Canal||St. Claude Avenue Bascule||504-943-4493|
|Lake Ponchartrain||Causeway North Bascule||504-669-6217|
|Lake Ponchartrain||Norfolk Southern Railroad Bascule||504-943-1611|
|Lake Ponchartrain||Hwy. 11 Bascule||KMO229|
We continued circling and watching the New Orleans Sunday drivers. “Do you think this bridge closes on Sunday?” I pondered aloud. Joe looked at his watch then looked at the sky. No, traffic is non-denominational, even waterway traffic, I thought. They can’t close a working bridge to go to church all day, can they?
The cell phone rang. “The supervisor is going out to the bridge to see what the problem is,” said a Coast Guard officer. I thanked him profusely and a few minutes later, I thought saw the wheels of the lift bridge move slightly. “I think it’s going up!” I said to Joe, and we saw an SUV parked on the bank under the bridge. We made another circle then proceeded toward the I-90 Danzinger Bridge. Just as we began to pass underneath the bridge, Joe hailed it again, “Danzinger Bridge this is the little sailboat. Are we clear to pass?” No answer.
Joe sped up and I looked above us, once again hoping the bridge wouldn’t fall.
The Seabrook Railroad Bridge was up, so we proceeded through it without incident. The Senator Ted Hickey Bridge is a bascule bridge, which means it opens up by separating and creating an opening through which we could pass. They responded to our radio request and opened quickly and then . . . by golly, we saw WATER! Lots of water! The most water we’d seen since the Gulf of Mexico! We passed the Lakefront Airport and were in Lake Ponchartrain with nothing but sailboats and powerboats. No tows, light or heavy; no tankers; no ferries; nothing but deep, open water. And unlike Galveston Bay, there were no hidden shallow spots; the lake was consistently sailboat-deep water wherever we roamed. There seemed to be a trail of crab pots lining the left bank, so I kept them to port as we motored along.
I called the Orleans Marina and received explicit instructions from Stuart, the security guard. “Turn into the channel next to Joe’s Crab Shack,” he said. “Go past the fuel dock, then turn right at the big crane.” The channel was narrower than the Clear Lake Channel at the Kemah Boardwalk, and the buildings were completely water-fronted. It looked like what I imagine Venice looks like, and I liked the feel of it. Stuart had directed us to dock 5, slip 18 and was there, waving at us, as we approached. Good thing, because the dock numbers are not easily identifiable from the water; they are clearly marked at the other end for pedestrians and parking lot visibility.
The charge with electricity at the Orleans Marina is seventy-five cents per foot. The security is excellent, and the marina is within walking distance of restaurants and a grocery store. A West Marine store is nearby, but a bit of a stretch . . . Joe walked there in about an hour to get the electrical parts we needed and caught a taxi back to the marina.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? There are some places that beckon when you’ve been away too long, and New Orleans is one of those places. This city is so rich in cultural heritage that whatever your nationality or ethnicity, there’s a representation of your ancestry to be found in New Orleans.
Our first night docked in New Orleans, we walked to the nearby Jaeger’s on the Lake restaurant and had lobster. It was a necessity. The Orleans Marina on Lake Ponchartrain is located in the Westend Park area of New Orleans, and a taxi downtown is about $20, so we took advantage of public transportation. For $1.50 per person, Joe and I could catch a bus at the stop in front of the huge, now-defunct Robert E. Lee movie theater, ride it to a trolley pickup at “cemeteries,” then take the trolley as far down Canal Street as possible. From there, it is about a 6-block walk to Jackson Square, Café Du Monde, and more art galleries than you can possibly visit in one day. I contemplated the purchase of a Chagall painting, but it simply did not go with my boat décor, so I passed on it and got Mardi gras feathered masks for the grandchildren instead.
When traveling on a cruising budget, you can still visit excellent restaurants . . . for lunch. Luncheon menus are usually lower priced and the cuisine is just as well-prepared and presented as for the evening diners. We stopped in at Mr. B’s Bistro, where the Bloody Marys are $1.50 apiece and the chicken roulade is to die for. Their beans and rice will take you to another level of epicurean rapture.
We visited the Jean LaFitte National Park on Decatur Street, where we learned of “the six sites of Jean LaFitte” in the area known as Acadiana. In the heart of the French Quarter is the St. Louis Cathedral. Inside it, I sat in a pew for a reflective few moments, studying the ornate ceiling artwork and contemplating the architecture. Another stop-in was the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, where I purchased my souvenir for this visit, a Fats Domino CD.
We split one muffuletta at the Central Grocery, understanding that one muffuletta is the size of three medium pizzas stacked on top of one another. We drank Dixie beer, because we were in the heart of Dixie, and listened to street musicians on every street we traversed. We had beignets and Café au Lait at the Café Du Monde, where the tables, chairs, and diners are lightly dusted with the powered sugar that accompanies the hundreds of orders of beignets served there per day.
And finally sated, we spent a day in the boat, feeling fat and decadent and wonderful. It was VA Day, and Joe Kratz is my favorite Vietnam Vet, complete with Purple Heart and scars, not all of them physical. Every year, I thank him for doing what he did for our country. He truly is My Hero.
It was time to put our charts together, wait out another wet/cold weather front, and organize cold-weather clothing for the next leg of the trip. This time, we would not have to go through the numerous bridges and locks to return to the ICW; we would simply cross Lake Ponchartrain. I say “simply,” because after locking and bridging into New Orleans from the east, the solitude of Lake Ponchartrain would be a welcome relief.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11369, 11367
I found out what they meant when they said Lake Ponchartrain “can get rough.” With a north wind at 20 knots and seas 6-8 feet, Lake Ponchartrain was at her most turbulent finest. I was completely unprepared for an offshore trip, having puttered around in the ICW for over a month. I had become accustomed to a gentlewoman’s (see: lazy woman’s) mode of travel. So, the drawers were not locked, the hatches were not bungeed, the stuff that should have been stowed was not stowed and in about 5 minutes, the belly of the boat was in complete upheaval. I rushed downstairs and began fastening, tucking, stowing, bungeeing . . . and before I knew it, my own belly was in upheaval. I rushed back to the cockpit.
“How long did you say it would take us to cross Lake Ponchartrain to get to the ICW?” I asked Joe. Or what I could see of Joe. He had several layers of clothing, a knit cap and a dishcloth on his head that covered much of his face. He said the dishcloth helped block some of the wind and the cold spray. “We don’t have to cross Lake Ponchartrain,” he said. “We can go back the way we came in." “You mean the gazillion bridges and locks?” I whined.
Joe handed me the chart book. “No,” he replied. “Just a couple of bridges and no locks.” No contest. I huddled into my corner of the cockpit, miserably seasick for the first time in a long time, and hung onto a winch when we took a good bounce. “Should I get our offshore jackets or harnesses?” I asked Joe. He laughed, but I couldn’t see much difference in what we were in now as compared to beating to weather in the Gulf of Mexico. It sure felt the same. The ship’s bell unscrewed itself and went flying across the galley, just like it always did offshore. Everything on the sea berth that could fall, did fall onto the floor. Lake Ponchartrain gave a great imitation of the Gulf of Mexico, and we usually strapped in for this kind of pounding. “So how long are we going to be in this?” I asked.
“About an hour, give or take,” said Joe.
If you’re in the car, on a road trip with Joe, and you need a bathroom break and you ask when the next pit stop might occur and he says, “About an hour, give or take,” that means you should begin screaming, “Get the vehicle off the road! NOW! I need a bathroom NOW!” and if you include pitching your body back and forth like a wild banshee, bouncing off the car windows, maybe, maybe he will stop the car within 30-45 minutes. I think Joe figures desperate women can only handle an hour, “give or take,” so that is exactly what he tells them. (He was the same way in the labor room. “How much longer do you think this baby is going take?!” I panted. “About an hour, give or take,” Joe replied for 14 hours.)
I made a Lakefront Airport tower my point of focus for this particular leg of the trip, and we were at the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge in about an hour . . . give or take. Joe hailed the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge. No response. He tried again. No response. I was studying the wind direction so if I threw up, I’d aim for the downwind side of the boat. “Go down and use the stronger radio,” Joe instructed. I had two choices: take the wheel in this pitching gray water and get pelted by cold, angry winds and sea spray OR go below and try to hail a bridge while trying not to throw up. Joe looked like a raggy popsicle, so I chose to go below. I hailed the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge on 13. All the bridges respond to VHF 13. “This bridge is on 16!” Joe yelled down. I switched to channel 16 and hailed the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge. Someone came on the radio. “It’s the Seabrook Bridge you’re wanting . . .” Well, heck. Someone named the Seabrook Bridge the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge and apparently whoever lost the election to Ted got a job raising and lowering his bridge. I hailed the Seabrook Bridge, and it opened right away.
We left Lake Ponchartrain with no regret and entered the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and . . . peace. Smooth waters, light breeze. I rushed to the head and found relief, and even while violently ill couldn’t help but think about how good coffee tastes, down and up.
One time, someone asked me how I wanted to die. “With dignity,” I responded. My fear was that I would slip in duck poop on the dock, fall and knock myself out then roll into the water and drown. Everyone would be sad. Everyone would mourn. My family would grieve and Joe would be inconsolable for years. But eventually, one day, someone would say, “. . . and Grandma slipped in the duck poop . . .” and everyone would laugh. It would become a family source of joy, retold at Thanksgiving dinners for generations. I wanted to die with dignity. The sad thing about me being me is, I bring my sense of humor to the table even under dire circumstances. One time, I thought I was going to die on an airplane, in a terrible storm, and as is my wont, I was in the head throwing up. As I retched, I contemplated the peanuts that had been served earlier in the flight and the next thing I knew, I was hurling and in my mind was the annoying refrain, “Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a PEAAAAAAnut just now!” I don’t think dying with dignity is on my agenda.
We circled, waiting for a train to cross the Seabrook Railroad Bridge. The Danzinger Bridge and the L & N Railroad bridges scurried us through with no problem. We were back in calm waters and I knew I wasn’t going to die today. The weather forecast had been for “partly cloudy,” but we were enveloped in grey cotton clouds that hung so low, so heavily, I could almost reach out and touch them. It was gloomy, but it was also Saturday, with more cellular airtime and my mission for the day was to call ahead to Florida marinas. I have family in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, and had been invited for Thanksgiving dinner. My dad and his wife would be there and cousins I hadn’t seen in years; it would be a terrific side-trip and an opportunity to stay in a motel! Whoopee!
I began by calling the Destin/Fort Walton beach marinas for availability and rates. I asked them about Pensacola. “There is nothing in Pensacola; it was devastated by the storms,” I was told. The woman at the Shalimar Yacht Basin offered a good rate per-night, so we began reserving the berth and chatting about the cold weather and Thanksgiving and shopping . . . “How tall is your boat?” she asked. I told her we were 51 feet. “Uh-oh,” she said. “You can’t get under the Brooks Bridge to get to us. In fact . . . she began consulting something I couldn’t see . . . you can’t get in here to Ft. Walton or Destin at all because of a bridge. You’re going to have to get on the outside at Pensacola and go down to Panama City. THEN you could come up to us by the ICW, but . . .”
“We’d be going the wrong way . . .” I finished. We both sighed. “We would have loved to have you with us,” she said. “I could almost smell the turkey,” I replied.
“Don’t give up on Pensacola without trying,” Joe urged. “Call around there too.” So I contacted a few marinas, all of which were closed. “They just opened the waterway , and boats can get in and out now,” offered one marina, “But, no . . . there really isn’t any good dockage.”
I called the Brown Marina and the office gave me the owner’s cell phone. Billy Brooks was eager to help, but could offer nothing. “I’ve got boats lying on a hill,” he said. “I’m afraid to even tell you that you can get in here for sure, because you might hit something.” He told me that 42 boats were still unaccounted for, and even though the waterway leading in from Pensacola Bay was open, no one could say for sure what was shifting under the water. He thought it would be May before the area would begin its return to normalcy. “If you can get in, you are welcome to tie up to a piling. There’d be no services, of course . . .” I thanked him and expressed our sympathy at the storm damage the area had suffered.
“Pensacola just isn’t an option, yet,” I told Joe. Since we didn’t need water or electricity, tying up in a protected site (for free or darn-near free!) was tempting, but we were unwilling to risk our boat.
I began calling Panama City. The Panama City Marina had availability at $1.25/foot, per day. “That’s expensive!” I moaned. “And it’s our off-season rate,” the young man on the phone replied cheerfully. “Usually it’s $2.00/foot.” We had gotten spoiled with our $20/night marinas.
That night we anchored in the oxbow cut on the southern edge of Rabbit Island. What a sweet little anchorage! Plenty of water depth and a solid land mass between your vessel and the ICW. Just before dark, a train carrying Army vehicles passed us, eastbound. There were Humvees, tanker trucks, working trucks, all of them sand-colored. Were they returning from Iraq or shipping out? We wondered as we prepared for sleep. We weren’t completely removed from the sounds and wakes of our fellow-travelers. Trains passed us regularly on the nearby train track and the clatter would wake us, then the gentle wakes from the passing tows would rock us to sleep again.
The next day was, again, supposed to be “partly cloudy,” but it was darker than the day before. We entered Lake Borgne, bound for West Ship Island, where we would anchor for the night, and perhaps venture ashore for sightseeing. There’s a historic fort on the island; our kind of place to sightsee. No sooner had we left the protection of land masses and entered the lake than we hit 15-knot winds and 2-4 seas. This time, I took my seasickness medicine immediately. I strolled through the now-secure cabin to double-check bungees and locks, then climbed into the cockpit with Joe. Traversing Lake Borgne to Ship Island was going to take all day. Once again, we were in wide, open waters with no land in sight. And not enough markers. For a while, we followed a tow, but we were going faster, so we passed him. He was one of two tows we saw that day. We had only seen two tows the day before. I was already starting to miss the excitement of dealing with tows and barges, to say nothing of their animated Cajun conversations.
So, we passed the tow, and we squinted through binoculars, searching for markers or something that would give us a clue as to where we were. We looked behind us, and the tow was traveling a different direction! Joe checked his GPS coordinates and looked confused. “That’s not right,” he said. We struggled to get back in line with the tow. “None of my coordinates match where we are,” Joe continued. “I can’t believe I entered them wrong . . .” I couldn’t believe it either. I don’t quite understand it, but Joe is a whiz at this stuff, in my opinion. This guy can navigate in a complete fog, on autopilot, and go from point A to point B without a problem. He understands the math, and that’s his job, as captain. My job is to fuss. “Let me call the tow,” I begged. “You know, so I can ask him where he’s going, and more importantly, if he knows where we are!” Joe said no. He juggled the GPS, juggled charts, told me to bring him another reference book, and I fussed. “You’re just assuming he wouldn’t leave the ICW! But there’s plenty of water depth, except for this ‘spoil’ area here . . . why don’t they ever put the depth in the spoil areas?” Joe looked up from his backup GPS. “Because they don’t know the depth,” he said. “Every time they dredge the ICW, that’s where they dump the dirt, so the depth changes.”
I looked back down at my chart. “Well, that’s the only area you can’t be in, and he’s on the other side, & we’re over here, someplace, so can I call the towboat?”
Joe said no. He took the binoculars and sighted a green marker. Back to the charts. “It could be the 15,” I offered. “Or 11 or a seven. If it’s the 15, we’re in trouble,” I added. Joe slowed the boat. We crept toward the marker. It was the seven marker. “Gee, the tow left the ICW,” Joe said. “Must be taking a shortcut.” Would someone explain to me why it is more important to bounce around in surly seas for an hour, doing the math, rather than ask for directions? Take my husband. Please.
When cruising, no matter where you are or where you’re going, you need to be willing to change your plans. Quickly. “I don’t think an anchorage tonight is a good idea,” Joe said, as sea spray slammed him in the head and I popped another seasickness pill. “We’re going into Gulfport.”
We began shuffling charts and I called the Bert Jones Marina. I spoke with DJ, who gave me the following instructions: “When you reach the 62 marker, call me on 16, and put in a 335 heading.” I relayed this information at Joe, who said, “Why would we call him at the 62? That’s over ten miles away. The channel’s at 73.” I shook my head. “That’s what he said.” DJ had wanted extensive information about our vessel and our travel plans. Security at Gulfport’s Bert Jones marina is sky-high, which is a plus.
As I studied the charts, I understood. DJ wasn’t talking about mile markers, he was talking about channel markers. As you enter the Gulfport Channel, the channel markers to the immediate north of the ICW are the 43-44, and the numbers get progressively larger. When we turned into the Gulfport Channel, a Ship Island Tour boat passed us, its tourists huddled inside against the cold. I sighed. In world of forts, maybe it would be the fort to end all forts! Never mind, I wasn’t going to see it this trip.
DJ and another security guard waved at us from a dock at Bert Jones marina and as I eased the boat into the slip, they assisted in securing the lines. DJ and Tom were a wealth of information. It turns out that Tom spent three years cruising in the Bahamas in a Gulfstar motor-sailor. They gave us a quick listing of local restaurants, including the marina’s own White Cap Oyster Bar. I wanted to go shopping and order pizza. Joe said he couldn’t handle the pizza, but conceded to the shopping trip, grudgingly concerned about turning me loose again, in the free world, armed with credit cards. He wants us to remain debt-free. Go figure.
The next morning, a Gulfport Sunday newspaper greeted us and a note was attached, “Enjoy your shopping trip!” These Mississippi guys know how to make a girl happy! I loved my coffee and a Sunday paper with all its wonderful advertisements at the Bert Jones Marina.
An interesting article in The Sun Herald was about two new patrol cutters received by the Coast Guard in Pascagoula. One was named “Tornado” and the other was named “Shamal,” which is Arabic for a violent wind and sandstorm. Hmm. Maybe I’m paranoid but . . . again, Joe and I discussed terrorism and waterway safety in the U.S.
Another article expressed outrage that the NCAA had vetoed a basketball tournament in Mississippi because of the Confederate emblem on the state flag. As is often the case, Joe and I had opposing viewpoints. One of us thought the flag is an insensitive reminder of a painful time in our history. One of us thought, insensitive or not, it is not the business of the NCAA to dabble in politics. Will the NCAA cancel games in states opposed to gay marriage, so as not to offend its gay players? Or cancel games in gambling states so as not to offend people who are morally opposed to gambling? As always, there are no easy answers.
The bus stop near the marina is within walking distance and its schedule is posted. As I sat in the bus stop shelter, I saw a young woman and her daughter running on the beach. When they approached their vehicle, I asked her if I could pay her for a lift to the shopping mall. She said she would be glad to give me a lift, but would not accept payment. We chatted as we made the short trip to the mall, and she told me her five-year-old daughter, Adana, has to have runs on the beach on a regular basis. “She loves the beach and the water,” she said. “So we come here to rejuvenate. Maybe we both need it!” she laughed. I understand completely. Some of us get our energy from sand, sun, and sea. They should call it Vitamin S. The young lady had another child at home and another one on the way. When we got to the mall, I handed money to Adana. “This is enough for ice cream for you and your mommy. Can you accept this?” Adana had no qualms about accepting ice cream money.
On the other hand, shopping is a good rejuvenator too. The Edgewater Mall has four major department stores and over 100 specialty shops and restaurants. I shopped ’til I dropped then called a taxi for the return trip to the marina.
Gulfport, Mississippi is a great placed for a stopover.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11372, 11374
We decided to make a short jump over to Biloxi, Mississippi. Our goal is always to avoid any travel in the dark on the ICW so Joe schedules passages with extreme margins for error and even half-day travel days. We are having a terrific time with no agendas, no deadlines, just easy cruising here in the comfort zone.
We left Gulfport and did not re-enter the Intracoastal Waterway. Instead, we followed a path in the Mississippi Sound and kept the scenic white Mississippi coastline on our port side for the 2½-hour passage. Again, the clouds were dark and ominous and I sighed as I perched in the cockpit. “Where’s the sun?” I asked Joe, as if he could make it magically appear. The waters were choppy and the winds were down to 15 knots, and it was chilly. We were once again bundled in our sweats and sweaters. I had taken to wearing footies in the cockpit, a bad habit, because they slipped easily on the fiberglass areas of the boat as I climbed around. We had gotten into a routine where I rarely left the cockpit anyway, with my job being to take the boat in and out of anchorages and marinas while Joe secured lines and fenders. Speaking of fenders, we had already deflated two. “I think we’re close to being in a fender crisis,” I quipped, as Joe rearranged them on the deck.
We entered the West Biloxi Channel at the 1 and 2 markers and turned north, seeking the Biloxi Yacht Club. The rate at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor was good but because we had reciprocity membership in the Waterford Yacht Club of Kemah, Texas, we could tuck into the yacht club’s marina for a much better fee. Calling ahead, we had gotten the combination to the pedestrian gate in and out of the small marina. As we eased out of the Biloxi Channel, I noted that the depth was shallow enough to be a problem. The depth gauge showed there was just a few inches below our keel, but we did not scrape bottom and tied up to the T with no problem. Electricity and fresh water was available, and we had been told “the bar opens at 4:00 p.m.” Promptly at four, Joe and I walked with anticipation toward the yacht club, which is across a busy highway. As we closed the gate behind us, I asked Joe to check the combination “to make sure it works.” It didn’t. I laughed. “So, let’s see . . . we are locked away from our own boat!” I looked at the pristine beach and said, “Honey, it’s just about two Olympic swimming pools’ length from the beach to the boat. You can make it, if we can’t get back in!”
“What’s this ‘you’ business?” Joe said. “What happened to we? Anyway, you’ve been complaining about not being able to go swimming since your surgery,” he retorted. “This may be your big chance!” The unseasonably cold weather made the water unseasonably cold and uninviting. We certainly hoped the yacht club was open, because we’d left our cell phone . . . and phone numbers . . . in the boat.
I think crossing Highway 90 on foot was about the most dangerous thing we’d done in a while. We scurried across, in-between heavy traffic caravans, and entered the Biloxi Yacht Club. The bar was ably manned by Tina and Brenda, and since we keep no hard liquor on the boat, we eagerly requested martinis.
Tina knows her martinis, for sure! The man next to me was on his second martini when he asked me about our plans. He had seen me copying phone numbers from a Pensacola Yacht Club newsletter. I thought perhaps there still might be one Pensacola option. Never say never.
Joe explained to the man that he thought we might go offshore at Pensacola and go back into Destin, bypassing one of the too-low bridges. This was news to me. The next thing I knew, I was on a telephone, talking with a woman named “Pat” who lives aboard her vessel Dreamweaver. She and her husband were coastline aficionados, I was told. “Besides that,” my martini buddy said, “You can’t live a full life if you don’t meet Pat and Tom Weaver.” As Pat and I discussed Destin, Florida the conversation became too technical, especially through my gin-colored haze. I handed the phone to Joe and Pat - and I’m still not too sure where Pat was - handed her respective phone to husband Tom and they continued the conversation. Joe made notes on cocktail napkins. I instructed bartender Tina to keep the popcorn away from me “no matter what” and to bring me another of her perfect martinis.
What a terrific yacht club! I was surrounded by incredibly interesting people and scintillating conversation! These Mississippian boaters were the most exciting people I’d ever met, and all of them had the same animated martini glow as I did!
The next morning, as Joe prepared the boat for our departure, I contemplated which pain reliever would most effectively relieve my pounding hangover-headache. I looked at a crumpled Biloxi Yacht Club newsletter and saw my scribbled phone number for Pat Weaver of I’m-not-sure-where. I’ll have to call her some Saturday, I decided.
Joe came below after topping off the tank and as I did my departure work downstairs, I asked why he was taking so long topside. “It’s low tide,” he replied. “And we are hard on the bottom.”
I went topside only to discover the beach had moved! When we went to sleep, the beach was out-aways. Now, it was within a few yards. Our planned passage for the day was not a long one, just 5 hours, but we would have to wait for some water underneath before we could leave. As always, the sundown time was a factor, and sundown was now about 5:30 p.m. And today, of all days, there was a sun to go down! We were surrounded by brilliant sunlight! “Figures,” I laughed. “So what’s our plan?”
We decided to ease out whenever we could then anchor for the night in deeper water. Joe wasn’t sure where; he would do some chart work. Anchoring near the protected area of the Biloxi Channel was a possibility.
We left the Biloxi Yacht Club about 1:15 p.m. and returned to the Mississippi Sound. As we settled into our respective positions (Joe behind the helm, me in my corner with a crossword puzzle), I asked Joe if he needed anything. “I need a piney float,” he said. This was the first I’d ever heard of that particular beverage. “I give up,” I replied. “What’s a piney float?”
“A glass of water and a toothpick,” Joe laughed. I fetched his drink order and his toothpick, then settled back into my favorite cockpit curve. I couldn’t help but notice how from time to time, a cormorant or pelican would ride the air behind our boat. “It’s called ‘drafting’,” said Joe. We talked about how the southern-bound flocks of birds usually have a leader, who fights the strongest airflow for awhile then drops back and another bird moves up to the “windbreaker” position. I lazily watched our drafting bird until he veered to the south, then returned to my crossword puzzle.
Northeast of Mississippi’s Horn Island is a small, isolated site called Round Island. It was a very good anchorage, quite secure and . . . quiet. I felt a few passing tows during the night, but never heard a sound. We had been gotten in the habit of going to sleep shortly after dark when anchoring, which led to our wake-ups at sunrise. I remembered all those workday mornings when the alarm would sound and I would doze back off, begging Time for a few more minutes of slumber. Eventually (too soon!) I grudgingly got out of bed, ready for another day that was just like the day before and exactly like tomorrow. I remember that fear - that my life would be a series of countdowns to Friday, 5:00 p.m. It seems like a lifetime ago. It was definitely another life ago. When you’re cruising, every morning is Saturday morning! The bad news is, if you’re anchoring a lot, your body’s alarm clock wakes you up at sunrise - at least an hour earlier than you had to get out of bed to go to work! I never thought I’d greet 6:00 a.m. with such enthusiasm.
Sweet home, Alabama! We knew we were going to anchor the next night at Dauphin Island, and there were several options. As our daylight window narrowed, it appeared we would not be able to make it all the way to the east side of the island and down a channel to a well-protected anchorage and the site of the Dauphin Island Marina. Our first anchoring attempt didn’t work out; the winds were 18 knots out of the east and the waters were very choppy. The west tip of Dauphin Island did not offer enough protection. We returned to the Intracoastal Waterway and this time, left the ICW at the red marker 22 and turned south.
A flashing green/red marker led the way into Bayou Aloe’s tiny channel. The channel depth averaged 7-8 feet at low tide, so we stayed in the middle and followed it until its end at markers 9 and 10. Now, at this point on the chart, it says the depth is “5.” I mean, that was all the information we had. It appeared that the channel simply ended in five feet of water. Not true. I guess you could say there was five feet of water in the places where there was 6-9 feet of water, but there was only 1 or two feet of water in other places. And only the locals knew where!
This tiny little bay is a pick-up and drop-off point for 2 or three crew boats and provides dockage for several shrimpers. There were also some powerboats on a nearby dock. We decided that upon leaving the channel, I would ease the boat slightly to starboard because the area looked less crowded. As the water depth dropped rapidly, we returned more toward the middle of the bay and Joe prepared to drop anchor when a voice came over the radio, “Sailboat, you want to move out of that area, if possible. There’s no more than a foot of water where you are.” As I grappled for the handheld VHF and put the boat in forward, I realized we were already in the mud. I never said a word to Joe, but tried to work it out myself and . . . I did! I responded to the voice on the radio, “Thanks! Are you saying this is not a safe anchorage?”
It turned out I was speaking with the captain of the largest crew boat, Tyson B. “No, this is a good little anchorage for you, but there are shallows on that side of the bay and crew boats coming and going all night. Try to anchor just a little bit east of the green marker, and we can work around you just fine.” I thanked him and Joe set the anchor, then set a stern anchor. We were hoping the two-anchor approach would keep us out of the channel entrance and offer better maneuverability to the working vessels.
Joe dinghied over the Tyson B to speak with the captain, then walked to the nearby convenience store. When he returned, he said, “The stern line is in the path where he wants to go out. Gotta move it closer to our boat.” After retrieving and re-setting the stern anchor, he pulled the dinghy in tight and climbed into the cockpit, ready for a sundowner.
The mosquitoes had begun their sunset swarming, but left quickly after we liberally applied insect repellant. “These Alabama mosquitoes don’t have the determination of Texas mosquitoes!” we laughed. It was a lovely sunset in this snug little anchorage. I would recommend it to any sailboat traveling alone, but in my opinion, there’s not enough room for two visiting sailing vessels in Bayou Aloe! It was that close.
Dauphin Island was “discovered” by the French, who found several human skeletons on the island and therefore named it “Massacre.” Evidently someone else found the island first and foul play silenced the historical facts; the origins of the human skeletons have never been revealed.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11378, 11360, 11390
The next morning we left Dauphin Island, once again eastbound in the ICW’s Mobile Bay area. Mobile and Bon Secour bays were turbulent, with winds out of the east at 18-22 knots. It was a bouncy, bumpy ride in 2-4 feet of confused waters. Joe’s torso looked like a toy Chihuahua on the dashboard of a car with no shock absorbers.
We began to see the first signs of 2004 hurricane damage on the Alabama coast near Gulf Shores. Homes with damaged roofs, downed trees, and toppled docks and decks were actively under repair. Lots of blue roofs - all structures with damage had roofs covered by sturdy blue plastic to prevent additional water damage from rain. On the south side of the ICW, lovely designer homes with manicured lawns attested to the comfortable lifestyle afforded by many residents of Gulf Shores. The proud evergreens dotting the south bank pointed directly to the sky and even the telephone poles near the local vehicular roadway were state-of-the-art; I’m not really sure the poles were made out of wood, they looked so newish.
We passed Lucy Buffett’s “Lulu’s” restaurant at the ICW 155 mile marker, a major hotspot for this area. It’s on the north bank of the ICW and even in the early afternoon on a weekday the tables facing the ICW were filled with customers who waved to us as we passed. The Homeport Marina, a new marina scheduled to open in 2004 was storm-damaged and now scheduled to open March 2005.
The winds died and the waters smoothed out in Oyster Bay and Wolf Bay. I began calling marinas in the area and discovered none of them were open, according to one person with whom I spoke. We had thought the Orange Beach Marina might be our duck-in spot if weather prevented us from getting into Destin from offshore. Dockage for transients was not available at this point. Joe and I did the math and realized we could get a haul-out and a power wash for the cost of three nights at a marina, so I even called some local boatyards. If a marina wasn’t an option, perhaps a few nights on the hard would provide babysitting for our vessel! The boatyards were full and backed up at least a month out.
As we eased into our anchorage for the night, Ingram Bayou, we knew additional research would be needed to determine how we would get to DeFuniak Springs, Florida for Thanksgiving. I had already forwarded our mail there and made motel reservations; Joe and I were eagerly looking forward to seeing the Sutton Aunts and cousins galore, to say nothing of bath and bed and turkey and dressing and cranberries!
We joined a powerboat and another sailboat in snug Ingram Bayou. After we dropped two anchors, the rainstorm blew in from the east and continued throughout the next day. The weather forecast appeared bleak - no let-up in the storm system until the day before Thanksgiving! Our water tank was near empty, and I explained to Joe that I needed to color my hair before we ran out of shower/dish water. Others might have saved the 10 gallons of water we had on deck for drinking water, but I had my priorities . . .
The predicted storm hit and we were snug in our bunk. Every now and then I would say, “I’m so glad we’re here and not out in this!” We slept beautifully and awoke to dark skies and additional rain. I colored my hair (I’m a redhead for now…) and tidied up the boat while Joe did chart work. Then I went back to work on the cell phone trying to find a marina to tie up at so we could leave the boat for Thanksgiving. Because I have no pride and can beg with the best of them (in sales we called it “persuasiveness,” but it’s really just manipulative begging), Todd at Perdido Key’s Holiday Harbor Marina said we could tie up there. On a piling, with no electricity, no amenities and difficult water hook-up for $1/foot. I grabbed the offer; it would be worth it to leave our boat in a secure spot for three days, and “any port in a storm.” DeFuniak Springs, here we come!
We spent four days in Ingram Bayou and I took a picture of our boat there because she looked so at home in the little wooded bayou. Every day a huge pelican would visit us, unceremoniously and without announcement. We never knew the bird was anywhere near until we would hear a very loud, “Spa-LOP!” and water would splash the sides of the boat and there he was. The perpetually serious pelican stared at us and floated around the boat awhile, and would then move over to a three-tiered piling nearer the shore for his perch for the day and night.
As we sat in the cockpit playing cribbage, I discussed my inability to sit on the cockpit seats too long without sliding. Finally, I took my pants off and the problem was solved. “So . . . your butt is like a suction cup?” Joe asked. “I like to think of it as a non-skid surface,” I responded. When the days got warmer, I took my top off too. If you think this might have given me an edge in our cribbage tournament, you’re right! Not because Joe was distracted by my stark nudity - after 33 years of marriage he’s seen me every which way there is - but he did keep listening for sounds of approaching sports fishers or other boaters. He would jump up and try to squint around the corner every time he heard a marine engine. I won the cribbage tournament, 3 games to his one.
We ran out of tank water and began using the jerry can water, which I complained about, but it really wasn’t much of a hardship. Then the refrigerator quit cooling because we weren’t running the engine enough and I tossed the mayo and the tartar sauce in the trash and I didn’t bother complaining about that because there was nothing to eat the mayo and tartar sauce with. But then we ran out of beer.
“It’s time to head back to civilization,” said Joe.
As luck would have it, the Kentuckians in a nearby boat dinghied over and invited us for sundowners. “Well, we’re out of booze,” I said to them, “So I have nothing to bring to the table.” The congenial couple laughed. “If you’re out of booze, all the more reason to come over!” they said. This was a social event in a lifestyle where there are few social events! I popped some corn, washed my hair, put on makeup and we dinghied over at 5:00 p.m. armed with bug spray and eager for small talk.
The couple, Cam and Sara, had aptly named their power vessel Camasara. He was retired, she was an architect, and as an ex-Hoosier, I set the ground rules for topics of conversation right away: “We can talk religion and politics,” I said, “But NO basketball!” Kentucky and Indiana University are bitter basketball rivals, and Joe and I are still disciples of The General (Bobby Knight). We gently broached basketball a few times and we agreed that there are no losing years - only team-building years - in our respective basketball programs.
Sara had a lovely bracelet which she wore on her right leg. It was a glow-in-the-dark Off!® mosquito-repellent bracelet. Joe thought it was pretty cool and generously said to me, “I’m going to get you one just like it when we get to shore, honey.”
Camasara was on a month-long cruise, having come down the Tennessee-Tombigee Waterway and entered the Intracoastal Waterway just east of Ingram Bayou. “We put so many cases of wine on board, it was embarrassing,” said Sara, as we opened another bottle of white wine. She decided the white was too sweet and after one glass (gasp!) poured the bottle’s contents overboard and opened a red. She had made hummus, too, and we wiped out the popcorn, bagel chips, and hummus in short order then opened another bottle of red. They even gave us a bottle of red “to go” and it proved to be a very good label. “I can’t believe we are so dependent on the kindness of strangers!” I whispered to Joe. “I feel so guilty!” He took a long pull on his merlot. “This beats hot Kool-Aid®,” he replied. I said nothing more, because Joe had no idea that we had run out of sugar that morning. The Kool-Aid would have been hot and sour, too!
I decided he was right; let them share the fruits of the grape harvest and we, the needy, would enjoy the benefit of their generosity.
Cameron and Sara left the next morning. I wanted to thank them again for their hospitality by offering them a book or one of my homemade cruising CDs but Joe still had a healthy, guilt-free perspective on the situation. “They are short-timers,” he said, using Vietnam jargon for in-country service people. “It’s as much of a good memory for them as it is for us,” he continued. “Let it go.” I’m working on it. (Stop planning. Let it go.)
The next morning we pulled anchor and made the short ICW trip to Holiday Harbor Marina. We passed Bayou St. John which was adjacent to Ono Island and I smiled at the irony of St. John [Lennon] and [Yoko] Ono residing there, together again.
Perdido Key was hard-hit by the hurricane and had suffered loss of life in addition to structural damage. The harbormaster had told me to “keep to the land side” upon entry, but I made the turn south too soon and once again got us into run-aground trouble. I backed off and tried again, this time hugging the side of the channel closest to the slips. We pulled into a newly-dredged slip and tied up to its piling. While Joe was securing the boat, a team of workmen came over and constructed a “pier” by nailing planks together from the rocky shore to the first piling. Joe then strung a rope from the first piling to the shore to use for balance when “walking the planks.”
The workmen returned to reconstructing a basic pier for the marina; their next phase would be to reconstruct the slips. Joe and I stepped off our planks onto large rocks then made our way through sand and debris to the concrete portion of the marina. Holiday Harbor was a frenzy of activity, as its employees and contractors hauled supplies and construction materials. They were working 24/7 to get it back to 100 percent fictionalization. The large storage building for small powerboats had been hard hit in one place and Joe was later told that prior to the storm, a huge forklift had been wedged in the storage building’s front door. They attributed that forklift-hold to being the reason the building sustained minimal damage.
We entered the main office and registered. “Is there a Laundromat?” I asked. No laundry facilities. “What about a place for a hamburger?” I inquired brightly. “Not anymore,” we were told. There was a barbershop, so Joe got a shave and a haircut, looking like a newer, younger man when he emerged.
We had one tiny duffel for our travel clothes and two huge duffels full of dirty clothes and dishtowels. I had two large plastic tubs packed and ready to mail to our children for Christmas. As we stood in the parking lot of Holiday Harbor Marina, my dad and his wife Norma drove in from Arkansas in their sedan, took one look at our expectant faces and piles of clothing and tubs, and must have fought hard the instinct to turn around and drive away, fast. Loading their car was an exercise in futility, but we made it. Norma drove as quickly as possible to a nearby post office before it closed so we could mail our Christmas gifts, thus freeing up space in the back seat.
Thanksgiving 2004! I know I’ve often lost sight of why we celebrate this day and I will never forget again.
One of my daughters struggled with the family politics in Indiana, primarily an old-fashioned state where the women kill themselves preparing and presenting the meal, and the men listen patiently to their angry tirades about preparing and delivering the meal, then the entire family sits down and eats the meal, the men and the children quickly exit the meal-site to watch television and to get away from the women, and the exhausted women begin the clean-up and food storage. By the time the women have completed the food storage and clean-up, the men are ready for the next meal, so the women haul it out and heat it up and re-present it. This time, they discuss who takes which leftovers during the cleanup and after that is settled, everyone goes home. Once home, the individual couples discuss the dysfunctionality of the family’s other couples and the bad behavior of someone else’s children (In my family, my children never misbehaved. They were just tired.)
My daughter and I discussed the probable dynamics of her Thanksgiving in Indiana, especially one family member who always puts the “funk” in dysfunctional by locking herself in another room during the festivities. She may be the smartest member of the family. “Last year, she wouldn’t even open the door long enough to tell us which was the beef gravy and which was the turkey gravy,” moaned my daughter. “We never did figure it out…”
My Colorado daughter demurred the dynamics of a “typical” Thanksgiving and went snow skiing. That seemed like a loftier, “cooler” version of a Thanksgiving celebration and it probably was until her significant other fell down a steep slope, ripping something from a socket in her left shoulder. They spent the remains of the day in the emergency room and the following Monday, surgery.
No matter how you spend it, Thanksgiving can be a pretty dangerous situation, so you should at least do something that involves having leftovers.
Joe and I had a wonderful Thanksgiving with family members we hadn’t seen in decades. I was so impressed with the talent of many of our family members, particularly a Lockheed-employee-slash-professional-musician and our family’s Baby Girl, who was quite a performer when she was three years old and who now performs as a snaggle-toothed character named “Beulah,” at Ocala events. That kid always made us laugh on home movies she still does. Someone said my cousin Joey is a grandfather, and in my mind I saw a smiling, bright-eyed, brown-haired, front-tooth-missing eight-year-old in cutoffs smiling up at the home movie camera. He’s a grandfather? A stony-faced cousin frowned when she saw me. “ ’Bout time you found your way back here,” she said, and her greeting warmed me as nothing else had. It certainly was about time.
There were homes being built, grandchildren being born, and retirements being planned in this senior version of my Florida family and after the oldest uncle led us in prayer, we ate together. Lord, did we eat. The cholesterol patients and the cardiac patients and the Atkins dieters said their own private prayers and we dug in. Turkey, ham, roast beef, fresh-baked biscuits the size of hockey pucks, dressing, cranberries, potato salad, fresh collard greens, creamed corn, fresh black-eyed peas, “orange stuff” (It was some kind of whipped cream thing and it was orange. Nobody knew much else about it.) fresh carrots and potatoes, Cindy’s ambrosia, fresh squash, baked sweet potatoes, hushpuppies fresh out of the fryer, fresh-snapped green beans, a half-dozen pies, a coconut cake, and Aunt Nan’s Peach Cobbler. Joe’s main reason for the trip to DeFuniak was to get a bowl of that cobbler.
At a family get-together decades ago, Joe walked around whispering to people that Aunt Nan’s cobbler “wasn’t any good,” and to be sure to skip it if possible. Eventually, people noticed that Joe was always walking around with a fresh bowl of cobbler as he spread the rumors, so he was busted and there was a stampede to get to what cobbler he’d left in the baking dish. It’s the best cobbler any of us have ever had.
I’m not sure how she makes it, but my sister-in-law took a session in French cooking and said the main thing they learned is that if there’s enough sugar and butter in something, it’s bound to be good. Aunt Nan must use tons of sugar and butter in that cobbler to make it so wonderful.
We videoconferenced with my cousin Debbie in China, re-provisioned, visited my mother’s gravesite, I cried, and the trip was complete. As we left DeFuniak Springs, the big-o boys from Texas, once Sutton babies and now college students, were taking down the elaborate Thanksgiving yard decorations and putting up even more elaborate Christmas decorations. A lit outdoor archway would lead the viewer down a path of garden flowers, Disney and North Pole characters, and candy canes right up and into the Sutton home, which would be filled with every homemade, yarn-and-tinsel holiday craftible and collectible known to mankind. It just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?
Back to Perdido Key and back to our boat. We were psychologically and physically refreshed and eager for the next leg of our cruising. When we were Kemah, Texas liveaboards, taking the boat “out” became more and more of an inconvenience, a discomfort. We liked staying at the dock, watching cable television, surfing the Net, going to work and coming home to our stationary boat. Now, we find ourselves getting a bit nervous each time we sit still for too long. We now look forward to the adventure of moving, going someplace new, seeing new sites and sights.
We were eager to be on our way. Again.
Joe studied the charts, weather reports and weather faxes. The weather did not appear to be cooperating with us. We were eager to leave Holiday Harbor Marina for points further south, and to get there, we would need to leave the ICW and take the Gulf of Mexico. We had fixed bridge issues. There were those who said they were “pretty sure” we could stay in the Intracoastal Waterway and that we would “probably be able” to make it under the two bridges that were giving us cause for concern. “Pretty sure” and “probably” don’t count for much if you crunch your mast on a bridge. The Navarre Bridge at Mile 207 is often 48 feet clearance due to tides, despite the 50 feet shown on the chart; the same can be said of the Brooks Bridge, which is 50 feet vertical clearance on a good day. We are 51’. We discussed using weight to tilt the boat (“We could put you out on the boom,” mused Joe.), and we even discussed paying a company to put water-filled balloons on our starboard side. We could watch the tides and try to scoot under at low tide.
The bridges just seemed like too much of a hassle, so we decided to make a short offshore run from Pensacola to Panama City. Since daylight is critical to us, particularly when leaving or coming into a strange port, we would leave near sundown, make the run at night, and get into Panama City around daybreak.
The next day after a heavy rainfall, Joe saw the weather window. “We’re going to follow today’s front and beat the next one,” he said. “We’re leaving today.”
I went into spin, bungeeing cabinets, securing hatches and latches, stowing, stuffing, and trying to anticipate what would or would not fly inside the boat. We got the offshore jackets out, deflated the dinghy and tied her to the deck. I got the Ditch (abandon ship, not ICW) Bag, harnesses and vests; Joe ran one jackline. I called my sister and told her our planned trip coordinates (the rhumb line from Pensacola to Panama City), and we were off! Back into the Gulf of Mexico, the witchiest woman I know.
We made the short ICW trip from Perdido Key to Pensacola and sailed out the Caucus Channel. It felt good to be able to shake the cobwebs out of the mainsail! A large, fast-moving slender fish leapt high out of the water and made a tight arc before returning to the water and I still don’t know what it was. Joe thought it was a marlin.
The sun began its descent about 4:30 p.m., and Joe put the boat on autopilot as we snuggled together in the cockpit to watch the sunset. He knew that I would get nervous in the darkness and had a variety of discussion topics available with which to distract me. “Let’s figure out the cost of our trip to Texas in May,” he urged, so I began doing the math aloud for a two-week visit to Houston and my nephew’s wedding. I chattered for quite awhile, responding to his pretended interest, until I noticed it was dark. “I’m scared,” I said. “Of what?” he responded. “Look at how smooth it is. We have hardly any wind at all; doesn’t this feel nice?” I was scared of “hitting something” in the dark but I had to admit the sailing felt pretty good.
And then the moon came out. It was better than good, then. It was glorious! Gorgeous! It was good times ten! Before we lost sight of land, I called my 4-year-old Indiana granddaughter on the cell phone and she and I did what we do sometimes . . . we compare our moons. Mine had been bright orange, then yellow, and now bright white. She said hers was hard to see, but it was white too. I promised her we would be in the Caribbean together and would jump off the boat to go for a swim in the moonlight. She gets the Caribbean confused with Africa, but that’s okay. At 4 years old, Africa sounds like the most exotic and wonderful place on the planet except for Disney World, and she knows Disney World is in Florida, not Africa, which makes Florida a preferable place to visit. So she was very impressed that we were in Florida and so-so about our planned trip to the Caribbean place, which might be Africa.
You know what happened next: Seven knots of wind that was supposed to be from the north picked up to 22 from the east. Gentle, small waves kicked up to 5 feet. It wasn’t much, certainly wasn’t the worst we’d ever seen, but I was disappointed. I mean, just once, once, can I have a peaceful, lovely Gulf of Mexico passage? If I do, I may take out a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Gulf of Mexico, aka the Wicked Witch of the South, Visits Sister in Kansas! Gulf Seas Subside and Winds Take a Nap! Sailors Sacrifice Seasick Pills to Neptune in Celebration! See Related Story on Page 4.”
Thanks to my current seasick pill regimen, I remained stable while the boat pitched, and tossed, and slammed up and down. The cabin did not remain stable. I’m going to have to work on this secure-the-cabin thing. Joe suggested I take pictures of what flew where so I would know what to better secure next time, but a salon cushion teak back unfastened itself and was flung to the floor during part of the upheaval. I mean, how do you prepare for latches unlatching themselves?
By 9:00 p.m., I was ready for bed and the fun was just beginning. The seas were turbulent, the wind was a witch, but the moon was right there for us, lighting our way like a beacon. Joe decided the steaming light was too bright, so he turned it off, much to my consternation, but he said the tricolor would be enough.
Then Joe was hungry. Since there’s so much I cannot do, this is something I can do: prepare and present the food. I’m not an Indiana woman for nothing. Cooking would be risky but I have found a way to heat canned goods: The boat’s water tank water is heated to fiery hot by the running engine, so I fill a sink with the hot water and place a can of “whatever” in the water. Takes about 20 minutes to warm the can through. I handed up a can of warm chili beans and served it with tortillas sprinkled with powdered butter and Joe was a happy camper. Then I reclined in the salon and watched him. That’s pretty much all I did, all night long; recline in the salon and stare up at the cockpit. Joe pulled a blanket over himself, put the boat on autopilot and dozed, so my job was to wake him up ever so often. “You okay?!” I would yell. “Yep!” he would startle and scan the horizons.
A few hours later, I heated up the morning’s leftover coffee in a container, much the same way I had heated the beans. Joe gratefully drank his warm coffee in the chilly cockpit, while I snuggled back into my secure position in the comfortable salon. An hour later, I yelled, “See anything out there?!” and he looked around. “Nope!” he yelled back.
A few hours later, I made bowls of warm grits. Joe ate his in the cockpit while I stood in the galley. A few more hours later, I climbed into the cockpit and picked all the M & Ms out of Joe’s trail mix then returned to my nest in the salon. It really looked like a nest at this point, because I was burrowed in a sail cover, one pillow, two offshore jackets, one medical bag, the life raft, a Boat U.S. catalog (West Marine was on the floor), and assorted jackets, gloves and knit caps. As I lay there, the apples and limes swung crazily in their hammock over my head. The sea berth remained secure, and my real test for bad weather is if the ship’s bell unscrews itself and clangs across the boat. The ship’s bell held fast.
One time, when the bow leaped crazily into the air, attempting a moon launch of some kind, then violently hit the water with a resounding “bam!” I asked Joe how deep we were. Too shallow and our modified fin keel might be in jeopardy, I figured. “98 feet,” he responded. Well, okay, no problem in that area. When we’re in 50 feet of water or less and I think we’re going to sink, Joe always reminds me there’s no need to grab jewelry for the abandon ship process. “The mast will stick up, so you can see where the boat is and come get it later.” For 98 feet of water, I was keeping my jewelry close at hand.
Twice, Joe took a break and I manned the cockpit during his brief absence. I was no longer scared of hitting something, I just wanted to make landfall and go to bed. “The wind and waves will die down at daybreak,” Joe said, as we made our turn to the east. We were 16 miles east of Panama City, and as soon as we made the eastward turn, we slowed to 4 knots.
As the sun rose and the moon faded, the winds dropped to 17 knots and the seas to 3-4, but it was not the serene waters with which Gulf of Mexico had lured us in. That’s my experience with the Gulf of Mexico. She teases and taunts you, whisperingly encourages you to experience her soothing magic, then as soon as you are nestled comfortably in her bosom, wham! She boxes you on the ear and laughs at you.
I hailed the Panama City Marina on VHF 16 as we entered the channel into St. Andrews Bay at markers 1 and 2. I was confused about whether the marina’s harbormaster had said to enter the marina “from” the east or to enter the marina “on” the east, so we circled outside the west entrance to the marina for a bit while Joe confirmed our directions. We motored past the breakwater and entered the marina on its east side, tying up at the fuel dock. Once again, Joe tossed a bow line to the man on the dock, and once again, our stern made a slow swing outwards, and once again I said, “Middle cleat, middle cleat. Bad things happen with the bow and stern cleat lines. Good things happen with the middle cleat.”
Joe sighed, “I know, I know,” as he and the man on the dock played toss-the lines-into-the-water a few times and brought us around. To tell the truth, I’m wondering if it’s something to do with my docking process at the helm. I noticed that the people on the dock tell me I’m coming in “too hot,” so then I slam the boat into reverse, and then the bow swings to the left, and then the stern swings . . . out.
We topped off the fuel tank and got ice cream at the marina store. I liked the name of the woman at the marina office, “Dolce,” which is kind of like “sweet” in Spanish. And the Panama City Marina is a sweet place for transients. They offered us cable television (free if you’ve got the hookup cord), wireless internet at a small fee and dial-up internet. PLUS they had water and electricity! They had a welcome packet with land and marine charts and a Panama City Marina dolphin-shaped bottle opener/keychain. At $1.25/foot with a Boat U.S. card, this was a dream come true to our bleary eyes.
We tied up on the bulkhead behind a large powerboat. Joe rushed to the marina showers and I took my in-the-boat shower and upon his return, I could tell he was ready to go exploring, particularly places that might have bacon and eggs.
Like the historical Delilah, I lured him back into stateroom with, “Just come lay beside me, just for a minute . . . ” and as soon as my Samson lay down he was fast asleep. Hours later, we awoke in darkness, just in time for bedtime, so we went back to sleep.
The next morning, we reviewed our little offshore passage. He loved it. I didn’t like it and didn’t think I was “good at it.” Joe was happy with my performance. “Hey, you provided support and hot food. You’re a great Salad Girl!”
Charter captains in the Caribbean joke about interviews for an onboard “assistant.” Sometimes, when a pretty girl applies for the job, the interview goes like this:
“Can you sail a boat?”
“Can you secure the cabin below deck?
“Well . . . can you make a salad?”
And that’s how the term “salad girl” came about. Well, if that’s all he requires of me, I guess I can do it.
Steak at the Hawk’s Nest in Panama City is about as good as steak can get, and I ordered the biggest cut of Black Angus they had. I could be a vegetarian, if it weren’t for steaks. But the real treat was Open Mike Night at the adjacent bar. I met a guy named Reuben Corbitt, a refugee from Virginia who played a nice set, better than the majority of musicians and who played and sang while overcoming cries of “Free Bird! Free Bird!” from the friendly audience, most of whom were musicians competing in the Open Mike Night competition too.
But there was this one guy . . . David Crisp . . . well, I fell in love with David and his music. This guy accompanied most of the competitors and made everyone sound good. He could do an arpeggio that made my heart leap! His bony fingers rippled up and down the neck of his guitar like he was giving a high-speed back massage. He looked like everything mothers tell their daughters to stay away from. “I have to tell him how great I think he is,” I said to Joe, who then turned to the barmaid and said, “Cut her off.”
Truly, David Crisp reminded me of another musician, a Native American who often accompanied John Lennon on many trips, musical and otherwise. Except, of course, David was 20 years too young to be the same guy. I told him I really liked his sound and offered to sing backup to “Layla.” In fact, I think I offered to sing backup to “Layla” all over the room, with no takers. Away from the microphone and outside, a crowd formed on the deck overlooking a small marina, and there David did let me harmonize with him on two songs; one was the musically-challenging “Lady Jane,” which also has some intricate lyrics, leaving me belting out the two-line chorus and humming a lot.
As we walked in the darkness back to the Panama City Marina, I chatted to Joe non-stop about how I used to have a fear of speaking before audiences, and how I had such debilitating stage fright, and how isn’t it great that all that is behind me? Joe smiled and said, “Honey, you may have crossed over to the other extreme. You’re a HAM.”
Panama City shopping is to die for. The downtown is a few short blocks from the marina and screams, “Bargains! Discounts!” even during the holiday shopping season. There are numerous antique shops and an antique mall, craft shops, designer clothing stores, and dining opportunities galore at award-winning eateries. But a must-visit site is Tom’s Hot Dogs. This restaurant boasts “the best hot dogs in town,” but I think their dogs challenge Nathan’s of New Orleans in what I call the “miscellaneous meat” category. I don’t care how you try to limit the toxins you put in your body, you’ve got to fall off the wagon and eat hot dogs every now and then. Their chili sauce was more like a seasoned meat sauce than the overbearing chili sauce most hot dog places use. I had the Special Cheese Dog. And a burger. Joe had the Chili Dog, the Sauerkraut Dog, the Cheese Dog and an order of Chili Pie. I was genuinely afraid a bell would go off when the cashier tallied our order and someone would scream, “Biggest food order for two people - not carryout - in the history of hot dogs!”
We lurched out of Tom’s Hot Dogs reeking of chili and onions and then visited Chef Imondi’s Bakery and Café, where we purchased Greek olive bread for supper, not that we could ever imagine eating again.
Upon our return to the marina, there sat Camasara! They had just arrived, and were looking forward to touring Panama City. Our plans were to leave the marina and anchor out before going offshore the next day, so we bid a fond farewell and hoped we might meet up again in Apalachicola. Meanwhile, a sailboat pulled in as we prepared to pull out, and it was Le Grand Amour of Kemah, Texas. Always good to meet fellow Texans on the road. Joe and Frank LeGrand shared observations about our respective recent offshore passages to Panama City (“I thought we might actually get structural damage from the pounding,” said Frank).
St. Andrews Bay is almost completely enclosed by land, making it an excellent anchorage site. There are several little coves from which to choose, and we motored south from the marina to Smack Bay. Even at low tide, much of the anchorage offers deep water. According to the chart, sailboats should bear to right upon entry to the little bay. It was a lovely sunset site; egrets and herons watched us quietly from the sandy shores. The bay had beach banks or tall marsh reed-banks and was almost completely enclosed by woods.
I saw my first leaping Stingray in Smack Bay! It was about a foot across, black back and white underside and it shot out of the water almost three feet into the air before splashing back down. It made a series of high leaps and bounds, in and out of the water and I nearly applauded with pleasure. Joe said the ‘ray looked as if he was trying to fly as he wildly flapped his wings.
Just after sunset, six fighter planes - Joe thought they might be F-18s - appeared to shoot upwards like rockets in pairs from behind the trees. “Tyndall Air Force Base is over that way, I think,” said Joe. As I watched the planes make a wide circle then head south, I saw what appeared to be additional jets joining them from the east.
NOAA Nautical Charts 11393, 11391
The DuPont is a 50’ fixed bridge at mile 295.4, so back into the Gulf of Mexico we bounded, en route to Port St. Joe, Florida. We listened to the NOAA weather forecast before pulling anchor and heading outside again. “Winds 5-10 and seas 2-4,” said Joe. “Okay, so we know we’re going to have winds over 20 knots and seas 6-8, right?” I responded. “That’s correct,” laughed Joe. Well, as long as we know what we’re in for . . .
The Miracle Mile stretched behind us on our starboard side as we left Panama City. I still am thrilled at the sight of white beaches! But it was cold. Joe was wearing sweats and a jacket; I was wearing sweats, a t-shirt, a sweater, my New York gangsta knit cap and footies with non-skid patches on the bottom. This is not what you see the sailors wearing in those high-gloss sailing magazines!
It was lovely sailing weather with sunshine and slightly cloudy skies, and for the first time, we cut the engines and were making 7.2 knots under full sail. So I guess the weather forecast was right on target; we never saw winds above 10 knots and Joe was happy in the cockpit, yanking on the mainsail lines and heeling her as tight as he could without my usual complaints. In fact, I did my surfer imitation down below, where I slide from one end of the boat to the other, racing past the open doorway and waving up into the cockpit. “If everybody had an Oh-shin,” I sang, “Across the U-S-A, then everybody’d be surrr-fin, like Californ-eye-A!”
Back in the cockpit, I made notes in my very old spiral-bound notebook. I had kept a few office supplies from my last two day jobs and several mostly unused notebooks were part of my collection. One page had notations: “As/400 - Dave D.” and “Put Mike’s copy on Steve’s desk,” and I had no idea who Dave, Mike or Steve were in that other life. I had a brief pang - I enjoyed my work-life when I was working - but I was surrounded by sunshine and blue (yes, BLUE!) water and Joe looked happier than he ever did on land. Some people may think we’re crazy, but lifestyle-wise, I think we traded up.
We passed an area where smoke from the distant shoreline was billowing into the air and visibility was limited; in fact, white ashes annoyingly blew into the cockpit. Joe thought it might be a paper mill that was mentioned in one of the guidebooks. We were happy to sail out of the smoky haze and back into fair air.
We angled toward the coast and turned into the Gulf Canal at Port St. Joe’s. It was still early, so we continued into the ICW at mile marker 328 and were eastbound again. Hello, ICW! We hadn’t seen her in over a week.
At mile marker 329.3 there is a high-rise bridge, and east of it is shallow but secure dockage. There are 3 launching ramps for sports boats, and we decided to head for a pier that extended out and separated the ramps. A man on the shore shouted, “What’s your draft?” and Joe replied, “Five feet!” The man told us it was low tide and the deepest and best tie-up would be along the bulkhead nearest the bridge. We thanked him and I made the adjustment, easing into the bulkhead far enough away from the launch ramps so as not to pose a problem for the sports vessels, but also far enough off the Intracoastal Waterway not to be in danger from working tows. This area is not exactly a hotbed of working vessels anyway, so we felt safe and secure, tied up for the night.
Supper for the evening was Dinty Moore Beef Stew with extra carrots á la rice and mushrooms. Joe praised the cook and began talking about staying a week at a marina in Apalachicola. I suspected he might have a fresh-meat motivation, but Apalachicola is traditionally a great cruiser stop-off, we were socked into a bad weather system anyway and needed an EXCELLENT weather window for our next offshore passage, I was having green vegetable withdrawal (Yes, yes, I know. In Panama City I could have eaten broccoli instead of hot dogs.), the fuel filters needed to be changed, Joe was concerned about a possible blockage in the exhaust manifold . . . well, we had a lot of good reasons to spend a week in a marina. Still, it made me nervous. I’m really starting to like day trips and night anchorages. Free bird! Free bird!
NOAA Nautical Charts 11393, 11401, 11402, 11404
I hailed Scipio Creek Marina on VHF 16 because my cell phone wasn’t working, and surprisingly, even though we were about 20 miles east of the marina, they responded loud and clear. The daily rate was $1.25/foot but the weekly rate was $5/foot, a good savings.
As we motored along the quiet ICW, Joe looked in our Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds and showed me that some of the “diving ducks” we’d seen in one of our anchorages were in fact loons. Meanwhile, I got out the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico to look for my stingray. There it was, with a very fancy Latin name, but the book did not indicate if this particular species had evolutionary potential for wings. My stingray wanted to fly, I am sure.
A large building bearing the words “Scipio Creek Marina” is easily viewed on the south side of the ICW just west of the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge. The approach to Scipio Creek Marina is not a problem for westbound sailboats, but eastbounders should continue past the creek’s entrance then turn and make the approach from the east. A cut too soon into the entrance will find sailboats hard aground. I wasn’t sure and there was no information to tell me this, but a heron walking on water was a good clue that I needed to make the turn later, rather than sooner.
The creek’s south shore was dotted with shrimp boats and powerboats, restaurants and one fortune teller/massage therapist. We passed the Apalachicola River Inn and the Deep Water Marina, then eased into the Scipio Creek Marina’s bulkhead on the south shore. The harbormaster met us at the dock and helped us tie up. It’s a very busy but small marina; it has space for 14 total dockage.
We were behind Dream Catcher, a Hunter Passage 42 home ported out of Maryland, and its owners, Nancy and Ben, had been cruising for about 7 years. They had made a trip from Isla Mujeres to Houston in addition to a Panama Canal passage. Currently, they were on the same general cruising agenda as Rose of Sharon, so I was eager to hear their thoughts on the best way to traverse the Florida west coast. I said to Nancy, “I’ll set up some chairs on the dock about 5:00 p.m.; why don’t you join us for sundowners?” Nancy looked at the sky. “Make it 4:00 p.m.,” she said. “It’s too dark by five.”
Then I went into Papa Joe’s restaurant for a sample menu and met Bill and Bob, who were also heading to points south via Florida’s west coast, so I invited them over for sundowners too. “4:00,” I said. Bob looked at his watch and said, “It’s already 4:00,” and that’s when I remembered we were in another time zone. “Ummm, give me a few minutes to shower and change!” I laughed. I’d had the same sweats on for 3 days and they were getting ripe.
It was a fun little dock party. Bill had a 30’ Bristol, Bob had a 37’ Island Trader, and all of us had been out in the Gulf recently and were headed back out again. I guess our main source of interest was the shortest and easiest way to cross the Big Bend area of Florida. Joe and I thought the weather was not conducive to a good passage, so we’d considered squatting in Scipio Creek for awhile, but the other three boats were heading to nearby Dog Island for an anchorage then “jumping off” the next day. For the uninitiated, the terms “in” and “out” are nautical terminology for “close to or within land masses” (in), and “somewhere offshore” (out). Two of them planned to go back in at Clearwater and the other boat was going back in at Tampa.
Even as we chatted, I got a rush at the thought of getting back into the Gulf of Mexico. Let’s see: I’m not that good at sailing the Gulf, I’m scared of sailing in the dark, and I have to wear a patch and take seasick pills every time I get near the Gulf of Mexico. I’m a masochistic Gulf of Mexico addict! Is there a 12-step program for people like me?
Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” is known for its oysters. Joe had Oysters Rockefeller and fried oysters for supper at Papa Joe’s Restaurant. The next night, Joe had oysters baked with feta cheese at Boss Oysters. Here’s my culinary recommendation for Apalachicola: Boss Oysters has a Cheese Grits Tasso that is stellar. The cream-sauced cheese grits are flavored with chunks of grilled ham and shrimp and one bowl makes for a hearty meal.
The historic downtown area is dotted with art galleries and bookstores. Joe and I walked past the Bowery Section to the historic district and discovered Apalachicola’s Dixie Theater was showing a film for the first time in 37 years! On a whim, we decided to attend the fundraiser/opening. Despite a few sound and reel glitches, we saw the movie Polar Express. The ticket-taker and her husband also ran the concession stand and the projection booth, and the 60-seat main floor was filled with eager moviegoers.
The next day we made the 6-or-so-block walk to the library and did our online banking and e-mailing, then we continued another 4 or 5 blocks to the Piggly Wiggly, which was a small but well-stocked store for re-provisioning. A taxi returned us to the Scipio Creek Marina and I cooked chicken, the first fresh meat meal we’d had onboard in quite some time. The next night, Joe grilled steaks and later we met others who agreed the little Piggly Wiggly’s steaks were excellent cuts and reasonably priced.
Joe effected the boat maintenance quickly but the weather offshore was not what we wanted. I kept reminding myself that we were not up against any timelines or deadlines, but that didn’t stop me from wishing we were on the move again.
A CSY 44 pulled in with its quarantine flag flying; it had sailed to the U.S. directly from the Caymans. S/V Kestyll had been out of country over three years and owners Vic and Gail were eager to become Floridian cruisers for awhile. The Coast Guard cleared them quickly, and Gail visited our boat to give me a single sideband lesson. I made note of the local cruising networks she tuned into and she gave me the names of some radio contacts that would be good sources of information during our travels.
Joe was still in oyster heaven. He was eating oysters every day, every way he could get them. Our last night at the Scipio Marina, Camasara pulled in and we had a fun little reunion; this time I brought the wine. Sara and Cameron had been searching for a marina at which they could leave their vessel for several months and hadn’t been having much luck. Scipio Creek gave them a tentative “yes,” and they were ecstatic; the Apalachicola area was exactly they type of place they were seeking as a new home port for their Kentucky boat.
Our week was up at Scipio Creek, so we moved around the corner to the city marina, which has a lower daily rate. The winds were well over 20 knots, there was a strong current and I struggled to keep the boat angled the direction Joe wanted as we eased into the shallow marina. The tide was out, which didn’t help, and he wanted me to nose into the south bulkhead. I missed it on the first pass, nosing in but then turning off too soon - the feisty wind quickly blew me off the bulkhead. I went back into the channel and circled back for round two; this time I made it. Joe secured the boat and I walked up and down the pier, looking for manatee, which were rumored to be frequent visitors to the marshy marina.
The sun was shining brightly, it was 75 degrees and I asked Joe how long he thought we’d be at this marina. Obviously the winds were a problem; transient travelers were anchored and docked all over the Apalachicola and Scipio Creek area, waiting for a better weather window. The winds were due to shift to the north-northwest in two days. “And we don’t have to go in at Clearwater . . . we could ride this norther that’s coming in and go further, since we’ve spent so much time here in the panhandle,” he responded.
The next day we walked back to downtown Apalachicola where I bought a holiday flag: Winnie the Pooh riding a candy cane. The local internet café charged $5/hour for laptop hookup and $11/hour for their computer usage. I quickly checked our “land” email account and various family photo websites, then we returned to the boat to prepare for an early departure.
Joe was up before daybreak. He claims if he had started the engine and put it in gear before sunrise, we might have made it out of the Apalachicola City Marina with little effort. However, he spent the time stowing electric lines and fenders, re-filling the water tank . . . and at first light discovered we were hard aground. “I’ve never seen it so low,” said the harbormaster, when he wandered down the dock on his early morning check. Joe assisted another boater into the shallow dockage; a lone power boater who had completed the American Loop and was now southbound. Hans visited with us for awhile and we discussed various in-sites along Florida’s west coast. His choice for a return to land was Cedar Key, but he planned to spend a week in Apalachicola. Joe and I drank our coffee and watched the water, then tried to work off the bottom a bit. No luck.
I put on a CD and the cheerful sound of “I’m Back in the Saddle Again” greeted sightseers who were wandering up and down the Apalachicola dock. “Gene Autry!” an excited elderly man said to Joe. “That’s Gene Autry! Haven’t heard him in years!” I decided that “Back in the Saddle Again” is our boat’s theme song; its lyrics complement the cruising life quite nicely. Only we weren’t back in the saddle again. We weren’t even near the ranch. We were hard aground.
“If we ever get out of here,” said Joe, “I think we will not stop at Dog Island but keep on going into the Gulf of Mexico.” He decided to print out a new sail plan. “And we’ll go in at Anclote Key.” Depending on our departure time, an arrival at Anclote Key after dark was a distinct possibility, and Anclote Key offered an easy approach from offshore that would be relatively safe at night.
I had plenty of time to prepare the boat’s salon for an offshore passage. I tidied and tucked and stowed and went back to the cockpit for another round of trying to work S/V Rose of Sharon off the bottom. Slight movement, nothing more. Joe re-hooked the electrical lines and we watched the Sunday television talking heads for an hour or so.
About 3:00 p.m., we finally nosed out of the marina and worked our way into the ICW and Apalachicola Bay. The distance from Apalachicola to Dog Island on the well-marked Intracoastal Waterway is approximately 20 nautical miles. We were happy to be underway again but as darkness approached, I became nervous about the prospect of navigating St. George Sound in the darkness. When the inevitable nightfall fell, Joe slowed the boat and followed the GPS waypoints carefully.
I was eager to get into the Gulf of Mexico and away from the dangers of nighttime navigation in a land-locked waterway! Dog Island to Anclote Key on the rhumb line is 139 nautical miles; Joe set 6 waypoints for the passage.
NOAA Nautical Charts 411, 11006, 11404
Kids, please note: Do not try this at home. Here are the comforting words offered by the 2004 Southern Waterway Guide: “Only an exceptionally able boat enjoying good weather should attempt this passage . . . Unless you are very experienced, run only in daylight . . . Those attempting the outside run, particularly in the Big Bend area, should leave a float plan with a friend or relative.”
So there we were, in a 17-year-old boat, facing a narrow weather window, beginning the Big Bend, Florida passage in pitch darkness. I left the float plan with my sister in Kansas and gave her the “panic time.” The “panic time” would be 24 hours in addition to our anticipated run time, with the run time guesstimated at 5 knots/hour. I would upload our position report on the single sideband at least every 8 hours and more often if possible. If, by “panic time,” Gloria did not see a recently-posted position report or had not received some form of contact by cell phone or single sideband relay (several land-based ham operators will telephone friends or relatives when necessary), she was to begin efforts to locate us. And NOBODY panics like my sister. She panics with absolutely no sense of logic but a great deal of activity. This is definitely someone you want on your land-team if you’re lost at sea!
By the time we had eased out of the east pass at Dog Island and into the Gulf of Mexico, it was dark, really dark. No moon, no nothing! We were on the rhumb line from Dog Island to Anclote Key, Florida and finally - FINALLY - the Gulf of Mexico was cooperating with our sail plan. The winds were out of the west-northwest at 10-15 knots, and the seas were 2-4 feet. Perfect! Joe raised the mainsail and we motor sailed in the darkness.
It occurred to me that I had not put the life raft and the two un-stowed offshore jackets in the salon, ready for easy access grab-and-go. I went below and checked the sea berth. Nope, hadn’t put them there. I checked the v-berth. No, not there. Back to the sea berth then a quick glance into the stateroom (When offshore, I’ve been known to sleep clutching a lifejacket in one hand and a bottle of Valium in the other hand.), but hadn’t put them there. Back to the v-berth, where I made a huge mess of everything, tossing stowage bags, videotapes, my guitar, towel stacks and clothing piles every which-way. Finally, it occurred to me to open up a storage area behind the starboard salon cushions and bingo! There they were. Two offshore lifejackets and one life raft. I remembered thinking that would be a perfect place to store them and of course, had promptly forgotten where I’d put them as soon as I closed and latched the storage area. I have a spreadsheet for every can of beans on the boat, and another list for when I switched foodstuff from one side of the boat to the other, but had not recorded this burst of brilliance anywhere, and my memory is totally unreliable.
I tied the lifejackets to a spot where they would have been incredibly difficult to untie in a crisis. But it kept them off the floor as the boat pitched to and fro. Then I tied the life raft to a spot where it would be out of the line of action then went back topside.
“Did you ever find the jackets and the life raft?” Joe asked as I snuggled under the comforter with him in the cockpit. He had watched my scurrying around in the boat’s belly with some amusement. “Should have written it down,” he added.
I looked up, and there it was. The most perfect, brilliant, star-studded sky I have ever seen! There was no moon to be found, and perhaps that’s why everything in the sky that had a possibility of being visible was visible here on earth. Then the entertainment began. No matter where we looked, we could see a star falling. Stars began flying sideways and plummeting downward to such an extent that I wondered how the airplane pilots navigating their way above us could concentrate. “There was supposed to be a meteor shower tonight,” said Joe.
I pulled my knit cap lower on my head and rubbed my gloved hands together. It was about 55 degrees, not that cold, but I was wearing one t-shirt, two sweatshirts, a pair of sweatpants and some baggy knit pants, knit cap and gloves and wrapped in Joe’s arms and a comforter, watching the greatest show on earth. There were times in our previous life in Indiana when the wind chill was minus 20° and I feared my contact lenses would freeze to my eyeballs. THAT was cold! Now, it was just cold enough to be interesting.
Have I told you lately what a wonderful lady the Gulf of Mexico is? The waves rocked us gently, back and forth, and the winds whispered some of her secrets to us as we sailed southward. The boat felt like a cradle, and Joe and I were being tended by a very loving mother, the Gulf of Mexico.
When Joe went below for a nap, he told me I had to sing so he’d know I was awake. I went through the Beatles collection, James Taylor, the Mamas and the Papas and Joe’s favorite Eric Clapton (“Here comes old Rose, she’s lookin’ mighty fine…”) while he slept. When I uploaded the midnight position report, I sent an “airmail” email to my sister: “I’m running out of songs.” She sent an email to me which I received the next position report: “House of the Rising Sun and Little Bunny Fu-Fu.” I laughed when I read it; she was referencing my teen days as a camp counselor.
I was dozing down below and Joe was half-asleep when about 2:00 a.m., Mother Gulf of Mexico became tired and decided to try to flip us out of the cradle. Just one good roll, a reminder not to become complacent enough to remove our harnesses, and it was enough to send magazines and catalogs flying over my head. A window screen landed on my head and I tucked it under my pillow for safekeeping. It’s always fun, after an offshore passage, to review the below-boat aftermath. It usually looks like there was a wild party to which we weren’t invited but have to clean up.
At sunrise, Joe cut the engine and raised the jib and we continued making 7 knots. He went below for another short nap and I took the watch. Every now and then, he would shout up, “See anything?” and I would scan the front, back, right and left horizons and say “Nothing.”
I learned a long time ago that while I am drawn to and afraid of the dark, sunlight is my source of energy. I was happy as a clam alone in the cockpit in the light of day. Our knot meter had captured a piece of string, flying through the air at 51 feet, so I had no idea how much wind we had. I fiddled with Joe’s handheld wind gauge. 10 knots. 20 knots. 10 knots. Heck, it didn’t know anymore than I did. Seas? I didn’t know that either. Six feet, maybe? We would rise to the crest of a wave, then surf downward. I really loved that motion; it was like a roller coaster for senior citizens! It was a great ride.
We were ahead of schedule and arrived at Anclote Key around 4:00 p.m. The small island was not as protected as we thought it would be, and with another norther and potential storm front moving our way, Anclote Key did not look like a good stopping place. We decided to move closer inland. We followed channel markers into Anclote River and at flashing green channel marker 17, turned to port and entered a small cove, made smaller by the two sailboats already anchored there.
We had all the right combinations for a CCC (Cruising Couple Clash): we were tired, hungry, and the mosquitoes were beginning an assault.
Instead of getting on the bow while I steered, Joe stayed in the cockpit, checking water depth at the edges of the tiny water inlet. When he got the boat in a position he thought would be good for anchorage, he went up to drop the anchor and by the time he got there, the boat had blown away.
Here’s where the argument began: HE SAID he was offended by my so-called insult (When he left the cockpit after dancing the boat in and out of the shoreline for what seemed like forever, I raised my hands to heaven and said, “FINALLY!”), so he had a chip on his shoulder by the time he got to the bow. SHE SAID he was deliberately trying to confound the anchoring process by offering obscure directions (At one point, he raised one finger - the index finger, thank you - to signal me to DO something. I vaguely recalled that was an anchoring signal we used about five years ago, but I’ve slept since then.). I shouted, ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT?!” He then walked all the way from the bow to the cockpit to whisper, “Put it in forward.”
I realized he was trying to have that professional-anchorage situation we all read about in glossy magazines. You know, the one where the proficient clean-cut cruising couple neatly attired in matching Dockers, Sperrys, and tucked-in yacht club polo shirts drop and set anchor without saying a word or making a sound. He was trying to impress the two other sailboats in this anchorage! I swatted a mosquito and copped an attitude.
As darkness set in, Joe (and his finger) became partially obscured and it became increasingly difficult for me to understand what he wanted. At one point, I knew I was nowhere near where we could drop anchor, so I decided to make a circle in the cove and try to re-position the boat. “Is the anchor down?” I yelled. Still determined to be professionally quiet, Joe shook his head no. I eased the boat into forward and began motoring away. He turned and began flapping his arms wildly, then he said in a low monotone, “STOP.”
STOP? Stop WHAT?! I put the boat in neutral and was amazed to see him bend over and pull the anchor out of the water. The anchor was in the water! I had distinctly asked him if the anchor was down, and he had said no, but the anchor WAS down. He then sat down on the deck and stared at me. I think he was contemplating murder. I motored in-between the two anchored boats and made the approach toward what I hoped would be our final anchoring attempt. Joe motioned to the shoreline, so I headed the boat in that direction, then he did it again. “Stop,” he said quietly. This time I was wild-eyed. “Stop WHAT?!” I yelled. He walked from the bow to the cockpit. “Stop the boat,” he said. “What do you WANT?!” I shrieked. “I know ‘FORWARD,’ ‘REVERSE’ and ‘NEUTRAL;’ Joe, those are your CHOICES!” Meanwhile, the boat bobbled merrily like a toy duck in a bathtub, going whichever direction it wanted to. At least someone was having a good time.
In addition to keeping the boat off the wooded shoreline and the rocky shoreline and two boat ramps and two docks for small boats and two other sailboats, there was a boat barrier - a line with big orange bobbers strung across the cove to prevent boaters from going further into the inlet. Every time I put the boat in reverse, we came too close to the line with the bobbers, and every time I put the boat in forward, we came too close to the shore, and every time Joe opened his mouth he wanted to be sure that no one - including me - could hear him. I checked the water depth and realized there was no way he would drown in 7 feet of water, so knocking him overboard wouldn’t do any good.
We tried and failed to anchor the boat AGAIN and he walked back to the cockpit AGAIN. “Let’s head to the entrance and try to anchor in front of the two sailboats,” I said through gritted teeth. Joe acted as if he hadn’t heard me. “Head to entrance,” he said. “We’ll see if we have enough room to anchor in front of them.”
I quickly motored past the two sailboats, put it in neutral, Joe dropped the anchor, I put the engine in reverse, I felt a tug (“It’s set.”) and went below to fix a hot meal and to do our final position report. When Joe came below, he grabbed a beer, poured me a glass of wine and then the real argument began as we recapped the anchorage from hell. His only admission of guilt was the is-the-anchor-down scenario. He thought I meant is-the-anchor-set. Semantics are everything, you know?
“You’ve been out of anti-depressants for two weeks,” Joe sniffed. “That’s what the problem is.” I plopped a spoonful of mashed potatoes onto his plate with a vengeance. “Let’s see,” I responded. “Can you remind me again why I have to take a pill because you’re an asshole?”
The next morning, as I walked past Joe to get to the front head, he placed a stainless steel bowl upside-down on his head. “I say, Martha, should we head to the bunkers? I think the Germans are bombing again!” I laughed, he laughed, and the war was over.
The boat appeared to have pulled a bit during the night, so we went back out to ease up and set another anchor. This time, it was effortless.
A fishing boat launched off the nearby ramp and I waved at the two men as they passed. They returned my wave with stony stares, and I wondered why. Boaters waving to each other and spectators waving to passing vessels and vice-versa is a common courtesy. I recalled how, in Indiana, Corvette owners always waved to each other in passing, which I found odd at the time. What were they saying to each other with that wave? “Yep, we be cool! Life is good.” was what I figured the Corvette-wave meant. In Arkansas, drivers on unpaved country roads wave at each other too, and those waves are, “Ain’t it great we live in the middle of nowhere throwing gravel with our tires and turning our cars white with road dust? Just made a 20-mile trip to buy a loaf of bread! Life is good!” When driving in Houston, nobody ever waved to anybody because you never knew who was carrying. A hand motion could get you shot in Houston traffic. But out here on the U.S.A. waterways, waving is a way of life and I always wave back at wavers and feel rejected when my waves-to aren’t returned. Is it because they hate pleasure boaters? Sail boaters? Cruisers? Texans? White people? Women? Women on boats? Is it because my boat is in their way? Is it because they think the name of my boat is Jewish? Christian? Dumb? In the case of the passing fishermen, maybe it was because they can’t see much sense in raising an arm at all, if there’s not a fishing rod attached to the end. We were snug in our anchorage and Joe and I returned to the warmth of our cabin. It was my favorite kind of day. I re-organized the offshore aftermath of chaos inside the boat and Joe plotted our next course. Life is good!
NOAA Nautical Charts 11411, 11424, 11425
The anticipated norther blew in and we spent the night tending anchor lines; we dragged a bit at one point, so Joe threw out another anchor and hurried back to the warmth of our berth. “With two of them, there’s a good chance they’ll hook on something while we’re dragging and get snagged,” he laughed as he climbed back under the comforter.
The next day, it was in the relative quiet of our Tarpon Springs channel anchorage that we realized we had a rattle. Or a vibration, noise, something-not-right sound coming from the propeller. Joe decided to do a quick haul and called the nearest facility for price and availability. However, there was another development: the norther had blown the water out of our anchorage, and apparently out of nearby waterways and marina channels too. Just as we were told in Apalachicola, “I’ve never seen it this low,” was what the Tarpon Springs repair facility reported. He told me there was no way we could navigate the channel into Tarpon Springs. I asked if the ICW to Clearwater would be okay and he responded, “Yes. Just don’t make any mistakes . . .”
Tarpon Springs was a community developed by Greek sponge fishermen and because I think mousaka is the breakfast of champions, I was looking forward to a traditional Greek meal and a museum visit. Not this trip.
I made another cell phone call to Clearwater. “You know, I’ve never seen the water this low,” said Ray at Clearwater Bay Marina. We watched the tide tables and figured a time for our escape from the Tarpon Springs channel with arrival in Clearwater near high tide.
The Southern Waterway Guide offered encouragement for the Intracoastal Waterway passage from Anclote Keys to Clearwater via the ICW and St. Joseph Sound: “. . . near the Dunedin-Honeymoon Island Bridge . . . Local knowledge is suggested for boats drawing more than 4 feet.” Ah. Strangers in a strange land, we motored slowly, very slowly and watched the depth fluctuation carefully.
Joe tuned the single sideband to the Cruisers Net and for the first time, I broadcast on the marine single sideband frequency. The Cruisers Net for Florida and the Bahamas is at 8:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. eastern time on 8152.00. The cruisers were talking about the next norther, due in three days with anticipated 40-knot winds. We would have to find another hiding hole to sit out the cold front.
One of the reasons Joe and I chose “comfortable” cruising as opposed to hair-on-fire cruising is Bruce Van Sant’s book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South. It’s a wealth of information and one of my favorite chapters is “Spanglish for Cruisers.” Bruce lists the necessary word in English (bilge), then in Spanish (sentina), then displays the pronunciation (sen-TEEN-ah). Forget Spanish. Between his Midwestern and my southern families of origin, Joe and I have trouble with English. As we approached the Dunedin-Honeymoon Bridge at Mile 139, we debated the pronunciation of the bridge. One guidebook mentioned that some of the bridges in this area offered “discretionary” openings if not properly contacted, so we wanted to get it right. I thought it was DUN-ah-din. Joe thought it might be Dun-AH-din. A hurried cell phone call to a local marina revealed the correct pronunciation is Dun-EE-din, and the bridge tender quickly opened for us and waved as we passed through.
The Clearwater Bay Marina is on the ICW just south of green marker 15A and north of the Clearwater Memorial Bridge. They do not monitor VHF, so a quick cell phone call let them know we were 5 minutes away. As we eased into the marina, the lift was already positioned and several workers were on hand to pull our boat out of the water. They discussed positioning of their straps with regard to our keel, rudder and prop, and the manager, Ray Urban, asked if we had a photograph of the boat on the hard that they could use for reference. Joe scrambled through paperwork and found one, but we made a mental note to always keep a few photos of our vessel on the hard readily accessible for future haul-outs. They lifted her up, then moved the boat closer to the ramp so Joe and I could step off, then up higher for a closer look. “I think it’s the cutlass bearing,” said Joe.
“What cutlass bearing?” replied Ray, and sure enough, there was not much left of the fixture. Later, the mechanic told Joe that two zincs had been mounted on the shaft and one was too close; it wasn’t rubbing, but was preventing the water from cooling the cutlass bearing properly. When the order was placed for the new part, Joe ordered an extra.
Joe had several lists of items to stock and “things to do” before we began our cruising adventure. He later referenced that list from May 2004 and every item was checked except one: “cutlass bearing.”
With the boat mounted on stilts, we decided to reprovision. A local resident offered us a lift to the shopping center, which was too far to walk. We filled two shopping carts with provisions (and a backgammon game), then decided we were hungry. The nearby Stacey’s & Homer’s Homestyle Buffet looked good but there we were: Joe in his Mt. Rushmore t-shirt with a hole on the left shoulder, me with greasy hair. We were a couple of “homeless” people with two shopping carts full of Wal-Mart bags. I asked the cashier if we could park our carts in a corner of the restaurant and she was completely baffled. “Maybe you could bring the bags in and pile them up in a nearby booth?” she suggested. The manager, Jozy Gillaspie was called. There’s a reason why guys like Jozy are managers; he had the fix within seconds. He held open the exit door and we entered and parked our shopping carts in a vacant banquet room. Stacey’s Buffet is $8.00 per person and a great place for a down-home meal. With refills. Good cornbread and good cobbler rounded off our overeating experience.
The nearby Publix grocery store was our last stop before we called a taxi to take us back to the marina. As it turned out, the taxi driver was a liveaboard who said his cruising days were over. I could understand why he would choose Clearwater, Florida as his last port of call: it’s a lovely area.
The next day, we were back in the water and underway by 3:00 p.m. The Clearwater Memorial Bridge opens on the hour and twenty and forty minutes after the hour before 2:00 p.m., then every half hour until 6:00 p.m. Directly south of the bascule bridge a new fixed bridge is under construction and with construction equipment hanging 12 feet down, off the bridge, its vertical clearance looked iffy. I hailed the Clearwater Memorial Bridge keeper as he stopped traffic and began raising the bridge: “Request for information, sir, can you tell me how high the fixed bridge will be upon completion?” He replied the bridge was being built by “another” entity or company (as opposed to . . . who?) and he had no idea of its dimensions. I turned to Joe and said, “Stay to the right of that stuff hanging down! Doesn’t it look close to you?” Joe agreed it looked like the clearance was closer to 60 than 70 feet. I radioed the Clearwater Memorial Bridge keeper again. “Sir, will the new fixed bridge come under the auspices of the Florida Department of Transportation?” He responded that he could not answer that question.
“He doesn’t want to get sued when we hit this bridge,” said Joe, as we began passage underneath the construction site. I hung off the port side of the boat and repeated, “Hang to the right! Get as close to the wall as you can!” There were bridge workers above, pausing to watch our passage with interest, perhaps the same way drivers rubberneck an auto accident. You don’t want anyone to be hurt, of course, but still . . . it’s interesting to watch.
Later, a cell phone call to the Florida Department of Transportation was quickly returned and we were told the new, fixed bridge will replace the Clearwater Memorial Bridge and retain its name. The new bridge is scheduled to be open by September 1, 2005 and will have a 74’ vertical clearance. Even with the 12’ of equipment hanging down, we had plenty of room! The old bascule bridge is slated to be completely demolished by January 2006.
We left the ICW and turned to port just north of the red 5 marker then dropped anchor off the coast of the town of Belleair. An osprey frowned at us from his perch on a channel marker and the lights from the high-rise hotels on Clearwater bridge were stunning. I wish you could have been there.
So far, Joe was a decisive leader in the S/V Rose of Sharon cribbage tournament, gin rummy tournament, blackjack tournament, and had even won at a crap shoot and cut-the-cards contest. We began the backgammon tournament that night.
The next day we went back into the Gulf of Mexico for the short trip south to Sarasota. The ICW from Clearwater to Sarasota is rife with bridges and since the day was warm and sunny with seas at 2 feet and winds at 6 knots (SIX knots!), the passage on the outside would be enjoyable . We saw our first large vessels - tankers - in the area and Joe turned on the radar to track their progress.
With both sails raised, we were motoring at about 6 knots (I could say we were sailing, but in a near-dead-calm situation, the sails were just for show. The engine was doing all the work.). I was below and could hear Joe chatting with our granddaughter on the cell phone when his voice changed and I heard him say, “Uh . . . just a minute sweetie . . .” and looked up to see him toss the cell phone on the seat. I came up into the cockpit and saw a big, BIG-o barge nearby! Joe was turning off and the barge was making its progress south, the same direction as we were headed. Joe swears he knew the tow was in the shipping lane and thought he had plenty of time to pass in front but “changed his mind.” I say he did what a lot of cell phone-talking drivers do; he got distracted, looked over his shoulder and saw the barge-pushing tow bearing down on us and instead of changing his mind, he quickly changed his direction! With the cell phone pressed against my cheek, I was, literally, babbling incoherently. My 4-year-old granddaughter probably couldn’t tell the difference between that and any other conversation, but I told her we’d call her back later. I sat down on the cockpit seat, amazed that with all this wide open space, we’d come that close to a working vessel.
The wind was light but we had swells; as we slowly turned to get on course, the television, DVD/VHS player, still mounted, flew across the salon and banged onto the floor. I was too stunned to speak. Even though the sun was beaming merrily and we had the potential for a terrific day in the Gulf, I was sitting there contemplating the fact that we’d just replaced a broken cutlass bearing, just crashed our entertainment system onto the floor and just nearly crashed the whole damn boat into a barge. For me, it began to get dark, very dark.
Joe left the Gulf of Mexico (I was with Joe, you understand, and physically left the Gulf of Mexico, too, but my mind was still about 5 miles offshore). We entered at Longbow Pass. The wind was now perpendicular to the pass, stronger, and we encountered an equally strong cross-current. Once under the quickly-raised bascule bridge, the channel angled 45° to port then intersected the ICW. A hairpin turn was needed to get from the little channel into the ICW and Joe made the turn, lined up with markers 43-44, then proceeded toward what he thought was the next set of red and green markers, but it turned out to be not ICW markers, but a set of private channel markers.
We ran hard aground and I burst into tears. And I am notorious for being a thorough crier. I went down below and climbed into my bunk where, in the fetal position, I sobbed even more. Once I start, I can’t stop crying until there is no liquid remaining near my eyeballs or inside my nose, and I didn’t stop crying until we made the turn off the ICW and eastward into the channel leading to the Marina Jack marina.
Back upstairs into the cockpit I dragged, with red-rimmed, burning eyes and a pounding headache. I took the wheel and steered the boat into the slip. There was never any question of who would be driving the boat into port; Joe knew how much I enjoyed it and probably figured if I wasn’t driving the boat, I might not come back into the cockpit at all.
From the Intracoastal Waterway, Marina Jack’s white with aqua trim buildings are easily identified amid the cluster of downtown Sarasota structures. My mood did not improve when Joe returned from the marina office with a gold-embossed welcome folder and told me the per-night price of a transient slip at Marina Jack’s. I guess it was competitive for the area, and we’d been told to prepare for the Floridian inflated rates, but YIKES! “Did you get a pen or a refrigerator magnet, or anything for that price?” I asked. He looked at the security key and said, “Well, I think we could keep the lanyard the key’s on, if we wanted . . .”
I flipped through the folder. It was certainly a nice presentation, I thought. And lots of information about the area. Marina Jack’s is one of the nicest marinas I’ve visited, with terrific security and many amenities. Wireless and dial-up internet connectivity. Coffee, Danish and a courtesy newspaper is available every morning. The transient slips are near the laundry and showers.
There is a restaurant on-site, and even though the food was well prepared and well presented, I thought it was too pricey. Our side-salad-sized salads with bits of chicken atop was almost $20 apiece, but the accompanying bottle of Pinot Grigio was quite good at a reasonable $20. I guess it was a wash, and remember - I was in a foul mood anyway.
Speaking of wash, the next day I began a 6-load laundry process (clearly, we were wearing too many clothes too often), and walked toward downtown Sarasota, still in a funk. Then I paused to look at a lovely sky blue high-rise building reflecting the lovely sky blue water below. Palm tree fronds were waving gently in the warm breeze. The street was alive with outdoor cafes, art shops, bookstores . . . and the pavement was an attractive red brick with shell-studded concrete inlays.
A decorative archway leading from the downtown area to the marina was architecturally tony. I looked at the people sitting at the sidewalk tables, drinking lattes and mocha javas in interesting, oversized cups and saw that they, too, were architecturally tony. Oy vey! I thought. They’ve put Manhattan in Florida!
We’re talking upscale, very UPscale. I felt dowdy and frumpish in my canvas shoes and baggy shirt, but this was most definitely a terrific place to be for an attitude adjustment!
The shop windows featured original fashions and accent pieces for decorating your home or yourself. The bookstore had the requisite adjacent coffee-and-biscotti bar and I perused a gift book that had me laughing out loud (How to tell if your cat is gay: Will he only drink reverse-osmosis filtered water from a martini glass). And the people! My gosh, the sidewalks were alive with pony tailed men in sports coats and black tees, low-haired highbrow women who had short, perfectly manicured nails with clear polish, and they were strolling along a street lined with shiny black Mercedes and black Jaguars. I didn’t see any SUVs, and the only red car was a classic convertible, circa 1960.
Sarasota, Florida. So feel-good, it was unreal, and I needed a reality break. I hailed Joe on my walkie-talkie. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!”
That night, the latest and greatest norther blew in and I changed from my baggy shirt to a baggy sweatshirt and Joe and I visited a nearby Mexican restaurant. Two Senoritas restaurant wasn’t Mely’s of League City, Texas, but it wasn’t bad! I enjoyed and strongly recommend the Chile en Nogada. This was a poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef and pork, topped with a peach, plum, banana and almond cream sauce and garnished with bits of pomegranate. One slice of tres leche cake to finish off the meal, and we were in the happy place.
When we pulled away from Marina Jack’s, I stared wistfully at Sarasota’s skyline as it became smaller and eventually faded away, then tilted my head back in my cockpit seat, letting the sunshine warm my face. Despite Sarasota’s appeal, I was happy we were underway again. “Cruising is a good lifestyle for people with Attention Deficit Disorder!” I said to Joe. “You’re never in one place long enough to get bored!”
NOAA Nautical Charts 1113, 11425, 11426, 11427
Happy anniversary, Joe and Sharon Kratz! December 21, 2004 marked 34 of years of marriage, some of them spectacular. We spent the day traveling from Sarasota to Lemon Bay, Florida, on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Wait. Let me rephrase that: We bridged the gap between Sarasota and the ICW. Because if there was a sport called “bridging,” where you tried to get under as many different bridges in one day as possible, I think we may have qualified for the Olympics. However, it was amazingly easy. I think the longest amount of time we spent waiting for any bridge to open was 8 minutes. The bridge masters were professional, accommodating, and on some occasions, extremely cheerful, and why not? I can’t think of a better job than sitting above sparkling blue water, opening and closing a bridge in this beautiful area of Florida!
So let’s talk bridges: Southbound on the ICW from Sarasota to Lemon Bay, we passed under nine bridges. At mile marker 71.6, Sarasota’s Siesta Key Bridge opens Monday-Friday from 7:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. every hour and every 20 minutes past the hour. Stickney Point Bridge at mile marker 68.7 opens on signal. Blackburn Point Bridge at mile marker 65.5 is a swing bridge and opens on signal. Mile marker 59.3’s Nokomis/Casey Key Bridge should be called “Albee Bridge,” and it opens on signal.
At mile marker 56.9, the Hatchett Creek Bridge opens on the hour and every 20 minutes past the hour from 7:00 a.m. - 4:20 p.m., with no openings from 4:25-5:25 p.m. Openings are increased for weekends and holidays to on the hour and every 15 minutes after the hour from 7:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. The Hatchett Creek Bridge is where Highway 41 crosses the ICW, and this led to a spirited conversation about a song. Cruisers’ cockpit conversations are probably not known for depth or intensity . . . just anything to keep you awake. “And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, rolling down Highway 41,” sang Joe. It took us 20 minutes to put together most of the song’s lyrics, and then we consulted a road atlas to determine if the Greyhound Bus was on Florida’s Hwy. 41 or another state’s. If you every wondered, this is the kind of thing you do when you’re cruising.
Right next to the Hatchett Creek Bridge, the Venice Avenue Bridge at mile marker 56.6 opens from 7:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. and at 10, 30, and 50 minutes past the hour with no openings from 4:35-5:35 p.m.
A fisherwoman in a bright orange sweatshirt waved as we neared the Venice Airport Bridge at mile marker 55. It opens on signal has been re-named “Circus Bridge.” The Manasota Bridge at mile marker 49.9 opens on signal. We entered Lemon Bay and our last bridge of the day was the Manasota Key Bridge at mile marker 43.5, which opens on signal and has been re-named “Tom Adams” Bridge.
Throughout the day, the temperatures warmed and we peeled off layers of outerwear. I noticed that almost every square foot of shoreline that could be developed, was developed. Some of the houses were modest, but some were eligible for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Those homes had interesting-looking paved walkways emerging from wooded paths leading to docks where large, regal, gas-guzzling powerboats were secured. My favorite home was one that had been designed to look like a cruise ship. The three-story white structure even had portholes and a big-ship smoke stack on its roof.
Just south of Cape Haze, near red channel marker 8, we saw the only working vessels we had seen on this stretch of ICW: two tiny ferries were transporting vehicles between Knight Island and the mainland.
Near mile marker 36, we turned east out of the ICW at red channel marker 30 into an inlet surrounded by private residences. The water hardly rippled as we eased to a stop and dropped anchor. “I wonder if it bothers these homeowners that this inlet is listed as an anchorage in the Southern Waterway Guide?” said Joe.
“If I lived here, I’d set up a concession stand and sell hot dogs and beer,” I replied. “But then, that’s me.”
Our anniversary dinner, like our marriage, was a hodgepodge of things that don’t usually work together but somehow made for a great meal: French bread dipped in olive oil and kosher salt, mozzarella cheese slices, Brussels sprouts and fresh yams.
The next morning, Joe was up early and eager for another day on the water. By 8:00 a.m. we’d passed under our only bridge for the day, the Gasparilla Island Causeway Bridge at mile marker 34.3. This swing bridge has been re-named “Boca Grande” and opens every half-hour between 7:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. except during January 1 - May 31, when it opens on the hour and every 15 minutes past the hour from 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Just south of York Island at the flashing red 16 marker, we left the ICW, turning south, and anchored. Sanibel is a barrier island and most likely offers more anchorages than we were aware of, but we chose one that was near an inlet to Tarpon Bay and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. We hopped in the dinghy and motored through the tiny opening into Tarpon Bay and crossed over to the Refuge rentals and gift store. They rent kayaks, pontoons, fishing boats and gear, and bicycles. The Refuge is home to approximately 291 species of birds, 50 types of reptiles and about 32 different types of mammals. We picked up information about Sanibel Island, got a fix on where the island’s post office was, and dinghied back to the boat.
That night a heavy fog rolled in. I woke up and felt . . . disoriented. Something wasn’t quite right. I sat up in bed and realized we were at an acute angle. “Joe!” I said, shaking him violently. “Wake up! I think we’re tilted or something!” He sat up and said, “Are you sure?” and I thought perhaps it was my brain that was tilted. “Either I’m crazy or this boat is sideways,” I said. We both scrambled out of our bunk and when we walked into the salon, I knew I wasn’t crazy; the boat was indeed listed quite noticeably to port. I was scared. “My gosh!” I gasped. “Are we sinking?!” I ripped the cover off the bilge and no, nothing there. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” said Joe, and he went forward in the cabin while I babbled distractedly. “HOW can you PEE at a time like this?! We’re falling over! You can PEE in the WATER!”
I tore the hatch covers off and climbed into the starboard cockpit seat, leaned over the rail and struggled to see . . . something, anything that would explain why we were laying over. The fog was in on us, tight, and I could barely see the outline of Sanibel Island. But it was where it was when we went to bed, at the same approximate distance and off our stern, so we hadn’t moved. Not backwards or forwards, anyway, just sideways. As I lowered myself into the cockpit, I stepped into 6 inches of water and screamed.
Watching me from down below, Joe shook his head. “We are NOT sinking,” he said. “You just stuck your foot in a bucket of water!” Sure enough, I had stepped into the bucket of seawater we used to rinse the head.
I eased slowly onto my cockpit seat and hyperventilated while Joe turned the instruments on. “Yep,” he said. “We’re on the bottom.”
“We’ve been on the bottom plenty and this has never happened,” I said, “I don’t understand.”
“Remember the movie The Four Seasons?” Joe said. “Remember how they ran aground and the boat was sideways? Well, that’s what happens when you run aground on a harder sandy bottom. We always run aground in muck, so we just get stuck in the muck. That’s why this is different.” He paused. “You really were scared, weren’t you?” he said and he put his arm around my shoulder.
Yes, I really was scared. I’m not so sure I’m good at this at all.
The next morning, the tide came back in and the boat bobbed upright. Once again, we made the dinghy trip over to the national wildlife refuge, but this time we saw a sign posted at the inlet’s entrance. “No personal watercraft,” it said. “Do you think that means wave runners, or . . . what?” I asked Joe. When we tied up at the wildlife refuge, a worker explained there was extremely limited dockage, but since it was Christmas Eve and there was a heavy fog, and because we were renting bicycles . . . 20 minutes later, we were peddling toward the Sanibel downtown district.
Our mail was at the Sanibel Post Office, general delivery, so we bungeed the box to Joe’s handlebars. Then we visited the Shell Museum, a must-see attraction on Sanibel Island, which is known worldwide as a shell-hunter’s paradise. My favorite exhibits were the “Shells in Geography” and “Worldwide Shells,” while Joe’s was the “The Scallop.” First and foremost are the exhibits of shell art. Shells have been representative icons in religion and history; many cultures have created art using shells and shell pieces. In earlier days, enterprising island women created lovely boxes lined with shells to sell to sailors returning home from tropical ports, and several beautiful examples of these were housed in the museum.
Want a cheeseburger in paradise? The restaurant, “Cheeburger Cheeburger” is the place to go! They had about 20 different varieties of shakes and malteds but I don’t know how anyone could drink one with one of their massive burgers. Joe and I each got the “Serious Burger,” a half-pound of delicious hamburger accompanied with real onion rings and fries. It was all we could do to waddle back to our bicycles for the trip to the nearby grocery store. We could only buy enough stuff to fit into our backpacks, so I shopped carefully for our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners.
Our return-time was 4:00 p.m. and we raced to get the bikes back to the Refuge so the kind people there could leave and begin their own holiday festivities. The weight on our backpacks combined with fast-peddling our bicycles worked off those hamburgers for sure!
Back on the boat, we celebrated Christmas Eve with hors d’oeuvres and wine and a game of Chinese Checkers. My gift to Joe was a jigsaw puzzle, and he happily began putting it together while I played with my hand-held Tetris game, his gift to me.
Christmas Day we opened gifts from our children and reviewed our Christmas cards - so many grandchildren pictures! Each one of our friends said the same thing in their newsletters, cards, and on the back of the photos they sent: “Isn’t this grandparent thing GREAT?” Billy Crystal once said something like this about the grandparent thing: “You love them . . . care for them . . . then give them back and go out to an early movie.”
NOAA Nautical Chart 11427
Our anchorage in the bight outside of Sanibel Island was not an enclosed one, but we were surrounded on three sides by mangrove tree-lined Sanibel Island and could see York Island in the distance. The charts did not reveal the tiny cut into Tarpon Bay, but if it remains there, I recommend it as a great way to dinghy in and tour the J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge and Sanibel Island. While personal watercraft is not allowed, we were allowed to dinghy over and dock because we rented their bicycles.
After we spent the night sideways in the anchorage, we moved further away from Sanibel Island and dropped anchor a bit closer to the Intracoastal Waterway in deeper water. As good as it was, it’s probably not a good anchorage for a strong north wind. We went to bed one night and the winds were out of the south at 10 knots. No weather source predicted anything different. During the night, the winds shifted to out of the northwest at 20 knots. And it kept building. Later, we were told if this had occurred during hurricane season, it would have been a named storm, but because it was December, it was simply . . . a lot of wind. The winds clocked in as high as 50 mph. Throughout the day and into the night, Joe checked our wind meter and our depth. We were having a wild ride, bouncing and pitching, and Joe wanted to move the boat. “If it gets below 20 knots, we’re moving to the York Island anchorage,” he said. I argued, “It seems to me if the anchor held up during all this, we’ll be fine . . . do we have to move?” He said yes. It was uncomfortable at best, dangerous I suppose, and he wanted a better anchorage for a northwest wind.
The next day the winds dipped into the 20s and we began our process for lifting anchor. No surprise - that anchor was SET. Joe struggled on the bow and I followed his directions: “Forward!” he would yell. “Forward!” I replied. “Neutral!” he would gasp, cranking a bit more chain in. “Neutral!” I responded. “Reverse!” he commanded. “Reverse!” I called back. And we did this a couple of times until I thought the engine “sounded funny.”
“Reverse!” shouted Joe from the bow and I hesitated. “Did you hear something funny?” I shouted up to him as I eased it into reverse. The engine died. Joe bounded back into the cockpit and turned the engine on. “It doesn’t sound right,” I said. “Put it into forward,” he directed, and when I did, the engine died again. “Oh, shit!” He massaged his neck and sighed. “I bet we’re caught in the anchor rode.” He returned to the bow and worked the chain and all seemed well. He walked toward the back of the boat with foreboding and a look over the stern confirmed his fear. “The dinghy line! I forgot to pull in the dinghy line! It’s wrapped around the prop!”
He tugged on the now very short dinghy line with chagrin. “Well, that’s better than the anchor chain, right?” I encouraged. “Yes, but it’s still bad,” he said, as he plopped down on the deck to contemplate the situation and weigh options.
He decided to go into the water and try to unwrap it himself. It was still too rough, so he wanted to wait until the next day, when the winds would subside even more and the waters would calm.
That night, we wanted to watch a video. We wanted to watch Jimmy Stewart’s uplifting “It’s a Beautiful Life,” so we watched about half of it. “We can’t watch the whole movie on the generator,” Joe said. He didn’t want to start the engine and strain the transmission. When we turned off the video and the television, I asked if we had enough power to burn a music CD for our daughter, the ever-popular “Nathan’s Mix.” My nephew has a radio program and only plays music by Texas musicians or music about Texas. I had copied some of the funnier songs and created a CD called “Nathan’s Mix,” circulated among family members. Joe thought we had enough power.
I fussed around with the computer for awhile with no luck on the burn, so shut it down and Joe flipped the switch to turn the generator off. Nothing happened.
He rushed up into the darkness and into the cockpit, opened the cockpit locker door and began pulling everything out. Dip net, floats, noodles, toolbox, lines, more lines, hooks, it all came flying out of the locker and then came the smoke. “Don’t go down there!” I shrieked as Joe climbed into the cockpit locker. He said nothing as he disappeared into the smoke-filled chamber.
First, I thought of what I would grab for our getaway from a burning boat. Fiberglass burns fast, I’ve heard, so I looked on the sea berth to see if our Ditch Bag was within range. It was. Now, I had long ago put my jewelry in the Ditch Bag. But to give you some idea how desperate I thought the situation was, I reached over to the nav station and grabbed the last computer backup CD and slipped it into the ditch bag. I thought we were going down for sure, this time.
Joe resurfaced from the cockpit locker and gasped for fresh air but there wasn’t any. He began trying to pry the lid off a bucket and I helped him, grabbing the lid and fanning the smoke. That wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind, he told me later. He wanted to use the lid as a stopper for the source of air fueling our runaway generator, and he told me that is standard operating procedure for any runaway engine: plug the air intake to stop it quickly. He took the bucket lid from my frantically waving hands and went back down into the cockpit locker, coughing and gagging.
Wait a minute. Forget the boat sinking, what if Joe dies?! I had a flash of me calling the kids and telling them their dad was dead. I saw the funeral. Then I realized that Joe married me when I was barely eighteen. He practically raised me, for heaven’s sake! I can’t live without Joe!
“Joe!” I commanded. “You’ve got to get out of there!” No answer.
“Please?” I begged. “Come back up and get some air?” No response.
The generator stopped. Joe crawled back up the stairs and we climbed out on the deck together. I held his hand in the darkness and in the quiet night as he gasped, coughed and retched. “Do you think this was our wake-up call?” I asked him.
“Do you think God is trying to tell us something?” Joe managed to laugh.
“I’m ready to #$%*!#% SWIM back to Texas,” I moaned. “Let me smell your breath.” He leaned over and exhaled into my face. It smelled like diesel fuel. I went below and got our homeopathic health manual, which had absolutely nothing about smoke inhalation, but the Merck’s Medical Reference book did. It said if he was going to develop any interesting symptoms of tracheal damage, it would be within 24 hours. I thought about calling the daughter whose significant other is a physician but she is also the daughter who goes rooty-kazoo at the thought of anything happening to her dad. Joe and I went to bed and as we lifted our respective bedtime books, I said, “Well, if you’re not dead in 24 hours, I guess you’ll be okay. Goodnight, honey.”
The next morning he was still alive and since he hadn’t fried himself to death the night before, he was ready to attempt drowning. Now, we are certified PADI divers, but had given our wet suits to our son-in-law because (we said) we would never get in cold water again. Joe dug out his insulated dive boots and snorkel gear, put on enough clothing to sink himself, and climbed down the ladder into the water, making comical facial expressions as he lowered himself down each rung. “Cold, cold,” he kept repeating. Then his head disappeared under the murky water and I began a count. “One thousand-one, one thousand-two -” and Joe shot up out of the water like a rocket. “COLD! COLD!” he shouted and rushed into the cockpit. He began stripping and muttering, “Too cold. Real cold . . .” and I handed him heated water in jugs, which he poured over himself in the cockpit.
“What’s Plan B?” I asked him.
He said something about tying his favorite Myerchin® knife to the boat hook, then sitting in the dinghy and sawing the rope off the prop. I never took a class in physics, but even I could see a formula for failure there. “Joe, the amount of force necessary to exert enough pressure on the hook to be able to saw through the rope would be exactly enough pressure to detach the knife from the boat hook. Don’t do it; you’ll just lose your knife.”
I was finally speaking his language and he nodded. “Well, then Plan B is that we call Towboat U.S.”
How did we stay married 34 years? We rarely agree on anything! Once again, we had a difference of opinion on the process of contacting Towboat U.S. I wanted to hail them on the VHF radio. He wanted me to use the cell phone. Are you ready for this? He didn’t want “everyone” to hear that we’d tangled a dinghy line around our prop. “It’s one of the dumbest things you can do,” he said. “It’s dumber than dropping your dinghy motor in the water and we haven’t even done that.”
“Yet,” I added.
“Yet,” he agreed.
The fact that no one in the area knew us, wanted to know us, or cared whether we had wrapped a dinghy line around our prop was not important to Joe. If ONE VHF stranger heard our call to Towboat U.S. and laughed, “What a doofuss!” it was too humiliating for Joe. “Don’t you have any pride?” he asked me.
“You’re ridiculous,” I snapped, as I dialed the 800 number for Towboat U.S. We had carried a $350 deductible with Towboat U.S. for several years. When we met another cruising couple who told us their recent tow charge was over $700, we decided to up our coverage to unlimited. The problem was, they would only cover a diver OR a tow, not a diver AND a tow, should the diver discover a damaged prop. We crossed our fingers and requested a diver.
“What’s the water like, where you are?” asked the Towboat U.S. dispatcher. “Cold!” I responded and he laughed. “No, I mean, how deep is it? Is it choppy?”
“It’s 6-to-7 feet and calm,” I responded.
The diver arrived within half an hour. Barry was young and chubby, two very valuable assets in the world of diving. Body fat is a great insulator. Because we hadn’t seen any other people in quite awhile, I was chattering like a magpie. “How much weight do you use?” I asked Barry.
“Twenty pounds,” he replied, as he strapped on his gear.
“It takes an Oldsmobile to get me down!” I joked and he smiled politely. I got the camera and he posed for me, giving me the traditional “thumbs up” before he went into the water.
Everything in my life, even disaster, is a Kodak Moment. When I die, they need to bury me with my camera. You know, weddings and funerals have gotten kind of camp, so it wouldn’t be unusual to bury someone with a camera and a couple of rolls of film these days. I once went to a funeral where the man was laid to rest holding two NASCAR flags across his chest, like an Egyptian king. When I told Joe how odd it was, staring into a coffin at a body clutching NASCAR flags, he said, “That’s right! Gene never missed a Brickyard 400. I wonder if he’s going to use his ticket.”
The diver surfaced clutching the dreadlocks of our dinghy line, plopped the pile on the deck, then went back down to tidy up and examine the prop. “It’s fine,” he said, as he climbed up the ladder. “Your cutlass bearing looks kinda loose though, but it’s okay.” The cutlass bearing? The cutlass bearing we just replaced “looks kinda loose?” I didn’t say a word.
He began stripping out of his wet suit and when he got down to the basics, I said, “Wait! If you’re taking off any more clothes, I need to get my camera again!”
We thanked Barry, signed for the charges, thanked Towboat U.S. and once again, began the process of raising the anchor. It took a bit longer than usual (“You did a fine job of anchoring, Captain Joe!” I shouted up to the bow where he struggled with an anchor that was so well-set that sometimes our bow dipped seriously toward the water.), but once it was up, I motored toward the Intracoastal Waterway. It felt good to be moving again! I turned into the ICW and Joe took the wheel as I went down below to turn on the large VHF radio. It was dead.
“I knew it was on its last legs,” said Joe as I plopped disconsolately into my cockpit seat. “I don’t like the handheld!” I whined. “It hasn’t got enough range.”
“Look, it’s probably a diode or a transistor and it’s probably fixable, but it was a really old radio,” Joe said soothingly. “There have been a lot of changes in radios in the last 15 years. We’ll get a new one.”
“Before we go to Mexico?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll need it that much, now that we’re out of the ICW, but . . .” he looked at my pouting face. “Okay, before we go to Mexico.”
The trip from Sanibel Island to Fort Myers Beach Marina was confusing to us because our chart print-out and the route Joe had highlighted clearly indicated a turn to port. But Joe had pre-programmed the GPS and it clearly indicated a turn to starboard. Plus there was a bascule bridge in front of us and we thought the only bridge we had to deal with would be a fixed, 65’ bridge. I was positive we were going the wrong way, but Joe trusted his GPS waypoints more than he trusted his charting. I asked for permission to contact someone on the handheld VHF to verify our position and direction. This time, because he had discovered we were over on our cellular minutes and every call would be thirty-five cents a minute, Joe said yes. I guess even Joe’s pride has a price.
I hailed Towboat U.S. and he assured me we were going the right direction. “Can you tell me the name of the bridge?” I asked, ever mindful that bridge keepers observe a hailing protocol that would rival any social rules established by Miss Manners. “Sanibel Causeway Bridge,” he replied.
I hailed the bridge and the jolly bridge keeper responded, “I’ll let you under at 1530!” That was 7 minutes away and in neutral, the boat barely moved. It was a calm, sunny day. We heard a fisherman returning from the Gulf in a large powerboat request a Sanibel Causeway Bridge opening, and the bridge keeper said, “You catch any fish? You can’t come through unless you’ve got fish!” He bantered with this and another fishing boat until it was time for the bridge-raising, then he was all business. We wished him a happy new year and entered the Gulf of Mexico.
Once again, here’s proof that I am not of sound mind: After an ongoing streak of bad luck and demoralizing boating, I turned to Joe and said, “How long do we have to be in Fort Myers? I can’t wait to get back out there and head to the Dry Tortugas!”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Me too!” he said.
It was a matter of minutes before we eased out of the Gulf and into the channel leading to the Fort Myers Beach Marina. Behind us, a big-o casino boat made us nervous, but he finally passed us in the small channel and made an oncoming big-o shrimp boat nervous. Shrimpers usually rule, but in this case, that casino boat was definitely the big dog. Ahead of us was the fixed bridge we’d read about. We stopped at the fuel dock where a marina staff person met us and pointed out our slip. This marina was small and not plush by any means, but we were thrilled to be able to call it home for a few days.
The approach to the slip involved going under a bridge (yes, the fixed 65’ one we’d been looking for) then making a u-turn and returning under the bridge on the north side of the channel. As I slowly motored toward the slip, Joe kept shouting at me. “Watch out for that sailboat! Watch out for that sailboat!” I nodded patiently. There was a small sailboat next to the slip I was aiming for, but it didn’t seem like much of a problem. “I’m watching, I’m watching!” I responded. As usual, I came in a bit too hot but was hesitant about slamming it into reverse because I knew that it would swing the bow to port - toward the dock, a good thing - and the stern to starboard - toward that tiny sailboat Joe seemed to be so worried about. “Reverse!” he screamed. “REVERSE!” I put it in and out of reverse carefully, watching to be sure the mounted barbecue grill didn’t hit a post or worse yet, the stern didn’t hit that little sailboat. We came to a stop quite nicely, I think, but Joe was still tense.
“You’re awfully nervous about this docking, don’t you think?” I said to him as he secured the lines. “You were so worried about that sailboat that I didn’t want to put it into reverse hard, like I usually do, so -“ He paused and looked at me. “First of all, I was more worried about you ramming the dock in front of us than the sailboat next to us, and second, that’s not the sailboat I was talking about. Turn around.”
I turned and saw, for the first time, a large mast and jib and their respective lines sticking out of the water. From the looks of it, about a 30-foot boat was under the water, very, very close to where I had motored in and I’d never even spotted it.
I see, said the blind woman.
Later, the owner of a large and stately Chris Craft told me that “during the hurricane” (I didn’t even ask which one at this point. Florida took it tough in ’04.), that particular sailboat had broken loose from somewhere and apparently spent much of the storm pounding against her powerboat. “And it was a concrete boat,” she concluded. “I’ve got a big hole in the bow and can’t fix it until the insurance comes in.”
Fort Myers Beach is a great place to be for New Year’s if that’s where you want to be, but we didn’t, so the frenzied road traffic and traffic jams added another notch to our trials-and-tribulations belt. Emotionally, at this point I was only operating with one oar in the water anyway, so I nearly went berserk when I found there were no rental cars available any closer than the airport! All of the major rental car companies had sold out to incoming holiday weekenders.
Within 24 hours, we entered a marina ($57/night), hailed a taxi ($30), rented a car ($40), I went to Wal-Mart to provision ($240) and Joe went to Boat U.S. to replace two dead Defender fenders and buy a new VHF radio ($300). Cha-CHING! Then we found a Laundromat and did six loads of laundry. I could barely walk by the time we got back to the boat, and the marina didn’t have any carts, nor easy access from parking to the dock, which explained why this particular marina was about $30 per night cheaper than others in the area. They are in the middle of an improvement phase too, so I would expect their prices to go up commensurate with additional amenities.
We were told the staff at the Fort Myers Beach Marina was “honest and professional,” and that proved to be true. Let me add generous and kind, too, because as our preparations for the next leg of cruising extended from two days to four, the marina manager knocked our price down to the monthly fee, prorated for a week, saving us a substantial amount.
The next day, while I re-organized the hold and stored provisions for the next leg, Joe returned the rental car to the airport and took a bus back to the downtown area ($1.75: we should have taken the bus to begin with), then took a trolley to the marina (twenty-five cents).
Fort Myers Beach Marina has one washer and one dryer, located in the back of house about ¼ mile down an adjacent side street. Since I didn’t know when the next opportunity might arise, I couldn’t bypass one more chance to do one more load of laundry the day before we shipped out. Mind you, the walk was not through a bad neighborhood, but it was a shaky neighborhood. It was noon.
When I located the mustard-yellow two-story house, I was not alarmed at the rusted Pinto with a swastika on the rear window that was parked in the front yard.
I was not alarmed at the emaciated older woman sitting outside the house in a lawn chair, smoking what appeared to be her first cigarette of the day and staring, bleary-eyed at the ground. She had four inches of white hair on her scalp and about 10 inches of shocking iodine-red hair spilling over her bony shoulders, and when I asked where the washer/dryer was located, she had to concentrate carefully. Finally, she whispered, “It’s around the corner in a room at the back.” She smiled apologetically. “I stayed up too late watching ‘Dances With Wolves.’ I’ve seen it a hundred times; didn’t need to stay up so late, but that Kevin Costner is a hottie.” I laughed and said, “I don’t think he’s that great of an actor, but . . .” and she nodded as we said it in unison: “He’s a hottie.”
I was not alarmed when I pulled two dryer-loads of clothing out of the single dryer-load dryer that were still damp and did not smell clean. I folded and stacked the wet, wrinkled missing launderer’s clothes neatly on a nearby table, and I was not even alarmed as I folded a pair of prison-stripes that had a man’s name and number imprinted on them.
What alarmed me was the washer’s final spin cycle. It was the loudest, rattliest, most terrifying spin cycle I have ever witnessed or heard. There have been quieter rocket launches. There have been steadier earthquakes. That washing machine was mounted on concrete and I edged toward the door when it began rumbling and trembling like a volcano about to erupt. I was afraid, very afraid.
We walked to the Fishmonger restaurant, a highly recommended establishment, and we had steak and lobster. Delicious! Our server was very gracious and accommodating too. The price was as good as its menu. Unlike our experience at the Fishmonger, most of Fort Myers Beach’s restaurants and bars were filled to capacity daily and the overworked staffs were often apathetic; some were even snippy. One morning when Joe wanted to go out for breakfast, I declined. “I don’t want to; it’s not worth the effort,” I said. When he returned, I asked how his dining experience was and he said, “Humiliating. They really didn’t want to feed me and I never got my jelly and it was too expensive.”
The next morning, Joe began to tackle a water leak under the sink and I served him cornflakes with a smile. Priceless.
NOAA Nautical Charts 411, 11006, 11013, 11426, 11438
Yippee-ki-yi-yay, I go my own way,
Back in the saddle again.
Yippee-ki-yi-yo, rockin’ to and fro,
Back in the saddle again.
- Gene Autry
We put away the 2004 U.S. Southern Waterway Guide and began working out of three reference books: The Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean: The Yucatan Coast of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Bay Islands of Honduras by Nigel Calder, Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast, including Guatemala's Rio Dulce by Captain Freya Rauscher, and Reeds Nautical Almanac 2009.
Our departure from Fort Myers Beach Marina was squirrelly; we had a sunken boat directly behind us in addition to the docked boats adjacent and in front of us. Our plan was to back out of the slip and continue in reverse, under the bridge and clear of the sunken boat, then forward. But the wind took my bow and I called up to Joe, “We have to change The Plan; I’m going to back out next to the sunken boat and then get out in forward.” He nodded. As I backed out, everything was fine and as I put it in forward, Joe kept saying, “Faster. Give it more gas,” then finally, ‘FORWARD MORE.” He jogged from the bow into the cockpit, shoved me aside and took the wheel. I sighed, got my cup of coffee and waved goodbye to a couple from Brownsburg, Indiana as we left the marina (Fort Myers Beach is lousy with Hoosiers, so much so that the bar televisions are tuned to Indiana University, Purdue University, Pacers and Colts games whenever possible.)
“You definitely have an anxiety thing about departure and take-off,” I commented as I sipped my coffee.
Joe nodded. “I had to get control of the boat, which you didn’t have. You’ve got it backwards. You come into a dock too fast and you are too slow when you leave the dock. You need enough gas to be able to control the boat.”
Okay, I’ll work on it. I now had four New Year’s resolutions: Dock Slower, Undock Faster, Don’t Plan and Let It Go.
Five minutes after we entered the Gulf of Mexico, I stripped down to my skivvies and reclined in a boat chair, reading my John Grisham book. Joe pointed out another sailboat in view and said, “They’re probably looking at you through binoculars.” I glanced over at the distant sailboat and laughed. “I met those guys this morning. First, I suspect they are not interested in women at all, and second, those guys are Germans. They’re probably naked by now. You can’t keep clothes on a German.”
Joe nodded. “That would explain a lot about you,” he replied.
Our passage from Fort Myers to the Dry Tortugas was estimated at 5 knots/hour for 24 hours; we averaged 6 knots/hour and made it in 20. For awhile we got off course, and Joe told me later, “We were going 7 knots! I didn’t want to slow down, so we stayed off course for awhile.” It was a lovely, smooth sail. Winds averaged 4 knots and seas 2-4. Seas were 2-4 inches, not feet. I loved it, of course, that the water barely rippled. The water at Ft. Myers was green blue in the Crayola crayon box. This water was translucent blue green.
The next day, we arrived and dropped anchor around 9:00 a.m. and went to bed, awakening at 3:00 p.m. There were 3 boats in the anchorage. Seaplanes took off and landed regularly, bringing tourists from the Keys. Joe inflated the dinghy and we motored over to Fort Jefferson.
Discovered by Ponce de Leon and named for the abundance of turtles on the island, the “Dry” part of “Dry Tortugas” was added later to let mariners know there was no water source on the island. The Dry Tortugas became a U.S. territory in 1821, proclaimed a national monument in 1935 and a national park in 1992. What’s most unique about Fort Jefferson is the fact that its construction was never completed. It is the largest coastal fort constructed in the 1800s and is also one of the most well-preserved. It was used as a federal prison during and after the Civil War and abandoned by the army in 1867.
While Joe studied the bird and fish charts, I visited the Park Ranger office for a current weather forecast. Ranger Willie Lopez pulled up a NOAA forecast and printed it for me. We dinghied back to the boat for sundowners and supper, and watched from the cockpit in amazement as the anchorage began to fill up with Florida boaters. For the second time, we saw the “green flash.” We’d heard about it, of course, but had never seen it. Staring at the sunset waiting for the green flash makes it even more fun to watch the sun set. By the time we went to sleep, there were over a dozen vessels anchored at the Dry Tortugas, not counting a hapless boater who couldn’t get his anchor set and gave up, returning to the Keys in the darkness.
A couple dinghied over to our boat and offered us part of their day’s catch. Since we’d already had supper, we refrigerated their fish and Joe cooked it for breakfast.
I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it was, sleeping with the hatches open that night. The gentle breeze was perfect, temperature-wise, and we barely moved in the anchorage.
The next morning, a 3-foot-long fish swam under the boat and Joe looked it up in our Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, Vol. 1: Myxiniformes to Gasterosteiformes (Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico) book. He decided it was either an Atlantic Angel Shark or a Lesser Electric Ray. Later, a school of fish circled the boat and went berserk when I drained what was left of the dishwater.
Joe listened to the cruisers’ nets and said, “Everybody is going somewhere because the weather is so nice.”
So we did too. By noon we were underway to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
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