Sunday, March 29, 2009

Egmont Key to Pine Island Sound/Charlotte Harbor/San Carlos Bay Area

Thursday, March 19, 2009
Last night we arrived in Egmont Key, a small island at the mouth of the inlet to Tampa Bay. Accessible only by boat, Egmont Key is a State Park and Wildlife Refuge. Ferries bring visitors to the northeast end of the key where they can explore the old lighthouse, walk along the beach, and spot the many birds on the island. We're anchored at the southeast end of the island, where we feel more protected from the north-northeast winds that bring waves across the bay.

Our trip to explore the island hasn't gone exactly as planned. Rene didn't want to battle the 90-pound dinghy outboard motor, so he's rowed the dinghy from our boat to the beach. Unfortunately there isn't a place to secure the dinghy, so he's walked the dinghy down the beach to the pier. There are "no trespassing" signs leading to a few buildings on the left, but hopefully we're okay leaving the dinghy here. Walking further down the beach towards the lighthouse, we see a huge blue heron. He's beautiful, and stands about 3' tall. He doesn't seem to be afraid of us, and poses nicely for a picture. Continuing down the beach, we begin to see "beach closed" signs. Okay, this is beginning to feel uncomfortable. First we've tied the dinghy up near a "no trespassing" sign, and now the beach seems to be off-limits from here to the lighthouse. This isn't going as we'd hoped! After the 3rd "closed" sign, we finally turn back. We're frustrated and disappointed that we haven't made it to the lighthouse. Still, that isn't enough to get us to paddle all the way to the north side of the island where the lighthouse stands. It's far enough to get back to Pipe Muh Bligh! Stacy mans the oars for the trip back to the boat, and we spend the rest of the day relaxing in the cockpit and doing boat chores. Tomorrow we'll head south at sunrise.

Friday, March 20, 2009
Flexibility is a good thing, right? We were planning to make the 20 mile trip from Egmont Key to Sarasota today. We've heard good things about Sarasota - beautiful city, great trolley system, and plenty of restaurants, shops, and grocery stores. We wanted to spend a few days there before continuing our journey down the Florida coast. Our first inkling of Sarasota's "bad karma" happened a couple of days ago, when Stacy read that Sarasota had passed a law in January making it illegal to anchor in Sarasota Bay for more than 72 hours. To give you a little background, many Florida cities have been in an ongoing battle with the cruising community for the past few years. Apparently some of the cities have problems with "derelict" boats in their harbors, which can mean run-down or abandoned boats, or anything that's a general eyesore to the owners of the multi-million dollar homes along the waterfront. Unfortunately, all boat-owners, including liveaboards who take care of their boats and full-time cruisers wanting to anchor in a nice spot for a few days, get thrown into the same "derelict" category. The state passed a law in 2006 allowing cruisers to anchor outside of an existing mooring field, but not all cities are following the state law. There have been cases of cruisers contesting the city codes in court and winning, but this is a long and expensive process. Anyway, Sarasota was further crossed off our list when we realized what a chore it would be to get into the harbor. Once again, Florida's shallow inlets have prevailed. Oh, well...we've been looking forward to the Boca Grande area, which based on the charts reminds Stacy of Washington's San Juan Islands. It's a 60-mile trip, so we've left Egmont Key at sunrise (7:30am in FLA) and hope to be in the Boca Grande channel around 6pm tonight.

6:30pm: we've made it! The winds have been mild all day, so we've motor-sailed down. We got to the Boca Grande channel at 6pm, and came around the north end of Cayo Costa island to our anchorage. There's a beautiful spot called Pelican Bay west of us, but the entrance is pretty shallow. We're a bit more unprotected here, but don't expect it to be much worse than Egmont Key. What a lovely area. Cayo Costa is a state park with cabins, campsites, and plenty of beaches for exploring. Hopefully we'll do that in the morning in our dinghy. For tonight, it's a boat drink, an easy dinner, and an early bedtime. We had a long day getting here!

Saturday, March 21, 2009
Well, the morning started off with good intentions. We were going to dinghy over to the mangroves on Cayo Costa and maybe go ashore to explore the island. Rene got the dinghy prepped, and his idea of getting the 90-pound outboard from the back rail to the dinghy using the topping lift was successful. One problem...the engine won't rev. He can start it, the engine idles, but it dies as soon as he tries to increase the power. Rene goes to work taking the cover off and running various tests, and Stacy goes online to get some troubleshooting ideas. The web doesn't offer any clear answers, but it does provide a marine repair yard about 20 miles south of us. Rene speaks to someone there, who tells us that it sounds like the ethanol has broken down and clogged up the carburetor. The outboard manual does mention that this can be a problem, and we're also told that ethanol can begin to break down in as little as a week to a month. Lesson learned: use the dinghy more often, and run the engine out of fuel if you're going to store it for awhile. The marine yard is closed till Monday morning, so we'll enjoy the rest of our weekend and will head to St. James City on the south end of Pine Island tomorrow.

Since last night's anchorage turned out to be a pretty wild ride thanks to the northeast winds, we've moved the boat 2.5 miles south to a more protected anchorage off the private resort island of Useppa. There were 3 other boats when we arrived, but are about 10 of us in all by sunset. What a gorgeous spot! There are amazing homes along the waterfront, and mangroves all around us. Across the channel is Cabbage Key, with more beautiful homes and mangroves to explore. We may not have a working dinghy engine, but we have kayaks! There's a field trip in our future...

Sunday, March 22, 2009
So we've changed our minds again. We were going to head to St. James City and the marine yard today, but have realized that it's 20 miles to the south. We still want to see Punta Gorda and its historical district, which is 20 miles north of us. St. James City is near Captiva and Sanibel Islands, and has always been on our agenda - just not quite this soon. We thought about going south to get to the boat yard Monday morning, then coming back to the north side of the area once our engine is fixed. However, that means going 20 miles south to St. James, then 40 miles north to Punta Gorda, then 40 miles south again. Since you're not supposed to sail in the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW), that's a lot of motoring that we'd just as soon avoid! Instead, we spend today exploring the mangroves and waterfront homes along Useppa Island in our kayaks, followed by a tour around Cabbage Key. Cabbage Key is a lovely little island across the ICW from Useppa that is ringed by mangroves and has a small restaurant and marina (and little else). We follow the coastline from the entrance channel clockwise, and circle the entire island. Truly a beautiful trip! We're amazed by the wildlife in the area - in our short trip around Cabbage Key, we saw dolphins, osprey, spoonbills, and others we can't name. After a short rest at the restaurant's boat ramp, we paddle back to Pipe Muh Bligh for lunch and a nap. Retirement is tiring! Tonight we'll stay at our same anchorage, and tomorrow morning we'll head to Punta Gorda for sightseeing and some much-needed grocery shopping. Fortunately, Punta Gorda has a free first-come, first-served day-use dock at Fishermen's Village, so at least we don't have to worry about needing a dinghy while there.

Monday, March 23, 2009
What a strange day! We left our little spot of Paradise at Useppa at 8am this morning for what we thought would be an easy trip north to Punta Gorda. Not so much... The weather forecast of 10-15 knot winds was completely off, and we found ourselves in 25-30 knot winds crossing Charlotte Harbor towards very dark skies. What happened to "sunny and high 70s"? The kitties were not happy (read "sick"), but we figured it was just as far to turn back as to keep going. Fortunately, the skies cleared by the time we got to Punta Gorda, and we reached the channel leading to Fishermen's Village around lunchtime. Fishermen's Village has shopping, restaurants, and a marina, and is about a mile from Punta Gorda's historic residential district. They have free daytime tie-ups, first-come-first-serve, to anyone visiting the shops or restaurants. We fumbled a bit with the tie-up at Harpoon Harry's (it's not easy lasso-ing those pilings!), but someone from the lunch crowd finally stopped laughing long enough to take pity on us and give us a hand. Once secured to the dock, we hopped off Pipe and enjoyed our first meal on land in nearly a week. Ah, heaven!

Next on the agenda: sightseeing in the historic district and groceries. Armed with our canvas shopping bags, we head north for the mile-walk past some beautiful old homes (many circa-1900) to the local Publix grocery store. Google says it's there, and when is Google wrong? Ahem. We enjoy the walk over. The weather is gorgeous, and there's a breeze blowing to keep us cool. We get to the place where Google says the Publix should be Publix! What the...? We walk back and forth a few times, and finally stop to ask someone at a nearby business. "Oh, there used to be a Publix there, but it was blown away by Hurricane Charley 4-5 years ago." Grrrr... Okay, back to the little convenience store we saw on our way over. It doesn't have much, but we're getting desperate. We grab lunch meat, cheese, bread, beer, and water...the staples! The store also has a small, cold rotisserie chicken in the deli case. It looks pretty wrinkled, but it becomes dinner. Back to the boat we go. Oh, one more stop...since that chicken looks pretty small, we stop at the ice cream shop at Fishermen's Village for a to-go cup for dessert. Groceries get dropped off at the boat, we have a last beer by the water in Punta Gorda, and motor back out of the channel in time for the 4pm high tide. We've found a semi-protected anchorage on the west side of Punta Gorda's peninsula, which will serve as a good jumping-off point for the 40-mile trip down to Pine Island in the morning.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
It's an uneventful trip to Pine Island. Charlotte Harbor is much kinder and gentler today than during yesterday's storm, and the winds are at our back. We set the sails for "wing and wing", which means the main is kept on one side of the boat while the jib is pulled to the opposite side using a pole attached to the front of the mast. The concept is like a spinnaker, but the execution is much easier when only two people are operating the boat. Before we know it we're doing 7+ knots, and we have a quick trip across Charlotte Harbor to connect with the Intercoastal Waterway near the Boca Grande inlet. From there, we have another 1-2 hours to our anchorage at Chino Island, a barrier island off Pine Island's west coast. The water stays deep fairly close to shore, and we'll need all the protection we can get from tonight's forecasted 15+ knot winds.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Fortunately the weather forecast was wrong again, because winds and waves were calm overnight. Thank goodness, since the wind shifted to a direction that would've made our "protected anchorage" useless. Rene has talked to the marine yard again about our outboard motor, and they've just received 3 other outboards with similar problems. On the plus side, this is something they see a lot and should be able to fix easily. The con is that it'll now be a couple of days before they can look at our motor. So, it's off to Sanibel Island we go! We're ready for a night in a marina where we can do laundry, have a nice meal, and refill our water tanks. Sanibel has a lovely little marina that should be deep enough for our boat, provided we arrive at high tide. We leave Chino Island for the 3-hour trip to Sanibel Marina. As the bird flies, the marina is less than 10 miles from us. However, Sanibel has recently rebuilt its 3 bridges that cross the causeway, and the 70' clearance bridge that we need is the one that's furthest away. There are a lot of small islands surrounded by 1-2' depths between us and the bridge, so we must stay in the channel to avoid running aground.

We arrive at Sanibel Marina at high tide (1pm) and, with some guidance from the marina, avoid the shoal at the entrance and tie up to the end of a T-dock. We're greeted by a huge dolphin swimming in the marina, along with some huge yachts and waterfront houses. So THIS is how the other half lives! With the boat secure and the first load of laundry running, it's time to bring out our fold-up bicycles for a spin. Sanibel has miles of bike trails, and judging by the traffic on the island's 2-lane roads, this is definitely the way to go. We bike to the historic Sanibel Lighthouse (built in 1854) and take a walk along the beautiful beach. We also take a ride to see more of the island and to stop off at the grocery store for a few staples. Fortunately we'll have a car in the next few days for a real shopping trip (more on that later), so we don't have to do any major provisioning on the bikes. Back home, we clean up and enjoy a fabulous dinner at Gramma Dot's in the marina. Blackened scallops for Rene and spinach & Boursin cheese-covered grouper for Stacy...yummy! We're stuffed from dinner, but bring a slice of Gramma Dot's homemade key lime pie to go with the fresh blueberry muffins that the marina will bring us for breakfast. Did we mention we're getting a lot more exersize than we used to?!

Thursday, March 26, 2009
Great news! Our friend Scott's father lives on Pine Island, on the same canal as the marine yard. Scott has talked to his dad, Frank, and has arranged for us to stay behind Frank's house. Frank has an extra dock that we can tie up to, along with a skiff that we can borrow to get the dinghy to the marine yard. Frank meets us at the outer marker of the channel at high tide to lead us to his house. There's plenty of water, and we have no problem getting into the canal. It's a gorgeous area, and there are boats of some kind in front of nearly every home. Frank leaves us to teach his Tai Chi class, but we'll see him again this evening to visit with him and his wife, Sharon, along with their dogs, Susie and Mama. In the meantime, we enjoy Frank's hospitality and take a dip in the pool, hose off the boat, and deliver the outboard to the yard.

Friday, March 27, 2009
This morning we got quite a surprise visitor...a 4' crocodile! Frank spotted him a the base of a waterfall near the mangroves and dock. As Frank approached, the croc jumped back into the water and hovered near the piling. It was exciting to see, but we're awfully glad he wasn't any bigger than that!

Now it's time for some shopping... Frank has loaned us his car to do a major provisioning run to the Winn-Dixie 7 miles up the road. You can't imagine how exciting it is to enter a grocery store if you haven't been able to do so for 3 weeks! We push our cart up and down every aisle, and go nuts over the "10 for $10" deals on canned goods and rice and potato side dishes. And fresh milk! We haven't had that since the crossing! The little things really do start to mean more when you can't get them as easily as you used to.

Tonight Frank and Sharon are taking us to Porkbelly's BBQ (along with seafood and Greek specialties - yummy!). We want to take them to dinner to thank them for their generosity, and this is a great local dinner spot. After dinner, we visit again with Frank and Sharon, and Frank lets us listen to his latest CDs. Besides being a NASA physicist and avid sailor, Frank has been composing and recording music for the past few years. He's currently releasing his 23rd and 24th CDs (island music along with blues & jazz), and we loved listening to them. If you haven't heard of "Island Frank", now's your chance! Go visit Frank's website at

Saturday, March 28, 2009

We've finally heard back from the marine yard. The ethanol had decomposed, and gunk built up in the engine. They had to clean the carburetor and replace the fuel filter and fuel hose/bulb. It's been a good lesson, and we're now armed with a bottle of fuel additive to prevent future build-ups. We borrow Frank's skiff again to pick up the engine, and decide that tomorrow will be the day to continue on our journey down the Florida coast. We enjoy another dinner out with Frank and Sharon, this time at the Lazy Flamingo in Bokeelia. We've had such a terrific time with them, and can't thank them enough for their kindness. Hopefully we'll see them again soon, maybe in the Florida Keys or the Bahamas.

Sunday, March 29, 2009
This morning has been the first rainy day we've had since leaving Kemah. It makes us feel lazy, and we manage to avoid all of the boat chores we should be doing outside. (At least it forces Stacy to work on the blog!) We finally bite the bullet at noon and Rene braves the rain to prep the boat. High tide is at 3:10pm, and we need to be ready by then (or before) to make it out of the canal and back to the ICW. Tonight we'll anchor near Sanibel and will head to Naples in the morning. It'll likely be our last stop before the 100-mile trip to Key West, and we're excited to see a new city.

The picture album for this post @

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Our Own: Tarpon Springs and Beyond

Saturday, March 14, 2009
Geoie’s taxi picked him up this morning, and he’ll get a rental car at the Panama City airport for the 400-mile drive to Tampa. This isn’t exactly how we expected the crossing to end, but we all had a great time. On to the next part of our adventure!

Rene and I left Panama City for Tarpon Springs around noon…or 1pm, or 11am. We really aren’t sure. We had assumed we were on Eastern time when we got to Florida, and changed the chartplotter and laptop clocks to reflect this. As it turns out, Panama City is still on Central time. (We assumed Stacy had changed her watch, even though she hadn’t, which was why we were on time to Free Beer Friday at the beer garden.) Once again, winds are from the S-SE. Motor-sailing it is. It turns out we need to work on our cruising time estimates and how they relate to departure and arrival times. If that’s confusing, think about this…you NEVER want to transit a new channel in the dark if you can help it. Leaving around lunchtime, assuming it’ll take us 34-40 hours, means we’ll arrive in Tarpon Springs sometime between 9pm and 6am. Sunset is at 7:45pm, and sunrise is at 7:45am. There’s no way we can make it before sunset, but perhaps we can slow down the boat enough to arrive close to sunrise.

Sunday, March 15, 2009
Those crazy wind gods are at it again. We finally have good boat speed – more than we want. At this point, we’re looking at an arrival time between midnight and 2am. Tarpon Springs lies on the Anclote River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico about 3 miles downriver from town. The river is dredged to 8-12 feet, depending on tides, but depths outside the channel can be as low as 1-5 feet. For a sailboat that needs about 5’2’’ of water to prevent us from running aground, this is not the place you want to sail/motor through in the middle of the night. Time to depower, or reduce sail area. With both sails up, we were doing over 6 kts. Lowering the main, we still managed over 5 kts. Now’s when we’d like to see those 3 kt boat speeds we had during the crossing.

Thank goodness, the winds died (and shifted to the wrong direction) this evening. We’re back on the motor, and have slowed ourselves down to the point where we expect to arrive between 4am-6am. After another look at the chart plotter, we should have deep enough waters between the channel and Anclote Key (outside the mouth of the river) to anchor there for a few hours until daylight.

Monday, March 16, 2009
Surprise! As usual, the trip into the channel has taken longer than expected, so we’re at the mouth of the river at sunrise. Perfect. Now we can traverse the shallow channel to Tarpon Springs in daylight. We spend the next hour working our way upriver, and reach town around 8:30am. The city marina, which is in the heart of downtown near the tourist center, is our first choice. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to reach them for the past hour. We call another marina on the opposite side of the river, and are told that they have space. One problem…the approach is fairly shallow, and we’re an hour before low tide. The marina guides us in, but we hit a shallow spot and are stuck. Rene revs the engine…forward, back, forward, back, increasing RPMs and shouting a few choice words at our situation. Stacy has read that many boats go aground in Tarpon Springs…will it be our turn to call TowBoatUS? After a puff of black smoke, we’re finally on the move…for a moment. As we start to back up, the boat swings around and nearly hits a channel marker. The mud stops us again, and we’re able to maneuver to finally get out of the area. Just as we secure a spot at another marina downriver, the city marina (which is still 30’ off our bow) finally calls us back to tell us they’ll have a slip available after 12pm. Back down the river we go, this time to anchor off a public beach. It’s a lovely spot, about 3 miles from town, and we might’ve stayed there if we hadn’t planned to tour the downtown area and visit Stacy’s college friend, Sue, the following day.

We spend the next 3 hours on boat projects: cleaning the boat, airing out damp clothes and linens, and fixing the now loose engine belt. What a productive morning! At noon, we head back to the city marina for our slip right off the sponge docks and near the Greek restaurants. What a convenient spot, and it’s only about 2 miles from Sue’s house. Best of all, we arrive at high tide, and have no problems with the shallow area from this morning. There is, unfortunately, one problem with the city marina slips. They’re too narrow for Pipe Muh Bligh’s humongous derrierre! We need to go stern in to step onto the 6’ finger piers, so we try to back in between the two outer pilings. After rubbing against one and nearly hitting the other (not to mention the neighboring boat), Rene shares a few more choice words and we decide this just isn’t going to work. We head to an alternate marina back downriver and are able to tie up alongside their fuel dock. It’s twice the price of the city marina, but at this point, we just want a nice, easy place to tie up.

Tonight we’re going into town for dinner. Tarpon Springs is a Greek community that once had a thriving sponge diving industry. Tourism has replaced sponge diving as the real revenue generator in the area, but Tarpon Springs is still known as the “Sponge Capital of the World”. For us, the best part of all this history is the food! Gyros, lamb kebabs, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, hummus, pita bread… We tried a bit of everything at Hellas Restaurant, and it was all amazing. Our marina was about 1.6 miles from town, and we were happy to walk back after dinner given everything we ate. We even have something to look forward to – baklava from Hellas’ own bakery to go with our morning coffee!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Are you wearing your green?
Today we got to sleep in…no 2-hour watches, no wake-up calls at 4am. We managed to get up before 9am and had a leisurely morning doing boat chores, reading e-mails, and catching up on Facebook. You never realize how much you take internet access for granted until you go without it for a week! We finally walk into town for lunch around 1pm. Dinner last night was so fantastic that we’re going back for more Greek food. This time we’ll try Plaka’s, a casual spot whose gyro sandwiches are supposed to be some of the best around. They’re certainly the biggest we’ve ever seen, and we’re stuffed when we walk out. We have a couple of hours to wander through the sponge shops, soap shops, and Greek markets, and Sue will pick us up later this afternoon for a BBQ at her house.

One of Stacy’s favorite things about this part of the trip is that she gets to see old friends from Embry-Riddle. Sue and her husband, Ted, have lived in Tarpon Springs for the past 8 years, and they’re the real reason we’ve stopped to visit the Greek village. Sue’s parents are also in town for a visit, and the 6 of us have a wonderful evening catching up and laughing about old times. We plan to be in Florida for a few more weeks, and again when we come back through in the Fall en route to the Bahamas. Hopefully we’ll get to see Sue and Ted again soon!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Goodbye, Tarpon Springs…hello, Egmont Key! This morning we left Tarpon Springs at sunrise to make the 30-mile journey to Egmont Key, at the mouth of the Tampa Bay inlet. We finally got the winds we were hoping for – 10-15 kts out of the NE…perfect for heading south. Pipe Muh Bligh averaged boat speeds of 7.5 kts most of the way down, and we even hit 8.3 kts at one point. We love our Winnebago! We finally powered her down a bit for the kitties since she was heeling pretty hard, but still made speeds of 7+ kts. Even when we reefed the main, we were still able to do 6+. We expected the trip to take 7-8 hours, but thanks to the higher speeds, we arrived in the Tampa Bay channel at 2pm.

We’re now anchored off the SE end of Egmont Key. Weather reports said we’d get 10-15 kt winds out of the east, which might’ve made for a rough anchorage. When we got here, we were able to anchor in 14’ of water pretty close to shore, and while we’re bouncing a bit, we feel comfortable staying here overnight. Tomorrow we’ll dinghy in to explore the island, and will overnight here again before heading further south.

Pictures from our Florida West Coast trip @

The Crossing: Galveston to Florida

Friday, March 6, 2009
Today we’re finally leaving Watergate Yachting Center, our official home for the past 8 months (and the boat’s home for the past year and a half). Rene has managed to get half of his wine secured in the stern, and has organized the lazarette like you wouldn't believe. Stacy's car was picked up yesterday, and will be shipped to her mom in Sun City, AZ. We filled the car with boxes of things we aren't quite ready to give up, and a few other items went to Kat for Goodwill in Galveston. Believe it or not, the storage unit is empty. Our friends, John and Bonnie, are taking care of the rest of the wine and will come see us for a combo vacation/wine delivery trip later in the year. Other than that, we really don't have any possessions left in TX!

As nautical superstition says you can’t begin a journey on a Friday (anyone know where that started??), we’re going to the Teacup next to Galveston Yacht Basin to anchor out tonight. The real journey will begin tomorrow, when we leave Galveston to head to Florida. We managed to leave our WYC slip at 2:10pm CST. We’d had one last marina BBQ with our neighbors the night before, and Kat, Jim, Kitty, and Rick were around today to see us off. Kat took pictures of us leaving and posted them to facebook…thanks, Kat! After doing a few doughnuts near the fuel dock waiting for a spot to tie up, we headed out into Galveston Bay at 3pm CST. Winds were on the nose, so we motored all the way to Galveston. After entering Houston Ship Channel at Boater’s Cut at 4pm, we arrived in the Teacup at 6:30pm. We had an easy dinner of hamburgers and potato salad, and Rene dinghied to the fuel dock to pick up Geoie (our 3rd crew member) around 10pm. Not wanting to hassle with putting the outboard motor on the dinghy after dark, Rene rowed to the fuel dock and back. Who says you don’t get any exercise living on a boat?

Saturday, March 7, 2009
We’re off! We raised anchor at the Teacup at 7:50am, and left the Galveston jetties at 8:45am. As expected, winds are S to SE – right on the nose. We’ll have to engine out about 100 miles to get beyond the rigs, and will head east from there. First stop – Tarpon Springs, FL. The first leg was rough on the kitties. Tux and Tawny were both seasick within the first hour, and left gifts from both ends on the rugs, sofa, and beds. Good thing we have plenty of 409 and clean bedding! We’ll have to find out whether there’s any such thing as seasickness pills for cats. The sun has set, we’ve had our first dinner for the trip, and it’s time to start the overnight shifts. We’ll have 2 people on watch at night to keep up with the offshore platforms and big ships. We’re each on watch for 4 hours – 2 hrs as primary, 2 hrs as backup – then down below for 2 hours of sleep. Stacy’s on from 6pm-10pm and 12am-4am, Geoie’s on from 8pm-12am and 2am-6am, and Rene is on from 10pm-2am and 4am-8am. During the day, we take turns on watch and try to catch up on as much sleep as we can. Our first visitors of the trip…dolphins to starboard at 9:30pm!

Sunday, March 9, 2009
Sometime after 2am…winds are from the south, boat speed is 5.5-6 kts. Waves are 5-7 ft. The boat is rocking so much that it’s like being in a washing machine. Tawny has come out from hiding under the couch, and is trying to keep her balance on the top step. Stacy held her on her lap in the cockpit for awhile, and Tawny settled in under the cockpit table at 3:30am. 6am shift change…after vomiting in the cockpit, Tawny went below to the aft cabin and peed on the bed. Nooooo! Poor kitty, and poor crew. After much 409, Febreeze, and Lysol, the bed still isn’t the same for the rest of the week.

7:30am: we’re finally sailing! We raised the sails after sunrise, and the boat speed dropped to 3-4 knots. It’s slow, but a lot more comfortable for everyone. Winds are 10-12 from the SSE, and we’re bearing 84°M to Tarpon Springs.

Fuel note: our fuel gauge STILL doesn’t work after being repaired/replaced again last month, so we’re keeping track of our engine hours and will try to calculate an hourly usage at the end of the trip. So far, we’ve engined 26.7 hours at 2800 RPM.

Monday, March 9, 2009
Interesting night watch! At 2am, we passed by an unlit rig within a half-mile. It showed up on radar (barely), but we were so focused on the lit rigs surrounding us that we spotted it pretty late. Scary! Other night shift experiences:
· A pod of spotted dolphin riding our bow at sunrise
· A close encounter with a fishing boat and an oil rig crew boat
· An almost full moon in a clear sky – beautiful “moonset”
· An exhausted sparrow who badly needed a rest and was willing to share the cockpit with us

We’ve also veered off our course, so we’re motor-sailing back to the rhum line. The morning winds are extremely light, making this quite a challenge. We make it to the rhum line at 11:55am, but tack back over at 12:05. The winds have shifted further east, so to keep a 60° wind angle, we need to bear 45°M (northeast). What happened to the SSE winds that were forecasted?? So much for sailing…we start our engine at 1:50pm to motor-sail. That way, we can maintain a wind angle of 30° and stay closer to course.

7:15pm: things are getting weird! We’ve come up against a line of idle ships (BIG ones) lined up to go into a Louisiana channel (or so we think). Their anchors are down, but they seem to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. There are at least 5 ships, and we can see more ships behind the first line. Rene has tried to reach the boat captain of the first one to see if we can pass behind it, but no response so far. We finally make a run for it, and the ship’s stern lights up like a Christmas tree. That, and a voice finally comes on the radio calling for us. Oh, crap – he’s a long-liner and we can’t go behind him. More doughnuts, and we finally cross in front of him as fast as we can go (which most of you know, isn’t very fast in a sailboat).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Happy Birthday, Rene!
We’re motor-sailing again today, thanks to light, variable winds. (Where, exactly, are the forecasted 10-15kt SSE winds?) We’ve done a few boat projects, rested, and listened to the weather. The winds are forecasted to turn east for the next 3 days (very bad for us), and our fuel supply must be getting low. Our fuel “guesstimates” based on Veracruz say we use about 2 gallons per hour at 2800 RPM (full motoring), and one gallon per hour at 1400 RPM (motor-sailing). At this point, we’re about 300 miles from Tarpon Springs and believe we have about 40 gallons left. We’ve even started a poll to see when the fuel will give out. Stacy says 3am, Rene bets 6am, and Geoie says noon. With eastern winds, we won’t be able to motor-sail into Tarpon Springs and can’t make it fully motoring with only 20 hours of fuel. Tarpon Springs just doesn’t seem to be a possibility at this point. After much discussion, we’ve decided to let the winds take us where they may and head towards Destin. There we’ll be able to fuel up and put Geoie in a rental car back to Tampa to make his Sunday morning flight. We adjust our course, turn off the engine, and listen to the water lapping against the hull. The winds aren’t cooperating, but at least we’re sailing again! And who comes to join us after the engine shuts down? More dolphins…

Oh boy. As soon as we start tracking to Destin, the winds shift to the southeast. We could still make Destin, but see a better option: Panama City. Destin has an extremely narrow and shallow channel into the harbor, and is a smaller city. Panama City has a much easier entrance, good facilities, and is closer to Tarpon Springs. Plus, it gives us a good wind angle for sailing. After one more adjustment to the auto pilot (our trusty crew member, “Otto”), we settle in to 10-knot winds, 5+ kts of boat speed, and smooth seas of 1-3’. This is what sailing is all about, even if we are going in the wrong direction!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The wind gods have a really twisted sense of humor. Since leaving Galveston, we’ve had some good strong winds and some annoyingly light winds, but we’ve yet to have winds coming from the direction that we need. We’ve motor-sailed on most days to accommodate the wind angle, and even changed our destination last night to sail with the winds and conserve fuel. We had a gorgeous sail last night for about 5-6 hours before the winds dropped to 3-5 kts around 3am. We tried to ride it out for an hour, but finally turned the iron jib (motor) back on at 4am. 6am shift change…guess where the winds are coming from? The east as forecasted perhaps? Noooo…the south to southwest! Arrrggggghhhhhh. We’ll keep motor-sailing to Panama City and see how far our fuel takes us. Fingers crossed for higher winds!

The day gets even more interesting at sunset. Just as the sky begins to darken, Rene sees two distress flares to starboard. They’re quite far off, and radar doesn’t pick anything up in a 48-mile radius. On top of that, the flares are extremely short-lived (~ 3 seconds), not like the parachute flares that last longer. He sees two more flares in the sky, and gets on VHF to see if anyone else is listening and has seen the flares. No responses. Just as Stacy starts looking for the US Coast Guard SSB frequency, we see 5 more flares light up the sky further ahead of us. This time, we’re able to see the plane that’s dropping the flares. Apparently it’s a military training exercise of some sort. We’re aware of military practice firing ranges in the Gulf, but haven’t heard any announcements on channel 16. We’re relieved that this has been an exercise, until we hear what sounds like an explosion close to the boat. Sonic boom, or is Pipe Muh Bligh under attack??

Thursday, March 12, 2009
The winds are crazy! Once again, we had good winds for sailing to Panama City last night. But by 11pm, what started out as 10-12 kts from the SSE changed to “variable” or “all over the freaking place” with wind speeds of 3-5 kts. The wind angle instrument needle even started doing 360°s. At 2am, the fog rolled in and was like pea soup by 6am. We turned on the motor again for the last few miles to Panama City, as winds shifted to the northeast – yes, right on the nose – and gave us a boat speed of only 3.6kts. We’ve come upon the outer marker for Panama City after 9am, and the fog is still incredibly dense. Visibility is less than an eighth of a mile, and commercial traffic is filling the airwaves on VHF to alert each other of their positions. Stacy gets on VHF to join the mix, and soon 8-10 boats are calling out channel markers and sending whistle signals. It took nearly an hour to complete the channel, and we passed 5-6 fishing trawlers, a navy boat, and a 165’ research vessel. Nothing like the fear of being run over in a channel to get your blood pumping in the morning!

Once we made it to the end of the channel, the fog lifted and we were able to see the Panama City Marina ahead of us. We made a few calls to the marina and were led to the fuel dock. Thinking we were going to need at least 80 gallons to replenish our 100gal tank, imagine our surprise when we only needed 50 gallons. We’ll definitely be paying Catalina a visit to repair the fuel gauge once and for all when we get to Florida’s east coast. On the plus side, we were able to get a transient berth at the marina. We spent the day doing laundry, cleaning the boat, napping and a “family deal” Pizza Hut dinner, and decided to spend another night to enjoy what Panama City had to offer. Spring Break, here we come!

Friday, March 13, 2009
What a beautiful marina. Contrary to the high marina prices we’ve heard about and expect to find further south, Panama City’s municipal marina only charges $1.25/ft with a BoatUS membership ($1.50/ft without). They have laundry services, showers, a ship store, a welcome package, and are a block from downtown. A trolley stops up the road from the marina, and runs all the way to the beach…with 3 connections, of course! Trolley #1: we started out this morning planning to go to the local West Marine to replace the bulbs in our navigation lights, but didn’t spot the store where we expected it to be. As luck would have it, our trolley connected to the beach line. We’ve already altered our course once this trip…why not another one? We ride our current trolley to the end of its line. Unfortunately, our trolley is 10 minutes behind schedule, so we’ve missed the connection and must wait 50 minutes for the next one. None of us are big on waiting, so we decide to walk over an extremely long bridge to the beach side. We end up at the next trolley stop about 10 minutes before it’s expected to arrive. Looking at our trusty tourist map, the beach bars look really far away. Seems like a good time to get back on the trolley. Trolley #2: here we are again, sitting next to all of the people we saw on trolley #1. The walk across the bridge was nice, but the people who waited at the 1st stop for 50 minutes look a lot cooler than we feel. No worries…we just need to connect one more time, and we should be at the beach. Sun, sand, lunch, and cold beer. We realize that we left the marina 2 hours ago. Are we there yet?? Trolley #3: okay, this is cheating. Trolley #2 was late and missed the connection, so they decided to keep going (following the trolley #3 route). This isn’t on our trolley map, but we figure not everyone on the trolley can be wrong, right?

Finally…we reach Pier Park. It’s a cute little pastel-colored shopping center with stores, restaurants, and BARS, right across the street from the beach. We’re starving! Oh yeah, and thirsty. Where to go, where to go? Wild Wings…smells good. Jamaican place…probably has good jerk chicken. Ahhh…Hoffbrau Beer Garden. We have a winner!! Armed with a half-liter of Weissbier, German sausages for the guys, and a Reuben for Stace, we begin to feel like we’re on Spring Break just like the college kids around us. Heaven!

After lunch, we wander across the street to the beach. For those of you who haven’t been to the Florida panhandle, GO! The sand is soft and white, and the water is a gorgeous turquoise color. Galveston Bay looks nothing like this! We head down the beach for a mile or so, walking in the very cold (65° or so) surf and watching the co-eds. We’re definitely overdressed! We stop in a little beach bar, but leave after one Corona. Between the music and the drunken screaming around us, we’re feeling a little out of our element. Time to head back to the beer garden…we can just make it for “Free Beer Friday”, which starts at 6pm! So “what is Free Beer Friday?”, you ask? The beer garden opens a wooden keg of their choice, and beer is free until the keg is empty. The bonus? Whoever gets the last beer from the keg gets to drink for free for the night. (Remember…this IS spring break!) You wouldn’t believe the people watching. It’s quite a study in drinking etiquette. First there’s the “college loop”: the college guys stand in line, get their beer, and then immediately head back to the end of the line to finish said beer before reaching the bar for a refill. (Now why didn’t we think of that?) Whoever has the largest stack of plastic cups at the end of the night wins. Next is the German beer virgin (five-point-what??). As Rene overheard one Breaker say, “Dude – this stuff is really strong!” Finally, there’s “Keystone Light” guy (sorry, Dave!). Mr. Keystone is wearing a cowboy hat made of – what else? – a Keystone Light box. Keystone is doing okay until a lovely waitress comes around with shots of German liquors. Rene is familiar with the stuff, and won’t go near it. One shot is a fig-flavored vodka…Mr. Keystone thinks it’s pretty good. The next shot is Killepitsch, which – according to Rene – is like Jagermeister on steroids. Not so good unless you’re freezing your tukas off in the North Sea. But hey, we’ve had a few free beers ourselves, and we’re not above egging the poor guy on. “Hey Keystone, you’ve GOT to try the Killepitsch!” Then his friends get into the game, and it’s all over. Keystone gets a Killepitsch, and disappears after about 5 minutes. Ahhh, the stories he’ll have to tell when he gets home!

Later that night, we finally leave Pier Place to have dinner closer to the marina. Our waitress from the beer garden recommended a seafood place called Bayou Joe’s, and we’re game. We hail a taxi and head back to the mainland. After a few turns down back streets, the driver gets directions from a passerby. Fortunately, Bayou Joe’s is right around the corner. We arrive at 8:50pm, and they close at 9pm. Nooo! Stacy’s Catholic guilt kicks in and she wants to let the employees go home. Rene heads in and gets the waitress to take our order. Stacy could hear the cooks grumble from the kitchen about staying late, but the food was well worth it. Crabcakes, tuna, and shrimp scampi…yummy! We scarfed down our food, and got out of there by 9:30pm. After a 10-minute walk back to the marina, we were pretty much ready to crash. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Geoie as he gets a rental car and drives down to Tampa. He’ll spend the night there and flies back to Houston on Sunday.

Pictures from the crossing @