Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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 @

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