First of All –
- First time feeling the surge of Gulf swell
- First sighting of a leaping manta ray
- First bird sighting: American oystercatcher
- St. George Island
- Dog Island
- Miles Cruised today: Power: 29; Sail: motordailed for 3 hours
- Total Miles Cruised to date: 1,786
- Hours Underway: 5
- Fuel: 15.3 (6 miles per gallon average from Panama City)
- Morning House Battery Reading: 14.2 (plugged in)
- Wind Speed: 12; Wind Direction: SE
- Daily High Temperature: 80
- Water Temperature: 74
Ah, Carrabell. How many thousands, yes thousands, of Great Loop cruisers before us have paused here before venturing forth on their Gulf crossing? Carrabell is the last sheltered port on the shallow and remote Big Bend of Florida, where one can fuel up and provision prior to a crossing. How many of those cruisers tried, mostly in vain, to push back their feelings of anxiety over a significant open water passage. Larger and faster boats generally opt for a direct overnight 170 mile passage to Tarpon Springs. Slower boats and those with shallow draft have the option of a shorter crossing (65 miles) to Steinhatchee, followed by a couple of coastal legs on open water until reaching Tarpon Springs and a resumption of protected waters. In either case, the Gulf crossing is a significant undertaking in a small boat, and the most challenging passage on the Great Loop route. How many of those loop cruisers stopping here have grown increasingly restless as unfavorable weather turned a short stay into an extended one? Carrabell is rife with stories of cruisers who were pinned down here for two or even three weeks. I have even heard of one cruiser who simply stopped at Carrabell and went no further. On this Halloween, I wonder whether Carrabell has tricks or treats in store for us.
Our passage to Carrabell starts right off with challenges. For most of the night it remains calm on the municipal dock in Appalachicola. However, around 3 in the morning I awake to the rhythmic motion of the boat. A wind has piped up and a light chop is entering our channel. I rise to a red sunrise on the horizon. The breeze is steady at 10 mph. Since we’re tied up with the stern facing the wind, it will be difficult to get free of the dock without colliding with the stern of the boat in front of us. I decide to turn the boat around, using spring lines. It’s a bit of work, but thanks to the help of a cruiser on another boat, we manage it. With the bow facing into the wind I have good control and am able to easily swing out into the channel without mishap. Sandy steers while I secure lines and prepare the boat for the run to Carrabell. As with most early morning departures, Sandy prepares breakfast after we get underway, and she takes the wheel while I have my breakfast.
The route follows channel markers out for a couple of miles of shallow water before meeting up with the GICW, where we swing east. The south easterly wind is nearly on the nose on the way out, and it kicks up a rough 1 to 2 foot chop. After we make our turn to the east it is still too much on the nose for the use of a stabilizing sail, but the further east we go, the closer we get to St. George Island. The increasing proximity to the island reduces fetch and makes for a more comfortable ride. We make a dogleg turn toward the northeast, and this gives me a good sailing angle, so I pay out the genoa and we motor sail at 6.5 mph with the engine turning at just 2000 rpm. Another jog to the east puts us closer to the wind, but I’m still able to motor sail comfortably on a shortened jib. We pass by the east end of St. George Island and gaze out onto the open Gulf, through East Pass. This is the route which loop cruisers generally take to start their crossing. We pick up a rolling 3 foot swell, pushing in between St. George and Dog Islands. A taste of things to come.
While we’re underway, crossing St. George Sound, we’re captivated by a drama playing out some 60 miles to our east. A 29 foot cabin cruiser, making the crossing from Carrabell to Steinhatchee just like we soon expect to do, has radioed the Coast Guard. We only hear the Coast Guard side of the conversation, but it sounds serious. The captain is singlehanding the boat, and it’s taking on water. For the next couple of hours the Coast Guard maintains regular and steady radio contact with the cabin cruiser, obtaining critical information, determining position, and providing important advice. The boat is under power, however, it sounds doubtful that it will make it before filling with water. A tow boat heads out to meet the vessel in trouble, and meets up with it close to the Steinhatchee channel entrance. The leaking boat has lost power at that point, and it sounds like the captain might have to abandon ship. The rescue vessel has brought a pump, and with a helicoptor hovering overhead to monitor the situation, it seems that the emergency gets successfully resolved. This episode underscores how easily things can go wrong out on the water, but also how well recreational boaters are served by the U.S. Coast Guard and the fleet of commercial tow boats. It also proves just how essential a good VHF radio and GPS are to safety out on the water.
We have another bit of excitement as we near Carrabell. We’re being entertained by the terns which soar and flutter overhead before swooping down to catch a meal. The stately pelicans are not to be outdone, alternately gliding along just above the waves or plunging in dramatic, splashing dives for fish. Dolphins play alongside our boat. While watching this show Sandy is startled to see a manta ray launch itself out of the water and several feet in the air. I miss seeing it, but do observe the large splash it made when it fell back into the water.
We enter the Carrabell River channel around 1pm and prepare to dock. I’ve contacted the Moorings Marina by cell phone. They have a guy at the fuel dock to take our lines. It seems like a nice place, with good facilities. We will stay here at least one night, and longer if weather prevents us from making our crossing right away. The wifi connection is good, and I’m able to catch up on email, and get our new cell phone put into service. Sandy does a laundry, which turns out to bring its own challenges. The washer works fine, but the drier is broken. A guy from the marina comes over and drives her over to a commercial laundry where she dries the clothes. When they’re done he comes by again and picks her up. Not quite as convenient as doing the wash back home, but such is life while on a boat. We’re both too tired to fix dinner so go out for dinner at a small restaurant across the street. Sandy orders grouper, which is excellent, as is the ribeye steak I have. Before we know it, it’s gotten late and we need to turn in.