Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Crystal River to St. Petersburg, FL

On Wednesday, December 20th, we gathered our laundry together and dinghied over to Bob and Phyllis' house around noon to borrow their car to go to the laundromat and grocery store. We then returned to the boat to get cleaned up in preparation for dinner with Bob, Phyllis and Hal (from the sailboat) that evening.

As we were getting ready, I noticed a houseboat that had been anchored behind our boat appeared to be dragging anchor and was continuing to get closer to Hal's sailboat. We watched it for a few hours and finally decided to radio Hal at Bob and Phyllis' house to alert him. Bob and Hal came out to Kings Bay in Bob's Bayliner to check it out and ended up calling the Coast Guard to report what was happening. They, in turn, managed to get in touch with the owner who said he would take care of it.

Since Bob was already out in his boat, we rode with him and Hal to the house for dinner. Bob grilled Caribbean Jerk Chicken and Phyllis made some wonderful Caribbean-style rice and a killer salad. After a great meal, we settled in for a game of Mexican Trash Train which lasted until 1:00 a.m., at which time Bob took us all back to our boats in his Bayliner.

Having stayed up so late Wednesday evening, we decided not to leave Crystal River until Friday and spent Thursday lounging around the boat and catching up on e-mail. We left Crystal River shortly before 8:00 a.m. Friday morning and wound our way through the long river channel into the Gulf. We left at low tide, so the water was much shallower in spots than when we originally came into Kings Bay and we experienced some tense moments before we finally got into deeper water.

It was a windy day with some pretty rough water, and the eight-hour trip to Anclote Key turned out to be exhausting as we dodged literally hundreds of crab pots along the way. Crab pots are big cages (crab traps) with ropes connected to floats on the water. The floats are roughly between the size of a softball and a soccer ball and are difficult to spot in rough water, so we had to constantly be on watch for them. If you run over one, the rope connecting the float and the cage gets tangled in your prop and the only way to get it off is to get in the water, swim under the boat to the prop and cut the rope. Fortunately, we haven't had to do that... yet.

This is a crab boat checking its traps in Kings Bay where we were anchored.

We reached Anclote Key about 4:00 p.m. and anchored in the wind and rough water. We were hoping the island would offer some protection from the elements, but it didn't and we continued to bounce around on the waves and swing in the wind. Even though storms were forecast to move in overnight, we were both so exhausted that we managed to sleep right through them and woke up Saturday to a beautiful, calm morning. Even though the boat's depth finder indicated that we were in five to six feet of water, it looked more like two feet as we could clearly see the grassy bottom, along with our chain and anchor which was now behind us!

After getting the dinghy down, Todd took Buddy to shore and we then went over to the island to look for seashells. When we returned to the boat Todd called Chicago Mike who we met this fall, along with his brother Paul, when we were tied up at Waterfall Cove on Pickwick Lake. They both live in Chicago and were in Tennessee visiting local friends, Tena and Keith. We had received an e-mail from Mike in response to our holiday letter and learned that he was in Clearwater, FL visiting his parents. Since we had to go right through Clearwater on our way to St. Petersburg, we decided to leave Anclote Key and spend Saturday night in Clearwater.

These are the shells we collected on Anclote Key. As you can see, the sand dollars are much bigger than those we found on Crooked Island.

Todd consulted the Cruise Guide and found a great municipal anchorage in Clearwater right next to a restaurant called Frenchy's, so we made arrangements to meet Mike later that afternoon. The trip took about four hours, and I spent most of that time trying to get our computer navigation system to work. Fortunately, we were back in the Intracoastal Waterway once we left Anclote Key and it wasn't too difficult to navigate without it. We met Mike at Frenchy's late Saturday afternoon where he treated us to a nice dinner, and we spent the rest of the evening checking out the nightlife in Clearwater before returning to the boat around midnight.

Todd and I with Chicago Mike at Kelly's Place, one of Clearwater's "hotspots."

Our anchorage in Clearwater.

Mike spent the night with us on the boat, so Todd took him back to shore Sunday morning and we began the final leg of our journey to St. Petersburg around 10:00 a.m. The majority of the twenty-five miles between Clearwater and St. Petersburg is in a "No Wake" zone due to the highly developed (both commerical and private) shoreline, so it took us about four hours to reach Cathy's house.

If you have been reading our blog from the beginning, you may recall that we met Cathy last February when we looked at a 42-foot trawler that was tied up to her dock. When we later bought "Life's2Short," Cathy graciously allowed us to have the boat delivered to her dock where we met up with Mike & Mary Hall in April and began our trip to Mobile. And we are grateful, once again, to have the use of her dock while we are in St. Petersburg, as are Mike & Mary whose boat "What Daze It?" is also tied up here.

A view of "Life's2Short" and "What Daze It?" at Cathy's beautiful home in St. Petersburg.

Although the weather on Sunday was very nice, storms were forecast for Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day. As predicted, the wind picked up overnight Sunday and by 9:00 a.m. Christmas morning, the day-long rain began. Todd and I spent a quiet day on the boat and were relieved to be tied up to a dock as there were several thunderstorm and tornado watches and warnings in the area. In fact, a tornado touched down just north of Tampa and either damaged or destroyed several area homes; fortunately, we only had wind and rain to deal with.

By Tuesday, the rain had pretty much moved through, but it was still cloudy, windy and much cooler. Todd took one of Mike & Mary's bikes and rode into town to get some engine parts and oil and then spent a good portion of the day doing boat maintenance (replacing deteriorated fuel lines, changing the oil, etc.) while I worked on the blog. Todd also put a new wheelbarrow together for Cathy and did some yard work which is part of our payment for docking the boat here over the next few weeks.

Wednesday dawned sunny and cool and Todd continued the yard work while I got things ready to go to Orlando on Thursday. Cathy is going to drop us off somewhere near the Port of Tampa Thursday morning, and Jennifer and Mark will pick us up and take us back to Orlando with them. We will probably be in Orlando through next weekend, so have a safe and Happy New Year and we will be back in 2007.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reaching Florida's West Coast

We posted our last update as we were traveling through Mobile Bay on December 9th enroute to the Gulf coast. Mobile Bay can be very unpleasant to cross in moderate to high winds because it is so big and shallow, but we only experienced a light chop on the three-hour journey across the bay.  Once we got back into the Intracoastal Waterway, we encountered a lot of barge traffic which is always interesting since the Waterway isn't very wide and you are either meeting the barges head-to-head or having to go around them since they generally travel even slower than we do, although not by much!

We reached our anchorage at Ingram Bayou late Saturday afternoon and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings in the remaining daylight. Sunday we continued along the Waterway through Orange Beach, AL to one of our favorite anchorages, Mary Esther, just west of Destin, FL. Once again, we arrived late afternoon and enjoyed what we could of the scenery before it got dark. We also spent Monday at Mary Esther and made a trip across the sand dunes to the Gulf to see the ocean and look for seashells. We spent a couple of hours enjoying the beach and the sun (it had been cloudy, cool and breezy for the past few days) and collecting shells.

These are some funky condos on the waterway in the Orange Beach area. Look at that pure white sand!

This is the beach on the Gulf side of Mary Esther where we looked for seashells.

Just before we got back to the boat, we heard someone yelling at us from the road we had crossed to get to the Gulf side. We turned around and saw that it was some kind of policeman and he was motioning for us to walk over to where he was standing. When we reached him, he informed us that we were in a restricted area and asked for identification. Of course, we didn't have anything on us and told him our ID was on the boat. We asked if he wanted us to go get it and he said no, but he told us to follow him to his vehicle and he would run a background check on us.

When we got to the vehicle, he proceeded to tell us that we were on Air Force land and that being there was a ticketable offense. He said the Air Force was conducting exercises out there that day and that if the troops had encountered us, they would have treated us as "unfriendlies" and would have assumed that we were part of the exercise, taken us into custody, etc. We asked him why none of the land was posted (we hadn't seen a sign anywhere to indicate that we shouldn't be there) and he said that many of the signs had blown down in hurricanes and hadn't been replaced.  At any rate, he didn't give us a ticket, didn't run a background check and let us go back to the boat once he felt we had been properly warned. Needless to say, that will be our last trip to the Gulf at Mary Esther!

Tuesday we left early for the trip to Panama City to meet up with Mike & Mary Hall aboard "What Daze It" in Dolphin Bay. We arrived about 3:30 p.m., rafted next to them and spent a quiet evening on the boat. Wednesday morning we took Mike & Mary's car to get a few things at Wal-Mart as we were planning to leave around noon to go a short distance out into the Gulf to Crooked Island to anchor for the evening.

Crooked Island and much of the surrounding land is used by the Air Force to test drones and they announce on the VHF radio each day whether exercises are being conducted in the area. If they are, no boat traffic is allowed during that time. About 11:00 a.m. they announced that exercises would be conducted that day beginning about 1:15 p.m. Todd contacted them to ask when the exercises would be over and was told it would be about 3:30 p.m., so we left Dophin Bay around 1:30 p.m. and made our way out into the Gulf.

The trip took longer than we expected and we arrived at Crooked Island as the sun was setting. It was a little tricky getting into the anchorage, and even though Mike & Mary had been there before and we were following their old track, areas that had been deep before had shoaled and were very shallow now. So, we adjusted our course along the way, in semi-darkness, and made it to the anchorage without incident, even though there were some tense moments along the way!

After getting anchored and taking the dogs to shore, we joined Mike & Mary for dinner and enjoyed a pleasant evening on the water. I putzed around the galley Thursday morning while the Captain did a little fishing and exploring in the dinghy. We then took a dinghy ride to the eastern end of Crooked Island to look for seashells. We found lots of small sand dollars but not much else of interest. The Captain left me on the beach and trolled his way back to the boat, hoping to catch some fish, while I walked back along the beach.

Shortly after returning to the boat, Mary decided to trim the back of Mike's hair/neck and offered to give the Captain a hair cut. Since his last hair cut was in Columbus, MS around the end of October, he was ready to lose some locks - and I must say, she did a very fine job! That evening, we shared some of Fred's famous seafood gumbo, accompanied by cornbread, with Mike & Mary on our boat and then turned in for the evening.

This is Mary Hall giving Todd a haircut on the bow of their boat with a view of Crooked Island in the background.

These are some of the seashells we gathered at Mary Esther and at Crooked Island.

Friday we went back out into the Gulf and made our way to Port St. Joe where we re-entered the Waterway and continued on to Apalachicola to get fuel. We then made our way to St. George Island where we anchored for the evening and retired around 8:30 p.m. in preparation for the Gulf crossing the next morning. Mike got us up five hours later (1:30 a.m. CST) and he and Todd took the dogs to shore. We then loaded the dinghy, got the anchor up and were on our way an hour later. Since we were now in the Eastern Time Zone, it was actually 3:30 a.m. when we left the anchorage and made our way through East Pass and out into the Gulf.

These are some shrimp boats we passed in the canal that leads from the Gulf to the Intracoastal Waterway at Port St. Joe.

The water was very calm through the pass and into the Gulf. As we got further from land, the seas picked up some and we had three or four hours of two- to three-foot seas but then it began to calm down again as we neared the western coast of Florida. After thirteen long hours, we reached Cedar Keys and anchored for the evening. We were all exhausted and went to bed shortly after eating dinner. Mike & Mary left us Sunday morning and continued south toward Tarpon Springs. They were planning to spend a couple of days there before going on to St. Petersburg where they will leave their boat, rent a car and drive to Key Largo to move a friend's boat from Key Largo to Panama City.  Since we were in no rush to get to St. Petersburg, we decided to spend a few days in Crystal River, about thirty miles south of Cedar Keys.

A beautiful sunset view of a sailboat passing by our anchorage at Cedar Keys.

This is the infamous and much talked about Mike and Mary Hall holding their Jack Russell terriers, HID (left) and M.E. (right). HID stands for Hearing Impaired Dog and M.E. are Mary's initials, pronouned Emmy.

Crystal River is a spring-fed freshwater river and is the largest manatee haven on the west coast of Florida with 17% (about 200) of the state's manatee population living along the river. The water is a uniform 72 degrees and the thirty-some natural springs pump an amazing 300 million gallons of water each day! We made our way through the ten mile long winding river channel and anchored in Kings Bay, a small freshwater lake, near the town of Crystal River.

Mo, the 72-year-old dynamo we originally met in September of 2005, and again this past September at Waterfall Cove on Pickwick Lake, had given us the names of some friends who live in Crystal River. We contacted Bob & Phyllis and introduced ourselves and were promptly invited to join them for dinner. However, we wanted to clean up and spend a quiet evening on the boat so we told Phyllis we would dinghy over to see them the next day.

Late Monday morning we took the dinghy over to meet Bob & Phyllis whose home is on one of the many canals surrounding Kings Bay. On the way, we met Hal who was headed back to his 54-foot steel hulled sailboat that is anchored in Kings Bay. Hal is also a friend of Bob & Phyllis and was on his way back from their house. In talking with Hal, we learned that he had essentially gutted the interior of his sailboat and has been working on redoing it over the past year - what a project! Sounds like he is almost finished, though, and has plans to meet some friends in the Exumas mid-March 2007.

After making our way to Bob & Phyllis' home and visiting with them for a while, we walked to a nearby restaurant to have lunch only to find that it was closed on Mondays. On our way back to their house we met Bob who was heading into town to run a few errands. We hopped in with him and he dropped us off at a local restaurant called Crackers and then re-joined us a short while later. While we ate lunch Bob told us stories about the many wonderful years he & Phyllis spent on their catamaran in Trinidad in the West Indies near the Venezualan coast. They have also spent time in the Exumas and Grenada, among many, many other places - an interesting and amazing lifestyle, to say the least!

When we returned to the house, we got in the dinghy and made our way back to the boat to check on Buddy. We then took a short dinghy ride around the Bay and had just returned to the boat when Bob stopped by in his 22-foot Bayliner for a few evening cocktails. We visited until dark when Bob headed back home and we settled in for a quiet evening on the boat.

We dinghied back over to Bob & Phyllis' Tuesday afternoon to borrow Bob's canoe and visit the natural springs called Three Sisters just down the canal from their house. Todd took his snorkeling gear and snorkeled in the crystal clear 72-degree water while I watched from the canoe (too cold for me!) What a beautiful area, though! Todd also wanted to swim with the manatees but we didn't see any in the immediate area or on the way back to the boat, although we had seen a few on the way over. What we did come across on the return trip, though, was a couple of porpoises. They were chasing fish, with the pelicans hovering over their heads, and we saw the fish jump out of the water and the porpoise caught the fish in its mouth in mid-air. Way cool, but over too quickly to get a photo of it!

The Captain snorkeling in the Three Sisters springs.

Another view of the Captain at Three Sisters. The water was truly spectacular!

These are a few of the manatees we saw in the water on our way to Bob and Phyllis' house.

Shortly after returning to the boat, Todd saw a bald eagle swoop down right in front of him on the starboard side of the boat and pluck a fish out of the water - just another of the many incredible sights we've experienced in this beautiful area! Bob stopped by in his Bayliner about 5:00 p.m. and told us that Hal wanted us to come over and tour his sailboat, so we dinghied over and spent a couple of hours visiting with them and talking about boating in the islands. These guys have experienced a lot and obviously know what they're talking about!

Phyllis has invited us to their home tomorrow (Wednesday) evening for Caribbean Jerk Chicken. We may leave Crystal River Thursday morning; if so, tomorrow will be a laundry and errand-running day while we have the opportunity. Bob & Phyllis have graciously offered the use of their vehicle and their washer and dryer, although we will probably end up going to a laundromat for the sake of expediency. Regardless, Bob & Phyllis have been more than generous and we are grateful to have made their acquaintance. We hope to keep in touch with them for many years to come!

Our next stop on the way to St. Petersburg will probably be Anclote Key near Tarpon Springs. We will anchor there for a night or two and possibly go into Tarpon Springs for a night before making the final leg of the journey to St. Petersburg. We will then stay on the boat in St. Petersburg until December 28th when we will meet up with Todd's sister Jennifer and go to her house in Orlando for a late Christmas and New Year. In the meantime, we want to wish all of our family, friends and acquaintances who are reading the blog and keeping up with our adventures a very Merry Christmas and a wonderfully prosperous and Happy New Year!!!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Welcome back faithful "Life's2Short" readers! The Admiral, Buddy and I are all doing fine this chilly Alabama morning. As a matter of fact, it is 27 degrees as I write this, only one degree higher than the all-time record low for this date! Needless to say, we will be running the generator quite a bit over the next few days.

The past few weeks have, once again, been filled with meeting new friends and becoming reacquainted with old ones. We have also been completing several projects on "Life's2Short" and enjoying holiday activities at the Demopolis Yacht Basin. Most of the permanent live-aboards have headed south by now so the folks who are currently at the Yacht Basin will be spending the winter there. Several decorate their boats for the holiday season, so we added a few decorations to "Life's2Short."

See the wreath around the spotlight, the candy canes on top of the antennae and the red bow on the front rail of the boat.

Most of the people who live on the dock get to know one another quite well, sharing stories, helping each other with boat work and enjoying "Happy Hour" most evenings. One of the many new people we've come to know is Pete Andrews. Pete has been living on his boat "Woodja" for the past ten years and is a wealth of information when it comes to boat maintenance and cruising the waterways and islands. He even went so far as to loan us his charts and guidebooks for the Bahamas, an area we hope to visit in the near future. The Admiral became quite fond of Pete, inviting him to join us for dinner on several occasions and making banana cream pie and other treats for him while we were there.

The Admiral with her buddy, Pete.

The Admiral with two other dock friends, Steve (left) and Wayne (right).

The "Happy Hour" gang on Pete's boat, "Woodja."

The Sunday after Thanksgiving starts the week long event called Christmas on the River (COTR), probably the single biggest event that happens in Demopolis all year long. COTR events include the lighting of the community Christmas tree, holiday craft shows, BBQ cook offs and galas, culminating with the COTR parade. The parade actually takes place on the river with lighted floats depicting Christmas scenes and ends with a wonderful fireworks show. Unfortunatly, 48 hours before parade day, Demopolis was hit by a tornado and high winds which destroyed all but four of the floats. Thankfully, the marina didn't experience any damage as the tornado hit about a mile south.

These pictures show some of the floats that were destroyed when the high winds hit Demopolis.

Looking back at the marina from where the floats were sitting when the storm hit.

We also had a visit on Friday of that week from Mike & Mary Hall from "WhatDazeIt," the couple who helped us cross the Gulf this past spring and who have been such a HUGE support to us. The visit was short but we will be catching up with them next week in the Panama City, Florida, area as we get ready to cross the Gulf once again.

Another special event that occurs the final Saturday of COTR week is Fred's Gumbo Fest. Fred Hansard, who owns the fuel dock and manages the operation of the Yacht Basin, spends 15 hours preparing seafood gumbo for all the folks at the marina and some of his business associates. Brenda and I were recruited to help stir the big pots of gumbo that cooked for 8-10 hours, beginning early Saturday morning.

Fred, the gumbo king!

We planned on leaving Demopolis the next day, but Fred invited us to join him and his team for their employee holiday party Tuesday evening. I guess Fred figured since I had been helping his team around the boatyard, I was an "unofficial" employee. As we have mentioned before, we can't say enough great things about the people at the Demopolis Yacht Basin. They are truly an outstanding group of folks who we look forward to seeing again.

These are some of the many fine people from the Yacht Basin enjoying the spread at Fred's holiday party.

We finally untied from the dock at Demopolis about 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday, December 6th, and Pete and Dale, another dock friend, were there to give us our final send off. We had only planned on going about 75 miles, but since we were making great time going with the current we ended up going 97 miles, our longest single day trip to date (except for crossing the Gulf, of course).

We made it to Bobby's Fish Camp just as it was getting dark and found an empty dock awaiting "Life's2Short." We got the boat tied up and plugged in for what was to be one of three very cold nights ahead of us on the river. We left Bobby's early Thursday morning and locked through with Grebe, a towboat that was running without a load due to a broken shaft. We arrived 64 miles later at the Alabama River Cutoff, a very nice clear water anchorage.

Yesterday was only a five-hour day as we weren't ready to get into the city of Mobile quite yet. We spent the night at Big Bayou Canot about ten miles upriver from Mobile. As mentioned above, the nights have been very cold since we left Demopolis, but we are looking forward to finding some warmer weather once we reach the Gulf coast. We are planning to meet up with Mike & Mary later this week (Thursday or so) and possibly do the Gulf crossing next weekend or early the following week, depending on the weather. Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed for us!