Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What a Week!

Chapter 1: The Gulf Crossing

As planned, we left Crooked Island early Wednesday afternoon, December 12th, and arrived at White City about 4:00 p.m. It was foggy the next morning so Todd spent a little time fishing and came back to the boat with a nice flounder. We left White City at 10:00 a.m., after the fog cleared, and ran in to dense fog a few miles before we reached Miller Marine in Apalachicola. We topped off with fuel and the fog appeared to be clearing about an hour later, so we tried to leave and were back tied to the dock within 15 minutes. It was 2:00 in the afternoon and the fog was so thick on the south side of the bridge that we couldn't see 200 feet in front of us! We waited all afternoon for the fog to lift but it never did.

The Captain took this photo from the Gulf looking back at Crooked Island.

About 4:00 that afternoon we heard a boat hailing Miller Marine on the VHF but Miller wasn't answering so Todd answered the call and asked if he could help. Jack, the captain of the boat "Flagmaker," and his crew member John were headed south in the fog and were looking for Miller Marine. He asked if Todd could shine a light his direction so he could find the dock. Todd turned on the spotlight and "Flagmaker" materialized out of the fog a few moments later. We were both planning to leave to do the crossing that evening but were not interested in trying to navigate through Apalachicola Bay in dense fog, so we ended up spending the night at Miller Marine.

We woke up Friday to more dense fog but it finally started clearing about 11:30 so we left the dock with "Flagmaker" and made an impromptu decision to go out into the Gulf through Government Cut to do the crossing. "Flagmaker" was able to travel quite a bit faster than "Life's2Short" so we lost sight of Jack and John within a few hours and continued on our own.

Sometime that evening, after dark and about 60 miles into the crossing, the oil pressure gauge on the starboard engine started fluctuating wildly so Todd shut down the engine and we continued on one engine which caused our speed to drop from about 9.5 mph to 7.5 mph. This may not sound like much but it added more than two hours to what was already going to be an incredibly long trip. Our auto pilot was also not working which made steering more difficult than we had ever imagined.  When you are out in the Gulf with absolutely nothing to orient yourself to, it is virtually impossible to keep the boat on course without fighting the wheel constantly, and even then you are off course more than you are on!

About 12:30 a.m., twelve hours into the crossing, the wind and seas picked up and we began taking waves on the bow making for a very uncomfortable ride and making steering even more difficult. We arrived at the entrance to the Crystal River channel about daybreak (6:45 a.m.) but had been dodging crab pots with the spotlight for two hours prior, straining to see through periods of light showers. We were just grateful at this point that there was no fog!

Our friend Bob who lives in Crystal River came out to Shell Island in his boat to meet us and escorted us the rest of the way to King's Bay where we tied up in a slip at Pete's Pier Marina. We had planned to anchor out in King's Bay but the forecast for the next day was stormy with winds gusting 40 to 50 mph so we decided the marina was our best option. Bob helped us get the boat secured and then had a couple of Bloody Mary's before leaving us to crash at 10:30 a.m., 23 hours after we left Miller Marine the previous day. At this point I had been awake 27 hours and Todd had been awake 28 hours. Needless to say, we were both beyond worn out!

Chapter 2: "Flagmaker"

"Flagmaker" arrived at Pete's Pier just before noon on Saturday and tied up in a slip a few boats away from us. They had anchored in the ship channel north of Crystal River about 1:00 a.m. and caught a few hours of sleep before making the final trek to King's Bay. We got up mid-afternoon Saturday and were still dragging our tails so we fixed a light dinner of Todd's fresh-caught flounder and were back in bed by 9:00 that evening.

In the meantime, Bob had met Warren & Robin whose boat "Pepi" is also in a slip at Pete's Pier and Jack & John aboard "Flagmaker" and had invited all of us to have dinner with he and his wife Phillis Sunday evening at their house. By Sunday we had pretty much recovered from the crossing, at least in terms of catching up on our sleep! The storms that had been forecast moved in overnight and we received 2-1/2 inches of rain with strong, gusty winds. It was also very windy on Sunday but the rain was gone and the temperatures were still quite pleasant.

Bob picked us up mid-morning on Sunday and gave us their car to use so I went to the laundromat to catch up on three weeks of laundry while Todd ran a few errands with Phillis. About 5:00 Sunday evening Todd went to get Jack & John to go to Bob & Phillis' and Jack told him they had decided to spend their final night on the boat getting things in order so they could leave early the next morning. He and John were planning to rent a car and drive to Jack's house in Waycross, GA to drop John off and then Jack and his wife Linda were going to come back to the boat and take it to its final destination on the Atlantic near Waycross.  At any rate, the rest of us went to Bob & Phillis' and had a most excellent meal of "Rosetti spaghetti" topped off with Robin's wonderful homemade cookies.

Robin and Phillis dish up "Rosetti spaghetti."

Robin & Warren are between Todd and myself with our hosts, Phillis & Bob, in the front. A fun evening with good friends!

The weather turned cold overnight and it was in the mid-30's by Monday morning. We had planned to go with Bob & Phillis to have lunch with Mo and her friend Joe who are stuck thirty miles up the Suwanee River aboard "MOTU" due to wind and low water. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., just as we were getting ready to leave to meet Bob & Phillis, John frantically knocked on our boat and told Todd he thought Jack was dead! Todd immediately called 911 and went over to "Flagmaker" to check on Jack, thinking he might be able to administer CPR. However, based upon Jack's body temperature, Todd immediately knew that Jack had been dead for several hours and had apparently passed away peacefully in his sleep.

A variety of emergency personnel were dispatched to the marina and arrived a short time later. The paramedics officially informed us that Jack was, in fact, gone and poor John was understandably devastated. Not only did John work for Jack managing his company in Tennessee, Jack was also his uncle and trusted friend. They had spent the past week together on the boat moving it from Mobile, AL to Crystal River, FL and had discussed many deeply personal and heartfelt issues along the way, which served to further bond their relationship.

It was several hours before the medical examiner arrived to examine and release the body so Bob & Phillis, who had canceled their plans to have lunch with Mo & Joe, invited us over to their house for lunch. John was very concerned about Jack's wife Linda and wanted to get to Waycross to be with her as soon as possible so he rented a car and we offered to drive him to Waycross as soon as the medical examiner was finished. The medical examiner had arrived by the time we returned to the marina and once John got his personal items off the boat we made the 200-mile trip to Waycross, GA, dropped John off at Linda's house and arrived back at the marina shortly after 11:00 Monday evening.

John was extremely grateful for our assistance and we were more than happy to do anything we could to help him during this most difficult experience. I should also note that Bob & Phillis, Warren & Robin and several other people at the marina were very supportive and did whatever they could to ease John's pain as he struggled to cope with Jack's death. Our thoughts and prayers are with he and Linda and their family as they come to terms with this unexpected tragedy.

The manner in which Jack died is reminiscent of the experience Todd and I had just over two years ago when we lost our best friend, Duane, on the Tennessee River on the last day of our boating vacation. As with Duane, Jack was by all accounts healthy, active and physically fit. Duane was 57; Jack was 60. We believe Duane may have died of an aneurysm whereas Jack appears to have died of a massive stroke or heart attack, but the suddenness with which both occurred is stunning.

Our friends and families are aware of how Duane's death impacted us, but for those who don't know, Duane's untimely death is what prompted us to leave our jobs, sell our home and all of our worldly possessions and do what we are currently doing. Our boat is named "Life's2Short" in Duane's honor and for anyone who doubts that life is, in fact, too short, Jack is another prime example. None of us know how much time we have, so please make the most of it and do what's important to you while you still can. The next breath you take could be your last!

A tribute to Jack and his beloved boat, "Flagmaker." He will be sorely missed!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Exploring the Gulf Coast

It was cold the morning of Tuesday, December 4th, and we had frost on the bow of the boat. We left Ingram Bayou at 9:30 and arrived in Pensacola around 1:00 p.m. We anchored in Little Sabine Bay and dinghied over to The Market (a well-stocked, if expensive, little grocery store/market just east of Beach Marina) to pick up a few items, went back to the boat and then dinghied back over to meet Dave about 5:00 p.m.

As I mentioned in the last blog update, we met Dave in July of 2006 at the Demopolis Yacht Basin and have kept in touch since. We went to a local restaurant called Flounders, had a few happy hour beverages and ate complimentary popcorn and hors d' oeuvres. The waitress told us the hors d' oeuvres were provided by the restaurant for the Martini Club but that anyone could help themselves, so we did and ate enough popcorn, fried shrimp and stuffed mushrooms to serve as dinner!

This is the redfish Todd caught in Ingram Bayou. We have a couple of nice fillets in the freezer just waiting to be consumed!

This is our friend Dave at Flounder's in Pensacola.

On Wednesday we did the tourist thing and walked around Pensacola Beach, although we were pretty much the only tourists there. We were told that this is the off season and things don't really get hopping until summer. Nonetheless, the sand is beautiful and the beaches are spacious but it was a little too windy to enjoy a leisurely stroll on the beach. Dave met us at Paddy O'Leary's about 3:00 p.m. and we went by his house so he could walk the dogs (Jack and Chester) before going to eat at a local Thai restaurant he frequents. The food was excellent and we ate so much that we called it an early evening, said our good-byes to Dave and went back to the boat to veg out.

The deserted but beautiful expanse of white sand on Pensacola Beach.

Our anchorage in Little Sabine Bay, Pensacola.

We made the six-hour run to Destin on Thursday and anchored in Destin Harbor. Dinner that evening was crab-stuffed Flounder, courtesy of a Dog River fisherman. Todd struck up a conversation with the fisherman the morning we left Dog River Marina and was asking how to catch, clean and cook Flounder. The guy happened to have one in his live well and offered it to us. I then found a crab stuffing recipe on the Internet and we were all set - a most excellent meal!

On Friday we dinghied over to shore and walked around downtown Destin, although it didn't take us long to determine that there wasn't much to see. We then dinghied over to the beach at East Pass on the other side of the harbor to see what we could find. The sand was very nice and the water was beautiful, but the area is all condominiums with no retail establishments or restaurants of any kind. We did run in to a guy who lives there on his sailboat, though, and he told us that AJ's was the place to go so we dinghied back across the harbor to AJ's where Todd enjoyed their happy hour (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) oyster special.  By late afternoon the wind had really picked up so we called it a day and dinghied back to the boat.

This is a view of Destin Harbor as we entered.

Here are some sunset photos the Captain couldn't refuse - very nice!

The view at East Pass looking east.

Also at East Pass, looking north. The sand and water were spectacular!

This is the north side of the entrance to Destin Harbor.

This is AJ's World Famous Seafood and Oyster Bar.

The Captain enjoying his happy hour oysters on the half shell at AJ's.

It was foggy Saturday morning and we weren't able to pull anchor until 9:00 a.m. We had considered running offshore to Panama City but decided that the Gulf was too rough for an all-day (60 mile) offshore run. Once we got out into Chocktawhatchee Bay the fog seemed to worsen and we struggled along with about one-eighth of a mile visibility for the next ninety minutes or so. Along the way, after the fog cleared, we saw a number of porpoises, several of which swam alongside the boat surfing our wake. One even jumped about six feet high right in front of the bow a number of times. The Captain loves to watch the porpoises and went down to "greet" them every time they surfaced! We made it to Smack Bayou, just south of Panama City around 4:30 where we anchored with three other sailboats.

The porpoises surfing our wake between Destin and Panama City.

One of the three sailboats anchored with us in Smack Bayou.

Sunday was a quiet, beautiful day on the water, close to eighty degrees, and other than working on re-doing the weather stripping around the front windows, we just relaxed and enjoyed it. Monday was another beautiful, warm day so we dinghied over to the Panama City Marina and walked all around downtown Panama City, which was much more enjoyable than what we saw of downtown Destin. We ate lunch at Cassandra's (homestyle cooking, just like mom's!) and then made a trip to the downtown grocery outlet for a few essentials before heading back to the marina.

Just as we were getting ready to leave the marina and dinghy back to the boat, I heard someone say my name in the marina store and turned around to see who it was. I didn't recognize the woman but she recognized us from our blog photos and we knew her "electronically" by her AOL screen name. Come to find out she also knows Mo ("MOTU") and had taken Mo to Wal-Mart when she passed through Panama City about a month ago. She offered to do the same for us but we declined since we really didn't need anything very badly. At any rate, it was nice to finally meet Greg, learn her "real" name and put a face with it.

We left Smack Bayou Tuesday about 11:00 a.m. and went over to the marina to top off with water and pump out. We then made a two-hour offshore run in about four-foot waves to Crooked Island - not a pleasant trip! But the water was calm in the anchorage and it was another beautiful eighty degree day so we put down the dinghy, went over to the beach and strolled around looking for shells and listening to the pounding waves for a couple of hours before returning to the boat for the evening.

There appears to be a good weather window for crossing the Gulf on Thursday and Friday before a cold front moves through and shuts everything down for several days, so we are planning to leave Crooked Island later today and go as far as White City. Tomorrow we will proceed to Apalachicola with a stop at Miller Marine to top off with fuel before continuing on to St. George Island where we will anchor for a few hours and then head out into the Gulf later that evening with plans to make a 140-mile crossing to Crystal River.

This should put us in Crystal River sometime Friday afternoon before the cold front hits but it also means we will be traveling non-stop for more than fifteen hours, about nine of which will be in total darkness. Needless to say, I am more than a little apprehensive about the journey, especially since our auto pilot isn't working, but we either need to go now or be delayed several days due to the cold front. So, as things stand right now, that is our plan. The next couple of days are going to be challenging so please keep us in your thoughts as we set out across the Gulf and pray that the wave forecast of one-foot or less is accurate!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Back in Salt Water

After a visit to the pump-out station, we moved "Life's2Short" over to the fuel dock Monday afternoon, November 26th, to fuel up in preparation for an early departure Tuesday morning. That evening we had a final gathering of our Yacht Basin friends at the New Orleans Bar & Grill and said our good-byes. Fred even stopped by and had a drink with us on his way home from an earlier commitment.

We were up and on our way by 6:45 Tuesday morning. Rick & Peggy came over to the fuel dock to see us off as we began the 71-mile journey through the Demopolis Lock and on to Bashi Creek (MM 145), our intended anchorage for the evening. As we entered Bashi Creek and tried to position the boat to anchor it, we decided we didn't like the way the wind was blowing us around in the narrow creek, so we went across the river to anchor along the shore opposite the entrance to Bashi Creek. We were secure in our anchorage by 3:00 p.m. and enjoyed the sun on the sundeck until it went behind the trees about an hour later. We were both tired and went to bed really early, even for us!

We woke up to heavy fog Wednesday morning and finally pulled anchor about 8:00 a.m. We had planned to go 67 miles to Sunflower Bend Cut-off (MM 78.6), but the Captain discovered a fuel leak on the port engine shortly after noon so we shut down the port engine and went in to Old Lock #1 (MM 100) about 1:30 p.m. After a little investigation, Todd discovered that the fuel pump was bad so we were down to one engine until we reached Dog River Marina in Mobile where a new pump was being sent.

Since we had lost several miles on Wednesday due to the late start and the leaking fuel pump, we were up and pulling anchor by 6:00 a.m. Thursday. There was a little fog on the water when we headed out, as there had been on Wednesday, but rather than clearing off as it had the day before, we got totally socked in by fog less than ten miles downriver and were dead in the water for about 45 minutes until it appeared to be clearing up enough for us to move on. We made it about a mile and the fog once again closed in around us, so we sat for another 45 minutes and were finally able to continue downriver about 8:45 a.m. So much for our plan to make it to Big Bayou Canot that evening, a 90-mile run from Old Lock #1, or about eleven hours depending on river current/engine speed.

We ended up anchoring at David Lake (MM 42) about 3:00 p.m., which was still a long day (58 miles/9 hours) with the fog delay and associated stress. There was no fog Friday morning and we were on our way to Dog River Marina (53 miles) by 6:45. We arrived about 1:30 p.m. to find the new fuel pump waiting for us at the dock. After we topped off with fuel and got tied up for the evening, Todd spent the rest of the afternoon installing the new pump while I fixed dinner. Mike & Mary stopped by briefly on the way back to their boat, "WhatDazeIt?," at the Grand Mariner Marina where they have been staying the past few weeks. Mike then drove back over that evening to pick us up so we could spend a few hours visiting with them on their boat.

Ricky at the Dog River Marina fuel dock, feeding his ducks.

Quite the ugly duckling, wouldn't you say?

You can see the Grand Mariner dock across Dog River. "WhatDazeIt?" is the first boat on the left.

By Saturday we had decided to stay at the marina another night to watch the Dog River Christmas parade. After a quiet, lazy morning we made a quick run to the grocery store and then I did some laundry while Todd caught up on e-mail. Mike came over and picked us up in a borrowed dinghy late that afternoon and took us over to "WhatDazeIt?" to watch the boat parade with several of their local friends. The parade featured 20+ boats of various shapes and sizes all decked out with lights and lots of other decorations with the passengers throwing beads and candy at the audience as they passed by. It was quite a show and we collected lots of beads by the time it was over!

Here is a sampling of the many beautifully decorated boats in the Dog River Christmas parade.

We left Dog River Marina around 10:00 Sunday morning and had an uneventful Mobile Bay crossing with southeast winds causing a light to medium chop on the water. We arrived at Ingram Bayou about 3:00 p.m. and spent the next hour-and-a-half trying to anchor! We had moved to the northern end of the anchorage seeking protection from the north winds that were forecast for Monday but just couldn't get the anchor to hold when we backed down on it. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, we finally we gave up and moved to the south a bit where we were anchored in no time. What a frustrating ordeal that was!

The north winds hit about 5:00 a.m. Monday morning and our anchor held just fine, even though we had turned 180 degrees due to the wind shift. We will stay in Ingram Bayou again today and plan to head to Pensacola tomorrow to meet up with Dave Henderson who we met the summer of 2006 in Demopolis.

In the meantime, I am getting caught up on the blog while the Captain is out fishing.  When we first came in to this anchorage in April 2006, we met a gentleman named John Loftis (a friend of Mike & Mary) who was telling us about the sea trout he had caught while anchored here in his sailboat, so maybe Todd can catch a few for us before we leave. He has already caught a nice redfish and we've seen some porpoises chasing fish, so there is definite potential to add more fresh fish to the menu!