Sailing Along the Gulf of Mexico

The morning we finally decided to leave Mobile, Alabama, to start sailing the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, we were ready. Patches may not have been fully ready, but RJ and I surely were. We put the mast back on Patches, along with her brand new sails. She even got a full deck scrub (Thank you, Jim from Serenity for the mast restepping pictures!).

We found the time while we were there to drive down to the gulf and spend a few hours on the beach the day before departing. Examining the jellyfish waiting for high tide and collecting seashells passed by most of my time. The sun moved quickly through the sky as we swam. The return walk to the car was through a shady pine tree forest. Pine needles littered the path on top of sand.

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

Waking up to a dense fog was a surprise, as it had been over a week since we had seen any fog at all. Shortly after waking, we took the boat over to Dog River Marina for fuel and pump out. With Skinny Dipper on our tail, and the fog worsening, we began our journey across Mobile Bay.

Moving slowly, we checked and double checked the charts to make sure we were heading in the correct direction. We were looking through the binoculars constantly. It truly felt like we were in a dream land. Or nightmare land. Gray water blending into gray fog blending into gray sky. The water was glass. It truly seemed never ending in every direction.

Or maybe just the opposite, that it ended immediately in every direction, but we were to be encapsulated in a circle of fog forever.

Before crossing the main shipping channel, David on Skinny Dipper suggested we anchor and wait for the fog to lift. Great idea! Otherwise, there may have been a giant shipping vessel ready to run us over. And we try to avoid that at all costs.

Laying on the top of the boat, waiting, I turned my head towards a sound. Loud music was growing louder. Three boats broke through the fog into our private fog lagoon. Just as soon as they passed, we could see blue skies. We could see a sailboat far on the other side of the bay.

After crossing the main channel, we put the sails up for a little while trying something called “motor sailing.” Motor sailing is when you sail, with the wind, but your motor also helps you out a little bit to make sure you’re going in the right direction. On this particular day, with how little wind there was, it didn’t quite work out. In any regard, we made it across the bay and into the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

Around sunset, we arrived at our proposed stopping point. A free dock, ahem, an abandoned dock just across from Lulu’s, a famous stop on the route. The strong tidal current, paired with the fact that we were trying to tie up to a dock that may have collapsed at any moment made this less than fun. And we had an audience from the restaurant across the way.

We tried pulling in bow first. We tried backing in. When tossing a rope in hopes of catching a dock post didn’t work, we tried using our pokers to grab an old rope already tied to the dock. Well, that didn’t work. Not surprisingly, I don’t have the strength to pull our five ton boat against a tidal current. After almost falling in and losing our poker in the water, I felt defeated. Fortunately, on our next try, RJ was able to get us docked successfully.

Soon after, Skinny Dipper and crew came to join us. And we all spent the night praying the old dock would stay intact for just this one last night.

Monday, November 6th, 2017

In the morning, the tidal current was moving in the opposite direction as the evening before. When docking, we had to pull ourselves towards the dock. When leaving, we had to use all our strength to push us away.

At two o’clock, we arrived at Fort McRee Cove. Shortly after throwing the anchor down, I took the paddle board out and RJ went for a swim. In addition to playtime in the water, we walked around the beach exploring the remains of Fort McRee.

After the sun went down, we were left with just three other boats in the cove for the night. When we finished dinner, we spent some time on the deck. Wrapped up in happiness and a light blanket, we sat in the breeze and listened for dolphins.

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

Then, dolphins woke me up early in the morning, despite our plans to sleep in. I will never complain about that.

Skinny Dipper joined us in the cove early in the morning, probably close to nine-thirty or ten o’clock. We were all there waiting to see the Blue Angels fly. Apparently, they practice just above the cove where we were anchored. According to their practice schedule, they were to begin at eleven o’clock, but by noon, we were ready to continue on. Before the clock hit one, we had pulled up the anchor and exited the cove.

Halfway across Pensacola Bay, we heard the Blue Angels flying. Though they were on the verge of being specs in the distance, we were still able to watch most of the show.

After a four hour day, we anchored just off of Oval Beach.

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

According to what we had read, Oval Beach was supposed to have an outdoor shower. Therefore, it was time to shower. Off the boat and on the paddle board by six in the morning, we headed for shore. We then walked from the intracoastal waterway side to the gulf side and spent some time shell collecting. We even saw a stingray, which I initially thought was a black garbage bag.

After about a half hour walk on the beach, we soaped up and rinsed off in the outdoor shower. Though cold, it may have been the most refreshing shower of the trip so far. I had begun feeling sticky from the salt water residue on my body.

While sitting at a picnic table waiting for RJ to finish up, a Park Ranger came up to inform us that the park was actually closed. I apologized, told her that we had no idea as we had entered the park from the water over there (I pointed), and we started to pack up our belongings. She did tell us that if a law enforcement ranger had seen us, we would have been ticketed, but at that point we were happy and clean and fine with leaving.

Our destination for the night was a free dock at a park in Fort Walton. Shortly after we tied up, a bunch of other boats came in to tie up, as well. One of those boats being Skinny Dipper, who we’re always happy to see.

After less than an hour, two of the boats decided to leave, spooked by what they were told when they called the local police station. At some free docks, you’re required to call in and let them know that you plan to stay there for the night. One of the dispatchers supposedly told one of the boats that it wasn’t a safe area, and to make sure everything on your boat is secure and not easy to steal.

I had read a number of reviews on the dock and none of them had left me feeling uncomfortable about staying there. The only items we couldn’t bring into the boat with us were fuel cans and my paddle board, which we decided to lock up with the bike lock. A large paddle boat from Pickwick Lake actually ended up docking next to us.

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Opposite of the previous days, we finally had some wind in our favor. Leaving Fort Walton, we were following the Dippers. Strangely, they were stopped and waiting. RJ and I looked at each other and then at the bridge we were about to cross beneath. Frantically zooming in on the charts, we saw that the bridge had a clearance of 49 ft. Our mast, is 40 ft. Our boat plus mast is probably about 48 ft.

We didn’t realize this until we were basically underneath. Holding our breath, we made it through with ease.

Skinny Dipper pulled away quite quickly, but as soon as RJ put the sails up we were able to speed by. Consequently, Choctowatchee Bay became a race track for RJ and I could tell he was having the time of his life, watching the wind and trimming the sails as needed.

After exiting the bay, we returned to the intracoastal waterway, and Skinny Dipper quickly caught us. So, RJ jokingly grabbed the paddle from the paddle board and tried to catch up.

Eventually, we made it a whopping sixty miles into West Bay and just like old times, rafted up to Skinny Dipper for night.

Friday, November 10th, 2017 – Saturday, November 11, 2017

Friday was a fairly uneventful day. Most noteworthy, was seeing an alligator for the first time on the trip. David called us on the radio telling us to keep an eye out on our port side. Then, the the next few minutes, I scanned the shoreline with binoculars. Eventually we saw what looked like an alligator and I quickly snapped a few pictures on the camera.

Afterward snapping a few shots, I looked back at the shore. Now, I couldn’t tell if it was an alligator’s tail or a tire. Looking back at the pictures, it is definitely an alligator’s tail.

We ended Friday at a free dock in White City.

The next morning, we backtracked to St. Joseph Bay, to dock at Port Saint Joe. Due to the fact that we were planning on heading home to Ohio for Thanksgiving and in addition, the fact that the docking fees here were more than reasonable, we booked a one month stay.

Therefore, we have been here for quite a while. And now it is waiting time for our Gulf crossing to Tarpon Springs.

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