Sunday July 12th
We arrived at Hell's Gate around 10:30 am so we could get a few hours sight seeing in Savannah. The name Hell's Gate made us a little nervous about what we may encounter, but the water was the smoothest it has been on this whole trip. The marshland was curvy and pretty.
Bruce another Looper, who knew of us through our mutual membership in the AGLCA, picked us up from the marina in his 1930's Model A antique car. Katie and I rode to his house in the rumble seat. Quite a kick and another first. Upon arrival we met Jeanne, Bruce's wife. We all headed to Savannah for a city tour. The Savannah architecture was beautiful and very different in the various parts of town. Along the riverfront we saw were the historic cotton industry business was conducted during colonial times. We took lots of pictures of the live oak trees.
Katie and I got some laundry done at Bruce and Jeanne's house and took a short nap. We went to dinner at the country club. The seafood was delicious and the buffet style dessert was too. Thanks Bruce and Jeanne.
On our way to St Simon's IS
Katie and I decided to get an early start so we would have some time for sightseeing. One of the challenges of our trip is trying to see as much as we can in our short stays. We decided to head for St. Simon's Island. Along the way we stopped for just an hour at Fernandina Beach. Found out later we should have said high to a Duroboat dealer from the early 90's at the Fernandina Boat Shop. We saw this as a perfect opportunity to buy another pair of flip flops. The night before my shoe was knocked into the water, and there was no chance I was going to find it. After a stop at a beach apparel store, I was able to continue my sightseeing without people staring at me.
We continued on to St. Simon's Island and encountered very large waves. The waves were pushing us along, so at certain parts it felt like we were surfing. At other points we had to work getting up over the next wave. There have been so many different types of water on this trip. A real learning experience
We arrived at Morningstar Marina, and tied up at a slip that was protected from the strong current. The very hospitable dock master matched us up with Charlie the captain of Sea Hunt who was shortly headed into town. We caught a ride with him. He gave a tour of St. Simon's Island and dropped us off at Beach Bed & Breakfast where we met Larry McDonough. Larry had heard of our adventure and offered up a room. Charlie said a quick hello to Larry, and departed. Katie and I found this was no ordinary B&B. We were about to spend a night in the lap of luxury. Wow.
We took the B&B's bikes to the Lighthouse, and rode around town. We returned to Beach Bed & Breakfast to get some work done. We lounged in the bathrobes and refreshed as if we had been at a spa were ready to go back town.
We took a short walk after dinner and were surprised at the amount of people that were out late into the evening.
We soon returned to our comfy beds, not at all anxious for another early departure.
Just a note to Loopers. In our opinion, the Waterway Guide downplayed the character and lively atmosphere of the town. This is a wonderful Looper port. When you are ready to splurge on a night off your boat you cannot do better than the Beach Bed and Breakfast in St Simon's Island.
July 10, 2009
St. Augustine – Jacksonville
Our second day in St. Augustine was much better. Unfortunately Sammy missed it. We packed our bags and had the cabbie drop Sammy at the bus stop before taking Elizabeth and I back to the boat.
We had tentative plans to meet with Ron from Turning Point Propeller in Jacksonville that night. Since Jacksonville was less than 40 miles, we had time and were determined to redeem our experience in St. Augustine. We also needed to do a little more trip planning.
Elizabeth and I walked into town and found a little café with WiFi. Later we walked around St. Augustine, ate ice-cream, and took pictures. The lady at the ice cream counter told us we "smelled beachy." Not sure whether to say "thank you" or "sorry" we just laughed a little and told her about the boat trip.
Before leaving we had one last stop at Hurricane Patty's. I think we were both stalling and enjoying the air conditioning. This trip has been a blast, but exhausting – sometimes it's hard to get yourself psyched up for another boat ride.
When we pulled up at the Landing Marina in Jacksonville a small group of live-aboards helped us tie up and encouraged us to come share a drink with them.
We showered and met Ron, a Turning Point Propeller contact, and his family for dinner. They are avid boaters and really nice folks. Their stainless prop has provided excellent out of the hole performance and an nice top end for the entire trip. We have managed to go almost halfway through the loop without hitting anything and resorting to our aluminum spares.
After dinner we went back to the boat and were invited over to the sailboat docked next-door. Wayne, the boats owner hosts a happy hours every Friday night. His friends were eager to hear our story and share their own sailing stories.
We began setting up our tent, but were persuaded to stay with one of our new friends from the sailboat. Kyle was our age – a rare find at marinas.
Boating seems to increasingly become a hobby reserved for the middle-aged and older. It's a shame, but our age makes us a novelty amongst loopers. The cost and time it takes most boats to complete the loop makes the trip inaccessible to those on a budget and constrained by work responsibilities. We are told time and time again that we are "rushing" the loop experience. We are rushed, but it's the only way we can do it. Our Duroboat makes the trip feasible and affordable – even for us!
July 9, 2009
Today was a pretty uneventful boat ride. We had to pull out the Mustang jackets that were still wet from the downpour the day before. We knew another storm was coming so we set them out on deck before we needed them hoping they would air out a bit.
We watched the weather on our Lowrance. It allows us to see the elevation of the systems, the direction storms are traveling, and how fast. It's like a high school math problem. If storm A is traveling West at X mph, and the boat is traveling North at 22 mph, what time will we be soaking wet AGAIN?
We slipped between two, west moving, rainstorms, catching the tail end of one and the beginning of the next. We tolerated about and hour of light to moderate rain, but avoided the torrential downpours and lightening.
When we arrived in St Augustine we saw the oldest bridge on the ICW. We took a short trip down a side river and parked at a seafood and burger joint called Hurricane Patty's. It was already about 6pm and the Oyster Creek Marina next-door was closed. We walked into Hurricane Patty's and the manager "Okayed" us to tie up at the dock and camp on the boat overnight.
We hadn't eaten all day, so before showering or trying to clean up we headed into Patty's. Sammy and I ordered the "all you could eat catfish." I think our stomachs got the best of us, because we both had at least a pound of leftovers – unfortunately with no where to store them.
After dinner we walked into town to check out the guided ghost tours, but it started pouring again. We headed towards to a hotel purported to be haunted. Female guests that stay in room 3A often have their purses knocked over in the middle of the night. We were excited to test this. Rooms at the haunted inn were way outside our budget. Maybe it would stop raining and we could still camp on the boat. It didn't.
We decided it was too wet to camp and didn't want to risk a lightening strike. The second hotel we tried to stay at had a crazy women working the front desk – no need to relive the details, but after our horrible check-in experience we decided not to stay here either. After nearly wrestling my credit card back, we left and took a cab to a chain motel a little outside of town.
Still upset by the earlier altercation with the crazy receptionist, and feeling guilty that we'd wussed out and left the boat, I went to bed unsatisfied with our experience in St. Augustine.
It was hard to leave the comfort of our cabin at Loggerhead Club and Marina. All of us stalled our departure by sleeping in, eating left over Chinese food, and talking with Captain Tadpole – who claimed to be the first black captain in 500 years to travel the Okeechobee Waterway. We admired the size of a dead alligator on the marina wall, and then saw a real one as we loaded up the boat.
The last bit of the Okeechobee rim route was choppy to say the least. Water was splashing over the gunwales at rapid rates, and our bilge did not get a break until we entered the first lock of the day. The importance of a properly functioning bilge must be noted –especially in a small boat and big water. We have been keeping a close eye on ours, because in the past it has auto ran when there was no water to be pumped.
We locked through with a Manatee. We heard the Manatees are the reason some of the Okeechobee locks are closed this year. While fueling up, the dock attendant told us the male manatees will follow the females into the locks and get crushed in the doors as the locks close. I guess until I hear otherwise I will believe this theory.
We once again found ourselves tying up to a dock much to tall for our boat at Capt Hiram's Resort in Sebastian. We were pleasantly surprised to have coincidentally chosen a marina that was hosting a concert on a Tuesday night. The outdoor bar where the band Rehab played was a great setting and was packed with people. We stayed at the resort hotel.
We woke up cramped, ready to leave the tent and stretch out our legs. We made another early start with the challenge of crossing Florida via the Okeechobee Waterway ahead of us. We had been told throughout the last couple weeks that one lock, all locks, and even the lake itself would be closed. Obviously something along today's stretch would be blocked, but the varying reports left us wondering what.
The first lock, purported to be closed, was actually closing NOW! We asked the gentleman at the visitor's center if he could radio our last minute request to the lockmaster. After receiving the begrudging "OK", we took off running back to the boat. We locked through, but it was obvious the lockmaster was not pleased. He told us he was taking a big risk letting us pass. If there was a manatee in the camber with us he'd be in trouble - they were drying out the tanks for the rest of the season.
The second lock was business as usual.
The third lock was just after Moore Haven. We pulled off at the City Marina and went into City Hall to inquire about marina services. They have none. Basically you dock your boat and leave money in a drop box. Fortunately, someone in the office called a mechanic in the area with a fishing boat. He agreed to "come take a look" in a few hours.
While we waited, we walked down to find something to eat and escape the heat. After walking several blocks, we realized the rest of town would be much further away. We stopped at restaurant that barely looked like a business, beside the word "restaurant" hand scribbled on the back of a placemat hanging in the window. I would have given them a plug here (food was decent and the people were nice), but I'm not sure the place even had a name.
After eating we returned to the dock to meet today's hero - the mechanic with the fishing boat. He agreed to launch his boat, use his trailer to pull ours, and drop us on the other side of the lock. The whole process took less than 20 minutes - problem solved! We offered him a little cash and a T-shirt as thanks.
We pressed on and reached Lake Okeechobee quickly. We opted for the rim route with took us passed the town of Pahokee and Loggerhead Club and Marina. They have recently reopened since the hurricane-rebuild. We stayed in a very cute, cedar two-bedroom cabin a quick walk from town. Andree and the staff at the marina was very helpful they new we were coming and had made a few calls on lock status and to inquire about our schedule.
It really wasn't until we emerged from the rim canal near the Marina that we got a good look at Lake Okeechobee. It is a large flat inland sea. The far shore is too distant to actually see so it is much like looking across an ocean.
The walk to town was heavy with mosquitoes - big mosquitoes! They attacked us through a heavy layer of bug spray and long sleeve clothing.
Town was small and bit run down. Very different from the touristy towns we had been seeing in Florida. It didn't offer many dinner choices. We ate at an old Burger King that had been converted to a Chinese restaurant. Without any real local ambiance to soak up opted to take our food to-go and eat in the comfortable cabin at Loggerhead Marina formerly the Pahokee Marina. With the new Marina and the recreational opportunities on Lake Okeechobee, maybe Pahokee would be a good place for a little stimulus money to help the folks capture a few tourism dollars.
When we left Twin Dolphin Marina, Camille shot overhead photos of us from the Green Bridge. Since she and her family did The Great Loop, they have started a photography business that has become a passion.
Our trip to Ft. Myers turned out to be a very eventful day on the water. Because of the cigarette boat races in Sarasota there was a lot of boat traffic headed in the opposite direction. Everyone with a boat was traveling past us to go see the big event. We were battling large wakes all day, including the wakes of two police boats. We were almost swamped by two police boats that flew up from behind us and passed on each side, only leaving about 5ft of space between our boat and theirs. The wakes came crashing together right on us but thanks to some expert defensive boat driving by Elizabeth we were just fine.
Today we saw just how playful the dolphins can be. One dolphin swam right up to the driver's side and put one fin out of the water waving at Katie and I'm pretty sure he had a smile on his face. Other dolphins came up and played in our wake as we were motoring along. We also witnessed stingrays jumping up to 4ft out of the water. The day seemed very long due to the extreme heat and humidity, as well as the no wake zones that are in place to protect the manatees. Manatees are like huge sea cows that like to lounge around and eat sea grass. We arrived in Ft. Myers late in the day just before the Legacy Harbor Marina and everything else in town closed. We found refuge in the marina's upstairs lounge room. The area was nicely furnished, had a computer and we thoroughly enjoyed the air conditioning and the opportunity to do more laundry. One of the only restaurants open was a small Italian place. We camped on the boat and were ready to sleep in until 7:00 the next morning.
We began our Independence Day with some delicious blueberry pancakes prepared by Camille. Ray and Camille loopers we met via the America's Great Loop Cruisers Association, let us borrow their car for the day so we could sightsee and make a stop at West Marine. Our trip to West Marine was unsuccessful -we have had trouble getting our hands on Skipper Bob Books. We returned to Twin Dolphin Marina for the 4th of July celebration. We spent the afternoon hanging out on the boat, and we eventually made our way up to the pool area for a swim and potluck. The food was great -I have never seen so many different kinds of pasta salad.
We got cleaned up and walked to downtown Bradenton. The streets were closed for a concert, and were filled with people decked out in red, white and blue. At dusk we returned to the boat for the fireworks show. We stretched out on the front deck with all of our backs leaning on the starboard bow rail. That put us in a perfectly reclined position to watch the show that was directly in front of us. We returned to Ray and Camille's for another night in a comfy bed.
July 3, 2009
Wrong! We weren't back to calm water just yet. Tampa Bay was as nearly as rough as the Gulf. Unlike the open sea, the chop in Tampa Bay comes at you from every direction. The waves are unpredictable and chaotic, and there is no time to position the boat to minimize the impact. We took a wiggle-wobbly route across the bay and tried to follow larger boats whenever possible. Staying between the wakes of other boats helped to smooth our path a little, but our speeds rarely matched, so this technique only worked temporarily.
Again the boat was swamped and my eyes burned from the sting of salt water and dribble of sunscreen. Everything is wet all the time, and we are all learning to live with the musty crusty smell of dried seawater.
As we entered the channel into Bradenton we had our first up close meeting with a dolphin. It was not the majestic experience I had hoped for. Watching dolphins jump alongside a 42-foot boat is very different than a dolphin jumping above the gunwale when you're not expecting it. He only jumped once. My "Flipper experience" seemed more JAWS encounter.
We stopped at the first Marina we came to - Twin Dolphin Marina. Charlie, the Harbor Master, hooked us up with a free stay and all the marina perks. We were lucky to get a spot because Twin Dolphin is a popular place. The marina was packed! Five boat clubs had made reservations to spend the holiday weekend here and the place was alive with festivities.
After a dip in the pool, cold showers, and a couple drinks at the marina bar we got ready to meet two former loopers, Ray and Camille.
Ray and Camille are followers of our blog and completed the loop with their 8-year-old son back in 2003. They are a fun loving couple that sold their house in order to upgrade from a 19-foot boat to 43-foot boat. Near the tail-end of their loop they stopped in Bradenton and ended up buying a house. Ten months later they sold their boat and resumed life on land. We enjoyed dinner, conversation, and a slide show of their Great Loop.
Next up we are heading to Fort Myers then it is cross state via Okeechobee to the eastern Intercoastal. The little boat that began in Seattle will have crossed the continent.
July 2, 2009
Tarpon Springs FL
Another 5:30 alarm! I can't wait to be back on the ICW so we won't have to leave every morning at dawn still dreaming of calm seas. We are getting fairly good at packing the boat quickly, even in our groggy condition.
The day started out unbelievably well - the water seemed too calm to be true and we hopefully talked of reaching Tarpon Springs. We made it past Crystal River and Homosassa in great time, but shortly after the waves picked up again.
The boat was slamming down hard and water was spraying over the gunwale and slapping the front-deck passenger (me) in the face. Even bundled in my Mustang gear, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, I was still feeling the sting of pelting water on my cheeks and the burn of saltwater in my eyes. I felt sick again and tried to spit the taste of salt out of my mouth.
Two menacing storm clouds loomed in front of us - one slightly to the right and one slightly the left, but both moving inshore. We pointed our bow dead center at the one on our left, nearest to shore. Our logic was to slip between the two systems (or rather Sammy's logic, because we joke that Oklahoma weather has better equipped him to read storm conditions than our experience with the monotonous cloud cover and mild weather of Seattle).
It worked! . . . well almost. The tail end of the first nasty cloud hit us, but I was already soaked, so I appreciated the freshwater rinse, which helped to remove the salt caked onto the exposed portions of my face.
The boat was pounded hard during our three days on the gulf. The transom got a particularly hard workout.
Our friend Gus Blakely of Suzuki, several days ago suggested we let John Stamas, the owner of Stamas Yachts know we were coming to the area.. Stamas Yachts sells Suzuki motors and is also a member of the United Marine Manufacturer's Association, (remember Jill from 3 weeks ago, seems like forever now). We were relieved to learn that John had since been following the blog and was willing to have his guys pull our boat out of the water for a structural once-over before we continued.
I'm familiar with the construction of Duroboats, but I appreciated the expert opinion of a boat builder. Some non structural caulking in the transom well was beginning to pull away from the transom. Stamas Yachts quickly re-caulked a seam and we were again shipshape and ready to run.
The whole crew at Stamas Yachts was great – good people! John offered to leave our boat in the sling over night so we wouldn't have to worry about moorage. He also offered to give our wet baggage and us a lift to a nearby motel. John really impressed us with his trust and generosity when he also lent us his car for the night!
After a stop at the Motel we went out to explore Tarpon Springs. The town is famous for sponges and Greeks! Natural sea sponges are gathered by fishing boats and sold everywhere – apparently an industry started by the Greeks. Greek restaurants, bakeries, and bath sponge stores line the touristy portion of the Tarpon Springs, appropriately called the Sponge Docks.
Wednesday July 1 2009
Cedar Key FL
One of our favorite things about Cedar Key is their successful ability to fend off chains and franchises. You won't find a McDonald's or Wal-Mart anywhere on the island – every single business in Cedar Key is privately owned. Even their grocery and convenience stores are neighborhood businesses.
We walked down the dock street and ate lunch at Frog's – a laidback, Parrot-Head-style restaurant, that came highly recommended by the friends we met in Steinhatchee.
After lunch, we walked through a few shops. Limited space on the boat diminishes the excitement for accumulating souvenirs. I can fit more memories in a journal than a suitcase anyway.
After lunch, we grabbed one of the 9-gallon fuel tanks from the boat and carried it 6 blocks into town. Elizabeth and I have been spoiled with Sammy on the trip – he declined our offers to help carry and chivalrously decided to tote the tank both ways.
Fortunately he didn't have to. An off-duty law enforcement officer stopped us just after we filled up and had begun walking back to the dock. He drove a pick-up truck with only enough room for one passenger - Sammy and the tank went with him and Elizabeth and I walked.
The officer was just pulling away when we arrived back at the dock. He yelled, "good luck on the trip!" as he passed. Sammy is fairly confident the officer will someday buy a Duroboat. Apparently he was really excited by the no-rivets-no-weld concept and liked how we had customized the interior. Our bright yellow Duroboat is unique here in Florida and has received a lot of attention throughout the trip.
That night we stood on the balcony of our condo at The Island Place, which overlooked the small bridge leading into the public dock. Shortly after the last fishing boats rushed under the bridge to dock for the night we watched the sunset over Cedar Key.
For several days while we were in Steinhatchee we had planned to meet Kelly from the Cedar Key Beacon newspaper. When we finally arrived she had a commitment out of town. We still hope to do a phone interview with her to relate our story and our impressions of cedar Key.
Wednesday July 1, 2009
Cedar Key FL
Five days, one alligator, lots of beers, and a scary tornado later . . . we finally made it!
We woke up before the sun expecting the water and weather to cooperate. We checked the weather on the Lowrance GPS with the weather overlay turned on. This feature has been helpful the last couple of days because it shows us the waypoints, channel markers, and updates while you move. It shows the weather in different categories of intensity that are color coated. The map looked clear for the beginning part of the trip but there was what looked like a small patch of storms moving into Cedar Key. Eager to make progress we all voted to beat the weather and make it to our destination.
The water was a little bit rough but not unbearable. The Suzuki 50 powered us up and over the three-foot swells with ease. Making great time we began to see the storm clouds that we had previously seen on the Lowrance looking very ominous in front of us.
At this point there was only one option and that was to keep on going and hope for the best. The storm was moving west and we were racing it to the channel markers that lead into Cedar Key. As we made our approach about 500 yards from the storm, Elizabeth asked in a concerned voice, "is that a water spout?"
We all looked to the backside of the storm and sure enough there was what looked like a tornado. As we got closer there was definitely growing concern because now we could see the twister on the water and it was headed for the same area we were. We quickly turned up the volume on the VHF to channel 16 for emergency updates. The tornado, or waterspout, was being reported. I turned inward and headed for land. We zoomed in on our GPS location and used it to navigate around the bad part of the storm following markers very closely all the way into Cedar Key.
After driving through a storm we were all soaked, cold and ready to get off the boat. The public docks had 3hr and 24hr spaces. We pulled up to the first one we could find and got off the boat before the second wave of storms moved in. The bilge pumps were working hard to keep all the buckets of rainwater out of our boat. Still soaking wet we ate breakfast at a local restaurant.
Our next stop was The Island Place. It is a group of well-furnished condos right on the water that makes you feel right at home. The condos are literally adjacent to the little downtown area of the island and provide a great view.
Tuesday June 30, 2009
The decision to stay was not up to us. We got ready to go and loaded the boat at 5:30am. We were still tied to the dock and busy entering our GPS waypoints when the sky opened up. We grabbed our stuff and headed back to bed. It continued to storm until later that afternoon.
That afternoon Jarrod, Fiddler's bartender and inheritor, drove us to Perry about 30 miles away to do laundry. Scott, the former owner of another marina in town, drove us up to the Steinhatchee Falls and let us borrow his kayaks to paddle the upper portion of the river, too shallow and rocky for any motored boat.
That night we returned to Fiddler's where we were enticed by our new friends to stay for Scalloping season starting tomorrow. After 5 days in one spot we've nearly forgotten we are still on a boat trip. If the water is good we'll leave tomorrow, if the water is not good we won't be that disappointed.
Monday June 29, 2009
Advised not to attempt traveling due to weather conditions, we slept in – a rare treat this summer. We made what had become our daily stop at Hungry Howie's, an inexpensive pizza joint with WiFi, AC, and TV – perfect for transients like ourselves.
That afternoon we took a boat ride upstream as far as we could go before the water got too shallow. The Steinhatchee River is lined with quaint privately owned vacation cabins, and floating docks with a fishing or pontoon boat parked on the end. The fish were jumping and we saw trees full of white tropical looking cranes.
On our return trip we saw a pontoon boat with its paddles out and several other boats floating near by. Thinking the pontoon was experiencing technical trouble and the others were there to help, we got closer. Engine trouble was not the issue; all the boats were floating quietly to avoid disturbing the manatees. Maybe our motor scared them away. We floated with the group for a few minutes but never saw any manatees.
We returned to Fiddler's again that night and the crowed continued to prove the Steinhatchee slogan ("drinking town with a fishing problem"), but we met some really friendly people that offered to entertain us for as long as we were stuck, in fact, they invited us to be "stuck" all summer.
Sunday June 28, 2009
Unsure where to go after our unsuccessful attempt to leave Steinhatchee, we headed over to Fiddler's – the bar and restaurant we had intended to try the night before. Fiddler's came highly recommended by Tom, an American Great Loop Cruisers Association member and Gulf crossing consultant.
Once secured to the dock we headed into the bar. We ordered a couple beers and asked to speak with the owner. Jim, the owner, chef, and comedic personality listened to our story and offered us a room at his hotel next-door – Pelican Point. He suggested, well, almost required that we come back that evening.
We were happy to oblige and even happier to have a place to stay. Dinner was in a quiet dining room, but the size of the restaurant was obviously well equipped to handle the tourist season - which we would later learn started on July 1st, the opening day of scalloping.
As we paid our bill, our waiter whizzed passed our table and waved us to follow him into the bar. Jim had one leg lunged on top of an overturned metal ice tub and was strumming a single string that stretched from the tub to the end of a broomstick. In addition to his other talents, Jim also plays the Gut Bucket.
Jim's wife and his son Jarrod were both working the bar too. They made us a giant margarita while Jim sang along to a Floribama Boy's CD.
Later that evening we ended up at another bar down the river called Crabbie Dad's. There was a surprisingly large crowd for a Sunday night in such a small town, but locals tell us that Steinhatchee is a "quiet drinking town with a fishing problem." I've heard this saying before, but Steinhatchee really lives up to its slogan. Fisherman at the bar pulled out their maps and gave us drinks and unending advice.
We have relied heavily on local knowledge through out the entire trip, but everyone has a different opinion of how to approach the next leg of our route. As we've written in earlier blogs, the Florida bend is probably the most treacherous portion of the Great Loop. Some have suggested that we hug the coast as closely as possible, others have suggested that we set way points far enough off shore that we avoid collision with sandbars, oyster beds, and other shallow hazards, and skeptics have suggested that we trailer across to Jackson FL to avoid the risk all together. We must weight all these opinions, judge our advisor's credibility, check weather conditions religiously, and in the end make the best plan we can.