74 Fairhope, AL to Tarpon Springs, FL

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Tyler, age seven, worked diligently to roll the line in his fingers so it would lay when placed in his other hand in a smooth, untwisted coil. Once accomplished he divided the coils between his small hands, took careful aim and with a smooth underhand toss let the coils fly out toward a rather unique piling. To Tyler’s delight, the loop of line settled over Ruth’s head, and he had secured a ‘piling’ from 10 feet away. He was a very proud pupil of our line throwing class. We had four pupils; Tyler, his brother Andrew, Nancy, Leanne, one instructor–me and one volunteer piling and general line catcher– Ruth. All were eager to learn the subtle technique for tossing a line around a piling and having a great time. Once every one was comfortable capturing Ruth, we moved to Tranquility and practiced catching a real piling from the deck. Later we got a chuckle as we watched Tyler practice tossing a line around his new volunteer piling, his mother.

All the transit boats were slowly getting to know one another a little better as we waited for high winds from a passing front to subside. Our line tossing class came about from conversation at the previous night’s unique happy hour. We had learned Leanne was a professional storyteller and sings while playing a lap harp. She and Dayton came over from Day Lea G joining John and Nancy from Innisfree. Somehow between hearing Leaanne telling a few of her stories and playing the harp and general conversation, tossing lines had come up, and I volunteered to teach what I’d learned a few years ago from another boater. Nancy later recruited the boys, getting their mother’s permission to let them take a break from their formal home schooling class aboard the trawler they were traveling on for a year.

The mast was still down as we left Fairhope. Our curiosity to see the Gulf Inter Coastal Waterway combined with a number of bridges we couldn’t get under with the mast up had influenced our decision. With prevailing winds from the east, we knew we wouldn’t miss many sailing opportunities.

The wooded shore of the small cove we were tucked into blocked sight lines to a second boat anchored in Ingrum Bayou. Securely anchored 50′ from shore, we felt very snug tucked in our private wilderness. In the soft warm glow of a golden sunset two raccoons waded in the shallows looking for dinner while a great white heron stalked along the shore and some ducks we couldn’t identify paddled by.

Dave on Rolling Stone had selected Pensacola as his winter stop. He planned to spend a few months there. Over dinner, we learned more about his five years of living aboard while exploring the rivers and writing occasional articles for Heartland Boating. Early the next morning the urge to be on the water won out over staying another day to further explore town, and we were off at first light.

From our high point, 30′ above the water we had a good view of a small island and to the south, the thin barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and us. Tranquility lay at anchor in the sheltered area between the two islands. We’d enjoyed the climb up this low sandy hill, wondering if it were natural, or just a spoil hill from dredging the ICW. Later we went ashore on the barrier island and walked the half mile through the sand to the shores of the Gulf.

The cut connecting Destin and Panama City is long, narrow and interesting. For many miles high sandbanks flank it. Erosion gullies sculpt the banks and according to the cruising guide, cause constant dredging. As we poked along, we passed a number of areas where people on ATV’s did mini hill climbs up the gullies.

Bayou Joe’s is the quintessential on-the-water restaurant. It’s ‘on’ the water, built on pilings into Massalina Bayou in the heart of Panama City. It has that run down, well used, great place to eat feeling that only comes from years of aging and continual use by happy customers. Their ‘dock’ doubles for outside seating. Tables hug the edge of the dock without intervening railings. Arriving boats tie up inches from diners. We sat enjoying lunch and the bayou view with Tranquility swinging at anchor a few hundred yards away. We were in the heart of Panama City but the feeling was more like a backwater creek.

The next morning we were at the marine yard when they opened. The yard was slow, but very safety-oriented. They provided me with a hard hat as we stepped the mast. Two hours later we were back at anchor, mast up, almost a sailboat again. Stays got tightened. The boom went back on. The main sail with its full-length battens and Dutchman flaking went on the boom. The jib went up and was furled on the rolling furling. In the calm of the bayou we raised the sails, a final check to make sure we’d done everything correctly. Our long day of rigging was complete, we were tired but happy with our work. We celebrated with a late lunch at Bayou Joe’s, signaled for the bridge to open and headed for an anchorage just inside the barrier island and entrance to the Gulf of Mexico.

By 7 PM we were in bed, tired from our day’s activity. The plan was to sleep until we woke up naturally. Then we’d head out into the Gulf and start our 250-mile open- water non-stop crossing from Panama City southeast to Tarpon Springs. Sleep came easily, but only for a few hours. Just after midnight, we were both awake itchy to take advantage of light easterly winds and get on our way.

Anchor secured, we slowly picked our way back to the blinking red and green lights marking the buoys along the harbor entrance channel. Once free of the harbor Tranquility rode easily over the soft ocean swells, our autopilot, Hal, steering a straight course. Sails were up, but we continued motoring as there wasn’t enough wind to maintain speed.

Ruth settled in below snuggling in for her two hour off watch rest. I curled up behind the wheel to monitor our compass course, watch the ocean for other boats and occasionally activate the radar to check for far off ships. After about an hour, Ruth emerged. She couldn’t get to sleep, so we switched and I attempted to sleep. After an hour, I too was awake. We continued letting our bodies determine how long we were on or off watch instead of our normal two hours-off two-hours on watch.

Early morning brought rising winds and a wind shift. Wind and waves were now on the nose. Seas rapidly built and we were soon falling off wave crests with the resulting smack and shudder as Tranquility shook off waves coming over the bow. To improve the ride, we turned Hal off and steered manually to play the waves. Since the wind was now from where we wanted to go, we tacked and headed east to get an easier ride, and if necessary divert to Dog Island near Carrebelle, FL. Just as we were about to duck in behind the island, the wind eased up, and we decided to continue on but still heading east to work into what would be a lee shore in the east winds. Finally late in the evening we turned toward the south heading again directly toward Tarpon Springs. About midnight, the wind shifted again and for another few hours we pounded into waves. It was a thirty-three hour long, tedious crossing.

The anchor went down about 10 AM in a protected channel just outside Tarpon Springs. Happy to have completed our passage, we relaxed and spent the day enjoying swinging peacefully on the anchor. After two nights with little sleep, we slept soundly through the night.

Sherry, the dock master at Sail Harbor marina asked how long we planned on staying. We hedged and said for at least one night, but maybe longer. We explained we’d like to look around a little. With that we took off for a walk into Tarpon Springs. We enjoyed the folks at the marina, and the town was so fascinating that we decided to stay two weeks.

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