The past few months spent motoring along muddy, shallow and narrow waterways had me itching to sail directly to some exotic island in the Caribbean. But patience is a virtue when it comes to the sailing life.
Mobile Bay is wide and shallow and the Gulf of Mexico is 30nm south of Mobile. We would join the intercoastal waterway for the next leg of our trip. With no wind it took most of the day to motor to the GIWW (Gulf Intercoastal Water Way). We anchored at Ingham Bay for the night, about 15nm west of Pensacola. Around 9pm as we were watching a movie we heard thuds on the hull and the rattle of our anchor chain. It sounded like something like a log or kayak had hit the boat. Then we heard a weird snuffling sound. Up on deck in the stillness we could see dark shapes of dolphins swimming around Blue Heeler. I didn’t hear the familiar squeaks just the exhalation from their blowholes. I was back in my happy place!
The following day as we motored to Pensacola Bay, stiff winds from the south-east had us anchoring to the south of Pensacola Bay where we remained for a couple of nights. A bridge with a clearance of only 50′ is east of Pensacola so we had no option but to head out the Pensacola channel into the Gulf of Mexico to keep moving (our mast is around 60′). A cold front which would bring favourable northerly winds to interrupt the steady southeast winds would be our ride south!
The Port of St Joseph is only 100nm away from Pensacola and a doable overnighter. Interpreting the grib files and with the NOAA marine forecasts, we decided to chase the cold front and take advantage of strong cold northerly winds and bypass Port St Joe to head directly for Tampa Bay and St Petersburg some 300nm south on a course of 125deg. Ideally we would reach our destination within two days. But we had to move swiftly as the northerly would eventually shift easterly on day three.
Once the morning rain dissipated, Blue Heeler bounced through the choppy seas of the Pensacola Channel beginning our 300nm crossing. As we’d left immediately after the cold front, the seas were still southerly while the wind was still transitioning from south to north. As you may imagine it was a little bouncy. After an hour or so we pleasantly sailed along in 10-15 knots. We tried to make as much easterly as we could keeping the wind at between 90-120deg. Just south of Port St Joseph are the Cape San Blas Shoals which extend around 16nm offshore. We had to keep well away from the shallows and confused seas in this area but also keep progressing to the east.
On the second day the front brought 20-25knot NNW winds and 2-3m seas. Ah, to be sailing again! From below was the familiar sound of bottles and glasses clanging in the cupboards while the fruit net semi loaded with apples, a butternut pumpkins and a dodgy banana swayed with each movement. Cupboards creaked and doors not latched slammed into position. It seems that sailing is much like riding a bike. Six months since we’ve sailed like this and it was like we’d never left.
By 9.30pm that night the winds grew stiffer and stronger. For the following 12 hours we had 25-35 knot winds and rough seas. Not big seas and no breakers, just choppy as you’d expect in shallow (40m) waters. With sails trimmed to the third reef for the remainder of the night and next day, large waves doused residual river mud from the deck plus any remaining stowaway spiders were soon rinsed overboard from their hidey holes.
After 48 hours from Pensacola and an upgraded weather forecast, it was obvious to us that we would have trouble reaching Tampa Bay. The further the wind shifted east, the more it turned us south and away from Tampa Bay. At that point we were already triple reefed with up to 30knots at 90deg to port. The last 25nm, we hardened up, turned into the wind and motor sailed to reach Tampa Bay by nightfall. The alternative was to continue on to Mexico!
At the slow but steady pace of 4kn, we motored into the seas making steady progress towards Tampa Bay. Fortunately the easterly wind eased a tad and the seas abated slightly the further we sailed towards the shallows around the entrance to Tampa Bay. The channel into Tampa Bay is quite long and shallow and we had at least 15nm before a suitable anchorage down at Manatee River. It was 4.45pm when we entered Tampa Bay and we still had 5nm to reach the anchorage. The wind eased to around 15knots from the north east during the afternoon but we were going straight into it. By 5.50pm after the sun had gone down we dropped the anchor after 57 hours. Phew! A quick tidy up, some pumpkin soup, a couple of rums and hot chocolate, a movie, then we slept like the dead until the next morning. The weather forecast for the next nine days is moderate southerly winds. If we hadn’t have left when we did we’d probably still be in Pensacola or at least Port St Joseph.
On Monday we had a lovely 15nm sail to St Petersburg where we hooked a mooring ball from the Municipal Marina and went to UPS to pick up my new replacement Olympus camera. We would stay a few days to enjoy the area, go out for dinner and share a hot fudge sundae while we appreciated the Christmas lights around the waterfront.
And just like that it’s Christmas time again. This time last year we were in Richards Bay South Africa! Since then we’ve travelled over 10,000nm and visited ten countries, including winding our way through the backyard of the USA! This year we’ve met some lovely people and experienced an unusual way of travelling. In 2016 we will spend some time in the Caribbean and plan our trip for 2017. I haven’t hugged my family for over two years so a trip home is definitely on the cards for 2016 too 😀
To all my readers, my family and friends, we wish you happiness and health and thank you for following our journey. To our sailing buddies, we look forward to catching up with you again very soon to swap sailing stories at a warm sandy beach somewhere!
Peace on earth and fair winds to all. May all your dreams come true in 2016.