Thursday/ Friday, November 7 – 8 – Destin Harbor. Departed Pensacola in the morning and headed out into Mobile Bay which is a big bay. As we were turning east into the intercoastal waterway, we spotted a couple of other looper boats that were just ahead of us. One of the boats we had seen before. Travelled along together for a while but we were going slightly faster than they were so we passed them. Originally, we had planned to anchor out in a remote anchorage just past Destin but Bob needed to have a document notarized and sent off so we opted to anchor in Destin Harbor (pesky work thing!). Saw tons of dolphins along the way and some were very playful and even flirting with Bob at the bow of the boat.

While Destin Harbor has a lot of marinas, private and public, there are very few available slips due to Hurricane Michael decimating the Panama City area. Surviving boats from that area have taken up residence here as Panama City is still in a bad way. In fact, we were warned to bypass the Panama City area as it remains in bad shape. But within the Destin Harbor there are a couple of places to drop the hook for the night and we did. Intended to go to dinner at one of the many waterside restaurants but decided to stay onboard instead.

A cold front was forecasted to pass through the area in the evening with strong winds expected on Friday. Went to breakfast at Harbor Docks restaurant then headed back to the boat intent on leaving. While we wanted to get going, we decided to stay another night at this anchorage and forego getting beat up with 3-4’ waves in the bay. So while Bob worked, I called a friend of mine, Tim Malambri, that is a yacht broker with Galati Yacht Sales and asked if he would drive me to the grocery store. Tim’s office is in the harbor so I hopped in the tender and went to visit him. Nice to have friends when needed.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a tender ride and explored the harbor area which has a mixture of really nice homes and less nice ones. Afterwards, we headed to dinner at Boshamps and had more oysters. It was quite chilly and raining off and on.

Saturday, November 9 – Apalachicola, FL. At first light, we weighed anchor and headed out towards Choctawhatchee Bay and GCICW. The first 24 miles were very bumpy as it was windy and the bay is very big. The winds were coming out of the northeast and we were on the southside of the bay so lots of time for the waves to grow (called fetch). But once we crossed the bay, we were in the narrow ICW channel protected from the winds so we decided to run the boat. We had not gone fast and up on plane since Lake Michigan (over 1,000 miles) and wanted to make sure Island Time was ready for the long crossing coming up (more about that later). We put out a longer tow line for the tender and ran at 22 mph for the rest of the day. Originally, we had planned on travelling only about 70 miles to an anchorage just past Panama City but decided to push on to Apalachicola which was 104 miles away. We travelled 11 hours and made Apalachicola just before 5pm and headed straight for the fuel dock. As we were planning on an early start (before the fuel docks opened) we needed to top off to make the upcoming and big crossing. We knew of several boats that were planning on doing the crossing on Sunday morning (the purported better weather window) including One Eye Dog, Lucky Me, R & R, Mimi & Me and a few others.

The crossing from either Apalachicola or Carrabelle to Tarpon Springs creates a lot of angst among loopers. The crossing is about 130 – 150 miles unless you opt for the rim route to Steinhatchee which is about 70 – 90 miles depending on your departure point. During the winter months, which is when most loopers make the crossing, one must wait for the right weather window as there are no places for safe harbor along the “Big Bend”. Wind, waves, storms & fronts can and do bring on bad crossing conditions. Sometimes loopers have had to wait at least 2 weeks before the conditions were right. Also adding to the stress, is that many looper boats are slow and only can go 7 – 9 mph (6 – 7 for sailboats). So if you do the math, you are looking at a 15-18 hour crossing for the slow boats which means running out of daylight. Most of the slow boats, buddy up and travel at night leaving in the afternoon and running all night in order to arrive in Tarpon Springs no earlier than 10am. The timing of arrival is very important because this time of year the commercial fisherman lay out hundreds of crab pots in the shallower waters approaching land. Why is this important? Well, you must see them to avoid them and avoid having the floating buoy and line wrap around your propellers and stop your engine. And if you try to arrive with the sun just rising, the sun is in your eyes and you can’t see the crab pots. All part of planning the crossing.

After fueling, we found a spot on a marina wall in between One Eye Dog and Sand Dollar. Got settled in, had a much needed cocktail after a very long day then headed to meet some loopers at the restaurant Up the Creek. We all discussed our plans and planned speeds with most of us departing at daybreak. Some were headed to Tarpon Springs, some to Dunedin, and some Clearwater. Our plans were to make Dunedin. Everyone turned in early to rest for the “big crossing”. Sand Dollar was planning on the overnight and leaving the next afternoon.

Sunday/ Monday, November 10-11 – Not Dunedin. Larry & April on One Eye Dog departed at 5:30am in the dark. They had done this crossing before and were comfortable heading out in the dark. April texted us after they got out of Government Cut and into the Gulf that conditions were a lot worse than the 2 -3’ waves predicted. 4’ – 5’ waves were spraying over their flybridge. The forecast was calling for the winds to die down starting around 9am. Marv’s Weather was way off! (Marv provides a free weather service to loopers and others) We headed out at 6:30am as planned and it was nasty out in the gulf. R & R and Lucky Me were able to get up and run at 20 mph since they do not tow tenders. However, it was just too rough for us with the tender so we had to slow down to about 10 mph. And we kept waiting for the wind to die down. After a few hours of getting tossed around, we knew that we would not be able to reach Dunedin or Tarpon Springs before dark so we turned east and headed to Steinhatchee. Finally at about 2pm as we got closer to land (less fetch equals smaller waves) and the wind died down, we were able to bump up the speed to 18 mph and run the last 50 miles. We called the Sea Hag Marina to see if they had an available slip and were delighted to hear they had a T-head for us. Great!

But that isn’t the rest of our bad day! Just as we were preparing to turn around and approach the dock, our starboard gear control decided to freeze in forward. Bob and I both tried shifting back to neutral to no avail. Finally we had to turn off the starboard engine. But no it gets better! Here we are in the middle of the channel with an outgoing current, trying to turn the boat around with just the port engine (which turns the boat to the right) and with the tender tied to our starboard side which adds drag or pull so your steering is not as effective and getting close to another boat and shore. So Bob jumps in the tender and tries pushing the Tiara back into the channel and away from shore and then finally tows it out into the channel with the tender. And, once the tender was not creating as much of a drag, I was able to slowly maneuver the Tiara to the T-head and we avoided damage and embarrassment. Phew! Alcohol was immediately served to settle the nerves.
Once nerves were settled, Bob went to check into the marina office and spoke to some fisherman that said that the marina had a good service department. I was a bit concerned because all I saw around us were small outboard boats and didn’t want someone that didn’t know how to work on diesel inboards to try and fix our problem. But after Bob spoke with the service manager, who absolutely knew what he was talking about, we felt so much better. Steinhatchee (pronounced Steen Hatch ee) is in the middle of nowhere and we did not have cell service and weak Wi-Fi so communication to the outside world for help was almost nonexistent. And, Clearwater, where we could get our boat repaired, if not here, is 120 miles away. The manager said the mechanics come in at 8am and he would send them to the boat to have a look. This gear problem first surfaced after our boat was splashed in Gulf Shores where we noticed the gear shift control was stiff. The problem was intermittent and we did experience the stuck gear one other time in the last week but got it resolved. Not this time. After we got cleaned up, we took the tender and went up river to Fiddler’s restaurant and enjoyed some fresh stone crabs and gulf grouper. Crashed and burned shortly after.

Monday morning (Happy Veteran’s Day) the mechanic showed up promptly at 8am and diagnosed the problem as the cable and not a transmission problem. The service manager, Charlie, found the parts in Perry, FL which was 32 miles away and Bob and I drove up there in the courtesy vehicle and retrieved them instead of waiting for delivery the next day. Since our cables are 15 years old, we decided to do them both at this time. On the way back we stopped at the market for a few provisions and returned to the boat hoping that they could make the repairs this afternoon as opposed to waiting until tomorrow. Not that we don’t like or want to stay in Steinhatchee, but another front is forecasted Tuesday night and according to Marv’s Weather, the next weather window is not until Nov 21-22. Of course, he was wrong about Sunday being a good day to cross but the weather app does show the wind picking up and thunderstorms.

To our delight, Wyatt,  the mechanic showed up at 3pm and was finished installing the new gear cables by 5pm. What a relief. We certainly can’t say enough about Sea Hag Marina and their staff. They saved us lots of time and money. After we said farewell to Wyatt, we went to dinner at Roy’s. Charlie said we could use the courtesy car even if it was within walking distance. The no-see-ums (sand gnats) here are terrible and once again I have been ravaged by the little buggers and unfortunately, have an allergic reaction to them. Dinner at Roy’s was great. They are famous for their view of the sunsets. We were seated by the window and it was beautiful to watch. Bob and I decided to try the blue crab claws for an appetizer and they were so good that Bob ended up having more for his dinner while I enjoyed the grilled red fish. Roy’s restaurant was paying homage to all veteran’s and active duty military by comping their dinner. What a great community service.

Tuesday, November 12 – Clearwater Beach. But, first Happy Birthday to grand daughter Kaity who turned 10 today! We departed Steinhatchee at first light to take advantage of the calm winds and before the forecasted rain / front moved through in the afternoon. Our goal today would be to make Clearwater (120 miles) if we could run. If it was rough again, we had plans to divert to Crystal River or something closer. The Coast Guard was broadcasting a National Weather Advisory with small craft warnings starting at 7pm and lasting until 7pm the following day (more on this later). Fortunately, we were able to pick up and run and secured a spot at the Clearwater Beach Municipal Marina in the afternoon. Fueled up then went to our slip. We were too tired to go anywhere so grilled steak on the boat and turned in early. But we got the dreaded crossing over and done with. The dolphins on the west coast of Florida are everywhere. Not only daily sightings but constant sightings. Bob got a video of some dolphins jumping and playing with our wake.

Wednesday, November 13 – Venice. Another early start at daybreak and another push to go far and get home. We normally would be taking our time and travelling less distances but Bob has some pressing work issues and a trial next week and thereafter the kids & grandkids are coming to Fort Lauderdale for Thanksgiving. So the push is on. Even though the winds had picked up, it seemed fine in the protected waters of the ICW when we departed. But when we got to St. Petersburg Bay, things got nasty. The winds were out of the northeast so the waves had lots of time to build on their way down to where we were. Once we got out into the shipping channel, we turned south and had beam seas with 4 – 6’ waves so the boat was surfing. Bob got out the life vests and insisted we both put them on. First time ever! And of course, we could not run so it took us about 2 hours of getting tossed around before we made it back into the protected waters of the ICW. There was some comfort in seeing the Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead and saw a Coast Guard cutter to the southwest. They probably thought we were crazy since they kept broadcasting “small craft advisory” in effect. Since it was slow going for a good portion of the travel today, we only made it 80 miles and pulled into Fisherman’s Wharf Marina in Venice. Luckily, the marina gave us a T-head which made docking easy and we could leave our tender on the hip. Once settled and cleaned up, we went to dinner at the restaurant on property. Sat at the bar and enjoyed a good meal.

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Thursday, November 14 – Fort Myers. Departed at daybreak with no particular destination in mind. Just seeing how far we would get. Since we aren’t familiar with these waters, we didn’t know how much we would be able to run at 20 mph which turned out to be about half the time. So another 80 miles today and we landed at the City of Fort Myers Yacht Basin marina. While it was relatively early in the afternoon, we needed to fuel up before the start across the state via the Okeechobee Waterway. It’s about 120 miles across and there aren’t a lot of marinas or anchorages so we opted to play it safe and get the fuel in Fort Myers. Frankly, I was tired from the long run days with little rest in between so wanted to call it a day early and be ready for the long day across Lake Okeechobee.

Had planned to relax in the afternoon but we discovered a problem with our aft bilge pump. We noticed that the breaker for the pump kept tripping and would not stay on so we pulled out the large fish box so we could access the bilge pump. And to our surprise, the whole aft bilge was full of water. A lot of water and we could not get the pump to work. And our middle bilge pump was acting up leaving us concerned about two out of three pumps not working. Bilge pumps are what keeps you from sinking when your boat takes on water. So we got the manual hand pump out and starting bailing out water. Once the weight of the water in the back of the boat shifted forward, the middle bilge started working and pumped out the rest of the water. The marina office sent over one of the local mechanics that lives at the marina but he said that the pump would need to be ordered and it would take at least 2-3 days to get it so we opted to keep moving towards home and have the repairs done at home thinking that we had 2 bilge pumps working.

Later in the evening, we walked into town to Capone’s Coal Fired Pizza and had a really nice meal. Good meatballs and pizza. Back to the boat and another early dive into bed.

Unfortunately, the last week has been focused on travelling long days so not a lot of photos to share as sightseeing has been limited. Well that wraps up our week as we wind down to the end of our voyage. Stay tuned for the crossing of our wake next week!

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