Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Carrabelle, Carrabelle ... a little of the Big Bend ...

While Steinhatchee is a truly unique spot along the Big Bend of Florida's gulf coast, the spot at which we really wanted to linger on the hook was the barrier islands along St. George Sound.  On 13 April (Friday the 13th), we headed north with the Dolphins pod on yet another long-day's motor sail.  As usual, we had to navigate around some crab pots, but our route took us several miles off shore and we discovered we could relax, doing a little reading and throwing out a trolling line.  The fishing was particularly good, and with a planer we'd gotten at the Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee, we managed to pull in four nice sized Spanish Mackerels.  Ahead of us on their catamaran, Mark Bridges pulled in a Grouper as well.  After eleven hours on the move, at 1830, we finally dropped anchor at Dog Island on St. George Sound.  We are not quite sure where our fellow Dolphins found the energy, but they planned a fish fry on Gene and Jo Weatherup's ketch, while we decided to watch the sunset with a stiff drink.  I say a stiff drink, because I had developed a toothache during the day, which as the sun set was noticeably worsening.  Definitely a Friday the 13th.  But, a good martini chased by some wine with a meal was just the ticket to allow me to enjoy Dog Island's very Bahamian-like anchorage.  And the sunset was truly one of the best we've ever seen.

Saturday morning, with my tooth pain persisting, Penelope fried some fish and home fried potatoes for breakfast, and we settled into read while most of our friends got in their dinghies and took an excursion ashore.  At 1230 we weighed anchor and motored to the New River channel and up river a short way to the Moorings Marina in Carrabelle, not to be confused with the well-known Moorings charter company.  While a bit run down, the staff was super and made us all feel right at home.  On our way in, we pulled into the fuel dock and filled up with 21.5 gallons of diesel (a bit less than half a tank), then we were directed to our slip along the river, where after a couple of tries negotiating the current and wind, we managed to get in with the help of Buddy, the harbor master.  We were happy to get in ahead of the rest of the pod for we faced no line at the showers.

After we got scrubbed and put on clean attire, we walked over to the AGI super for a couple of things and then to a little gift shop where I found a pair of $7 sandals, which I can now say five weeks later turned out to be pretty comfortable - really good buy the entire.  Then the entire pod meandered down to the nearest oyster bar, Fathoms, with Mark scouting ahead on his bicycle to find it for us.  Beer, wine, oysters on the half shell and amazing Coleslaw.  Unfortunately, as the day waned, the no-see-ums appeared and we retreated to Alizee's cabin, closed things up and ran the AC.

Sunday morning I was up early, awakened before sunrise by throbbing tooth pain.  Ibuprofin every couple of hours seemed to help the pain, and I was taking Cipro, which we had on the boat as a general antibiotic.  Reading George Washington's biography made me feel a bit better, as he had terrible tooth problems throughout his life.  I cannot imagine the sort of pain he suffered during the years he was president.  Around noon we walked back down to Fathoms for another round of oysters, which except for the Coleslaw was about the only thing I seemed able to eat.  Penelope was my champion all day, cooking a wonderful fish chowder for dinner, arranging for a car rental the next morning, helping me try and find a dentist.  Our dentist back in Deland had an emergency number, but she never called back so I was stuck with the Cipro, which honestly did not seem to be killing the infection.  Anyway, I walked over to Joe and Cathy's boat Halcyon, where everyone was gathering for a Mexican dinner, and told them our plans to leave the next morning for a marina in Apalachicola and then either find a dentist there or rent a car at the airport and drive back to Deland to our dentist.

The next morning, the tooth pain was almost immobilizing.  At 0800 the dentist office in Apalachicola called and said they could see me at 1000.  We decided to get a taxi and make the appointment, which we got all set up to get us there in time, and then we saw the pod off as they were all sailing up to Apalachicola.  Then the taxi service failed, saying they couldn't get us there until 1100, at which point one of the wonderful marina staffers got on the phone and found us a local shuttle into Apalachicola.  The driver was a very nice woman, who got us to the dentist on time, waited for us and drove us back to Carrabelle via a pharmacy and minus the offending tooth.  Numbed out from the extraction, I felt a million times better.  We spent the day on the boat reading, Pen made me mashed potatoes and then scrambled eggs.  Around 1700, as the pod was all sitting down for an oyster dinner in Apalachicola, Judy Clapp called on behalf of everyone to see how I was doing, which we much appreciated. 

The next couple of days found me in recovery mode.  We watched a couple of movies from our little collection of cds, used the pain pills the dentist had prescribed sparingly, and I worked my way through a course of fresh Amoxicillin.  We were both pretty exhausted, although we did manage to get to the supermarket again, get showers, do laundry and enjoy the pelicans and other who enjoyed hanging around the boat.  Thursday morning, 18 April, Steve Cardiff knocked on Alizee's hull around 0800.  He and his friend Dick on Celestial had left the pod the day before and arrived the night before on their way back to St. Pete.  He was concerned when he saw us still in our slip and came over to check on us.  I walked down to their slip and chatted a bit before handing them their lines and seeing them on their way.  An hour or so later, we paid our bill and motored down to the anchorage at Dog Island, where we spent a beautiful day, capped off by a wonderful barbecued rib-eye stake dinner.  Clearly, my tooth problem was over.

Gotta say, this was not what we'd hoped for in St. George Sound.  We anchored out only twice, spent much too long in the Moorings Marina in Carrabelle and saw much too little of Apalachicola, all in a rather painful way.  Sadly, all we had time to do was head back south, via Steinhatchee and Cedar Key and the other stops we'd made on the way north.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Steinhatchee, land of no-see-ums ... continuing the voyage ...

At 0730, April 12th, we weighed anchor at Atsena Otie Key just across from Cedar Key, hoisted our mainsail and followed the rest of the Dolphins Cruising Club pod out the channel bound for Steinhatchee (pronounced Steenhatchie), about a 53 nautical mile trip.  Once on the gulf and heading northwest, the wind unexpectedly picked up to 20 plus knots and we were on a close haul.  Blustery and wet, and Alizee, with a much lower free board that our friends on the Island Packets, shipped a lot of water over the port rail, at one point so much that I lost a sandal off the stern.  Damn/spit!  I'd just bought that new pair of Tevas and completely forgotten that I'd left them sitting behind the cockpit.  We should have reefed, but we were bound and determined to keep up with the pod, so we weathered the wind.

This actually is the sort of thing I don't like about so-called "buddy boating."  One feels almost obligated to stay with the other boats, and I suspect more often than not to the detriment of good seamanship and perhaps safety.  Indeed, there's a false sense of security in it all.  And, the truth is in our experience on this trip and on others, if a buddy boat seems to have problems, stopping, veering of course, or falling far behind, you don't hear radio calls asking if everything is all right.  In the end you really are own your own and when you do share radio chatter it's generally innocuous. 

But I digress.  Quite simply, we violated our own reefing rules because we knew that we would be running off our Raymarine electronic chart before we reached the reputedly shallow three-some-mile long Steinhatchee channel, and I preferred to have other boats in sight when that happened.  In any event, the blustery conditions only lasted for a couple of hours, the winds lightened up and we found ourselves following Purpose down the channel, eyes glued to the depth sounder.  Turns out because we were coming in on a relatively high tide there was excellent depth, quite contrary to the advice found in Dozier's Waterway Guide. At any rate, we found our way up to the Sea Hag Marina, spun a 180 turn and slid masterfully into our assigned end tie on a finger dock, stern to stern with Dragonfly. 

Once docked, I immediately pulled out my paper charts and began entering in way points on the chartplotter for the next day's sail.  This extra effort, of course, was my own fault.  I simply assumed that my Navionics chip covered the entire Gulf Coast of Florida, so I didn't check.  Beyond a certain point, three-fourths of the way from Cedar Key to Steinhatchee, all the data disappeared leaving a screen image that sort of depicted where land masses were but nothing else (see photo).  Hence, I'd be navigating the Big Bend and all that notoriously shallow water with a paper chart and essentially a GPS.  Later, when I was telling Doug Clapp on Purpose about this and that I needed to get Navionic's west coast chip, which absurdly also covers the Gulf of Mexico, Doug pointed out that the new Navionics chip covers the whole country and more; mine is very outdated.  Don't you just hate it, when something you got just four years ago is "very outdated"?  Indeed, after the trip and when we got back to our home in Deland, I discovered on the Raymarine site that my C-80 chartplotter has been retired, too.  Damn/spit again! 

After I got my way points charted, we adjourned to join the pod on Mark and Jill Bridge's Dragonfly, where we had cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.  It was supposed to be a sort of captains meeting to decide the plan for the next day, but the drinking, chatter and conch horn blowing left no room for a real meeting.  When we departed, the only thing we knew for sure is that it was dark and that we were departing at 0930, which was fine with us because we were bushed.  We also discovered, while sitting in Dragonfly's cockpit, Steinhatchee's secret scourge: no-see-ums by the hordes, which in the way of no-see-ums didn't really make themselves felt until the next morning when the welts started to appear.

We returned to Alizee whilst everyone else decided to walk a few blocks to a local restaurant for dinner.  We were so tired that, although we prepped dinner, we just stuck everything in the refrigerator and went to bed with visions of a morning shower (the last one we'd had was four days before).  Unbeknownst to us, the pod had changed all their plans at dinner, and while Mark was delegated to call us with the news - which he did, but we were asleep - we did not discover the change until Mark knocked on our boat at 0-dark-thirty!  "We're leaving at 0700," he said apologetically, to which I gruffly and unkindly replied: "Well, maybe you are."  They had decided not to go on to St. Marks, but to push the extra overall ten nautical miles to Dog Island, just near Carabelle.  We looked at the weather because we knew a front was supposed to come through, and we decided to skip the showers and push on with everyone else.

But, what about Steinhatchee?  This was a spot we'd really wanted to see.  Sea Hag Marina was a classic 'old Florida' spot, and we'd looked forward to wandering around Steinhatchee for a day or so.  Well, in fact, on our way back from Apalachicola we got the chance to wander around the town famous for fishing tournaments, scallop harvesting and its February Fiddler Crab Festival (doesn't every town everywhere have a festival ... my favorite is the Gilroy Garlic Festival).  On Friday, April 20, we retraced the steps we'd made with the pod to Dog Island, and made an eight-hour sail back to Steinhatchee and to the Sea Hag, where we docked on the same finger pier, this time stern to stern with a trawler from Alabama, captained by David Keller.  The docking wasn't quite as smooth, because the marina staff insisted I go stern to stern with the trawler and their handling of the lines was not very carefully done - they used the end of the finger pier as a fulcrum to pull Alizee around and into position, and because the pier's rub rail was nonexistent, I'll be spending a couple of hundred bucks touching up the awl grip on the port side.  I was too kind in letting them off the hook; I thought perhaps they'd comp us a night or so, but they chose not to be generous (my only complaint about Sea Hag Marina, which actually is the cheapest transient docking around).

Once again, weather decided what we'd be doing for a couple of days.  This time it kept us in Steinhatchee for four nights and three days, and we dreaded the idea because of the no-see-ums.  On our first night we envisioned being stuck down in the cabin from sun-up to sun-down, but the front moving through turned out to be our savior. Cool air and steady breezes kept the gnats, as the locals call them, away from us, and I think we managed to get away with only two or three bites each.

What a time we had in Steinhatchee.  Turns out we were lucky to get dock space, for the Sea Hag was sponsoring one of many of its big fishing tournaments that weekend.  On Friday night, when we arrived, we made our way up to the fish cleaning station, where we struck up a conversation with a couple of "old timers" (actually they were a couple of years younger than me), and had a grand time swapping fish stories, finding out local fishing hints and watching a fellow clean a rather large shark - a first for us.  Penelope, who is a master at fileting the fish we catch on Alizee, also really enjoyed watching fishermen fileting their fish with electric knives.  (She discovered you can get a twelve-volt electric fileting knife, but so far she hasn't mentioned it again.)

On Saturday morning a beehive of activity started before dawn, and scores and scores of boats streamed out to the gulf for the next couple of hours, reminding us of the morning commute by our house in Deland.  We relaxed during the day, got showers at the marina and took a short walk.  I also found a couple of number two planers at the Sea Hag Marina tackle store, which I added to our collection along with a new t-shirt for myself.  Then we settled in to watch the fishermen flood back in before the cold front, for we had dinner plans.  At the tackle store, I also had discovered that Fiddler's Restaurant, about two miles east of the marina, would send a car to pick us up for dinner, so we made arrangements for dinner around 1800.  Fortuitously, the town liquor store was right next door to Fiddler's, so after a great dinner, we shored up our liquor supply and got a ride back to Alizee.    

The next morning saw fewer boats going out.  The front continued building and by afternoon would be really coming through, so once the boats were on there way out for a morning of fishing, we decided to walk to the grocery, about a mile away.  A nice walk and a really good look at a pretty swath of Steinhatchee.  I told Penelope that if it wasn't for the no-see-ums, this would be a great place to live.  She's was not as enchanted by that idea, pointing out that it was an hour's drive to almost any large grocery, movies or what have you.  She's right.  I'd dislike that immensely.  Nevertheless, it was a great place to walk around, and on our last day we made the trip to the grocery again, this time taking a slightly different route.  And we managed to find our way in the opposite direction from the grocery to Roy's restaurant, where the pod had all gone to eat and change plans on us on our first stay in Steinhatchee.

And, one last thing about the Steinhatchee channel.  On our way out after this second visit, with the tide just one-foot above mean, we followed an Islander 36 that was home-ported in Steinhatchee.  I'm sure it was a shoal-draft model which draws only 4'9", but it was most reassuring that the depths in the channel were ample.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cruising toward Apalachicola ... the Big Bend cruise begins ...

We’d been planning to take a cruise during a window in April and May, with the idea of joining some other sailors from the Dolphins Cruising Club on what was billed as ‘The Big Bend Cruise’. Their itinerary started the day after Easter Sunday and lasted through May 28, taking them north from Tampa Bay to Mobile, Alabama, and back again, along the way navigating through Florida’s ‘Big Bend’, where the coastline moves from north/south to east/west and along the state’s panhandle. We knew we couldn’t take two months. 

Any longer for us would have meant having someone stay at our house to care for our cats Wally, Harley and Junipurr; and, more, we’d already decided this year we’d just do one-, two- or three-week long cruises. So, we decided we’d join the group up to Apalachicola, the oyster capital of Florida, and while they moseyed on up the panhandle to Mobile, we’d enjoy some anchorages along the St. George’s Sound and the Apalachicola River and then return home by the end of April.

I think for the first time, we got our provisioning well done ahead of time. I spent a week at the boat during the end of March doing some varnishing, and while there I made a good inventory of what we had aboard. Then, the week before we left home for the boat, we bought the non-perishable items we’d needed and cobbled together menus, while Penelope crafted some turkey burgers, spaghetti and meatballs, Empress chilli and chopped green and red bells, all of which we froze along with other meats we’d bought. When we drove over to the boat on April 7, we simply stopped by a local super and bought the perishables we needed. Everything was stowed on Alizee by 1500, and we finished off the pre-departure tasks on the boat and whipped up a Caesar salad and chicken dinner. Next morning we showered and embarked on our journey by 1130.

Our first night on the water was spent at a cozy little hole in the water anchorage just inside John’s Pass Bridge, 18 nautical miles following a circular route from St. Pete’s Tampa Bay waterfront to the ICW on the Gulf side of St. Pete. Although surrounded by condos, from where we anchored we could see the bridge opening and shutting for sailboat traffic, and we spent a peaceful evening among myriads of seabirds. Next morning we finally straightened out our spinnaker, which had gotten tangled badly on an earlier sail, and slipped out of John’s Pass at 0900 on a lovely spinnaker run up to Anclote Key.

Anclote Key is just off the ICW where that waterway disappears and the only route north is offshore. Here two others from the little group of Dolphin cruisers had already assembled: Joe and Cathy Mansir on Halcyon, an Island Packet 37, and Doug and Judy Clapp on Purpose, an Island Packet 38. Saving us from having to lower our dinghy, which we probably wouldn’t have done in any case because we were pretty pooped, Doug and Judy picked us up in their dinghy for a happy hour on Halcyon that devolved into dinner … our contribution, a bottle of California champagne.  And, while we were just settling into our first cocktails, Steve Cardiff and his friend Melissa arrived in his 32’ trawler, Celestial.  

Next morning we faced a 65 nautical mile trip, which we knew would take at least ten hours, so we all were up at 0615, making coffee, straightening up lines on deck, raising the mainsail and weighing anchor as the sun started lightening the eastern sky. By 0700, we were underway, motoring north under the light of a lovely sunrise and just a bit behind Steve and Melissa on Celestial. It was an all day motor-sail, though around 1430 the wind shifted and built to just under ten knots from the west, so all our sails went up and, with the engine still at 2200 rpm,  we managed to eke out 6.2 knots, finally topping off at 6.7 knots when the wind strengthened a bit more. We arrived at our Cedar Key anchorage at 1715, just about meeting our estimate of 10 hours travel time. There our group linked up with two other Dolphin cruisers, Gene and Jo Weatherup on Shenendoah, their custom Herreshoff Goldenball 47’ ketch, and Mark and Jill Bridges on their Fountaine Pajot Belize 43 catamaran, Dragonfly.
Since we never had to vary our course, we eased back and let Alizee’s autopilot do the steering.  On such sails we typically entertain ourselves by reading, with occasional glances to be sure the autopilot hasn’t cut out and that we have a clear pathway ahead. On this sail there were a lot of crab pots along the route, so we had to keep a good lookout and be sure we didn’t run over any and snag their line with our prop. I also like to throw a line overboard and troll for whatever fish of the sea I can attract.  We had great luck in the Bahamas doing this, but not so much on the Gulf Coast. Our friend David (Penelope’s first husband and father of daughter Erin) is an avid fisherman, and he gave us a planer to use while trolling, which we had not yet tried.  David had pretty much set it up for us with a leader and lure, and I just had to tie the primary line onto the planer. We dropped it in the water and – BOOM!! – within four minutes we had a nice medium sized Spanish Mackerel.  I put it out again and – BOOM!! – another one, before Penelope had even finished cleaning the first. But, then – damn/spit – the knot on my line tied to the planner came apart, and we lost the whole kit. I realized my error. I should have tied the line to a snap swivel rather than directly to the planer. Later I did that, and I haven’t lost a planer since (finger’s crossed). Nevertheless, we had two lovely Spanish Mackerel.

Penelope and I were grateful that the group had decided to spend a day at Cedar Key. After a leisurely morning aboard Alizee, we dinghied to the public dock to meet the group at 1130, and once we found them gathered nearby, we adjourned to Steamers Clam Bar and Grill on the waterfront and supped on raw oysters and beer. I had high hopes of finding a planer or two to replace the one I had lost. Gene said he had a little one that I could have, as he never used it, but still I thought I’d try the bait and tackle shops. Penelope and I set off on our search and got only quizzical looks when we asked for planers at the two bait and tackle shops (one of them a hardware store). They cater to fisherman who fish from small skiffs, not folks who go out trolling, so there’s no demand for planers.   

No matter, we found our way to Tony’s SeafoodRestaurant. In 2008, Eric, the owner, was invited to bring his clam chowder to the 28th Annual Great Chowder Cook-off the next year in Newport, Rhode Island. He did, and he won, and won again in 2010 and a third time in 2011, after which his chowder was retired to the Cook-off Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, Tony’s clam chowder lives up to its blue ribbons. It was amazingly delicious!

After relishing chowder, we wandered through a couple of Cedar Key’s wonderful historic streets. We found our way into a great little shop called Pyrate Isle Hot Sauces, where Penelope found three different sauces to take along with us and got a bit of an education on hot sauces from the young proprietor. Then we discovered Island Arts, the artists gallery that features all local artwork, and spent quite a while talking with one of the local artists who was overseeing the gallery that day. In the course of our conversation, he said there was another little bait and tackle shop just round the corner that we ought to try in our search for planers.  

We set off in high hopes to visit the Bait Rental and ‘Live and Frozen Kayaks store. Now, there’s a concept! We found the sign (see the photo) and the store, actually called Fishbonz, and in front we found a fellow running a couple of smokers filled with freshly caught shrimp. He directed us up the steps and into what looked like it had been a store but maybe was no longer one. There we were met by Paul Oliver, proprietor and as it turns out four-time past mayor of Cedar Key. Yep, he reckoned that he had a couple of planers hanging on the back wall, and he did indeed – no. 5 planers, pretty big, but what the heck, they’d do in a pinch. He also had a couple of nice lures to replace what we’d lost. I ventured that perhaps the planers and lures would fetch $30 and then I guess we stepped into the twilight zone, because Paul said he’d only take $25, and that only if he could through in four hand-tied lures he’d made the season before and not used. On the way out, of course, Paul insisted we had to try a couple of pieces of smoked shrimp. Yum, yum!!

As if this wasn’t enough, when we wandered back down to the waterfront and walked into a little bait shop run by a archetypical Italian fisherman where we bought two spoon-type lures, he threw in a fish towel for Penelope, and since we’d spent $10, he told us we’d won a prize. Well, two prizes, because there were two of us. And, on the way out, we chose our prizes from the freezer at the front door: a Klondike bar and a Mud Pie ice cream sandwich. With smiles on our faces and ice cream on our chins, we happily found our way back to Alizee, where I made Spanish Mackerel sushi rolls, which we took over to Gene and Jo’s boat for an evening happy hour (again devolving into dinner) with our fellow cruisers. 

We loved Cedar Key! A quaint little town with a taste here and there of old Florida, and the most amazing setting in the anchorage. Worth a ten-hour sail, for sure. Just ask the happy Captain! 

Varnish work continues...

I've been so tied up editing ICON: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Technology, that I've gotten a bit behind in posting our site here, but in the next week or two, I'm going to try to catch up.

The first week of April, I spent another week on the boat tackling the varnish issue.  I arrived Saturday afternoon, March 31st, hoping to do the sanding prep on the varnish job I had to finish, but it poured rain for two hours.  I waited the worst of the rain out at the little cafe at the marina, then carted stuff from the car to the boat and put things away.  The cafe had its anniversary party in the evening, so at 18:30 I went up, had fish and chips for dinner, and the guitar player who handles entertainment - Charlie (about 20 yrs old) - asked me if I'd bring up my keyboard for a jam session later ... which I did about 19:30.  I stayed until 21:00 or so, and then carried the keyboard back down to Alizee.  

Next morning at oh-dark-thirty, I got up to help Francis and Linda Miko untie their lines and embark on a leisurely cruise up to Annapolis.  They had their boat Skye in a slip adjacent to ours for a year, and both Penelope and I enjoyed getting to know them. They both retired from the Library of Congress, and Francis, who worked for the LC Reference Service (which provides reference service to members of Congress), still is asked to assist governments all over the world in setting up legislative reference services.  I have to say, I'd like to have been starting off on such a four-five month trip, and just laze the way up to the Chesapeake again.  Well, I'm going to miss them and big galoot-of-a-dog Sophie a lot.

I spent Sunday through Monday, March 12th, taping, sanding and varnishing the teak cap on the cockpit coaming and the rear pulpit seats plus putting touch-up coats on the hatch covers and trim.  I also inventoried provisions on the boat for our upcoming cruise, spent an afternoon at the super buying the dry provisions, motored the dinghy around to the fuel dock in Salt Creek and topped off the gas tank and filled up our stove's propane tanks.