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! 


Blogger GW said...

I wondered what happened to you!. :) Sounds like a great trip.

1:31 PM  

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