We spent a delightful 3 days in Clearwater. We have arrived before high season and the hordes of tourists escaping winter have not yet arrived. It’s an easy walk to downtown and all the resources there plus one can catch the Jolly Trolley for more distant destinations. Schlepping groceries on foot isn’t particularly fun so we call a taxi. We enjoy Thai food with Jim and Nancy, a trolley ride around the island, and too much wine with friends Anna and Theresa.

I spend time diagnosing our errant autopilot issues and have made changes in data sources I am hoping will address the problems. At this point there appear to be two two issues: a) three sources of heading data, two agree and one is an outlier and the outlier is correct, b) error messages on my autopilot that indicate a communications problem, loss of heading data, loss of course computer, loss of position data…probably a bad connection. I’m hoping the changes I’ve made will correct these or help further diagnose the problem; time will tell.

We are ready, it is time to move on.

We carefully evaluate our options to continue our journey south. A number of variables need to be considered; state of tidal currents and winds at both our departure point and our destination, selecting waypoints and plotting our course, …. and inside versus off-shore routes. The inside route is in protected water but that water is often shallow, and navigation, while easy, becomes tedious. There are also many bridges that need to open, some on schedules. The outside or off-shore route is not protected waters but water depth is not an issue and the tedium of ICW navigation is replaced with the tedium of running nonstop overnight. Pros and cons to both. With a boat like Tivoli and settled weather and seas it’s a no-brainer; we are heading off shore non-stop Clearwater to Fort Myers.

We will depart at 2:30 PM, slack tide. This is a necessity as the Clearwater Harbor Marina has put us in a very tight slip with a narrow berth with a nearly constant cross current and an awkward angle to maneuver Tivoli into and out of. This boat has many remarkable characteristics; it is our mini cruise ship after all. But, it is not as maneuverable as one might hope. First, it is a single engine boat; twin engine boats can easily rotate in their own length. Single engine boats can do so as well but it requires a “back and fill” technique evolved from sailing ship days. Hard over on the helm, burst of throttle forward to move the stern in the desired direction, burst of throttle in reverse to stop any forward momentum….repeat until the boat has spun on its own axis. We also have a bow thruster and it is a great help in these tight quarters. Some boats have stern thrusters; we lust after stern thrusters but there appears to be no place to install such equipment on this boat. So we “back and fill” our way around marinas….it works but does limit which berths or slips in marinas one might choose and instill some trepidation at docking time.

We are lucky to have our buddies Jim and Nancy and the dockmaster on hand to help us get away from the dock. We have several strategically placed dock lines, we have manually backed the boat out a couple feet to clear a tall piling, and when the strong current finally subsides at 2:30 we back out as if we knew what we were doing….flawless, at least no damage was done to Tivoli or neighboring boats.

We head out to sea. We find magic. It is calm, not a mirror-like finish, but seas are only 1-2 feet, winds 5-10 knots, 75 degrees, beautiful.

In the distance we see our friends Phillip and Anna Rochat sailing their boat Island Time with friends and we pass them as we head out. I call on the radio and bid farewell.

Before we can relax and enjoy we need to, once again, traverse a mine field of crab pots. There are typically a half dozen or so and they are placed in a line with each marked by a float. You would think such floats would be brightly colored to make them easy to find and easy for boaters to see and avoid. Not so lucky; we’ve seen green, black, white, stripes, and even black. Go figure. So we scan the sea in front of the boat until our eyes water swerving left and right while attempting to stay on course. We missed spotting one, saw it at the last second and could do nothing the avoid it. Straight under the boat it went and I listened for consequences. Deanna ran to the back of the boat and the float popped to the surface, none the worse for the wear. Can’t say the same about me. Close call. We do have a line cutter on our primary prop shaft that should cut such a line should we encounter one but thankfully it hasn’t yet been tested. Eventually, after 10 miles at slow speed we seem to be clear and accelerate to our blistering 8 knot cruise speed.

Tivoli hums along and we settle into our routine; watch for traffic by scanning the horizon all around the boat, watching the radar out 6-8 miles, and noting any AIS targets.

We see a range of radar targets. Lights on fixed pilings marking channel entrances, navigation buoys, fishing boats, etc. We carefully monitor each to determine what it is and whether it poses any hazard to Tivoli. Generally, they do not.

The sun sets ,the moon rises; it is beautiful. A spectrum of blues, oranges, pinks from horizon to horizon.

Soon, the condos and highrises of Clearwater Beach recede into the distance until only a glow on the horizon remains.

We are not alone. We have our friends and buddy boat Keokuk behind with their reassuring red and green navigation lights and white steaming light clearly visible, and there are several fishing boats visible on the horizon. There is also an AIS target, the John Parrish, a tug towing two massive structures of some type. I expect he will turn into the Tampa/St. Pete ship channel and am anticipating a crossing situation. I am a bit nervous as by now it is dark, and, although a moonlit night, one still has to be careful maneuvering around tow boats with their tows a 1000 yards behind. People have been killed crossing behind such a tug not realizing the “vessels” behind are attached by heavy cable to the tug that just passed. The worries were unfounded. We easily identify the vessel’s lights that indicate it has the objects under tow and the tow continues southbound; paralleling our path. Fortunately, he is also a bit slower moving at 7 knots. Over time we leave him behind.

Tivoli hums on, we do our regular engine room checks, we settle into our watches. There are many variations on the watch concept and no doubt ours will evolve as well but for now we are doing 3 hour watches between 10 PM and 6 AM. At least, that was the plan. As it happens we tend to adjust to suit circumstances. If Deanna has slept well on her off time she may stay on for a bit longer and vice versa.

The hours pass, the moon sets and it is now very dark, only the lights on the Eastern horizon betray the presence of civilization. Otherwise, we are suspended in darkness – flying on instruments. We watch Tampa/St. Pete, Bradenton, Longboat Key, Sarasota, Venice, Captiva, Sanibel, and many others pass one by one.

The wind has piped up to 15-20 knots and the sea state is no longer benign….now we are getting thumped from time to time and the ride is a bit rougher; even with the hydraulic stabilizers working hard to keep us level.

We watch our ETA and it becomes clear we will arrive too early and will not have sufficient light to see crab pots off Fort Myers. I do some simple time/distance calculations and estimate a new speed. I contact Keokuk by VHF and we agree to reduce our speed to 6 knots to buy us the time we need. At reduced speed the sounds of a passage subside a bit and the ride is a bit smoother. But, it now seems as though we are walking to Fort Myers. Lights in the distance move ever so slowly past the pilothouse windows.

Deanna and I take our turns at standing watch and sleeping, we are both getting more accustomed to this environment and are getting more sleep on this overnighter than we did on the Gulf crossing. Still, it isn’t as much as we would like. But, we remain alert.

Dawn breaks, this one not so spectacular, and an hour or so later we arrive at the waypoint defining the start of the crab pot fields. We turn onto a new heading with sufficient light to see the floats and start our entry into San Carlos Bay. We spot many strings of crab pots and have to do collision avoidance on several, but fortunately the numbers here are not as great as we experienced entering Clearwater.

Our buddy boat Keokuk’s destination is Sanibel so they turn off toward a marina at the south end and we continue another 20 miles or so into the Caloosahatchee River through narrow and often shallow channels, to our moorings at Legacy Harbor Marina. Another leg of our travels completed; 930 nautical miles to date.

We are poised to cross Florida via the Okeechobee waterway; roughly 150 miles through river, canal, lake and 5 locks.

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