The Crossing

Our hopscotch East along the Florida panhandle is dictated largely by weather. Cold fronts move through and the entire nation is engulfed in much colder than normal temperatures including Florida. We are in need of a place to wait out the weather and decide Panama City Marina isn’t the place; too exposed, too industrial-feeling. So we motor 50 miles down the GICW (Gulf Intracoastal Waterway) and take a canal South to the lovely community of Port St. Joe. Sheltered by Cape San Blas this community is an ideal stopover for those waiting to make “the crossing”. This is the 140 to 180 mile stretch across the Gulf from the Panhandle to ports on the West coast of Florida like Clearwater. Shallow draft vessels typically take a shorter route to Steinhatchie or Tarpon Springs. For us, Clearwater is best. Deep water approach, good marina just inside the “cut” and plenty to do and enjoy should we decide to stay for a time. So, while the weather is nasty cold and blustery with 20 knot winds, we hunker down in Port St. Joe and thoroughly enjoy the visit. For a boater everything one needs is in close proximity, grocery store, marine supply, restaurants etc. are nearby. So we spend a week here carefully watching the weather and waiting and enjoying the community. The marina couldn’t be more supportive; it’s deep at low tide, it’s well maintained, the staff are incredibly helpful. They deliver a newspaper and the weather report every morning and, a special treat, a pumpkin pie for us on Thanksgiving day.

Finally, conditions improve and it looks like wind and seas will abate on the Gulf and that a crossing Saturday-Sunday looks best. We consult the usual on-line sources of information and engage a weather routing service as well, OMNI. All reports are consistent and support a Saturday crossing. So, Friday AM at the earliest light we cast off our anchor lines and leave St. Joe for a small island off Carrabelle FL called Dog Island. The day is typical GICW; man-made canals, rivers, lovely sand beaches, passing boats and “thin water”. I have to say I’m growing tired of shallow water we’ve encountered every step of the way. Can’t wait to get offshore and put that behind. It’s nerve-wrackiing. Running aground is a non-trivial event; one has to call a boat towing company like SeaTow or Towboat US, perhaps wait for high tide, perhaps sustain damage to props, fins, etc. Don’t want to go there. So we monitor charts, depths, navigational markers every minute all day long. This does take a toll and by the end of the day the next marina or anchorage looks very appealing. The miles pass by, Appalachicola is on the horizon, we pass by and head into Appalachicola Bay. Narrow waterway and two places with shoaling we need to worry about but we pass safely and by mid afternoon are safely anchored behind Dog Island. We find ourselves in a lovely anchorage; half-moon bay, white sand beach, open view to sunset and sunrise, clear turquoise water. Nine boats eventually anchor here staging for the crossing. Many are fast boats with shallow drafts intending to cross to Steinhatchie or Tarpon Springs during daylight hours. Several are trawlers like Tivoli that will cross at a more stately pace overnight but arriving further South in Clearwater.

The night is not restful for me. We are anchored in a spot that is impacted by tide and wind. When we anchor the bow faces the island per prevailing ESE wind; as the tide goes out the current in our stern is moved toward shore. Until 1 AM the boat moves in response to wind and tide wandering about the anchor in a disconcerting manner. At slack tide it was as if a switch was thrown and the wandering stopped; the boat returned to its orientation when we anchored and I finally relaxed and went to bed.

We intend to cross with our friends Jim and Nancy aboard a Seahorse 52 called Keokuk. They anchored a short distance away and didn’t wander about their anchor and slept soundly all night; I’m jealous.

Clearwater is ideal in many respects. One might think Tampa/St. Pete would be a better choice for a port of call as it is only 20-30 miles further South and has a deep water ship channel entrance. But, we’ve “been there done that”. It is a long 35 mile trip from the ship channel entrance to marinas in St. Petersburg. Another 5 hours after a tiring journey. So Clearwater it is.

Timing is critical. We want to leave so that our arrival is after daylight so that we can see any crab pots in our way. It is crab season in Florida from October through May and the small buoys marking their location are often difficult to see; particularly in bad light. So a daylight arrival is important. It is also important to mind the tides. We want to arrive near slack water so that currents which can be strong in our destination marina are minimal. Sounds easy but there are many variables including sea state, winds, currents that can impact speed and the time it takes to cross. We estimate 11 AM would be suitable and so we hoist anchor and get underway Saturday Nov. 29th at 11.

It is 142.5 nautical miles to Clearwater across open Gulf waters that can be rough. For serious Nordhavn ocean crossers this is trivial stuff but it has been 3 years since we brought Tivoli down the East coast to Key West and up the West coast of Florida to Tampa so we are rusty and a bit anxious. We’ve made many modifications to Tivoli and all her electronics including navigation equipment is new (and different). In many ways this is a trial crossing with a new boat. The forecast is 1-2 foot seas, 3 second period and as we leave the East Pass behind and head out to sea. It is rougher than we anticipate but still a decent ride with the occasional “thumper” that rocks the boat. Stabilization is working well and we move along at about 7-8 knots “GPS direct” to Clearwater. Miles pass, we conduct engine room checks every 2 hours, Deanna and I swap time at the helm and watch for traffic and monitor boat systems. Tivoli hums along, mile after mile. The Sun sets and the sea turns orange, pink, blue, purple. The moon has already risen and helps light the way and defines the horizon. Our “buddy boat” Keokuk is behind us. It is most comforting to have company on such a journey. Red and green navigation lights, white running light, always nearby…human contact and, if needed, help is nearby. Tivoli hums onward.

It is dark, the moon has turned a shade of orange and has set in the West, nothing is visible outside the pilothouse windows, nothing except the faint glow of red port and green starboard navigation lights illuminating fhe foredeck….then blackness. I turn on the forward looking infrared camera (FLIR). This gives a daylight view into the blackness, provides a reassuring horizon, and would easily image any oncoming traffic as we move down the rhumb line to Clearwater. Radar is on a 6 nautical mile range; a guard zone has been established that will sound an alarm should any traffic enter a ring extending 6 miles out from Tivoli’s location. Six miles is a short distance when many ships travel at 30 knots but much further and the curvature of the earth prevents any radar return from appearing anyway. Tivoli hums along. We sit in the helm seat and scan the horizon for lights, including aft, we confirm the location of our buddy boat, we watch the engine instruments to insure all parameters are in order, we take a peek at the engine room camera, we monitor the VHF and for any communications among the flotilla of boats taking advantage of this weather window and crossing with us – though well out of visual range.

Our friend Bob Taylor contacts us by text message via Iridium Go! satphone. It is most comforting to have such a connection to others when so far from land. We exchange info about the journey, I’m worried about how far off shore crab pots are placed as it will impact our arrival time. Bob kindly Googles the question and sends me the data. Modern technology is remarkable on the one hand but can be incredibly frustrating as well. Take our autopilot. New, state-of-the-art Simrad AP70 paired to a Simrad AC70 course computer. We are moving along at 7.5 knots when it decides to take a break, do a “crazy Ivan” for you “Hunt For Red October” fans. Boat is off course to port, then swings to starboard, back to port…substantial changes in course. I grope for the standby button, take manual control, and re-establish our compass heading of 142 degrees magnetic, 138 degrees true. Once stabile I re-engage the navigation systems and we continue down the rhumb line to our destination. No idea what caused this; very disconcerting. It happens twice this evening.

It’s 3 AM and we realize we are traveling too fast; we will arrive at the crab pots 15 miles off-shore well before daylight. So we jog South for an hour to kill time. I try to get some sleep…beep, beep, beep….another autopilot alarm. I jump up to address, then back to the pilothouse settee for some shuteye. Beep, beep, beep…radar guard zone alarm….a vessel has entered the zone from behind and is overtaking Tivoli but on a more Southerly route….no hazard to us. I go back to the settee for some shuteye. Beep, beep, beep, beep….autopilot off course alarm….crazy Ivan. I jump up to correct. This isn’t fun.

The navigation system on Tivoli is state-of-the art. Two Simrad GPS sensors to provide position data, two flux-gate compasses one of which has accelerometers, etc. that should provide accurate heading data regardless of boat movement, top-of-the-line autopilot…something is clearly not configured or working correctly. I lose sleep but this is not a danger to us…we have plenty of redundancy to carry on in safety. Mostly, its annoying because I expect the system to work flawlessly. And, wandering around aimlessly on a pitch black night out in the Gulf just isn’t fun. So we have some work to do on calibration, connections, etc. to get all back in order.

Dawn arrives, faint light to the East, slight orange, Sun peeping above the horizon. Soon it is blazing and, not surprisingly our course is straight toward the Sun and our challenge is to spot crab pot buoys, about 6-inch diameter floats of any color. Running over one could be a major hassle. If we are lucky the “line cutter” mounted on the drive shaft ahead of the prop will slice the line and we escape. If we are not lucky we rapidly wind up the float line and the crab pot until the entire mess is banging against the hull. Worst case is the stress pulls the engine off its mounts….very expensive and would ruin our day. To complicate matters the seas are directly East on the nose and spray is periodically thrown onto the pilothouse windows. The wipers remove the bulk but leave behind a film of saltwater which, in the sunlight, is nearly opaque. We have windshield washers and they worked when I tested them before departure, but not now. Not good. So, Deanna is out on the bow spotting pots while we slowly maneuver around them for 15 miles and eventually reach the outer buoy marking the entrance to Clearwater.

9:30 AM and we enter Clearwater channel destined for Clearwater Harbor Marina. A very tight slip to shoehorn Tivoli into but very nice , beautiful view, palm trees, boats passing, civilization.

We have made it to the warmer temps, a shower, shorts, are in order….lunch in town, dinner with our friends at a wonderful Thai restaurant just a couple blocks away to celebrate a successful passage. Life is good.

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