Sunday: We start the week with our last cruise in fresh water as today we’ll get to Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. We have a 70 nautical mile day ahead of us, so we all plan to depart by 7am. All that is except, Buy the Book. They don’t want to push for the full trip in one day, so they’re planning to take their time today and anchor out one more night part way to Mobile in Big Bayou Canot.
So Then Again, Red Pearl and Kailani are all prepared to depart and at 6:40am Then Again radios us and says that he’s dragging his anchor so he’s going to just raise it now and get started down the river a bit early. We all wish him safe travels and I know we’ll see him at the end of the day because he’s going to Fairhope City Docks, same as us. Then at 7am Tracy’s on the bow ready to raise our anchor and soon we’re heading out into the river. Red Pearl is slightly behind us, so we proceed at slow speed to let Red Pearl catch up and take the lead since they have AIS and we don’t.
Its a good thing they are in the lead today because there will be 2 overtakings and 5 passings. In fact there is 1 overtaking that goes right into a passing. Which usually isn’t that much of a big deal, however in this instance, we first run into the overtaking scenario and the tow asks us to pass on the ‘one’ whistle (our port side), then while we are in the process of overtaking him, the oncoming tow asks us to pass on the ‘two whistle’ (our starboard side). So effectively, we have to complete the overtaking of the first to cross in front of him then be prepared to pass the oncoming vessel from the other side of the river. This is a highly unusual situation, but is necessary due to the bends in the river occurring during the pass.
Soon we are entering the last five miles of the river into downtown Mobile and Steve aboard Red Pearl lets me know that his AIS is showing 49 commercial vessels ahead in the harbor! The good news is that only about 10 of them are actually moving, the rest are anchored, being loaded, being unloaded, etc. One of the vessels actually moving turns out to be four vessels moving. The configuration is that there’s an ocean going freighter being pushed by a tug from the stern with two more tugs pushing from the starboard side to dock the freighter.
The rearmost tug, Trinity, asks us to pass on the ‘one whistle’ to stay clear of the pushing procedure which is fine except, for the two tugs on the starboard side to accomplish the push, they have to grind out serious rpm’s to get enough power to push the freighter sideways. So as we proceed behind and around these two tugs, the prop wash from the power almost turns Red Pearl completely around in the channel. That’s a lot of horsepower!
After we are thru the downtown ares, we are out into Mobile Bay and Red Pearl heads due south towards Dog River Marina and Kailani heads east towards Fairhope City Docks. The wind and waves in the bay are reminiscent of our travels through the Great Lakes as there is a wind just off our port rear quarter around 15 mph and the wind-driven waves are about 2-3 feet from nearly the same direction, so when we turn to make the run across the bay into Fairhope, the wind and waves are hitting us from basically the same spot and doing their best to throw us around. It is evident that we are now into southern salt water as the gulls start to flock around our vessels thinking they might get fed.
Soon we are through the bay and entering the Fairhope Bay Inlet and heading for the City Docks. Barry and Carol are out on the docks with Sean the manager to help us into our slip and with the winds blowing around, it is a delicate job to get Kailani into the finger slip. Soon we are nestled bow first into the slip and ready to relax after nearly 8 hours and 70 miles on the river.
We spend the afternoon catching up with Barry and Carol and discuss departure strategies for heading towards the gulf intracoastal waterway. The manager, Sean is telling us that there will be winds out of the north for the next couple of days and that is the weather that blows water out of the bay and reduces the depths in the bay making it somewhat problematic to get out of the inlet safely. So we have some discussions about whether to stay or go tomorrow and Dream Quest (a gold looper), Then Again, Wild Goose and Kailani decide to make the run for Orange Beach and the gulf intracoastal waterway tomorrow morning. We also called Robbie Gwynn, the local Harbor Host and he provided much needed intelligence to help us determine that we have a great chance of making the departure without issue tomorrow.
After all arrangements are completed for leaving tomorrow, Tracy and I get ready to go out to dinner with Barry and Carol. We call for an Uber and Jason, the driver takes us to McSherry’s Irish Pub and Restaurant. Its Sunday afternoon and NFL playoff football is on this weekend. As luck would have it, the Sunday afternoon game has the New Orleans Saints playing the Philadelphia Eagles and the place is packed with Saints fans. We get the only bistro table available and squeeze in for what are supposed to be the best burgers in Fairhope. Surprisingly our waitress is able to get us a regular table before the meal shows up and we’re able to eat in comfort. After dinner we take another Uber back to the marina and agree to meet tomorrow morning at 7:30 for departing Fairhope and heading down to Orange Beach.
Monday: Harbor Host Robbie Gwynn’s feedback is spot on today! Our shallowest waters are right at the jettyied entrance to the harbor and as directed, we hug the red buoys and find our best water. Back to the start of the day. We had all agreed to depart around 7:30 am, but as we are all anxious to beat the dead low tide coming at about 8am, we all seem to be working our lines and utility hook-ups at 6:45am. In fact, gold loopers, Dream Quest are already leaving the docks around 6:50 so we will let them be the barometer for safe departure. As Barry and I work our dock lines, we keep one eye on Dream Quest and soon his navigation lights are turning south signaling that the inlet has adequate depth for us.
Barry, Lenny and I are all ready at our helms for pulling out of the slips and it evolves that both Barry and Lenny are waiting for Kailani to be the next guinea pig. So with Tracy guarding the pylons and me backing Kailani out of the slip we are soon cruising out of the harbor and hugging the red buoys to get out into the bay. With the winds coming off our starboard beam we must be careful not to get too close to the reds on our port because the winds will push us right into the buoy pilings, so we favor slightly to the reds and let the wind push us into the favored side without getting too close to the pilings. We make it safely even though Tracy felt we were a bit too close. Anyway, I radio back to Barry and Lenny to be cautious of the same thing and Barry ends up nudging on of the pilings nonetheless. Overall, everyone gets safely out of the harbor and Barry just has to do a bit of clear gorilla tape repairs to one of his eisenglass windows later on when we dock!
Since we are heading nearly due west to exit the harbor, the north winds and wind driven waves create some havoc for about 2 miles before we can turn due south to head for the entrance to the GICW and avoid the shallow reefs marked by Clear Point Light and Mullets Point Light. But once we do turn due south the seas and winds are exactly at our stern and it abruptly calms our ride the last fifteen miles to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
The bay is a bit shallower than normal due to the northerly winds blowing some water out of the bay, but we still have no less than 8 feet of water with a 4’ draft vessel, so no worries for today’s trip. As we are approaching about 3 miles to go to the intersection with the ICW we see a commercial tow already in the channel of the GICW heading east towards a meeting with us. If we maintain our present course and speed, we will intersect the channel less than a half a mile in front of the tow. So we agree to turn slightly to port and cut a bit of a more pronounced diagonal and speed up a bit to open up a safer and more comfortable distance between us and the tow to our stern. This strategy works out perfect for us and we’re very appreciative of Lenny’s calculations and suggestions resulting from his observations on his AIS screen.
So by 10:30am we are officially back on the ICW with this leg being the Gulf portion of the ICW. We enter the ICW and cruise towards The Wharf Marina in Orange Beach. This leg of the cruise will take us right past Homeport Marina, home of LuLu’s Gulf Shores Restaurant. This is a popular stop for loopers and regular folk as it is run by Jimmy Buffett’s sister. So we are figuring that once we dock at The Wharf, we can either take a short cruise back to the restaurant, or get an Uber to the restaurant, but as we are cruising past we learn that it just closed today for about 2 weeks for some reason. Oh well another example of perfect (or not so perfect) timing on our part.
At 11:15am we are docked in our slip and 3 dock hands are securing our lines for our stay. Once all three of us are docked (Dream Quest continued past here to a further east destination). We find that there are another 10 loopers here. We greet Bill & Bobbie aboard First Forty again and Eagle One shows up later in the day. Also, Miss Adventures, Rascals Retreat, Jet Stream, etc are all here. Some are here for the winter and others are just passing through. It’s a great feeling to pull into a new marina and be greeted by old friends. It just makes this 6,000 mile voyage feel a bit smaller.
Barry and I take a walk to the local West Marina in the afternoon and the walk is a bit chilly even though we’re eating ice cream to heat us up! So after shopping for some much needed items for Kailani including charts for the GICW, we call for an Uber to get back to the marina. First Forty organizes dock-tails aboard their vessel and after dock-tails, Barry, Carol, Tracy and I walk across the street to Villagio’s Restaurant for some ‘upscale’ Italian food. After dinner a leisurely but nippy walk back to our slips ends with goodnight and best wishes for their cruise tomorrow to Navarre Beach, Florida where they will spend the rest of the week visiting with a few of Carol’s cousins, then we’ll hook back up together at the end of the week. We’ve cruised over 250 miles in the last four days making this one of our heaviest cruise itineraries to date, so we are definitely going to stay put for at least another day before even thinking about going further east. In case you haven’t noticed yet, I’m not bragging about the friendly, warm, comfortable weather yet because we haven’t found it yet! Here we are on the gulf shores of Alabama, only a few miles from the Florida panhandle and it was only 45 degrees today with forecasts for evenings in the thirties and possibly into the twenties. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. Last year at this time we were just returning to Belhaven from Christmas break and we had to endure two snowstorms there before we could eventually continue south from there. So I guess when put into perspective, yes, its a mite cold here but it could certainly be worse.
Tuesday: We will spend today relaxing, fishing, visiting and having a large dock-tails at the end of the day organized by Scott and K.C. Calkin aboard Jet Stream.
Wednesday: An extra day in port as Tracy gets a ride with Louise in their rental car for some provisioning at the local Publix Store. The weather takes a very comfortable turn for the better as the sun glows all day and really warms up the air quite a bit. We don’t get into the 70’s but compared to what we’ve been experiencing, this feels very comfortable.
Later in the day we greet Dale and Merna aboard The Journey after they’ve come across from Dog River Marina where their vessel was docked since before Christmas. We also finalize our plans to cruise to meet Wild Goose tomorrow, then travel together on Friday to Niceville where we may have to stay for the entire weekend waiting for some high winds to blow by.
Thursday: Florida here we come. We only have 43 nautical miles today, so we take our time and Tracy is pulling Kailani off the dock at 9am and we enter the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway heading east towards Florida. It’s a short cruise to the Alabama/Florida line and most of today’s cruise is in Florida waters.
We haven’t been in Florida waters since Kailani came home for the first time with Tracy, Geoff and Steve in March 2016.
Tracy takes us off the docks of The Wharf at 9am right ahead of Lenny and Louise on Then Again. We travel most of the way together until they veer north into Pensacola and we stay on the GICW towards Navarre Beach and our rendezvous with Wild Goose. The cruise is completely uneventful with 2 tow passings and they both give us the ‘one whistle’ reply and we pass them port to port. However, the entire cruise is a scenic one as we are accompanied by dozens of dolphins playing in and around Kailani’s bow and stern wakes. This is a familiar sight for us but we haven’t experienced it for a while, so we are both entertained by the playfulness of these creatures. We are traveling right at 9 knots and when they ride our bow literally a foot in front of us it seems like we are being towed by them as they match our speed identically even while they frolic, dive and surface for a breath (see video). This is a mesmerizing sight no matter how many times we experience it!
At around 1:30pm we are calling Barry aboard Wild Goose to let him know we’re only about 4 miles out and we have them in our sights. We have to navigate thru a fairly shallow area on our way into Jauna’s Pagoda & Sailor’s Grill but Barry has made this pass and reported a minimum of 4-plus feet, so we should be good. However, we still have Tracy on the bow while I slowly make the pass into the docks. She can now see the bottom and hollars out when she sees shallow water ahead so I have enough time to react to the upcoming depths. Its our own version of forward looking sonar! Anyway, we safely pass thru this ‘skinny’ area and by 1:55pm we are docked with Barry’s help on the lines.
Juana’s Pagoda & Sailor’s Grill is a beachside restaurant in Navarre Beach with beautiful white sand beach, a great restaurant, and an owner that really wants us to spread the word about his location to other loopers and in exchange for that, he provides free dockage for us.
In exchange for the complimentary docking, we obviously must go up to their restaurant for lunch, so while Wild Goose pulls away from the docks for a little lunch cruise with Carol’s cousins aboard visiting them, Tracy & I walk up to the restaurant for nachos and burgers. Our waitress is Kendra and she gives us great service and the food is very tasty. We eat on the outside deck facing the beach and all afternoon, we are entertained by a group of 9 men and women playing beach volleyball on one of the volleyball courts provided by Jauna’s. They are playing series of three on three and as we are watching them, they all hit some spectacular shots, so it’s a lot of fun watching them while we indulge in our lunch fare. And those muscles! Yummmmy! LOL -tc
Barry and Carol return just as darkness is setting in and after I grab their lines on their approach, we sit and visit with them and their cousins for a while before the cousins depart to prepare for their trip back home to Alabama tomorrow. One cousin lives in Montgomery and the other lives in Enterprise, Alabama so they are very familiar with this area here and even give us some descriptions of our next destination, Niceville, Florida. Niceville!!! -tc Niceville will situate us about 3-4 cruising days away from the gulf crossing staging port, so we’re very close to preparing for that important leg of our journey. The next marina even provides USCG Licensed Captains for advice on gulf crossings, so while we are there over the weekend, we will definitely try to arrange one of those sessions to learn as much as we can about this long(ish) leg of the adventure.
None of the four of us is very hungry for dinner as we all had late lunches, so we retire to our respective vessels and settle down for the evening. Except, around 8pm Tracy suggests that I walk up to the restaurant and get a couple of those frosted cinnamon buns that we saw in the bakery case during lunch. So I walk up to the cashier, pick up a couple of buns and we enjoy a dinner-less dessert aboard Kailani before turning in for the night. Our plan is to meet Barry and Carol for breakfast in the restaurant tomorrow morning.
Friday: Since we have to wait for the tide to come up a bit and it’s only a 3 hour cruise, we agree to wait until 9am to meet for breakfast. I walk Frankie on the streets of Navarre Beach and it’s sort of hard to find grass that he’s used to using for his business. It’s mostly sand along the roads instead of grass. In fact this is nice white sand and it’s really comfortable to walk barefoot. But Frankie finally does his business and I’m back aboard Kailani getting ready to go to breakfast.
At 9:00 am, we meet Barry and Carol in the restaurant and order breakfast. Before our meals come, Carol’s cousins are walking in to say goodbye on their way out of town. They join us for coffee and after a delicious breakfast, they spend their last few minutes with Barry and Carol while Tracy & I return to Kailani.
Its now 10am and Barry and I agree that noontime will be a good time for us to leave and the water should be deep enough to get out safely. So in the meantime, Tracy & Carol decide to take a walk on the beach with Frankie while Barry & I get our vessels ready for departure. At 12:00pm we are both untying our lines and leaving the looper-friendly establishment known as Jauna’s Pagoda and Sailor’s Grill. We will tell other loopers about this neat little stop and how eager they are to have loopers stopping at their complimentary docks.
The GICW is very quiet today as there are no commercial tugs that we have to pass or overtake, but there are a few kayakers and SUP’s (stand up paddle board) and once we get into Choctawhatchee Bay we even see a parasailer! So obviously, we slow to idle for the canoes, kayaks and SUP and the parasailer is too far away to be affected by our wakes. That just gives you an idea how spectacular the water is today with a nice sun, great flat calm waters and a decent water temperature (at last) hovering in the high 50’s.
Once we are in Choctawhatchee Bay we have about 8 miles of wide open, deep water to navigate with no designated channel thanks to the 35 foot damp waters, so both Wild Goose and Kailani run up the rpm’s to flush out the blow-by and after Kailani gets up to 1,900 rpm’s and 20 knots for five minutes we back her down to her normal cruising rate of 1,000 rpm’s and 9 knots for the last twenty minutes into Bluewater Bay Marina.
We already know that the weather for the next two days will prevent us from moving closer to the gulf crossing so we’ll be staying here until at least Monday. Therefore as we enter the marina harbor, we take Kailani straight to the pump-out dock so we’ll have nice clean tanks while we R and R here in Niceville. The pump out has some issues and eventually, the two dock hands have to bring their pump out boat alongside Kailani and use it rather than the land based pump to do the job. After entering the marina at exactly 3:00 pm, it’s almost 4:00 pm when we are eventually backing into slip A-29 and getting tied up. There is a slew of loopers along with the two dock hands to guide us stern-first into our assigned slip.
Right after getting all tied up and utilities hooked up, we hear that Jack & Patty Nickerson (the Niceville Harbor Hosts) have arranges for a land-based dock tails this afternoon and we are all meeting at their vessel, Nearly Perfect, to depart for Swen and Katja’s house. So Rick and Kris from Eagle One, Barry and Carol from Wild Goose, Eddy and Linda from Spiritus, Jack and Patty from Nearly Perfect and I gather and split into three vehicles for the short trip to Swen and Katja’s house. Tracy doesn’t make the trip because her shoulder has been bothering her and she’s medicated HIGHLY medicated! -tc so she wants to rest her body and her arm.
I get into Eddy and Linda’s car and ride with them the 1 mile to the house and shortly, we are all pulling into the driveway and meeting fellow loopers, Swen and Katja. Their house is large, magnificent and quite scenic since its located right on the bay waters. They even have a nice dock in their backyard, but the water is not deep enough for their Mainship 34, so they keep it in the marina. We learn that Katja’s family are part owners of the Bluewater Development and we also find out that Katja owns the Bluewater Bay Golf Resort, so during the dock tails, Jack, Barry and I make arrangements to play golf tomorrow, Hooray!
Jack & Patty are gold loopers as are Eddy and Linda, in fact, the prime source of weather information we all use to determine fair seas for planning gulf crossings is a daily report published by Eddy called “Eddy’s Weather Wag’ and as I mentioned, it’s the gold standard for available weather resources to make go/no go decisions. He’s truly a master in interpreting the weather data and putting it into words understandable to all loopers. Another couple is there and they are shopping for a looper vessel. They are John & Ellen and they also serve as additional Harbor Hosts for this area. Meantime, our hosts, Swen and Katja already own their vessel a Mainship 34 called Rhyker and they plan to start their loop this coming fall from here. In the meantime, they are getting more familiar with cruising and their ship’s systems. We all have a wonderful time enjoying Swen and Katja’s hospitality and by 8:00pm we are getting back into vehicles for the return trip to the marina. Jack, Barry and I agree to meet on Nearly Perfect at 8:00 tomorrow morning and Jack will drive to the golf course.
I return to Kailani and Tracy is still nursing her aggravated shoulder muscle. I hope this resolves itself soon as it’s not nice to see her in such agony. OMG. Agony is not the word. I was reduced to crying for an hour every morning just to be able to loosen it up enough to put on my clothes. This has been going on since before Christmas and this is about the worst it has been so far! -tc
Saturday: I must be excited about today’s round of golf because I wake up 20 minutes before my alarm is set to go off! So I take my time with my morning routine and I’m aboard Nearly Perfect at 5 minutes before 8:00am. Soon Barry shows up and we leave for the course in Jack’s car. It’s really a shame to see a nearly empty parking lot when we arrive. This is a warm Saturday morning and there is literally less than ten vehicles in the lot at 8:15am. Doesn’t anybody play golf anymore? At least it’’ll be easy for us to get a starting time.
At approximately 8:30am we are teeing off on the first hole of the Lake Course and the entire day gives us very little wind and only two bouts of light sprinkle with most of the day being partly sunny and comfortable warm (I actually take off my over jacket and play most of the day with my short sleeve golf shirt). All three of us are understandable rusty from not playing golf in a while, but we each play reasonably well and enjoy the four hours together on the course. After our round, we go in the clubhouse for a nice lunch, then load back into Jack’s vehicle for the return to the marina. Jack offers that if we need anything else, just ask. He and Patty have been great Harbor Hosts for us here in Niceville and unfortunately, they will be leaving in the morning to drive to Fort Meyers, Fl for the annual Gold Looper’s Reunion.
We have dinner reservations for this evening at the Tradewinds Italian Restaurant for 8:45 pm. There will be six of us going including Barry & Carol, Swen and Katja and us. The restaurant is highly recommended by all the local loopers and so we have to give it a taste.