The Florida Hop

April 22, 2012 — Panama City, FL

While Pass Christian was fun and it was nice to buddy boat with Heaven’s Island and Shibumi, Denise and I needed to get to point Pearl at Florida if we were going to have any hope of picking Cita up in Tampa on the 23rd. While it would have been nice to hang out and explore Pass Christian a bit more, the 10 days we spent in New Orleans suggested that we get going.

The weather window for the jump to Tampa was questionable. The distance from Pass Christian would be around 500mi, about 100hrs by conservative estimate. Based on the weather reports, however, we’d need to be in Tampa by Saturday evening — about half the time we needed. A couple of fronts were headed in from West Texas. These were going to make the Mississippi sound and then the Gulf coast of Florida kinda bouncy through Tuesday, which was when we’d need to be in Tampa. Then again, storm systems  that had kept us “trapped” in New Orleans seem to have been slowed down by high pressure over the eastern gulf, so I figured we should take the shot.

We set of by around 9:00am with clear skies and light breezes. Negotiating the channel out of Pass Christian was less nerve wracking than it had been the previous day. After finding our way back to the ICW, we turned south  along the Mobile Bay ship channel accompanied by the many dolphins in the sound who decided to investigate Pearl as we passed by.

Denise traded her customary attire for a modest two piece swim suit she calls a bikini. I was in my swim trunks. It was hot. There were islands with palm trees visible. It was nice to spritz using the cockpit shower to cool off. Denise and I chortled at each other about how the sailing life sucked. This was a really rough life. Ha-ha!

Traversing the Ship Island we did a drive by at Fort Massachusetts, which has been described as the Plymouth Rock of the Gulf Coast. Apparently, it also served as the base for the Union fleet when Admiral Farragut’s attacked Mobile and New Orleans and has a bunch of history that would have been fun to check out, but … Tampa beckoned.

Sailing out the Ship Island Pass, I had a momentary twinge of anxiety, watching Fort Massachusetts fade into the distance. This was my first multi-day blue water overnight run with Pearl. Not a big deal. I was comfortable with the boat and our ability, but still….

The rest of the day we motored towards Tampa on a heading of about 120. Conditions were calm. The wind was too light to sail. No issues. Pearl’s 3 cylinder diesel was purring as usual pushing us along at a good 7kts turning 2200 rpm. Pretty comfortable, I decided to head below for a nap with Denise on watch.

When I roused myself at around 7:00pm, the wind had picked up. It was on the nose. The seas were mildly confused. There was weather coming in from behind and from the south. Denise had been holding our course well. We made a minor adjustment to 110 for a better line to Tampa. I fired up the radio and pinged Joe with an update. All well.

As the sun set and night drew on, the weather became less settled. We started seeing storm clouds and lightning to the west and the south. It seemed far enough away that it wasn’t a problem, but merited watching. Denise heated up a lasagne for dinner. We ate and kept track of the storms which seemed to be heading ENE in general. After dinner Denise shut down for the evening having had a long afternoon on watch.

At about 11:00pm, the weather was looking quite threatening. I was on watch, there was a nasty thunderstorm to the south with lots of forked lightening. This bothered me. A boat feels like a giant lightning rod stuck in the water. Not my idea of a good time. If we kept on our heading, it looked like we would intersect the storm track in about 3-4 hrs. Badness. New plan required.

I checked the charts. Our best bet was to alter course and head for Pensacola or Panama City. Pensacola would entail getting back into the Mississippi sound and would also put us close to the storms that were scheduled to be rocking Mobile Bay. Panama City seemed like a better option. Perhaps the storm system would pass behind us? Course change: heading 95.

The rest of the evening the seas got too sloppy to let the Otto the autopilot steer. So I had steered Pearl. This was partly to give me something to do and keep me awake, and partly to avoid overstressing Otto.

Dawn was a welcome sight. The center of the southern storm seemed to be behind us. The lightening had more or less disappeared. There was, however, a large cloud bank that was closing in on us from the south. While we’d made good progress overnight we were still about 60 miles from Panama City. The wind was a bit flukey — it kept backing and veering. The seas were confused, but manageable. I roused Denise, gave her the wheel, headed below for a nap and sent Joe a “all’s well” message reporting our position.

After a short nap, I was roused by the boat pitching a little more animatedly than I would have preferred. I got on deck to see what was going on. The seas had built a bit and were more confused. Denise seemed to be be having fun trying to surf the boat, but it was time to pull back on the power to give Pearl an easier ride over what were very confused seas. The winds were high but manageable, 20+ gusting to 30. Of more interest were the squall lines that came in dropping visibility to less than 100 ft. With me back on deck, Denise headed for her bunk and some shut-eye.

The weather eased up the closer we got to Panama City. When we got on the shelf into shallower water (80 -100 ft) the seas calmed down a lot. This surprised me as the general rule fo thumb is that deeper water offers an easier ride. This isn’t true in the Gulf. The deeper water was like a washing machine — confused and all over the place.





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