Cruising the Big Bend with stops at Gulf Shores, Pensacola, Destin, Panama City, Apalachicola, Carabelle, Crystal River, Tarpon Springs and Punta Gorda
One of our favorite sounds is the chain rumbling over the bow roller as we lower the anchor. This time it was in Ingram Bayou, just off the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) in coastal Alabama. The early March afternoon was sunny but chilly on what had been our first day out of Dog River Marina in Mobile. We had the calm waters of the tree-lined anchorage all to ourselves in the bayou where we experienced dark skies aglow with stars for as far as we could see. We were cruising the Florida Panhandle and southwest coast from Mobile AL to Fort Myers FL
Two weeks earlier, when we had arrived back at High Life after stashing her in Mobile for December and January, the temperature was twenty-seven degrees, and the wind was blowing a gale. We couldn’t get aboard because our thirty-six-foot trawler was stuck in the muddy bottom of the slip, as the stiff wind had blown most of the water out of Mobile Bay.
We waited a few hours until the boat had refloated herself and we could get her close enough to the dock to jump aboard with our duffle bags; thankfully, the cold front was passing, and the weather would gradually warm.
With some three thousand miles behind us, we had about two thousand miles to go to complete the Loop cruise and return to or homeport on Chesapeake Bay. We had no schedule to keep, only a general intention to stop and go on a whim and to explore as much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico as time permitted.
Many of the Loopers who want to winter in southern Florida, or the Bahamas do this part of the trip in the late fall, right after hurricane season. However, the short days and low winter tides makes the already shallow waters of the region even more challenging. Some Loopers forego the coast entirely and instead head offshore, taking a direct route from Carrabelle to Tarpon Springs.
Since we had already cruised southern Florida and the Bahamas in years past, we wanted to “harbor hop” along the Panhandle to Carrabelle and then follow the Big Bend curve southward to the Steinhatchee River, Crystal River and Tarpon Springs. From there we’d head through the GIWW to Fort Myers, a total of about seven hundred miles in all.
High Life had not been out of the water since we departed Maryland the previous June, so we had her hauled before we left Mobile. The bottom was cleaned, the zincs replaced, and the prop removed and reconditioned. After giving a bit of TLC to the varnish and scrubbing the rest of the exterior, we were ready to go.
Windships and Airships
We had no planned itinerary for this leg of the voyage, but we did want to visit the National Museum of Naval Aviation. After the fog burned off Ingram Bayou, we got underway for the short run to Pensacola’s busy commercial harbor, a trip that required a five-mile detour off the GIWW.
Once in Pensacola, we spent a few days at Palafox Pier, the marina in the center of the city’s historic downtown district. Rebuilt after Hurricane Ivan’s rampage in 2004, Palafox offered ninety-two slips on floating docks, with a full range of amenities.
We had shared marinas with mega-yachts, but this was the first time we had a tall ship as a neighbor. The 250-foot Stad Amsterdam was tied at nearby Plaza de Luna. Built in 2000 in the Netherlands, this three-masted square-rigged ship embodies classic lines and carries just twenty-eight passengers on Atlantic crossings and blue water adventures in Europe.
The National Museum of Naval Aviation is on the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola, some six miles west of downtown and just north of Pensacola Pass. This facility, which was opened in 1960, houses the most complete collection of U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aircraft found anywhere. In all, there are more than 140 handsomely restored and preserved planes, hanging from the ceiling and tethered to the floor, representing every major era in the history of flight.
After admiring the aircraft, touring exhibits that took us from World War I dirigibles to outer space and enjoying an IMAX film that left us feeling like fighter pilots, we had the chance to take the controls for ourselves—at least in a virtual way.
Armed with a preflight briefing, we climbed into an F-14 jet simulator to take it for a spin; admittedly, we were the oldest kids there. The crews on both sides of us were teenage boys playing Top Gun—dogfighting and crashing—while Gene cautiously landed us on the deck of a carrier.
After that maneuver we enjoyed lunch at the Cubi Bar Café, which was decorated with the original squadron plaques, tokens, and artwork from the Cubi Point Officers’ Club in the Philippines. We then embarked on a trolley tour that took us onto the airfield, where we saw even more aircraft in various stages of restoration.
A Varied Waterway
After leaving Pensacola we headed east on the well-marked waterway, which is lined with seaside marshes and tall trees. The travel brochures describe this region as the “Emerald Coast,” a name clearly derived from the pristine, green-tinged waters and lush shoreline. We used binoculars often on this stretch of coastline to see what was beyond and were often surprised to see dense forests of trees and natural habitat.
The view changed as we approached Fort Walton Beach, where high-rise condos line the shore. After maneuvering through the Narrows, we tried to drop anchor at Joe’s Bayou, reportedly a good stopping place in Choctawahatchee Bay near Destin. But after two failed attempts to set the hook in the soft bottom, we pushed on to Baytowne Marina in Sandestin.
The marina on Horseshoe Bayou sits on the bay side of this immaculately maintained golf and beach resort complex, which spans miles of Gulf shoreline. We were welcomed by former Loopers from Minnesota, who have made the marina a second home for Souvenir, their fifty-foot Carver.
We enjoyed strolling along a walkway that led over marsh grass and past moss-covered trees to the village of Baytowne Wharf. Here there’s anything and everything a cruiser (or vacationer) might want or need, plus a trolley to convey visitors throughout the complex.
Sandestin reminded us of Hilton Head, South Carolina, and we found ourselves comparing the GIWW with the ICW on the East Coast. On the Gulf Intracoastal, we noticed a steady flow of tow and barge traffic, which is less common on the ICW.
We enjoyed the military presence—the U.S. Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy—on the Gulf; it is always a thrill to see the ships on the water and aircraft overhead. The scene was reminiscent of the Marines’ constant activity on the water around North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune.
Our Rand McNally atlas proved useful when we sought what lay beyond our strip charts and when we wanted a better perspective of where we were. Sometimes the channel snaked along the Gulf and we could see sand dunes and smell the salt air, but at other times we were far inland.
Tall pine trees lined the high sand bluffs in the Grand Canyon, a twenty-mile land cut leading from Choctawhatchee Bay into West Bay. Just before leaving the cut, we were surprised to see a deer swim across the channel, walk elegantly up the sandy bank and disappear into the woods.
From the St. Andrews Bay inlet we could see the yellow roof of the Panama City Marina, where we had called ahead for a slip assignment. The town’s wide streets and eclectic shops reminded us of Fernandina Beach, another Florida beach town on the state’s east coast.
The marina was an easy walk from downtown’s Harrison Avenue, which was flanked by palm and magnolia trees. We found an assortment of specialty shops and restaurants.
When I emailed the city website to ask about the enormous jet plane we had noticed at the entrance to the marina park, the network administrator responded that it was and F101 Voodoo from nearby Tyndall AFB. We laughed at his message that the city was remodeling the marina and might remove the plane. Would we want it for a yard ornament?
While the anchorage at Joe’s Bayou in Destin had been a disappointment, we found Bayou Joe’s in Panama City a culinary delight. At this quirky waterside restaurant on Massalina Bayou we watched the bridge open for cruisers who then anchored and dinghied ashore for dinner. We decided the chef’s fried green beans were the best possible way to fulfill our daily requirement for vegetables.
Another reason we stopped in Panama City was to have a mechanic fix a vibration that had been coming and going ever since the engine mounts were replaced in Lake Michigan. When Gene began checking them, he found that several of the bolts holding the mounts to the engine bed were loose.
Each time he tightened them; they would soon loosen again. Apparently, most of the threads in the aluminum beds were stripped out.
Gene watched as the mechanic put a threaded insert (called a helical coil) into each hole in the engine beds; that fix kept everything nice and tight, and the engine stayed in alignment for the duration of the trip.
Oysters and Marsh Grass
For the fickle month of March, we were experiencing near-perfect weather, with sunny skies and warm (70-degree) days. Crossing Lake Wimico en route to Apalachicola, we were hailed by a boat coming up our stern, “Good to see another Looper out here,” crackled the VHF. It was the crew of Drake’s Dream, Colorado cruisers who were making tracks to the Keys.
Here the waterway runs into the marsh-grass-lined Apalachicola River for a stretch, before turning into Scipio Creek, where a fleet of oystermen and shrimp boats tie up. As we meandered up the creek, we saw some one-of-a-kind houseboats, but many of the docks were still trashed after being hit by hurricanes in previous years. Even so, at the marina where we tied up, Pap Joe’s restaurant was busy with diners. It was March 21, and because we had been heading east, we had to adjust to Daylight Saving Time and switch to Eastern Standard Time on the same day. That two-hour time difference wreaked havoc on our laid-back lifestyle. Our planned oyster lunch morphed into dinner, which we enjoyed at Boss Oysters, a funky place with an ambiance all its own.
Apalachicola is another old Florida city in Florida’s Forgotten Coast with wide streets and large commercial buildings, many reinvented as specialty shops and restaurants. The Tin Shed, a large complex of buildings and a big yard filled with maritime artifacts, caught our attention because it illustrated the city’s rich commercial-fishing history and its title, “Florida’s Oyster Capital.”
For the short run to Carrabelle, we headed across St. George Sound, passing a fleet of oystermen tonging in the shallows by the old bridge, and we enjoyed the antics of small dolphins as they crossed our bow. We rounded the number-fifteen marker and picked up a range to follow a string of “greenies” into the large, protected harbor, which is home to a fleet of commercial and recreational fishermen.
Shallow Waters and River Towns
The forecast called for clear weather and one-to-two-foot head seas as we began our eighty-six-mile run to the Steinhatchee River. Located on the eastern end of the Big Bend, the town of Steinhatchee is the northernmost in a string of Florida river ports that are accessed by following long channels through very shallow waters.
We carefully watched the markers as we made our way out of Carrabelle and past a picturesque stilt house on the end of Dog Island. The sun was a bright pink ball on the horizon as we turned east and headed into the Gulf, both aware we were out there alone.
Late in the day three surfacing dolphins broke the isolation as we neared the channel markers leading into the Steinhatchee River. We followed them into the small Sea Hag Marina and spent a quiet night anticipating another long run of ninety-six miles to Crystal River.
We left early the next morning, and when we cleared the long channel and headed south we ran into steep, choppy seas of three to four feet. Along this coast, the water may be as little as fifteen feet deep some twenty miles offshore, which is somewhat disconcerting to those of us who are more confident when the bottom isn’t right under the keel.
After an hour and a half, with our speed down to four knots over the bottom and the GPS pushing our ETA in Crystal River later and later, Gene and I looked at each other and said simultaneously: Why are we doing this? So, we turned around and followed our track line back to the marina.
The next day we set out once more, well before dawn, shining a spotlight back and forth across the channel to locate the markers. Even after we hit open water, the crescent moon wasn’t much help as we tried to spot crab pots, so we continued to scan the surface with the light until daybreak.
We sucked on Tootsie Pops for the first couple of hours to get us through the lumpy seas. By midday, however, the wind had subsided, and the Gulf had flattened out as it closed with the land and skirted the shoal off Cedar Key.
Here, crystalline shallow waters reminded us of the Bahamas and the Keys, two of our favorite destinations. By late afternoon, we spotted the two stacks of the nuclear power plant in Crystal River and followed a flock of many charter boats winding their way up the long river channel leading to Kings Bay.
This is a large, spring-fed freshwater lake with a good anchorage and Pete’s Pier marina, where we planned to stay after hearing NOAA say that a strong cold front was coming our way.
The change in the weather didn’t stop a fleet of tour boats loaded with wetsuit-clad divers and snorkelers hoping to swim with the manatees that take refuge in the natural springs that feed the bay. After tying up, we launched the dinghy and entered the no-wake zone to watch the divers and the mammoth sea cows that have learned to tolerate this nearly constant human attention.
Later, Bubbles, a thirty-seven-foot Nordic Tug from Colorado, arrived at the dock, happy to be ashore after a less-than-pleasant passage across the Gulf. While we waited for the wind to subside, we got a good workout biking to an archeological museum of Native American ceremonial mounds that comprise the only high ground in this low-lying coast.
On ensuing excursions, we rode through some of the local neighborhoods and found them less congested than others in the southern half of the Sunshine State. If this was Old Florida, we liked it.
Seventy-five miles south and a few days later, we entered the Anclote River, which led us to Tarpon Springs. Settled by Greek immigrants in the late 1800s, the town was once a center for sponge harvesting and boatbuilding. Today, it has made the transition to tourism but is still home to a thriving Greek American community.
We had reserved a slip at the small city marina, which lies in the heart of the Sponge Docks and their attendant activity. Bubbles followed us in, and we were soon joined by Solitude, another Nordic Tug we had last seen on the Illinois River. We all tried to “go Greek” for the weekend, taking in the sights on a trolley tour, riding the Pinellas bike trail, visiting the amazing array of sponge shops and watching a parade celebrating Greek Independence Day.
The town’s family-owned restaurants serve ethnic Greek dishes, and we saw striking blue-and-white Greek flags everywhere. We had breakfast at Opa in a warm friendly setting where we heard Greek spoken by everyone but us. The same was true during dinner at Dodecanese.
The 150-mile route from Tarpon Springs to Fort Myers on the GIWW follows a mostly protected waterway that runs through popular and populous boating centers—Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Sarasota, and Charlotte Harbor—all populated by lots of boaters and numerous marinas where transient cruisers are welcome.
When the weather looked threatening, we pulled into Gulfport (tucked between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach) and enjoyed a stop at the municipal marina. An easy bike ride away, we found a charming old beach town that we agreed was worth a longer visit.
Leaving Gulfport, we paralleled the Sunshine Bridge, which spans the entrance to Tampa Bay. Just beyond the channel, rocks poked their heads above the surface, indicating very skinny water. This run, we agreed, would be a no-go in windy choppy conditions.
Unlike other segments of our Loop adventure, we were mostly cruising by ourselves at this point, as many of the Loopers we had met in Canada, the Great Lakes and on the inland rivers were already tucked away for the winter in southern Florida or the Bahamas. Those behind us hadn’t yet reached the Gulf of Mexico.
We had plans to join friends in Punta Gorda, so we pushed on past many spots we had visited on previous cruises. We passed under bridges leading to favorite islands like Anna Maria and Long Boat Key, then skirted busy Sarasota Harbor and Venice. At Lemon Bay, we pulled off the waterway and anchored near Englewood Beach on a calm moonlit night.
The next day we got underway for the short run to Charlotte Harbor and then continued on to Fishermen’s Village, a lovely resort marina and waterfront mall complex in Punta Gorda, where we enjoyed a few days of shore leave.
Because this part of southwest Florida was familiar water to us, we passed by one of our favorite anchorages—Pelican Bay at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor—and continued to Fort Myers Beach to catch up with friends on Free Spirit. They found us a slip, and we easily melded into the atmosphere of this frisky beach town, which has a personality all its own. We made dinghy excursions through the coffee-colored waters of mangrove stands, walked on the beach and enjoyed the nightlife with some of our cruising buddies.
Looking back on this latest leg of our cruise, we realized that we were blessed with generally good weather—something far from guaranteed in March—and that our no-schedule mindset gave us unlimited time to explore a Florida that was both new and familiar to us.
And, from the emerald waters and resorts of the Panhandle to the quiet side of the Big Bend river towns, to the many boat-centric communities on Florida’s west coast, we enjoyed every experience.You might also be interested in:
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