29 November 2014
Today is the Big Jump Day! When you go from Western Florida (Pensacola, Panama City, Apalachicola) to the main part of Florida (Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Clearwater, St. Pete’s, etc) you have two choices: go around or go across.
Going around is a 5 day trip: Carabell, Steinhatchee, Swanee, Crystal River then your next stop.
Going across is a 20 hour trip. The problem is that you need to do it overnight. When you get to the other side there will be crab traps / pots in the water. Blue crab pots, like in Apalachicola or the Chesapeake bay are light wire things. Stone crab pots found outside of Tarpon Springs are heavy and made of wood. In either case hitting the float and causing the line to get caught up in your prop is bad news.
So trip planning is important. You want to get across and have enough light to see the pots to go around. But you need to leave time to get one untangled and into your marina before dark. So it’s a matter of timing.
Our plan was to leave Apalachicola about noon and run at 8.5 kts (about 10 miles an hour). That would put us off shore about 6:15 AM. Sunrise is 7:08 AM, but there is enough light to see them by 6:15. Barring any problems we would arrive in our Marina at 10 AM. A 22 hour day.
We found our size boat (47′ Bayliner, 45′ Carver) that were willing to go 8.5 knots. Other boats in our group were going to go between 5-6 knots, they are looking at 24-26 hour days.
The other key factor is the waves. For most of the ICW, you are sheltered from the wind and waves and it means you can pretty much travel when you want. Crossing the Gulf means you need to wait for light wind and light waves. We spent 10 days in Apalachicola waiting for clear weather, other boats have waited 22 days.
On Saturday morning we had a Florida country breakfast at Caroline’s – the ham steak with red eye gravy, eggs, grits (I had potatoes) and light fluffy biscuits that were as big as my head. Both of us figured that a large breakfast would build a good base for being up over night. I did a last moment run to the post office to mail some letters and a package off.
I also did boat things like check the fuel filters, oil levels, battery water, coolant, etc. All were fine and ready to go. We also made a last moment purchase of fuel. It was $3.15 a gallon, our next stop has it at $4.25. So I crammed 50 gallons into the tank.
We got off the dock at Noon as planned and made it out the Apalachicola Bay. Waves were 1′ which is what we expected. I lead the way with Prime Interest and Pier Pressure right behind.
About 2:30 we turned out of the protection of the barrier islands and headed SE. The waves grew to 2-3 feet and we started the long slog to the other side.
Towards sunset there was a discussion between the Admiral of Pier Pressure and myself over the “Green Flash”. It’s where there is green flash of light at either sunrise or sunset. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_flash for more details). Key thing is you need a clear view of the horizon. Out in the middle of the Gulf, there isn’t anything on the horizon.
Promptly at 5:38 we all stared to the Southwest. I didn’t see a green flash but an number of other boats and Susan said they had seen it. Sadly the Admiral of Pier Pressure didn’t see it.
From that point it got dark pretty rapidly. We could start seeing more and more stars and there was a half moon up high in the sky so there was some light.
We were using our GPS to navigate and the radar to look for other boats. The two boats that were behind me were using their radar to follow me. All three boats had their stern cockpit lights on to make it a little clearer that there was a boat. At night it’s hard to tell distances, that is where the radar is really helpful. We could see all of our positions and it was easy to stay on course.
Well sort of. We all had our autopilots on. I had set a course and pretty much stuck to it. But it’s not an exact science, the boat will wobble around the track line. The boats behind me were also running their autopilots and they also wobbled around in my track. The nice thing is that it gave everyone something to do once every 30 minutes to adjust their track to get us back together as a group.
We ate sandwiches for dinner. At 7PM I laid down to see if I could get some sleep. No. Because of the angle of the waves hitting the bow it was a slap, slap, splash sound. And then every third or fourth set there would be slap, slap, thump. So I ended up reading for awhile.
At 9PM I relieved Susan at the helm, her two hour “watch” was over. We were cruising at 8.6 knots (about 9.9 miles per hour) we had covered 76 nm (87.4 statute miles) so we were over a third of the way there. Still very dark out, but the moon gave a sheen to the water.
We motored along until 11PM when we swapped again. She said she had dozed for about 15 minutes in her time off.
Just outside the bay in Apalachicola is marker #2. Just outside the bay we wanted to enter was another marker #2. (Ok, so that sounds weird, but how it works is that every channel has a starting point. The marker / buoy numbers increase as you get closer to shore. The green numbered markers are all odd numbers, the red ones have even numbers. So the outer most marker coming into Apalachicola will have a low number. Since the first marker is red, it’s #2. If they put a green marker out there it would be #1. Likewise coming into the Tarpon Springs / Dunedin side, buoy / marker #2 is the outer most marker.
If you drew a line between the two #2 markers, that would be the shortest path shortest distance. And since as a group, Loopers are cheap, they want to burn the least amount of fuel. So they would all travel from Apalachicola on the same line. For this reason, I picked a course more to the NE from the line, about 0.5 miles off of it. That way we could go in a straight line, go faster and pass the loopers, but not worry about them.
While Susan was resting, I had passed a number of Loopers, they were all 0.5 miles to my right. Yay!!
So I went below and tried to sleep. At the helm, Susan came into a new batch of boat lights. But ½ were on the line we expected and ½ were on our line. Checking the radar, only two boats were actually near us – the lights were deceiving. She moved to the right to pass the two closest boats that were on our line and later passed the other boats that were on the line we expected.
When I got up (slap, slap, slap, splash, slap, slap, thud) she told me that the other Loopers were chattering about changing their speed. In the crossing the goal is to get to the #2 marker at sunrise. Some of the main pack of Loopers had figured out they were going to arrive too soon and wanted to slow down. So they did. I calculated that we would also arrive about 30-45 minutes too soon. But the forecast had predicted the winds would pick up between 1-4 PM. I figured that the wind would slow us some and that if we needed to slow for the higher waves we had a time cushion. The two other boats agreed and we kept to our plan.
Susan went down for another hour and then came back up. She had slept for another 15 minutes and decided we would just drive together.
It’s now 12:30 and our half moon is about to set. It’s pretty impressive, the last light on the horizon is a bright orange pumpkin moon. It slips below the horizon (sorry, no green flash) and now it it is DARK out. “Billions and billions of stars” don’t have the light that a moon does. So we are driving on just our GPS and RADAR.
As anticipated, the winds pick up dropping our speed. The waves picked up, so we also dropped a few hundreds RPM to make the ride more comfortable.
Our companion boat Errante reported 6 blips on the radar. Close enough to see on radar, close enough to see in person, but the Mark I eyeball wasn’t picking it up. No lights, no sound. He figures either Drug runners or SEALS out training. But in any case they are gone pretty quickly.
Susan and I listened to a book on tape (cd? Dvd? iPod? ). It was one of the Stephanie Plum books, and by volume 22 anyone could write one. We listened to that until 4AM. (She caught the crooks, Grandma is still at home and still no decision between Joe and Ranger).
At 4 AM started making my move to close into the last waypoint before the entrance. So we moved right, across the “2-2” line to be 0.5 miles over to the SW. We also slowed to put us there at 6:20 AM local pre-dawn time. Slow drift to not startle people behind us.
A little help in seeing from the Tampa skyline. We all tried our spotlights. Great for killing night vision, not so much on seeing pots.
Got 6 miles away from Marker 2 with no crab pots that we’ve seen so far at 6:00AM. We drop to full idle and drift to the waypoint. So far so good, feeling pretty happy.
Sun starts a glow in the eastern sky and still no traps. Still 4 miles out, but loving life. Then the trap buoys start showing up. Just in drips, we see 6 and work our way past them. Then the dolphins arrive and the crews start watching the dolphins instead of watching for crab pots. All three boat crews have a quick discussion over whether to watch the cute dolphins play or the trip ending crab pots.
Lucky they were able to do both. We made our turns, not many traps, a good thing. Marker #4 has traps everywhere, not a good thing. Our group starts hearing that the first group has chosen buoy #4 as their point, but there are 100′s of pots. So they will slog through and then find more at #4.
We skate around 4, and then head down the waterway to home. The sun is off on the port quarter so we are not staring into it (Sadly unlike the other loopers). We scoot for home, slowing for a sailboat and not much else.
Pull into the Marker One Marina at 9:30 AM. Thirty mins past the original plan time, not bad on a 22 hour run. All three boats in my group were fueled and docked by 10:15. Pier Pressure opened their salon and we all came over with Bloody Mary mixin’s. Drinks in hand we talked about the trip. (Plan the trip, keep to the plan, eat lots of junk food and audio books works) By 11:30 we were all back on our boats working on naps.
The next wave arrive at 1:30 PM and some at 2PM. I was up from my nap and helped the 2PM group into the marina. Last sets arrived at 4PM, 28 hours after they left. The sun glare and needing to do the 30 mile from shore run was a killer.
For us, the Too Long ; Didn’t Read
–- Put a plan together and stick to it
– Go fast, spend some dollars on fuel so you don’t spend 28 hours out there
– Night crossings suck. Find a different way, but if you can’t: Plan it out and take people out to ride with that won’t panic and change their minds. Indecision and second guesses are killers.
– Know when sunrise is and when daylight will be. The hour extra of being able to see was great.
– Trust your crew. Your boat and the people following you.
– Weather reports are a guide. Thanks to EddyJ for his prelims, but thanks to all the weather sources I used to cross check where we are going.
I got afterwards if I’d do a night crossing again. The answer is no like it was this time. But schedule pressures and a good weather window changed that. So as all of my answers, the real one is “it depends”
Thanks to the crews of Prime Interest, Pier Pressure for going with me and for the crew of Errante for doing a cross check of my plan.