Crystal River to Tarpon Springs, Caladesi Island and St Pete

By the time we got to Turtle Cove Marina at Tarpon Springs, about 10 days’ dirty washing had accumulated. I’m not normally so slovenly, but we had had no opportunity to do it.

It’s usually a chore, but the laundry at Turtle Cove was conveniently situated in the clubhouse building which overlooked the swimming pool. So we passed a pleasant afternoon doing the washing.

Near Tarpon Springs
Doing the laundry at Turtle Cove Marina

Tarpon Springs was described in the guide-books as the nearest thing to Greece, outside Greece. Rather surprisingly, this description turned out to be quite accurate. Greek people came here 100 years ago to work in the sponge industry, and still do. They brought their culture and cuisine with them. The town centre was within easy walking distance of the marina so we wandered down to have a look in the shops and have coffee in one of the Greek cafes. We bought amazing bread and baklava from a Greek bakery. There were even kafenions with shouty Greek voices emanating from their dark interiors, where tourists didn’t go.

Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs
In the coffee shop

In the evening, we ate at the Rusty Bellies’ Waterfront Restaurant. It was popular and packed out, but it wasn’t a hardship to sit in the shade with our margaritas while we waited for a table.

Rusty Bellies from the water

From Tarpon Springs, we could have made a straight run through Clearwater to finish our Loop at St Pete, where it all started more than 5 years ago. We had bought Carina at Treasure Island, Clearwater, and taken her across to St Pete where we’d spent a week equipping her before we had actually set off. We’d come to like the city during that first anxious week of getting everything ready and wondering if we could actually do this Loop thing. St Pete felt like the start of our Loop, and we decided that was where it would finish, where we would announce to the world that we’d crossed our wake, and celebrate appropriately.

But I had noticed, in Skipper Bob’s book, a passing reference to Caladesi Island. It’s an unspoiled island, accessible only by boat, but there’s a marina there run by Park Rangers. There’s a small cafe, but no bars, no tourist shops, and no grocery stores. We had time to go there.

Caladesi to St Pete
Anclote Key, on the way to Caladesi
Honeymoon Island

Caladesi is rather special. The marina is hidden away down a system of channels that pass through the mangrove. ‘Channelization of mangrove areas was done before the state park was established. This type of land alteration would not be allowed under today’s management practices,’ the Island Trail Guide rather primly states.

The channel at Caladesi
The marina at Caladesi

We got there at lunch time and headed over to the beach, a 5-minute walk away through the dunes. Ferries come from Honeymoon Island and elsewhere, so we didn’t have it quite to ourselves. For a not inconsiderable fee, you can hire a beach umbrella. The State Parks are not above making money out of their visitors, but really there was no choice in the matter. It was getting hot out in the sun.

The beach from the dunes
No description
Caladesi Beach, looking towards Honeymoon Island

The next day we walked the Island Trail, through 2.5 miles of the interior of the island and finishing on the beach, passing from the coastal strand to a pine flatwoods community. Unfortunately the coastal hammock part of the trail was closed because of prescribed burning, a land management tool which reduces the risk of wildfires and recycles nutrients into the soil.

Sabal Palms
Blackeyed Susan
Gopher tortoise prints
Bark
A young South Florida Slash Pine establishing in the flatwoods
Ancient Pines
Cats Eye Pond
Wild hibiscus
Prickly Pear Cactus

The beach was almost deserted. There was a severe thunderstorm forecast, and the ferries weren’t running.

We left Caladesi for St Pete, but we had a night at anchor at Boca Ciega first.

Near Treasure Island

As we passed through Clearwater and Treasure Island, we tried to identify the inlet where Carina had been docked when we first bought her. We think this one was it, with a new boat tied up in Carina’s place.

Treasure Island
From the anchorage at Boca Ciega

We couldn’t help feeling excited as we approached St Pete, and saw the entrance to the familiar Municipal Marina.

Approaching St Pete
Entering St Pete Municipal Marina

It was quite windy and Ian was worried about docking. Frank, the dockmaster, had assured us that he’d be waiting to take our lines, and he was. As we tied up, I asked about the laundry facilities.

‘Sure, we have a laundry. There’s a lounge there too, with a TV. But you gotta watch Fox News. You’re not allowed to watch CNN. That’s the Communist channel.’

Then, ‘I guess you guys spend a lot of time laughing at our President.’

After five years, we’re getting a bit more used to American humour and the use of irony. But we’re British, and so we couldn’t possibly comment.

Safely tied up at St Pete Municipal Marina, view from the flybridge

It was over. We felt a mixture of sadness, relief, gratitude and euphoria.

As we’d approached the end of the journey, I’d imagined this day. I thought I would go to Publix, get some champagne, possibly buy myself a small, expensive reward for persevering throughout my trials and endeavours, and have a celebration dinner at an upscale restaurant.

We did none of those things. We had lunch on the boat, and eventually we wandered downtown. Ian has an unerring instinct for finding ice-cream shops, and it didn’t let him down. Being in St Pete, it was a posh one. As well as ice-cream, it sold a variety of exotic teas, jams in fancy jars, and other esoteric preserves. Ian had an obscurely-flavoured ice-cream, and I had English breakfast tea, which came in a technical, tetrahedral bag.

As we were leaving, we thanked the waitresses. They thanked us back and wished us a great afternoon. Then one of them remarked on the cuteness of Ian’s socks, and they dissolved into giggles. Of course, it’s not only Americans who find the sight of an Englishman rocking shorts with lace-up shoes and short, striped socks amusing.

In the evening we went to Fresco’s for dinner. It’s a lively waterfront restaurant and bar next to the marina, with good food, a nice atmosphere and it was just right.

We had to wait a few days for our Gold Looper’s flag, which the AGLCA had sent to us at Marina Jack’s in Sarasota.

Except that it wasn’t really over. Apart from the fact that we had booked Carina into a boatyard in Port Charlotte for storage during the summer, we had no clue what we were going to do next, either in the short term or the long-term. And we had another 3 weeks before our return to England.

But we have made one decision. Carina is for sale. We’re spending the remaining time revisiting some places in Florida that we liked the first time around, and discovering new ones.

So there’ll be one more blog post after this one, but it seems the right time to thank everyone who has followed me, and especially those who left kind and supportive comments. What started as simply a way of letting people know where we were and what we’d been doing, grew into something a bit more. In the moments of anxiousness, boredom, missing home and our family and friends, of which there were some, having to look for the positive and the funny things to write about, of which there were many, was therapeutic. Thank you for the encouragement.

I should also thank the people we met along the way who helped us, gave us advice and stopped us getting bored with our own company. In particular, Jim and Susan who rescued us that memorable September day on the Illinois River.

And I suppose I should thank the Captain, who takes me out of my comfort zone and gives me all these experiences to write about.

Crossing the Gulf to Steinhatchee and on to Crystal River

Eddy and Captain Kim had both suggested that Ian consider the long crossing from Carrabelle, direct to Tarpon Springs, rather than going to Steinhatchee. I could see that he was entertaining the thought. This was alarming. The long crossing was 160 miles, and would take us 26 hours, rather than the 10 hours to Steinhatchee.

We don’t have radar. We don’t have autopilot. The idea of being awake most of the night, steering the boat though the darkness and sleeping fitfully on the bridge upstairs, followed by a full day of boating, and, in my role as galley slave, trying to provide meals as the journey progressed through possibly harsh conditions, had zero appeal.

It was non-negotiable. Quite apart from the unpleasantness and potential dangers, the way we have done the Loop right from the beginning was to try to see as much as possible of the areas we were travelling through. I wanted to see the Florida coastline and the small towns and villages along the way.

But the most compelling reason was that we had an invitation in Steinhatchee. Our friend Susan’s Aunt Rhoda lived there and had her own private dock, and we had been invited to use it. How could we not?

We had made a head start by anchoring out at Alligator Point, twelve miles east of Carrabelle. We left at dawn, in calm winds and waters.

Alligator Point at dawn
Leaving Alligator Point

As soon as we cleared the shelter of Alligator Point though, it got bumpier and we were glad of the prophylactic dramamine we’d taken. The first three hours were rough, but there’s something awesome about being in a small boat, completely out of sight of land, which had only happened a few times on the Loop.

The Gulf of Mexico

But things calmed down and in the end it was a pleasant cruise into the Steinhatchee Channel.

Approaching Steinhatchee


Steinhatchee

Ian had phoned Rhoda to let her know what time we’d be arriving and to get instructions about how to find the dock. However much you scrutinise the chart, or Google Maps, it’s never quite so simple in the reality. Rhoda said that her sister was fixing dinner and they’d be waiting for us. We weren’t completely sure, in the uncertainty of a phone conversation with not very good reception, whether this implied a dinner invitation, or just that they would help us dock.

Steinhatchee

We were getting close to Steinhatchee when an authoritative voice hailed us on the radio.

‘Carina. This is the boatyard at Steinhatchee. You have a reservation with us this evening. Over.’

We looked at each other. Our first thought was that somehow we had messed up, and that we had booked ourselves into a boatyard as well as arranging to stay at Aunt Rhoda’s. Ian assumed his most polite, slightly apologetic, tone.

‘This is Carina. Er……thank you for that….I’m not sure what’s happened here…we do actually have an arrangement to stay with a friend and so….’

‘Carina, that’s correct. You’re staying on my sister-in-law’s dock, we’ll meet you there and you’re expected for dinner with us.’

We’d been a bit slow to realise that the authoritative voice belonged to Jack, Susan’s Dad, and that her Mom, Bobbi, was cooking dinner for us. Jack and Rhoda were there to help us tie up on the dock and Rhoda drove us down to their house, where we had a lovely meal and a great evening with them all, overwhelmed by their generosity and hospitality.

We left Steinhatchee the next morning. Rhoda came down with a flask of coffee for us before we left, and Bobbi and Jack waved us off.

Ian and Rhoda
Leaving Steinhatchee
The channel out of Steinhatchee

Our next stop was Suwannee, tucked away in a wooded inlet amongst the swamps. We’d seen a lot of dolphins since coming back to Florida, but these two did their special synchronised swimming just for us.

Dolphins
Approaching Suwannee
Leaving no room for doubt
Gateway Marina, Suwannee

The channel into Suwannee is very shallow and we’d been advised to arrive and leave only on a rising tide, just before high tide. So we couldn’t get away till after lunch the next day but it was a short hop down to an anchorage off Cedar Key.

Leaving Suwannee
Night time at Cedar Key

I had thought that once we reached Steinhatchee, that would be the end of sailing across open water. How wrong I was.

What I had failed to appreciate during the discussions about the route we should take round the Panhandle was that because the coastal waters are so shallow, you have to go several miles out along the channels, into the open water, to get from one point to another. You can’t stay close to the shore, as I had been imagining.

The journey between Cedar Key and Crystal River rivalled the Lake Ontario Experience. Once out of the channel, the waves steadily increased in height and frequency until some of them were getting on for 3 feet. Usually we don’t go out if the waves are bigger than one foot. We were still quite a way from Crystal River, our next stop, and I kept remembering a conversation we’d had with a Gold Looper back on the Trent-Severn in Canada. He had regaled us with the story of how they had been somewhere in the Gulf, when nine foot waves suddenly appeared out of nowhere and without warning. We watched anxiously for any signs of bigger waves coming.

It was a long day. By the time we got into the channel leading to Crystal River, things had calmed down but I felt sick and had a splitting headache.


But the marina where we stayed, Pete’s Pier at Kings Bay, had a golf buggy that we were able to use, and I’d recovered enough to go out that night and we had a good meal at Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller.

The weather continued to be rough the next day and Carina tossed uncomfortably about even tied up on the dock.

But the following day was bright and sunny and we went to Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
The river is fed by springs and because it maintains a constant year-round temperature of 72F, in the winter it is home to manatees, when the waters of the Gulf are too cold for them. As recently as 2010, the land around the springs was scheduled for development and there was a plan to commercially bottle the spring water. But the land was purchased instead by the Florida Community Trust, the City of Crystal River, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and other non-profit groups and is now owned by the City and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Public access is limited to allow the manatees their winter refuge. The area has been rewilded with native plants, but there are mown paths and a boardwalk round the springs.

Crystal Lake, Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs Trail
Lonicera sempervirens
Pretty Sister Spring

Kayaks and canoes are only allowed in the spring and summer months.

Little Sister Spring
Spanish Moss overhanging the boardwalk

We had an early start the next morning for our next stop, Tarpon Springs.

Leaving Crystal River

Apalachicola to Carrabelle and Alligator Point

We left Apalachicola after lunch and it was a pleasant cruise between St George’s Island and the mainland up to Carrabelle.

Carrabelle is the starting point for the Gulf crossing. Even if you choose the short, 10-hour version to Steinhatchee, rather than the long, 26-hour, overnight version to Tarpon Springs, you still need perfect weather. Ian had emailed a local guru called Eddy for advice. Eddy’s advice was to stay at C-Quarters Marina in Carrabelle, and do as we were told by Captain Kim, who ran the marina and who knew her stuff.

Kim confirmed what we had suspected, that we would have to wait in Carrabelle for a week before it would be calm enough to cross. On the Friday of the week we were there, a severe storm was expected and it would be a few days before things settled down.

Apalachicola – Carrabelle -Alligator Point- Steinhatchee

Near Carrabelle

But Carrabelle was a good place to hang out, and there was plenty to do and see. We arrived there at about 5.30 and were immediately invited to a cook-out on the dock, by Nancy and John who lived on their boat there. On other nights, people gathered for drinks.

Carina at Carrabelle
View from the dock
Sunset at Carrabelle

We went to the Carrabelle History Museum, http://www.carrabellehistorymuseum.org
and Tamara showed us round. We had met her husband the previous day, and he had told us that his family had been in America since the 1600’s. Tamara told us the story of Tate’s Hell, a State Forest just north of Carrabelle, named after Cebe Tate, who had gone into the forest to kill a panther which had attacked his livestock. He became lost for seven days, before emerging near Carrabelle, and uttering his famous last words, ‘My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell’.

The museum had an old Dansette record player, with a record in place on the turntable, of someone singing a ballad about Cebe’s demise. Tamara judged that we were old enough to know how to use the Dansette, and we were allowed to put the record on.

Another story was that of the Steamship Tarpon.
http://www.museumsinthesea.com/tarpon/history.htm
Steamships used to ply the waters between Mobile, Panama City, Apalachicola and Carrabelle, providing both a passenger service and goods transport. In 1937, SS Tarpon tragically sank in a gale, which had not been forecast and which suddenly arose out of previously calm waters. Although it is not mentioned on the link above, Tamara told us that Adley Baker, the seaman who swam ashore and alerted the rescue, had been helped in his 25-hour, 10-mile swim by a school of dolphins which supported him and carried him along through the water.

Next door to the museum was Lulu’s cafe, which served breakfasts and lunches. We were interested to see that Lulu’s hours of operation were 5am – 3pm. The reason for her early starts was that her husband was a prison officer, and she got up early to cook breakfast for him and his colleagues. We didn’t make the 5am breakfast, but lunch was pretty good.

Evening entertainment was at Fathoms, a tiki bar and restaurant just down the road from the marina. Its speciality was oysters, but they aren’t our thing. However, the alternatives were very good. As we were sitting waiting for our food, an old man in baggy jeans, a check shirt, a stetson, and sporting long grey hair and an even longer straggly grey beard, ambled slowly in and sat down. A few minutes later, he ambled out again and could be seen in the corner of the bar, taking up his position as rhythm guitarist with the group which was tuning up. They started off with Tulsa Time and as soon as we’d finished our meal, we took ourselves into the bar. A very pleasant couple, who had a weekend condo in Carrabelle, had identified us as fellow visitors, and made room for us at their table. Apparently, the Eric Clapton look-alike on lead guitar owned not only the bar and restaurant, but possibly one of the marinas as well. He was pretty good on the guitar too.

We knew the storm was coming on Friday, and had been woken in the early hours by thunder and torrential rain battering the roof of the cabin.

It was still a bit of a shock when all three of our phones (two British, one American) went off loudly with the alarm signal just before 8.30. It was a tornado warning and it advised us to shelter in our basement, or evacuate to a place of safety. Neither of these suggestions seemed very practical. The marina building itself didn’t look particularly sturdy, and we hadn’t noticed anywhere obvious that would provide shelter. Not very logically, I threw passports, my camera and the few valuables we have on board into a rucksack, then looked at the warning again. It was due to expire in ten minutes’ time. Ian looked at a weather map on the computer and could see that the main part of the storm had just passed to the northeast of us. We relaxed.

The next day, it was still windy, but we got the bikes out and cycled the two miles to Carrabelle Beach. The storm had passed, but there were still dramatic skies.

Ian on Carrabelle Beach
Carrabelle Beach

We stopped at the Two Brothers Diner for lunch, and it exceeded expectations.

Two Brothers Diner, Carrabelle Beach

Fifteen miles east of Carrabelle there is a thin spit of land which curves out into the Gulf and which provides a convenient place to anchor before setting out on the crossing. Captain Kim had advised us that Monday’s conditions would be favourable, so on Sunday afternoon we left Carrabelle and watched the sun go down at Alligator Point, ready for a very early start for Steinhatchee the next morning.

Looking back towards C-Quarters Marina
Carrabelle Riverfront
Near Carrabelle
Near Carrabelle

We had company
Alligator Point
Alligator Point, 4.09pm

…..and early the next morning, before we set off.

Morning at Alligator Point

Destin to Apalachicola

The bad weather had passed, so we moved on from Destin and anchored at the eastern end of Choctawhatchee Bay. The waterway then passes into a narrow cut known as the Grand Canyon, before going into West Bay and Grand Lagoon.

Destin to Apalachicola
Mile 255, looking west

The Grand Canyon
Dump truck
The waterway widens out just before West Bay

We were approaching Panama City and the area which had suffered the most devastation last October when Hurricane Michael struck. We saw lots of damage to property and vegetation. In West Bay, dredgers were busy clearing the channel.

Dredger in West Bay

Ian had identified a suitable anchorage, listed in Skipper Bob’s Cruising Guide, at the far end of East Bay. But he decided we had time to go farther on, so that the next day’s cruise would be shorter. Instead of Skipper Bob’s anchorage, we would stay in a wide, unnamed bay on the southern shore of East Bay, which Skipper Bob had clearly overlooked.

The bay was windy and exposed, but we dropped the anchor anyway. I noticed three little planes with a rather pugnacious appearance pointing straight at us, and a check on the GPS confirmed that we were a few yards outside a high security zone. This was a little unnerving, and a few minutes later, another check on the GPS showed that we were actually drifting.

The anchor had to be pulled up, and we motored a short distance further away from the planes, and dropped the anchor once more. It was gin and tonic time, but we didn’t relax for long. We were drifting again, and Ian didn’t improve matters by knocking his gin over.

I suggested in a firm tone that it might be better to go to the nearest recommended anchorage. 40 minutes later, we found ourselves safely moored in Laird Bayou. A lesson had been learned, and it was that if an anchorage isn’t recommended by Skipper Bob, it ain’t recommended.

Evening at Laird Bayou

But tomorrow’s another day. Some mornings, you wake up early, and it’s just too nice to stay in bed.

Early morning at Laird Bayou

It was the promise of a fine day ahead. We left Laird Bayou for Apalachicola, out of East Bay and along another narrow cut, where the hurricane damage was all too apparent, through Lake Wimico and into the Jackson River and the Apalachicola River.

Hurricane damage
Mile 331, GIWW

We stayed 3 nights in Apalachicola, the first night in the marina on the riverfront, and the last two on the municipal dock, a few yards away, as the marina had no space. But George, the marina owner, kindly let us use the golf buggy to get to the supermarket to restock our depleted supplies.

Our mooring looked out over the swampy estuary of the Apalachicola River.

Apalachicola had been an important port for exporting cotton from all over the region, before the railways were built and transport by rail became more cost-effective. On Water Street, facing the river, there were once many brick warehouses, of which a few remain, converted into shopping malls and holiday accommodation. There are plenty of commercial fishing boats forming the basis of the local economy. The town has its own brewery, with a bar where everyone seemed to hang out, and several restaurants. We had a good dinner at the Tap Room, also owned by the Brewery. And on the Saturday morning, we walked a mile to the Farmers’ Market and bought some artisan bread and organic produce.

Carina at Apalachicola
Shrimp boat, Apalachicola

Angry bird
The dock, Apalachicola
Apalachicola River Estuary
Water St, Apalachicola
Avenue D

Apalachicola had a taxi company, but it only had one taxi, operated by a husband and wife team. Fortunately, it was available, and able to take us out to St George’s Island, a barrier island reached by two very long bridges and a long causeway. I wanted to go to the beach.

One of the bridges to St George’s Island

It wasn’t quite the deserted paradise I’d imagined, being fairly heavily developed, but there was plenty of space on the beach for everyone. There was a tiki bar too, so instead of enjoying the unspoilt scenery, we had a beer instead, and a paddle.

On the beach at St George’s Island
Beach houses
St George’s Island Lighthouse

We had to sit out a day of bad weather, before leaving for Carrabelle, which was where we would start our crossing of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ingram Bayou to Pensacola and Destin

There was bad weather looming, but we had a beautiful day travelling along the Intracoastal Waterway through the lovely Perdido Bay and Big Lagoon. Before we left Ingram Bayou, we were entertained by some dolphins diving and splashing not far from us.

Dolphins at Ingram Bayou

Big Lagoon separates Perdido Key, the long barrier island, from the mainland. The dark blue water contrasted against the white sand, which is composed mainly of quartz crystals, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains in another age.

Big Lagoon
Perdido Key
Houses on Big Lagoon


The area was first inhabited by the Pensacola people, and was settled in 1559 by the Spanish. Now, it’s a seaport and has a US Naval Air Station which is the home of the Blue Angels, which just happened to be practising as we approached Santa Rosa Island.

Ingram Bayou to Destin

We booked into the Pensacola Shipyard and Marina at Warrington to sit out the bad weather which was approaching. The next four days were going to be fairly bad, really bad, a brief respite, and then bad again. As the next day looked like the least awful day, we decided to hire a car to do a little sightseeing and shopping before the onslaught.

Carina at Pensacola

Ian has been such a good customer of Enterprise Car Hire that we were due a free hire, which cheered us up a bit. We decided to go to see Fort Pickens, strategically placed at the western end of Santa Rosa Island, where there is also an Aquatic Preserve. Unfortunately, some human error had crept into the satnav-programming operation and it was some time before we realised that we had driven 20 miles in an easterly direction, and would have to turn around and drive all the way back again.

Eventually we found the right bridge leading to Pensacola Beach and Santa Rosa Island. By this time it was windy and raining. and the high rises, beach houses, bars, restaurants and condos looked rather dispiriting in the greyness. The road narrowed to a single track as it continued for several miles along the spit of land to the promontory where the fort was. On either side were dunes and grasses, and we had glimpses of the sea. Despite the bleak scene, I would have liked to stop the car to take photographs, but by this time we were within the Reserve boundary and stopping wasn’t permitted.

Fort Pickens was built in 1834 and remained in use till 1947. During the Civil War it was a Union stronghold. In its day it had been extensive, but it had been neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair, before being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Pickens, Pensacola
Reinforced concrete

There were impressive archways and brickwork, and one part of the fort had been added in the 1890s and constructed of reinforced concrete. It must have been one of the earliest uses of reinforced concrete, and Ian could not resist inspecting it closely.

Wild flowers grew among the ruins. This is Tradescantia ohiensis, or Confederate Spiderwort.

Tradescantia ohiensis (Confederate Spiderwort)

We didn’t really make the most of Pensacola. There was a restaurant with live music just down the road, but we couldn’t be bothered going out in the wind and rain. The next day was even worse, and rather than venturing out to see the historic town centre, our activities were confined to checking the engine, and making forays to the laundry in between the squalls and thunderstorms.

A short break in the weather the next day allowed us to get to Fort Walton, where there is a free dock next to the public park.

We briefly ran aground while trying to get onto the slip, but Ian has had practice at getting out of this particular difficulty, and the usual manoeuvre of reversing at high revs once again extricated us from an embarrassing situation. We had been seen by some local guys whose sailboat was in one of the slips, and they helped us tie up along the end of the dock, away from the shallow water.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. As well as the usual piles to tie up to, there some extra ones on the outside, which resulted in a 4′ gap between the boat and the dock. I couldn’t put my foot down on our step, while at the same time keeping a hold of the deck rail.

There was no way I was going to take a flying leap from the boat, despite the disparaging comments from some quarters and the amusement afforded to the guys who had helped us dock.
We needed groceries, and Ian had to go to Publix by himself.



The proposed leap

Ian had no such qualms. He was quite happy to stride, no hands, from the boat to the dock and back again.

There was a police presence in the park, and Ian had to report to them when we got there. It might have been reassuring to have them there, but actually it wasn’t. We couldn’t help wondering what went on, that needed them to be there, especially as in the early evening, our friends next door vacated their slip and anchored out, a few yards away, before returning to the dock the next morning.

The police, though, were assiduous in their duty. At 6.30 the next morning, just as I was making the first cup of tea of the day, a knock on the cabin window had Ian leaping out of bed. The police just wanted to point out that we were tied up next to the pump-out, and were we going to use it.

We managed to get to Destin, where there is a natural harbour off Choctawhatchee Bay, before the next bout of bad weather hit us. We anchored there and were able take the dinghy to go ashore to go out for lunch at Gilligans and get an Uber to the supermarket. Things have certainly become easier since the advent of Uber, and the supermarket, Winn Dixie’s, was the best we’d been in for quite a while. They had proper cheese from a farm in Wisconsin, and a fish counter, so for the first time this trip I was able to cook fresh fish for dinner.

Destin from the harbour, with the dinghy dock on the right

Mobile, Mobile Bay and back on the Intracoastal Waterway to Ingram Bayou

Lynn, who was on the next boat to us at Dog River had given us a useful piece of information. Mobile Yacht Club, only a short walk away, would let you in as a guest for dinner if you were staying at the marina, and so Ian booked a table. After a run of scratch dinners on the boat, it was a pleasant indulgence to sit at a table with a cloth on it and be waited on, in a friendly club atmosphere. The food was great too. The building itself is unprepossessing and rather overshadowed by the Dauphin Island Parkway, but the dining room has an all-round view of the expanse of Mobile Bay

.

Mobile Yacht Club, Dog River

We took an Uber into Mobile, and Kathleen, our driver, suggested that instead of just going in on the freeway, we might like to go the back road way to see more of the old parts of Mobile. Government St, the main road through the town, was an avenue of old, spreading trees shading gracious old houses. Some are still privately owned, but the Government has bought others to preserve them. We walked through the downtown, a mix of modern high rise and older buildings, to see the Richards DAR House in the De Tonti Square Historic District.

Asking a policeman the way, Bienville Square

Cleaning the fountain, Bienville Square
N Conception St

The Richards DAR House, N Joachim St, Mobile

The house was built in 1860 for Charles and Caroline Richards, and owned by the family until 1947, when it was sold to the Ideal Cement Company for use as offices. The company gifted it to the city of Mobile in 1973, and it’s now  administered by the Mobile Chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The intricate wrought ironwork has recently been restored at a cost of $85000.

We were given a guided tour by Lisa, a retired teacher, and joined by Greg and Tammy, visiting from upstate New York. The tour included tea afterwards – hot, spiced tea which tasted like mulled wine, but without the alcohol.

Original bronze chandelier
The hall and curved staircase
The Parlour
Lisa, Tammy, Greg and Ian taking tea

Our waiter at Mobile Yacht Club had recommended the Dauphin Restaurant, on the 34th floor of the Trustmark Building. Lunch was excellent and very reasonably priced, and the views made it unmissable.

Looking south from the Dauphin Restaurant towards Mobile Bay
RSA Building from the Dauphin Restaurant
Looking northwest
Lunch in the Dauphin Restaurant

People in Alabama have been so nice. In the lift on the way down from the restaurant, a man asked us where we were from, and what we were doing in Mobile. Ian launched into the usual explanation about the boat. At the mention of the Tombigbee River (we were out on the sidewalk by this time), the man, who had introduced himself as Clark, said that he had grown up close to the river in a rural area, 70 miles north of Mobile. ‘So I guess that makes me kind of a redneck.’
Ian wasn’t sure of the proper way to respond to this confession. He politely mumbled something about being under the impression that ‘redneck’ wasn’t a very complimentary way to describe someone.
That was right, Clark said. But he wanted us to know that not all rednecks were bad people. Some were ok, and welcome to Alabama. And thank you very much for visiting.
This last sentiment was repeated to us many times. I hope we’ll be able to go back again and see more of the state and its people.

Dauphin St, downtown Mobile

Dauphin St
Dauphin St, The Trustmark Building and the RSA Building, Mobile
The fuel dock, Dog River Marina

Fishing Boats at Dog River Marina

We left Dog River the next day to start our journey towards the Florida Panhandle.

Dog River to Ingram Bayou

Mobile Bay was the first stretch of open water that  we’d done for some time. The crossing took about five hours in reasonable conditions. At Bon Secour, we joined the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which would lead us between the barrier islands, through lakes and canals back to Florida’s west coast, where we started the Loop five years ago. There were dolphins and pelicans and it was starting  to feel as though we were nearly there. We passed through Wolf Bay and moored at Ingram Bayou, where for once, the anchor set the first time to Ian’s satisfaction.

Joining the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway

Ingram Bayou
Nightfall at Ingram Bayou

New Orleans to Mobile to Demopolis, and back to Mobile

It turned out that Ian had been harbouring a secret desire to travel on a Greyhound bus, and he thought that our journey from New Orleans to Demopolis, where we had left Carina, presented an opportunity. No buses or trains go to Demopolis,  but that didn’t deter him. We could take the bus to Mobile, and then hire a car.

As it happened, the Greyhound bus left New Orleans at 8 o’clock in the morning, which might have impaired our enjoyment of the night before. But there was a Megabus at 11.30, a much more congenial departure time. He booked online, with an air of self-satisfaction, before we left home. The total fare, for us both, for a two-hour bus journey, came to $12.50.

I related this to our friend Jacks.  She regarded me with consternation and then burst out laughing. Other young-ish friends reacted similarly, although my attempts to find out what exactly was the problem with Megabus were unsuccessful.

I was impressed by the fact that Megabus had a meeter- and- greeter at the bus station. But his role wasn’t confined to meeting and greeting. He eyed my bag with suspicion, and took it away to be weighed. Ian’s bag, by definition, weighed several kilos less, but I was only half a pound over the 50lb limit, so I was let off with a warning.

It was true that we didn’t quite fit the Megabus demographic, being the only people on the bus over the age of 35. But the seats, although hard, had plenty of leg-room, and there was free WiFi, which is more than you can say for the Transpennine Express.

I didn’t use the WiFi much though. The bus was a double-decker and our seats were upstairs, so we had a good view as we crossed Lake Ponchartrain and the bayous as we passed from Louisiana through Mississippi and finally into Alabama.

The bus stop at Mobile was a bit of a surprise. We’d imagined that the bus would stop in a bus station, and that there would be toilet facilities and possibly  even a café where we could get some lunch before picking up the car. But it was just a bus stop on the freeway, and we regretted not having used the ‘facilities’ on the bus.

We took an Uber to the Enterprise car hire office, only to find a hand-written note on the door, ‘closed till 2.30’. It was only 1.45 and there was nowhere to sit and no restaurants or shops in sight.

A mechanic came out from the shed behind the office, bringing me a chair, and explaining that there had been a security breach with Enterprise’s computer network, and all branches had been told to shut down till 2.30 while it was sorted out. So we had to wait, but eventually we were on our way north and eventually, we ate lunch, somewhere in the rolling hills of northern Alabama.

Ian thought he was on a roll after his success with Megabus, and had suggested the Econo-Lodge in Demopolis as a suitable overnight stay. But he quickly realized he was pushing his luck, and we had a comfortable night at the Best Western Plus instead.

The next day we went to Demopolis Yacht Basin to have Carina put back on the water. 

Carina in the hoist at DYB
Nearly in the water

Once this was done, we crossed the river to Kingfisher Marina where we were going to spend a few days sorting the boat out before starting the 200-mile journey down the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers.

After the rodent experience in Illinois, I felt some trepidation about getting back on the boat. But the mousetraps we’d left were untouched. There was a bit of mould here and there, but that was easily dealt with. The weather was fine and dry, so I was able to air the bedlinen and we didn’t need any more nights in the hotel. We celebrated our return to the boat with dinner at the Red Barn Restaurant, reputedly Demopolis’ best, and where we’d had a good meal on our last visit.

Our last trip had been punctuated with disasters of varying severity and expense,  so we were dismayed when Ian noticed fluid leaking from a hose on the steering column. It was all a bit too déjà vu. His initial attempts to remove the leaking hose proved futile, and we thought we were in for another repair bill. But he made a renewed effort the next morning, this time successfully. We had to wait till Monday to get a new hose made at a car repair shop, but it didn’t really matter. We needed the time to provision the boat and check everything  was functioning, because we’d be anchoring out for 3 nights in remote areas before we got to a marina at Mobile .

It was grey and cool when we left the next morning. Fred, Kim, Trenella and their staff at the Yacht Basin had been kind and helpful to us and I was still grateful to Anna-Marie at Kingfisher for her uncompromising advice back in November, when the water in the Tombigbee had risen to flood levels and the amount of debris in the river would have made it a dangerous passage, and she’d told us not to go.

Ian looking pleased to be back on his boat

It had been the right call. Everything happens for the best.  If our journey in the fall on the Tenn-Tom had been spoiled by cold and rain, once the first cloud had dissipated on our first day, we had clear, unbroken sunshine all the way to Mobile. Spring comes early in Alabama, and the trees which had worn their autumn golds in November were now showing the first new leaf of bright green.

It’s only about 100 miles as the crow flies from Demopolis to Mobile, but the river meanders and loops its way down to the delta. Sometimes the bends are quite sharp, and a large tow will appear from apparently nowhere, and quick avoiding action has to be taken.

There were only two locks between Demopolis and Mobile. The first one, Demopolis Lock, was just round the corner, and proved to be the first snag. We’d got up early to make the most of the day, but when Ian rang them to let them know we would like to pass through, the message came back that a large tow needed to go through first. And repairs were being done, and we wouldn’t get through till 11.30.

Inside Demopolis Lock
Looking back at Demopolis Lock and Weir, the river still turbulent

The delay getting through the lock meant that we wouldn’t get to our planned  anchorage at Bashi Creek before dark, and we had to anchor instead by the shelter of the Route 10 bridge over the Tombigbee River. The important thing was keeping out of the way of the tows which pass through all night. We set two anchors and kept the cabin light as well as the anchor lights on. As darkness fell, Ian spotted an alligator looking for its dinner.

During the winter, the river level at Demopolis had risen to 80’, 40’ above normal. We could now see the evidence of this in the terraces of sand that had been deposited along the riverbanks.



Tow suddenly appearing round the bend

Setting the anchor at Route 10

Close-up of the river bank
The table set for dinner on our first night on the boat
Sunset on Route 10

We anchored out each night, the second night at Okatuppa Creek in the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, and the third at the Alabama River Cut, where a short canal links the Tombigbee with the Alabama River. The only place we could have tied up was Bobby’s Fish Shack, but off-season it’s only open from Thursday to Sunday. Apart from one boat which left Demopolis at the same time as us, we didn’t see a single other pleasure craft. We passed through another lock at Coffeeville, but through no towns or settlements.

Anchorage at Okatuppa Creek
Morning at Okatuppa Creek
Approaching Coffeeville Lock
Pelicans at Coffeeville Lock
Leaving Coffeeville Lock



Limestone cliff at Lovers’ Leap

The river widening out as we approach Mobile

Suddenly we hit the Mobile Shipping Channel. We’d done the 200 miles in four days,  which was a record for Carina, helped by the river current southwards to Mobile. Everywhere there were tows, barges and big ships. One of the ships hailed us from what seemed like half a mile away, to politely suggest that it might be better if we passed him on starboard, rather than on port, as he needed to come into the dock. As we passed him, he wished us a good day and a safe trip.

Cochrane Highway Fixed Bridge, Mobile

We tied up at the transient dock at Dog River Marina, 10 miles south of Mobile. It had been a long day and the shipping channel had been stressful, but it was good to have the rivers behind us. It was a bit late in the day and the marina staff had gone home, but Jim and Lynn, whom we’d met at Demopolis, were on the dock next to us and helped us tie up.