February 2 – 4, 2020 The Gulf Crossing

Perhaps the part of the Loop that causes the most anxiety for boaters is the Gulf Crossing. As boaters go across the Florida panhandle, it becomes too shallow in the curved part of Florida for most boats to continue.  There are two choices. Boaters can do a three day scalloped travel pattern going into Steinhatchee, Crystal River and then Tarpon Springs (in and out of the Gulf), or they can do a diagonal run of about 180 miles from somewhere around Carabelle to Tarpon Springs or Clearwater.  Many Looper boats only travel about 8-10 miles per hour, which means the 180 miles has to be done overnight – in the dark – no lights!  Yeah, it produces a little anxiety. 

“Go fast” boats can sometimes cross during daylight hours, but such speed requires a lot of fuel. We can be a “go fast” boat, but Ed was not quite sure if we had the fuel capacity to make it 180 miles at a fast speed.  We had decided to cross with Honey Queen as our buddy boat.  Three other boats were also going that night, but after looking at wind & waves, we decided on a slightly different route that was recommended in one of our resource books.  This route was showing lower winds and only 1 ft waves and swells.  You can’t always believe the “Predictions.”

It is critical that the weather and winds be good for an overnight crossing.  You don’t want to be 60 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and have four foot waves and 20 knot winds!  There aren’t a lot of days this time of year that are good for crossing.  You have to have at least 2 days in a row.  That can be hard to get, and many boaters have to wait several days for the right conditions. Harbor Host Jack had given us a contact in Carabelle to call regarding the weather.  Her name was Kim.  Jack said if she told us it was good, then we could go.  If she said it was “doable,” then we should wait; otherwise, it might be a very uncomfortable ride.

Amanda (Honey Queen) was appointed to be our contact with Kim. Many calls were made back and forth over a few days.  Finally got word that the night of the 3rd looked good.  On the afternoon of the 2nd, we left Apalachicola and headed to an anchorage at Dog Island. It’s a good jumping off point and saves about an hour of travel on the crossing day.  It was a beautiful place to anchor but the winds were up a bit and we were experiencing rolling waves while anchored.  Predictions were for wind to decrease overnight.

The next day Amanda called Kim again in the late morning.  She said it was still a GO, but we needed to get going – NOW. Generally it’s best to leave about 3 in the afternoon.  This puts you close to the end of the trip after sunrise so that you can SEE and maneuver around the CRABPOTS that are close to the endpoint.  Kim saw something in the weather that she didn’t like, but we never found out what.  We left about 11:30 am on the 3rd.  It was a pleasant day, but the swells were a little more than we would have liked.  And they kept changing direction – coming from the front, then the side, then somewhere else. 

We took the coordinates indicated in our resource book and plotted them in our navigation program. We were to go SE to a flashing red buoy, turn S to another buoy, then slightly E to our final destination. Sunset came, then nightfall. There was a half moon, which gave us a little light to see the horizon.  We could also see the navigation lights of Honey Queen, about half a mile to our starboard bow. That was IT.  Nothing else to see.  I hadn’t been seasick during this entire trip, but those swells were really doing a number on my stomach.  I finally got some food down, which actually made me feel better, but it was really hard to eat.  

To be sure we were on the correct route, we marked our longitude and latitude location on our paper charts every hour.  For a period of time, fog set in and we could only see Honey Queen’s lights – no horizon.  It’s a rather disorienting feeling.  That lasted about an hour.  We rode out of it, and could see the moon again.  At about 1 am, we were approaching the coordinates for our turn, but could not see a flashing red buoy that was supposed to be there.  We saw some other buoys north of us, but not what we were looking for.  When we reached the exact coordinate, we decided to make the turn and head to the next point.  

About 2 am, we got a radio call from Honey Queen – “I think I see a crabpot.”  We were in 34 feet of water; crabpots shouldn’t be here.  Looking at the charts, we saw that there could be fish hatcheries in this area, which are usually marked with floats on either end.  Maybe that was what he was seeing.  A few minutes later, Wes radioed “I see another crabpot.” Ed didn’t hesitate, he radioed back “I’m cutting engines and dropping anchor.”  So that is what both boats did.  The danger of the crabpots is that the floats are attached to the lines that go down to the cages.  If those lines get tangled in boat props, it can cause the props to get jammed and quit working.  

So there we sat, the swells rocking our boat something awful, and no hope of moving until sunrise, sometime after 7 am.  We tried sleeping, but my stomach would not cooperate.  Ed did fall asleep for a couple of hours.  I just kept praying for sunrise.  When it finally came, we looked around, and sure enough – crabpots.  We restarted engines and maneuvered our way around them.  The water had settled, and it was actually a beautiful morning and a good day on the water.  We recalculated some route info.  Talking it over with Honey Queen, it was just an hour more to get down to Clearwater, and from there, we could ride a trolley to go back to see Tarpon Springs.  Another reason to go to Clearwater was that our friends on Alcyone were already there and we really wanted to see them (explanation in next entry). So both boats agreed and we made a slight course adjustment.

When we finally docked in Clearwater, it had been 26 hours since we had left Dog Island and we had traveled 181.5 miles.  It had tested our nerves and our Faith, but we got through it with no harm done.  Would we want to do it again?  Not on my top ten list.  Some people told us of calm night crossings with a full moon that made the Gulf waters glisten.  Yeah, if we could get one of those nights, I’d be game to do it again, but for now we were just glad to have it behind us.  We were exhausted and a nap and a shower topped the To Do List for the day.