We are docked at Shields Marina in St. Marks, Florida (map), on the St. Marks river about 20 miles south of Tallahassee. We are the largest vessel here by a fair margin, and possibly the largest vessel that has ever docked here. Our 16' beam is shoehorned in between a pair of 17'-apart pilings, which are galvanized steel. Backing in to the slip, which is crossways to the current, just a tad before slack water was a challenge, taking me four attempts, and still we screeched our stainless rub rails along the galvanized steel, leaving scratches on both.
We were going to get into that space, the lone one available to us, come hell or high water, because we will see perhaps both in the next 48 hours. What was not yet even an investigation area when we left Clearwater Friday afternoon is now Tropical Storm Colin. When we made the decision to head here, track models favored the coast from St. Petersburg to Cedar Key for landfall, but as the system progressed to Investigation Area 93L and thence Tropical Depression Three, the models began to coalesce and the middle of the cone of probability is now right where we sit today, along the Big Bend. Still, we made the right decision with imperfect information -- anyplace we could have tied up or anchored in Tampa Bay or Clearwater would have been much more exposed to storm conditions. Here, at least, we are five miles upriver and tied up to heavy moorings.
This evening's official forecast track -- headed right for us.
Long-time readers will know we've been through this before, riding out Hurricane Arthur at a public dock in Portsmouth, Virginia. We're most of the way through our windstorm checklist now, having deployed our fender boards, removed all loose items and covers from the decks, and doubled up all lines. With the extra-skinny slip and heavy steel pilings, we needed a couple of smaller fenders for the starboard fender board; fortunately the marina has a well-stocked chandlery and we just bought a pair today, albeit at something of a premium price. Still the marina is a bargain at just 60 cents per foot, with an extra dime per foot for power, of which we are using plenty in the Gulf heat and humidity.
Vector tied up at Shields Marina. Fender boards are out and the covers are off the dinghy and scooters.
Other than the quick welfare update as we left Clearwater behind, I have not had a chance to post here since we were in Virginia trying to sell the bus. In the calm before the storm here, let me spend a few paragraphs catching up.
For starters, no, the bus is not yet sold. As we updated Tuesday morning, the buyer's father passed away Monday night, as the buyer was already en route to meet us. I got a text from him sometime after midnight, which we did not even see until we awoke in the morning. We had set an early alarm, to give us time to roll the bus out of the shed and wash it with the pressure washer we had brought along with us before the buyer's arrival.
With the news that he would not be able to close the deal, we ended up spending the first couple of hours of the day regrouping, trying to find alternate buyers who had asked to be contacted "if the deal falls through," and figuring out what our next move would be. The 8am opening of the marina and the kennel came and went with no real decisions made. But as the morning wore on, it became clear that nothing else really could happen while we were still in Virginia, and we made the decision to head back to St. Petersburg as soon as possible, to arrive Wednesday evening. I extended the kennel, marina, and rental car to Thursday.
We still had work to do -- the pressure washer was coming back with us, and since my next trip to Virginia to close any deal will likely be solo and may well be by airplane, we still wanted to wash the bus on this visit. Also there were three bays we could not fully access to clean and pack until we pulled the bus out of the shed, and now, with the possibility of flying in at a later date, I'd have to unpack some of the tools we'd already offloaded and leave them behind, just in case anything else needs attention when I return.
Just getting the bus out of the shed proved to be something of a challenge. Despite moving the bus forward and back a couple of feet over the course of several previous visits, 48,000 pounds is a lot for the soft earth of the Northern Neck, and I had to resort to some digging with our shovel (included with bus sale!) and a good bit of old-fashioned rocking to get it rolling out of the shed. The trenches we left behind were deep enough that we went down to the office to request a different spot so we could start the inevitable sinking at least from level ground, rather than 5" ruts.
Washing and bay cleaning took another three hours or so, and by the time we drove it around to its new spot, then powered our way in without getting stuck in the mud, and buttoned it all back up, it was past 3pm. Rather than take time to disconnect all the batteries again, we opted just to pay the upcharge for electric power, on the hope that we'll have it sold within a month or so. We have our fingers crossed that the power does not go out long enough for the batteries to go offline between now and then... if the battery voltage drops low enough the charger will never come back on.
Our minuscule rental car was packed to the gills as we rolled back out onto the road; it's amazing how much stuff we had left behind on the bus, and, of course, we'd brought half a car-load with us including tools, a shop-vac, and the aforementioned pressure washer. Even so, the buyer will get a full set of very nice dishware (Mimbreno China, originally made for the Super Chief), silverware, and cookware, plus an assortment of tools and plenty of spare parts.
We spent the night in Lumberton, NC, and opted to add an extra half hour Wednesday to go through Orlando for a stop at the VF Outlet there, where I have the best luck finding clothes, and a very nice dinner at the Citrus Club in town. We rolled up to the marina parking around 10pm Thursday, fired the air conditioning back up on the boat, and fell into bed exhausted.
Thursday morning we unloaded the car, taking three dock-cart loads to our slip at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina (map), just a few slips down from where we docked last year.. Lots of that stuff is still sitting right in front of me now in the salon, awaiting disposition; some items will be sold, but many will need to find homes on the boat. (An equal amount of stuff went either to the "free" pile at the storage facility, most of which disappeared within a day if not an hour, or right to the dumpster.) Then we picked up Angel, who took a full day to settle back in to the boat. In the afternoon I returned the car to Hertz, having put a whopping 2,235 miles on it, and hoofed it back to Vector. We had a final dinner in St. Pete at Gratzi, a nice Italian place just a short walk from the dock, all we had the energy for.
By dinner time Thursday we already knew that a system was brewing in the Gulf. Years of disaster response for the Red Cross, which often found us driving toward tropical storms, have given us a keen sense of storm development and a toolkit of resources to track them before the National Hurricane Center is even permitted to discuss them. We had a long discussion that evening about hunkering down in St. Pete, looking for something even further inland on Tampa Bay, or continuing on our planned route to Clearwater and beyond.
The 8am Friday investigation map that confirmed for us that trouble was brewing.
In hindsight, knowing where we ended up coming, we could have saved quite a few miles by going out at Tampa Bay or maybe even Pass-a-Grille, and we discussed a Pass-a-Grille egress as we drove by the inlet. But at that hour of the day it was looking like we'd have plenty of time to make a decision and we could have a pleasant night in Clearwater before either taking refuge locally or making the Gulf crossing.
Leaving St. Pete behind Friday morning, headed, we thought, for Clearwater.
As you now know, the ensuing hours, wherein yet another model run was made for the storm system and a deteriorating forecast for the Gulf was released, made us think twice about delaying a departure until Saturday morning. We waved wistfully as we passed by Clearwater Beach and headed directly to the Gulf without stopping. We even spent some time looking at our guides to see if there was at least a dock-and-dine option so we could make a dinner stop before departing, without success.
Clearwater Beach in our wake, shortly after leaving the inlet.
If there was any question whether we made the right decision, the crossing put it to rest. It was calm the whole way, like a lake, and overnight it was glassy enough to see stars reflected in the water. We had not planned for dinner aboard, so I ended up grilling burgers that we took out of the freezer. Our overnight passage routine is now well-developed, and even last minute we simply ran through our checklists and fell into our normal watchstanding schedule, with me standing the midnight watch and Louise taking over in the wee hours.
Sunset over a placid Gulf of Mexico, from two dozen miles offshore.
We had a favorable current the entire passage, and ended up arriving at the St. Marks river in time to have a great push upriver as well, arriving here before 3pm. We had talked about anchoring either nearby in the river, or perhaps as far out as the St. Marks Lighthouse for our first night, but the combination of a calm Gulf and a pleasant summer weekend had the whole river full of small boats, making anchoring a challenge. It was also hot and humid, and $37 per day for all the A/C we can handle was just the ticket after a long, hot passage, so we came straight here.
Other than the tiny slips and fixed docks, the marina is fine, with a nice new office/store well stocked with marine items as well as snacks and beverages. Next door are a pair of restaurants, and we had dinner tonight at the open-air Riverside Grille. The place was a zoo last night, and we just ate at home. Despite the early arrival, we were too beat to get much of anything done yesterday after checking in.
Today was spent preparing for the storm. Oddly, we seem to be the only ones doing so. Of the perhaps dozen folks we talked to about it since arriving, many were completely unaware of the impending storm, but even more surprising is the lack of any sense of urgency even after the NHC declared it a Tropical Storm and issued warnings for the entire coast. The marina office is closed Mondays, and we asked today if they will have anyone here or at least on call tomorrow when the storm hits; they just shrugged and said no.
We're as ready as we can be, and with any luck it will just be a non-event. We expect the bulk of it to be past by Tuesday morning, and we'll have a look then to see if we can continue on to Carabelle on Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday. Tomorrow should be an interesting day.