Thursday, December 26, 2019

Boxing Day after a quiet Christmas

Happy holidays, everyone. We are under way in the Gulf of Mexico, our first open saltwater passage since leaving Atlantic City for New York Harbor seven months ago. Vector is back in her element, and we have perfect conditions here in the littoral waters from St. Andrews Bay to St. Joseph Bay, where we will anchor in the vicinity of Port St. Joe.

Sunday morning we weighed anchor in considerable chop in Choctawhatchee Bay, getting an early start before things got worse. As soon as we were off the bay and into the "canyon," as we heard the tow skippers calling the canal, the water became flat calm, and even the wind was significantly attenuated by the trees on both sides.

The closer we got to West Bay, the more damage we started to notice. We again found ourselves in some chop as we exited the canal into the bay, but with far less fetch than Choctawhatchee, it was not bad at all, especially with wind and seas behind us. Damage was in evidence all along the bayfront, with sunken boats scattered about, many missing or damaged docks, and the ubiquitous blue tarp "FEMA roofs" characteristic of post-hurricane recovery. It has been 14 months since Hurricane Michael devastated the area, and the community still has far to go.

With the bay a little lumpy, and spring tides on a bay-emptying north wind, we decided that the anchorages nearest downtown Panama City were either too shallow or would not permit us to get ashore, and so we continued down the ship channel to Grand Lagoon, which penetrates the eastern end of the barrier island at Panama City Beach. We dropped our hook as close to the north shore as we dared get, before the deep water narrowed down into a marked channel (map). That left us about a mile from town.

The closest place to get ashore, other than the state park dock south of the lagoon, would have been the dock at the sprawling Sheraton resort. That would have been a great place for Christmas or Eve dinner, and they even have a spa. But the docks were destroyed by Michael and have not yet been rebuilt.

Vector at the otherwise empty dock at Treasure Island Marina.

Instead we tendered the mile west to the small cluster of marinas near the bridge. We landed the dink at the fuel dock of the Lighthouse Marina, closed for the night, and had a nice dinner at the on-site restaurant, the Grand Marlin. Sunday night was Prime Rib night, and we split a piece, as is our custom. I give it decent marks.

Monday was much calmer, with the wind clocking around to the east but at much lower intensity. I took the dinghy out stag, sounding out a somewhat closer anchorage (it was deep enough but we decided there was no point in moving), as well as the channel and the docks at the Treasure Island Marina, where I had booked the two nights of Christmas Eve and Christmas. I also scoped out other options for getting ashore in the evening for dinner.

Suspecting, correctly, that the marina would actually be closed both days, I went in to the office to get our slip assignment and anything else we needed to know before arriving. We were assigned to a T-head that was likely the only spot in the whole marina deep enough for us, but the dock was only 30' long and there were no cleats, just pilings. Good to know ahead of our arrival.

We returned ashore at dinner time, tying up at Captain Anderson's for a short walk to the Panama Pizzeria. The pizza was just so-so, even by Florida standards, but after a month in Bayou La Batre with no pizza at all, we were happy to have it. Captain Anderson's has its own restaurant, too, another dinghy-in option, but they were dark Monday.

We got a fairly early start Tuesday morning, arriving at our berth by 9:30 or so at a blissfully quiet and empty marina (map). We were the only transient boat in the whole town, and the only boat of any sort on our 18-slip dock. Enterprise picked us up at 10:15 for our rental car reservation.

I knew PCB was a popular summer resort area, and so I expected beach bars, mini-golf, and surf shops. What I did not realize was that it was yet another locus of what we like to call "cheesemageddon" -- decidedly un-beachy tourist attractions that we've seen in land-locked tourist traps like Gatlinburg. But on the way to the car rental, we drove right past the Wonderworks "upside down building," and, across the street from it, the Titanic, sinking into the pavement.

Cheesemageddon. The Titanic is actually Ripley's.

Fortunately, it is low season here, and we did no battle with crowds or traffic for anything. Well, except at Walmart, across the channel in Panama City. As long as we had a rental car for two days, which we needed to get to Christmas dinner (in hindsight we could have used the scooters, but we did not know ahead of time we'd have such nice weather), we spent the afternoon of the 24th running errands.

That included a much-needed stop at Petsmart for another bag of prescription food for Angel before her current script runs out, and a stop at Joann's for quilting supplies. As long as we were out in suburbia with a car, we opted to stock up on provisions, and we braved the zoo that is Walmart on Christmas Eve. We waited less than five minutes to use the self-checkout, so it was not too bad, and it had some entertainment value as well.

Since we had to cross the bridge to Panama City anyway, we took a loop through downtown and swung by the municipal marina, where we had stayed on our last visit three years ago. The marina was completely destroyed, and a year later not much has been done towards rebuilding. Also damaged were the nearby performing arts center, and City Hall. Both are closed, likely permanently. City Hall has moved to a brand new facility on higher ground.

On recommendation of our Enterprise shuttle driver, a local, we had Christmas Eve dinner at the Saltwater Grill, which was very nice. We wanted to do something a little upscale, since our Christmas reservation was essentially at a beach bar with one of those kitschy, only-in-a-beach-town names.

Yesterday the waterfront was dead quiet. With a car and an entire day before us, we decided to take a drive out to Mexico Beach, to see how the recovery is coming along. Mexico Beach, straddling the time zone boundary and open to the gulf, was ground zero for Michael. The row of homes along the beach was obliterated, with widespread destruction continuing well inland to the other side of town. Close to 300 people were estimated to have defied mandatory evacuation orders here, and many paid the ultimate price. 53 were killed across the state, in the first Cat 5 US landfall in a quarter century.

While evidence of the destruction is everywhere, still, the town is bouncing back. Many homes have been rebuilt, and resorts are coming along. A number of restaurants are open, some operating out of kitchen trailers with tent pavilions for dining rooms. It is sobering to see how slow progress can be, though, even in this first-world place where goods, materials, and labor are only a highway trip away. It puts what is happening right now in the Bahamas post-Dorian in context.

The road to Mexico Beach runs through Tyndall Air Force Base, which also suffered considerable damage. The surrounding forest  looks like so many broken matchsticks, the trees all uniformly snapped off at about the ten foot mark. The base is off our port side right now, some of the nicest sugar-sand beach in all of Florida, closed to the public. We'll pass Mexico Beach later as well.

We came home for the usual round of holiday phone calls before setting back out for dinner. We had 5:00 reservations at Harpoon Harry's on the beach, the final hour of their holiday buffet. The place has clearly been rebuilt since the storm, and the dining room was actually nicer than I had expected. It was a great spread, with all the traditional holiday flavors and then some. Other than the fact that all the veggie sides were in heavy sauces, it was actually a perfect meal, and we had a great table with a wonderful sunset view. A nice way to finish the holiday.

This morning I squared up with the marina, which had been closed since our arrival, and returned the rental car by way of the post office, where I mailed off a couple of packages. We were singling up lines by 9:30. The plotter is telling me we will have the hook down by 3:30, except by then we will be in the Eastern Time Zone and it will actually be 4:30. The Port St. Joe marina was destroyed in the storm, with no estimate of when (or if) it will be rebuilt, so we will land the tender at the boat ramp to get ashore.

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