Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Florida bound

We are under way in the Gulf of Mexico, about halfway through our passage from Mobile Bay, Alabama to Anclote Key, Florida, near Tarpon Springs. So far this is proving to be a perfect window for our crossing, with seas around two feet and a period of five seconds or so. We've been offline since yesterday afternoon, and I am typing in a text file to upload later, when we pick up cell signal off Tarpon Springs.

Last night's sunset over the gulf in our wake.

We ended up spending two extra nights at Point Cadet in Biloxi, bringing our total stay there to five nights. Thursday night our friends Jeff and Cindy drove out from Madisonville (across the lake from New Orleans) and we had a very nice dinner at Patio 44 in downtown Biloxi. It was nice to see them and also nice to get away from the casino and marina.

That being said, the proximity of the casino made Point Cadet a great place to ride out Tropical Storm Cindy (no relation). We were able to walk in for draft beers, dinner, and even breakfast, and the 24-hour sundry shop in the lobby also had the milk we needed for our coffee here on passage.

The storm was not quite finished with us when last I posted here, and Wednesday night we were disturbed to hear a loud flapping sound coming from the flybridge. Winds were still in about the 20-knot range at the time. Upon inspection, we discovered that the longitudinal center seam down the middle of the flybridge soft top had started ripping out. I suspect this seam has been slowly yielding for a long time, as I've been noticing more and more water coming through around the center superstructure beam for the last few months.

We did the best we could to tape the downwind side down so that the winds would not keep lifting and ripping it, and that seems to have kept more damage at bay for the remainder of the storm. The tape is still there, and yesterday when a thunderstorm came up on passage we threw a rope over the top to keep the motion, and thus further damage, down to a minimum. This seam is under a lot of tension, as the cover is laced taught on all sides; now that there's a gap everything is a bit loose and subject to more damage.

A note here is probably in order before I get a lot of comments from armchair skippers who will tell me that all canvas should be removed in preparation for tropical storm force conditions. I would agree with this in general, however, on Vector, this is a non-trivial proposition, and ideally requires a visit to a yard. That's because of the extensive list of items that must first be removed before the canvas can come off, some of which are hard-wired:

  • Two satellite domes, one empty and one containing the gyro-stabilized DirecTV antenna
  • Two hard-mounted VHF antennas
  • A "Flying saucer" amplified TV antenna
  • A GPS "mushroom" receiver/antenna

The non-empty sat dome is fairly heavy and really should be lifted off with a crane, skyhook, or manlift, which is why a yard is preferable. But ultimately everything could be removed carefully with about two days' work. That makes removing and reinstalling canvas about a five-day proposition, not including the storm itself, or the time before and after when the weather is unsuitable for that type of work. Thus far, in the four years we've had it, the canvas has been unfazed by steady winds in the 35-knot range and gusts of 50. So, for us, the risk calculus has been to leave it in place unless the boat has to weather an actual hurricane.

A stormy sunset across the gulf, over our wake Sunday evening.

That soft top is ten years old now and it was probably past due. We'll have a professional marine canvas shop tell us whether the seam can be repaired, likely with a reinforcing strip, or if it's time to replace the entire top. In the time it's off the boat, I'm going to try to make progress on relocating most or all of the aforementioned items so that the canvas is more easily removed in the future. But also, more importantly, so we can possibly be able to lower the mast in the future, reducing our hard bridge clearance from 25' down to 19'8". We opted to live with duct tape and tie-downs until we can get the boat to Florida or beyond before we find a shop to do the work.

We had hoped to take two days to get from Biloxi to Dauphin Island and the Mobile Ship Channel inlet, but conditions on Mississippi Sound Friday were still too unsettled for comfort, with four foot seas on a four second period. We certainly can travel in those conditions, but with calm seas forecast for Saturday we opted to just spend the extra night and make it a longer day on Saturday.

My planned route to our departure point on the SE side of Dauphin Island was 57 nautical miles, about a nine-hour day. But we had a high tide of over a foot and a half when we weighed anchor Saturday morning, and that let us cut quite a few corners that would have been dicey at low tide. We ended up running just 51 nautical miles. We also had a favorable current part of the way, and we spent just seven hours under way.

Our route brought us along the north shore of Dauphin Island, under the Dauphin Island Bridge, and right up to the Mobile Ship Channel. While we did not actually "cross our wake," from here we could see the spot where we entered Mobile Bay just a little more than one year ago and turned north for the Mobile River. Together with the few miles from Anclote Key to Clearwater that we will transit in the next couple of days, this will complete the entirety of the Intracoastal Waterway for us, from its start in Norfolk, Virginia to its end in Port Isabel, Texas.

Dauphin Island to Fort Morgan Ferries in our path.

We circled around the east end of the island, along the ship channel, crossing paths with both the east and westbound Fort Morgan-Dauphin Island ferries. Long-time readers may remember this ferry was one we simply could not embark in Odyssey, at the Fort Morgan end. We then turned back west, up the Sand Island Channel, to anchor in protected water between Dauphin Island and Pelican Island (map). This latter is something of a misnomer, as the shallow pass that once separated the two islands filled in several years ago, and Pelican Island is now a peninsula jutting out southeastward from the middle of Dauphin Island.

Apparently, we did not pull in to the crook between the islands far enough. It was a bit rolly during the afternoon, and for whatever reason it got progressively worse throughout the evening. We were relatively comfortable for dinner on the aft deck, but at midnight Louise woke me up to say we needed to move the boat to a less rolly spot. We seldom weigh, maneuver, or anchor in the dark, but with no other vessels nearby, good charts, and gently sloping bottom we managed OK, with me in the pilothouse looking at the chartplotter while Louise stood on the foredeck with the portable spotlight. We were re-anchored by 12:45 and had no further problems, but I think we amused the fishermen standing on the spit of land just a hundred yards or so away.

Beaches and spendy houses along Dauphin Island from our anchorage.

This little embayment must have been good feeding grounds, because we saw quite a few dolphins swimming around the boat. Also the bait boat came through the area in the afternoon and again the next day trolling a large net. Once we had moved further in, it was a comfortable spot and a great jumping-off point for our gulf crossing. The white sand beach along this protected stretch of Dauphin Island is popular with beach-goers, and seemed to us a nicer place to swim than the less protected beach near the fort at the far eastern end.

In the course of moving the boat at midnight I had to rig the pilothouse for night running. Among other things, that means taping over the always-on power indicator LEDs on the bilge pump controls, which are otherwise too bright and shining right in my eyes. That's when we noticed one of the indicators was out, because the fuse was blown. Thus, Sunday morning involved an excursion into the tiller flat, to find the pump seized.

Sand Island Lighthouse, adjacent the Mobile ship channel, on our way out of Sand Island Channel.

The bilge in there always has some water in it because the deck hatch leaks a small amount in heavy rains, and there is seepage around the rudder post. I carry a spare for this pump, in the form of a used take-out, and an hour on my knees in there had the pump replaced and working and all the water (and rust) out. I'll order a new pump in Florida.

Our voyage time at Vector's average speed is right around 49 hours. However, gulf currents can add to or subtract from that time considerably. Not wanting to arrive in the middle of the night, or have to slow down to an unworkably slow speed, we delayed our departure to 11am CDT. With an ETA of 1pm EDT, that gives us roughly seven hours of daylight on either side.

Seldom do we pass an offshore platform with a helicopter sitting on the pad like this. We were past all the platforms by mid-afternoon Sunday.

As it turns out, we've had a bit of a push for much of the voyage. While I started this post around mid-day, it's now almost 9pm EDT, a half hour into my watch, and the display is anticipating arrival at 9:30am. With some 84 nautical miles yet to go, there's still plenty of opportunity for that to change; we're now running much closer to our typical speed, and an adverse current can still push our arrival well into the afternoon. On the other hand, when we change the watch at 3:30am, if we are still ahead of schedule we will probably slow down a bit, so I can be back on watch well before arrival in the morning.

Things have gotten progressively calmer out here, and by mid-afternoon seas were so calm that I was picking up dolphins on the radar a mile out. Solid targets would materialize, then disappear, then reappear in another position. It took us a while to finally spot one and figure out what was causing this odd radar behavior. That was our cue to stop the boat and go for a swim.

Skinny dipping mid-gulf. The water is so clear I had to strategically place that pool noodle for the photo.

This part of the gulf consists of crystal clear blue water, and right now surface temperature is over 85 degrees. We stopped the boat, shut down the engine, and threw our floating safety line off the back. Then we peeled off our clothes, grabbed a couple of pool noodles, and jumped in. Long-time readers may recall this is not our first time.

The water right at this spot (map) is just 115' deep, not thousands like in the straight of Florida or further out in the gulf. Still, it is amazingly beautiful. While we swam, some of the aforementioned dolphins came within a hundred feet or so of us to check us out. Sadly, within just a few minutes, Louise, who is very sensitive to such things, was being stung by some sort of microscopic organism, probably a jellyfish, and she bailed out. I, too, felt a couple of slight stings and remained in the water only a few minutes longer. Perhaps ten minutes altogether. But after six months on the gulf coast, I finally got to swim in the gulf.

These three fellas swam with us for a long time.

Later in the afternoon we were again visited by dolphins, with three young males making a beeline for Vector and then playing in our bow wave for a good fifteen minutes. These were the lighter gray Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, in contrast to the much darker variety we saw in abundance in the more western reaches of the gulf.

50 seconds of some playful dolphins.

At 17:00 we set the ship's clocks forward to 18:00 in recognition of moving into the Eastern Time Zone. While it seems like a year ago when we left the Eastern Time Zone right here in Florida, in fact were also in that zone during our three months in Tennessee, and we last changed time zones on the ship's clocks when we left Tennessee for Alabama back in October.

In other news, just before we left Biloxi I got an email from good friend and fellow seafarer Captain Chris, containing a couple of very interesting photos. It seems he was in Jacksonville coincident with the start of The Great Race and spotted our old digs, Odyssey, there. Other than sporting an official race sponsor graphic and a pair of large Wandering Troubadours of Finland (WTF) graphics, it looks more or less the same as when we sold it a year ago.

A familiar sight, save for the graphics. Photo: Chris Caldwell

One of the ways we knew we had exactly the right buyer for Odyssey was when he told us he was a long-time Great Race participant, and we are very happy to see the bus in its role as official support vehicle for his race team. We'd also previously seen photographs of it, minus the race graphics, taking his family camping, complete with a miniature "Jeep" in the bay we used for our scooters.

Wandering Troubadours of Finland. WTF. Photo: Chris Caldwell

Update: We are safely anchored off Tarpon Springs, behind Anclote Key (map). We only picked up Internet a half hour offshore, not enough time to upload photos and get this blog posted. We had the hook down here before 10am, and it's not yet noon. We may spend the night, or we might rest up a bit and move the boat closer to Clearwater when the tide comes up a bit. We arrived at a low tide of +1' and found just seven feet of water in places. After we rounded the corner from the gulf,  we were greeted with a rainbow to our west, a fitting end to a wonderful passage.

Rainbow over the gulf, from behind Anclote Keys.


  1. Man, thass a looong pool noodle, Sean!! Braggin??

  2. In regards to your indicator lights, I put red nail polish on my indicator lights and only had to redo them about every other year or so.
    Hope this helps you.

    Bill Kelleher

  3. I haven't checked in in quite awhile but was curious if you had sold Odyssey. Good to see her on the road.

    BTW, that Akita puppy of ours that you held in Box Canyon is turning grey now. Time flies!

    Fair seas!

    Pat and Nancy


Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!