Friday, January 6, 2023

Kicking off 2023

Happy new year, everyone. We are under way northbound in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, bound for Tampa Bay. We've been slow rolling with no real agenda, but the Blackburn Point Bridge, still ahead of us, will be closed to navigation for a week starting Monday morning, and we want to be through it by Sunday afternoon.

Lobby tree at the Banyan Hotel -- the tree skirt caught my eye, a Red Cross shelter blanket, one of thousands distributed here.

After my last post, from Lake Okeechobee, we had our calmest crossing of the lake ever, and made such good time that we were in Moore Haven at 2pm. That meant we could press on to an anchorage rather than spend $52 for the night in a town with no real services, and so we continued all the way to the Ortona Lock.

Flux tied up at the Shady Gator in Ortona, the "Real Florida."

Had we stayed in Moore Haven, we at least could have walked to the pizza joint for dinner, and passing that up sent me to the maps while en route, to see if there might be anything we could walk to from, say, the downstream boat ramp or maybe the campground dock at the Ortona Lock. I found a place called the Shady Gator, but it was too far to walk.

The very comfy patio furniture at Shady Gator.

But wait... a close inspection of the satellite view revealed it was actually on a tiny canal. Photos on their Facebook page showed a small dock adjacent the patio, and so we chose to stop before the lock, where we tied to the upstream dolphins (map) for the night, right at the entrance to the canal. A half mile dinghy ride through the mangroves brought us to their lovely patio and we enjoyed decent meatball subs and a couple of beers in cushy patio chairs. 

This ancient oak is the signature feature of the property. 

In the morning we locked through and continued west. About two miles past the lock we passed a dead manatee floating in the canal, and we called the US Fish & Wildlife hotline to report it. After passing us around to three different offices, it was almost an hour before the on-call manatee biologist called back, and she wanted a photo. Sorry, not turning around. They eventually sent a boat.

Not much to the menu, but it was fine.

Locking through Ortona the morning of New Years Eve meant we'd be in downtown Fort Myers for the holiday, and I quickly grabbed the last downtown dinner reservation on Open Table, a spendy hotel restaurant in the swoopy Luminary Hotel, crossing our fingers there would be some way to land the tender. The city marina, where we used to land, has been condemned and the docks are closed and fenced. The two other marinas in town were destroyed completely.

The sign says it all. We arrived just as it started.

I had heard that the courtesy dock adjacent to the Oxbow restaurant was still accessible, with unclear ownership and no restrictive signs. In the course of hunting around on Oxbow's web site and Facebook page, I learned there would be fireworks at midnight over the water. Uh oh.... this could be a real problem for anchoring. There had been nothing in the Local Notices to Mariners about fireworks or a security zone.

Ladder truck set up for the ball drop behind the main stage, one of three around town.

I spent the next hour trying to track it down. Coast Guard Sector St Pete transferred me to Coast Guard Station Fort Myers Beach, who knew nothing about it and told me they would not be enforcing any zones. They called the sheriff who said the same thing. Fort Myers PD knew nothing and transferred me to the fire department. The fire department dispatcher had no information either. Eventually I gave up and decided we'd take our chances.

"Girl Band" act that turned out to be from the School of Rock. Pretty good.

We had a bit of entertainment after locking down at the Franklin Lock. The lockmaster had been calling a couple of center consoles asking if they were waiting to lock up, with no response. As we exited the chamber we could see everyone in the two boats was donning life jackets, a sure indication they intended to lock through, and I called the lock to tell them that.  The lockmaster, clearly annoyed with them, told us "they've been here before and they know the rules. I'm closing the gates." Don't mess with the lockmasters.

This van was our clue. Next act is on stage.

After passing the lock the storm damage became progressively more pronounced. Numerous boats were ashore deep in the mangroves, having been picked up by the surge and deposited there. Anchorages along the waterway were littered with sunken wrecks. Waterfront homes had roof and ground-level damage, but were mostly intact. We arrived to Fort Myers and had the hook down in our usual spot (map) before 3pm, probing our way in at dead slow in case we encountered debris (we did not). A handful of other boats in the anchorage gave us some comfort regarding the fireworks.

New Years Eve was the perfect occasion to crack open the home-made limoncello gifted us by our friends Dorsey and Bruce aboard Esmeralde. Delicious.

At dinner time we splashed the tender and made our way to the dock at Oxbow. We found no restrictions and a couple of other dinghies tied up, and we had no issues. We were ready to tell the Oxbow folks, if necessary, that we had reservations at the hotel, which is under the same ownership, but clearly Oxbow is paying no attention to the dock. With a half hour before dinner, we decided to stroll the town.

We had perfect seats for the fireworks, and as a bonus, not downwind like most of town.

We did not get far before running right smack into the start of the giant New Years street festival. We scored a nice outside table at Cabos Cantina to soak in the festival atmosphere and abandoned our plans at the stuffy hotel place, canceling my Open Table reservation with just minutes to spare. After dinner we strolled the entire festival, stopping for ice cream and then sitting in on some music performed by the School of Rock right in town. We watched the fire department hoist the ball to be dropped at midnight with their ladder truck.

My camera does not do justice to fireworks. But I liked these reflections.

With almost four hours to go till midnight, and having taken in the entire festival, we returned to Vector for the evening, where we could still hear the music. Just before midnight I ascended to the flybridge and was able to just catch the ball drop through the sparse trees of Lofton Island as the fireworks began. Those awakened Louise, who joined me shortly after midnight, and we took in the whole show from the best seats in the house. We sounded the Kahlenbergs when the fireworks ended.

Things were pretty smoky toward the end.

While it was very nice to be in Fort Myers for New Years, and it was wonderful to see the town rebounding from the devastating effects of Ian, our real motivation for stopping here was to connect with friends in town. They were available for lunch on Monday, which gave us Sunday as a free day. I took the tender out to explore, ending up back in town for a much longer walk into some of the more damaged areas. I was more than a little surprised to see setup in full swing for the annual boat show, delayed from November and minus the in-water exhibits. We ended up back ashore for dinner on the sidewalk at Capones.

In the aftermath, downtown Fort Myers is in a cloud of smoke.

Monday we met our friends Laura and Ben at the dock and strolled over to the Luminary Hotel for a nice patio lunch at Ella Mae's Diner. It was really great to catch up with them, and they were in very good spirits considering what they have been through with Ian. After lunch they very graciously drove us over to Publix for a few groceries and dropped us back as close as they could get to the dock. The boat show fence was already in place and security was only letting vendors in, so we had to talk our way past.

What used to be the Legacy Harbor Marina. The waterfront restaurant at right, Joe's Crab Shack, has already reopened despite a good chunk of the building being destroyed.

Our mission in town thus accomplished, and access to shore basically unavailable due to the show setup, we were ready to leave Tuesday morning. However our planned next stop, just two hours away, was the St. Charles Yacht Club, where we wanted to use our free night. Among other things, we needed a pumpout, and most of the marinas through here are closed. The club is closed Monday and Tuesday, and so we booked for Wednesday night, giving us an extra day in the Fort Myers anchorage. At dinner time we went ashore to Oxbow, right at the dock.

This expensive yacht has its weight scrawled on the side for the removal crews.

Wednesday we weighed anchor after lunch to have enough tide to get through the shallow channel to St. Charles. We squeaked through with just a half foot under the keel and were tied alongside (map) by 3pm. That was enough time for me to enjoy some time in their very nice pool before dinner. We ate in the screened-in patio of the main dining room, but that turned out to be a mistake, as the food was sub-par, and Louise's fish was so overcooked she left it on the plate and they ended up comping us half the bill. Next time we'll try the outdoor tiki bar with a more casual menu.

Legacy Harbor from shore. These boats were all afloat before the storm, which picked them up and deposited them here on dry land. $4M Outer Reef at left was liquidated by the underwriter for $500k and likely needs relatively minor work. Enormous crane in foreground is at work daily.

After dinner Ben and Laura joined us for cocktails in the otherwise deserted bar, and we closed the place down. In the morning I had a seven mile e-bike ride out to Walgreens and back to drop off a FedEx package. We waited till 2 to drop lines in order to have enough tide to depart. That was enough time to get us through the Miserable Mile with relatively little traffic, and we dropped the hook off St James City at the south end of Pine Island (map) for protection from the northerlies. Pine Island was hit hard, and we could see a flurry of recovery construction ashore; in better times we would splash the tender and head in for dinner, but with nothing open we ate aboard.

Sunset under the Caloosahatchee Bridge from our table at Oxbow.

En route to and at our anchorage we could see the enormous construction project in the distance to rebuild the Sanibel Island Causeway. And today all along Sanibel and Captiva Islands we could see a lot of damage and a lot of blue roofs. Cabbage Key, one of our regular stops, came through OK and is open for business, but the timing was wrong for a stop.

Dolphins swimming in our bow wave on the Miserable Mile. We saw lots and lots of them yesterday and today.

Today's cruise has been something of a nail-biter, with many sections of channel shallower than charted and shallower than memory. Some of that is probably due to shifting sand from the storm, and some due to seiche in today's heavy winds. We've been passing southbound Loopers all day, including blog reader Tim aboard Moon Shadow, who hailed us on the radio.

I had to slow to allow these two ferries to cross, the only access to Don Pedro Island. They're very busy shuttling cleanup crews. If you zoom in you can see each tug skipper standing atop his pilothouse, using a small set of "monkey bridge" controls, to be able to see over the trucks they are carrying.

Now that it's January I can total up last year's travels. Even though diesel this year was higher than we'd ever paid previously, we still ended up with our longest-distance year to date, owing in large part to having completed the Down East Loop, which I summarized here previously. By the numbers:

Statute Miles7,500
Nautical Miles6,517
Up lockings25
Maximum elevation420'
Down lockings21
Tidal lockings5
Stops/Nights on free wall        17/24
Stops/Nights at anchor158/196
Stops/Nights at marina40/139
Nights on passage4
Nights on dolphins2
Engine hours1,107
Generator hours271
US States13
Canadian Provinces5

Because of the way I count back through the ship's log, the anchor stops include weighing the anchor and re-setting it in the same anchorage. The marina and wall stops do not include all the extra dockings for going to fuel and pumpout docks, or day-use docks where we did not spend the night, all of which adds up to perhaps another ten dockings.

After dinner I snapped this whimsical Gulf sunset photo of Louise on Englewood Beach, Manasota Key.

Update: We are anchored in a familiar spot off Manasota Key, near the community of Englewood Beach (map). We had just a half foot under the keel crossing the bar at the entrance, and we may have to wait until the afternoon to get back out tomorrow. We tendered in to the restaurant we remembered from a previous visit, since renamed, but their dock is long gone so we went around the corner to the White Elephant for fried beach food.

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