January 20, 2012
I think it’s safe to say that for almost all Loopers, crossing the Gulf of Mexico – The Crossing – is the part of the trip that is approached with the most anxiety. The challenges are many. First, it’s a long trip, 170 miles if you go straight across from Carrabelle to Tarpon Springs. Hugging the coast along the “Big Bend” is not a good option for most boats because there are very few ports and those few have low water at this time of year, not enough depth for many of us to get in. These are also the shortest days of the year, so typical trawlers and sailboats, which travel at 9 miles per hour or less, cannot make it all the way across in daylight. Those boats leave Carrabelle in the afternoon, cruise all night and arrive in Tarpon Springs the next morning, but not too early so the morning sun doesn’t make the hundreds of small crab pots impossible to see.
Our boat is a fast trawler, so we are capable of averaging the minimum 18 miles per hour needed to make a direct crossing in daylight, adding a little leeway for slower times exiting and entering the harbors, dodging crab pots, slowing down for rough seas or mechanical issues, etc. The direct crossing also puts us out of sight of land for all but the first and last hours of the trip, and out of cell phone range as well. And if you aren’t traveling with a buddy boat, you may be out of radio range of anyone except the Coast Guard and the towing services. All of this is what creates anxiety about the Crossing, and the reason that most of us wait for the best possible weather conditions for a long day (or night) of traveling.
On January 19, we believed that the conditions looked good for the next day. It was possible it would be even better two days out, but we felt it was such an advantage to do the crossing when we would have an extra hand on board – friend Greg Matney, who had driven over from New Orleans the day before. And his wife Jan – bless her – would drive our dogs plus her fox terrier puppy to Tarpon Springs and meet us there. I knew our trip would be so much less stressful, especially for me, if the dogs weren’t being rocked around on board.
So the next morning we got up at 5:00 a.m., got a final encouraging report from friend Tom Conrad, the Crossing Guru, and did our final preparations. With our buddy boat Jackets II right behind us, we pulled out of the marina at 6:40. It was still dark, but there was a fair amount of ambient light from the harbor, plus we had our “bread crumbs,” the tracking line on our chart plotter that would let us to follow our own path back out of the harbor and out to the Gulf. We also had Greg out on the bow with a spotlight, pointing out the channel markers through the smooth waters in the harbor. We felt more comfortable traveling the first hour or so in darkness if that gave us more time on the end of the trip to make sure we would arrive at Tarpon Springs before dusk.
This chart shows the approximate route we took, from the Panhandle to just north of Tampa Bay.
We were very pleased to discover calm seas as we exited St. George Sound and entered the Gulf of Mexico. With the sun coming up on the horizon, we enjoyed a pleasant ride with just a light chop. So far, so good!
After a couple of hours the waves picked up a bit, 2-3 foot waves coming slightly behind us on the port. But we never experienced any rolling or pounding, and it continued to be a comfortable ride. So much so, I took a two hour nap in the salon while Craig and Greg drove from the flybridge!
At about 2:00 p.m., the wind and waves calmed to practically nothing, and the end of our trip was very enjoyable. We did have to dodge crab pots as we neared Tarpon Springs, but not as many as we had been anticipating.
We were able to average 18+ knots the whole way, and arrived in Tarpon Springs ahead of schedule, at 3:40 in the afternoon. As we got back in cell phone range, Greg called Jan and learned that she and the dogs had arrived safely, and were waiting for us at the marina. Here are Joey and Bailey peacefully enjoying their “Crossing” in the back seat of Jan’s car.
Turtle Cove Marina staff were at the dock to catch our lines, as was Jan, along with the three dogs. Looper friends Darrell and Lisa on Why Knot, who were our Tarpon Springs float plan contacts, arrived back at the dock just after we did. We made such good time, we beat them to it!
After we got tied up and helped Jackets do the same, we all sat down around the picnic table to enjoy a celebration party with Charlotte’s famous frozen margaritas, which she had the foresight to make and freeze the day before. We were almost giddy with the excitement of having the Crossing behind us, and having had such a comfortable ride at that.
Greg and Jan stayed just a short while and then headed back to New Orleans. We can’t ever thank them enough for helping make our Crossing so much easier!
We ate a light meal on board that night and went to bed grateful that our Crossing was behind us, that it was so uneventful, and that we didn’t have to get up at 5:00 the next morning to check weather conditions!
Next: Enjoying the Greek Experience in Tarpon Springs
(Real time update: On February 1, we are in St. Petersburg, waiting out some big winds on Tampa Bay, and enjoying this beautiful city.)