Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On the Other Side

I am strong, I am invincible, I am ready to pilot my boat for 15 hours non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico!
We've spent the last few weeks plotting and planning how to cross Florida's "Big Bend"--the U-bend where the Panhandle meets Florida's West Coast. The Gulf IntraCoastal Waterway doesn't go around the bend; to get to the West Coast you HAVE to cross open water.

For a boat as slow as ours, it's quite a puzzle how to make the crossing. You have to factor in the hours of daylight available, the timing of the tides, predicted wave height and wind direction, and which harbors a creeping SlowBoat can reach before the weather changes. The Cap'n spent hours checking charts and seeking local knowledge. Finally, a plan: Early Tuesday we would leave Carabelle, Florida, and cross to Steinhatchie, a fishing town. Total distance about 75 miles. 

To get a little jump on the trip, we left Carabelle Monday afternoon, to anchor out at Dog Island, a sandy barrier island about six miles offshore.  After days of gloom, Monday was bright and sunny, and the island looked inviting--weathered gray cottages facing a vast spread of white sand beach.

Moonrise off Dog Island.  Experts recommend crossing
the Gulf when the moon is full, to light the way.
But instead of dinghying ashore to collect shells, we got down to boat preparations. Made a windscreen from a tarp. Tied whistles and waterproof lights to our life jackets. Charged the portable VHF radio. Laid in a course on the chart plotter. 

Then, lights out around 7:00 PM.  At 1:00 AM Tuesday morning, the alarm clock buzzed, and we pulled on our layers of gear, weighed anchor and headed out . . .  past the blinking red and green buoys, into open water.

Just by chance, at the very same moment, a total eclipse of the moon was getting underway. We watched the earth's shadow take bigger and bigger bites out of the flat, glowing disc. By 3:17 AM we had a spectacular view of a faint, lurid-orange moon, completely eclipsed by the Earth's shadow.  

Meanwhile, with the moon's wattage on "dim," the sky grew milky with stars--bright stars right down to the horizon. The sea was so calm, you could see individual stars reflecting on its surface. 

We have HOW much farther to go?!!!
When the moon re-emerged, it felt like sunrise. We drove on and on . . . and on and on, finally cheered by the actual sunrise.  

After serious cold the previous week, the air temperature--high 30s to low 40s--felt moderate. And luckily, only light winds till afternoon, when the waves kicked up a bit, right on our beam. We had to tack a bit to avoid an unpleasant rolling motion. 

When I was in middle school, I remember watching a film at school, titled "A Cartoon History of the World in Five Minutes." In one brief scene, monks chant solemnly: "What happens when you come to the end of the earth? You fall off. "  

Now, having been far enough out to sea that we couldn't see land, I understand how people could believe that. Sitting in the middle of a circle of blue, we had the sensation of being on a high mesa. The water seemed to slope away in all directions, to some distant, encircling cliff edge. It was a little dizzying.

By 4:00 PM we were threading our way up the river at Steinhatchie, a fishing town with the reputation for preserving the ambiance of Old Florida. A kettle of vultures boiled up above a line of new-but-made to look-old condos. Several dozen of the ugly black birds landed on the corrugated steel roofs, the better to check us out.

We told them, "Sorry, guys, you'll have to find other roadkill. We didn't sink the boat today."  

As always, more photos of all this stuff on Facebook.

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