We left Biloxi at sunrise, traveling the channel behind Deer Island back into the Mississippi Sound. The channel leads from Biloxi Bay out to the Sound and Intracoastal Waterway, which runs inside the barrier islands a few miles off the coast. Mississippi’s beaches gave way to the heavy industry near Pascagoula, and commercial barge traffic which we saw little of since New Orleans, intensified once more. It was nothing like Louisiana, and at least here there was lots of room to maneuver.
It amazes me how long places we passed remain in view. Looking back as we paralleled Pascagoula, I could still see the Golden Nugget Casino in Biloxi that we left two hours earlier. That’s life at 9 mph.
Soon we approached Dauphin Island, which shelters Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s westernmost part is uninhabited, but at the Alabama State line, beach houses rise up on pilings, growing denser the further east we travelled. The Dauphin Island Expressway bridge came into view, the play of light making its apex appear to hover over the water, unconnected to adjacent land. Gradually the bridge filled in, though two hours remained before we would finally reach it, creeping along inside Dauphin Island. God help the Dauphinians when the next hurricane comes – and we know it will.
Passing under the bridge, we continued east while much of the other traffic veered north into Mobile Bay. This included a commercial fishing boat which cruised aggravatingly close, on our transom for hours. The rigging of its nets were quite different than what we’re accustomed to seeing back in Galveston Bay – looking more like a bat’s wings ready to rake the water on folding arms. It was like a plodding marine predator chasing us at 7.5 knots. As he left our wake, we were glad to be rid of him.
Crossing Mobile Bay and Bon Secour Bay took another 3 hours. Oil and gas loading platforms dot the bay; fishing boats like our tailgater friend ply these waters. Though charts report depths of 12 feet, we followed the channel markers, enjoyed more dolphin encounters, anxious to reach the mouth of the Intracoastal at Bon Secour, near Gulf Shores. This marks the resumption of the inland waters of the Intracoastal, and it immediately gets pretty and more interesting. Homes line the southern bank, their docks full of water toys. Campfire pits, Adirondack chairs, and Tiki bars anxiously await the weekend.
Our entry to the Intracoastal here marked the point at which we’ll “cross our wake” two years from now. Thus, we are officially now on the Great Loop; captain and crew celebrated with pilothouse Bloody Mary’s in recognition of this significant milestone. Our destination, The Wharf in Orange Beach, Alabama is a commercial development and entertainment complex that happens to have a nice marina. A ten-story Condo rises up along the waterfront, and just inside of that, an outdoor mall is dressed up for Christmas, beckoning spenders.
Best of all, we finally encountered other Loopers at The Wharf, some taking pause for the Holidays, and others heading for Florida. Some started in Chicago and are two months into the journey, resting after their long trip down the swollen river systems. One couple started in Annapolis last Spring; we met another from Oscoda, MI. Yet another is in their final stretch, heading to their home port in Stuart FL; they know our boating friends at Sunset Bay Marina there. Most are staying for a week or longer, savoring the comforts at The Wharf while recharging personal batteries, working on their boats, and waiting for UPS shipments. We decided to do likewise, and extended our stay from two days to a week.
As I look at our travel log, I note that as we’ve progressed, our port stays have grown longer. Sometimes I’ve felt guilty about this. After talking to fellow captains, I’ve discovered a common theme among us is that we are tired upon reaching destination – mentally drained. Docking or anchoring at dusk then leaving the next day does not allow enough time for the weather study, tidal analysis and route planning necessary for safely cruising subsequent legs. Leaving two days later might allow for enough planning, but little extra to recoup, or enjoy where we are at the moment. We started to learn this lesson in Mississippi. It’s being reinforced in Alabama.
From here, the Florida panhandle awaits, and beyond it, “The Crossing”. This passage stresses Loopers perhaps more than anywhere else along the 6000 mile journey. It demands either a 22 hour cruise, 40 miles offshore at night, or alternately, three eight hour “rim route” jumps through the shallow waters closer to the coast. The comfort and safety of this leg, regardless of route, are all about the weather.
The small towns of Apalachicola and Carrabelle are jump off points for this cruise south. Cruisers awaiting a good weather window can stack up in these small ports, as they are now. Thus, as we enjoy Alabama, we are plotting the Florida panhandle, laying out the four legs and stops between here and Carrabelle to coincide with favorable crossing conditions. It’s all about the weather.
With Louisiana behind us, it is the Passage that rattles my nerves now. I contemplate sailors 500 years ago, doing this passage with a compass, sextant, and a leaky boat manned by drunken misfits. I suppose that’s why there are shipwrecks noted on our charts.