After an 11 day stay, we finally left The Wharf in Orange Beach on Dec 14, for a 25 nautical mile run to Pensacola. This was our first leg traveling with other Loopers – the boats Golden Daze, About Time, and Pegasus. We traversed Perdido Bay, The Big Lagoon, and Pensacola Bay, skirting the edge of the Naval Air Station, still reeling from the mass shooting just a week before. It was a beautiful cruising day, with the inland waters getting progressively clearer and greener. Dolphins also liked these waters; they took turns escorting our small fleet eastward all morning. We finally crossed into Florida , arriving at noon at the Palafox Yacht Harbor in downtown old Pensacola – just in time to explore the weekly farmer’s and craft market along Palafox St.
Forget what you learned in school about Jamestown and St. Augustine. Spanish exploration of Pensacola Bay began just 25 years after Columbus landed in the Bahamas. Then in 1559, Tristan De Luna y Arellano led a settlement expedition into the Bay, bringing 1500 people on 11 ships from Vera Cruz, Mexico. It was the first multi-year European Settlement in North America. Two weeks after arriving, half their people, ships, and most of their supplies were wiped out by a hurricane. The survivors sought refuge in central Alabama, didn’t like it, returned to the coast, then sailed their remaining ships to Parris Island, SC, where they were slammed by another hurricane. Next they tried Cuba, and then with only 50 men left, made their way back to Pensacola before being MediVac’d back to VeraCruz. Understandably, the Spanish didn’t go back for 137 years.
Old Pensacola is a beautiful town, its architecture reminiscent of its Spanish roots. It looks a bit like the French Quarter in New Orleans, but without the trash in the gutters, nor vomit in the streets. Because the Palafox Marina is so nice, and so close to the action, they charge top dollar. We stayed just one night before pressing on to Sandestin, half way up Choctawhatchee Bay.
This next leg took eight hours, as we were only able to average 7 knots against current in Santa Rosa Sound, then strong headwinds and chop in Choctawhatchee Bay. The journey through Santa Rosa Sound was particularly scenic. The high dunes of the Gulf Coast National Seashore framed our starboard rail for miles. On the inland side of the sound, beautiful waterfront homes lined the shore along Navarre and Fort Walton Beach, separated by large swaths of undeveloped land concealing Elgin Air Force base to the north.
Five miles past Destin, the Baytowne Marina juts out a peninsula dominated by the Sandestin Resort, a huge community of homes, condos, and golf courses along Miramar Beach. We arrived in the late afternoon, fighting 20 knot winds. As I was backing into our designated slip, the bow thruster gave out again, forcing us to withdraw, U-turn in the narrow fairway, and bow in to the slip. It was difficult maneuvering in the wind with just our single screw, but we made it without touching any of the million dollar sport fishing boats surrounding us. My hands were shaking as I shut off the engine. My hands tremble anew as I recount the story nearly a week later!
The winds intensified for the next 3 days, ripping into the marina over the open bay to the north, rocking us uncomfortably day and night. Our small fleet was forced to stay an extra night, giving me time to get parts and repair the bow thruster. Meanwhile, our eyes shifted to the next weather system. A merging of two low pressure systems just offshore was expected to bring gale force winds and heavy rain to the Emerald Coast over the weekend, delaying acceptable weather windows across the Gulf until at least Christmas Day. At a captain’s meeting in the bar (where else?), we decided to stay put at Baytowne, rather than risk exposure at less secure and more exposed slips at our next planned stops in Panama City and Apalachicola.
Between these weather systems we enjoyed a couple beautiful days, frustrated to not be underway, but taking time to explore Sandestin, re-provision, wash clothes, and get to know our new Looper friends. We dined together one night at Emeril’s, then hosted a chili dinner aboard Cirila the next. Eight of us drinking wine and eating in our cozy salon reminded me of the pot-luck aboard Cirila two years ago, watching WaterWorld as Hurricane Harvey pounded Houston. Tonight, we go for roast beef sandwiches and sausage hosted by Jamie and Trish aboard “About Time”, their 40′ Meridian. They started the Loop in St Augustine last spring. Gregg and Sonia started last April from Stuart FL aboard their 55′ Fleming “Golden Daze”. Jim and Mary (she’s the social director of our merry band) started from the northern Chesapeake aboard their 36′ Grand Banks “Pegasus”. Finally, Lana and Mark, along with their daughter Annalise are from South Bend IN and started their loop last fall from Chicago.
We, like Tristan De Luna’s expedition 460 years ago, are mere subjects of God’s weather. Thankfully, we have a much better view of what’s coming, waiting now for better conditions before pressing on to Panama City, our eyes focused on a potential Gulf crossing window 12/25-27.