On the water, its important to adjust your departure time to suit a specific arrival time. Tides usually dictate these schedules. When crossing the Gulf of Mexico from Apalachicola to Tarpon Springs, the schedule and route are based on the position of the rising sun. It’s helpful to let the sun rise about twenty degrees before making the final easterly or southeasterly run towards the coast, to avoid hours of squinting right into it. Why not do this before sunrise you might ask? Crabpots. Thousands of crab pots litter the water for the final eight miles toward shore. To avoid getting tangled in them, you must first see them.
For our crossing, this translated into traversing East Pass, the channel between St George and Dog Island, in the early afternoon. We targeted 1:00 pm, and our buddy boat, Pegasus, leaving from Carabelle, did the same. The faster boats – Golden Daze, About Time, and Escape Plan, would pass through at 4:00 and catch us later that night in the Gulf.
To make the 1:00 pm East Pass transit meant that we needed to leave Apalachicola at 10:00. We were blessed with a surprisingly good night’s sleep, but none came after 5:00, leaving us to tame five hours worth of anxiety that morning. We rechecked all our weather resources, communicated with our Looper friends in Carabelle, and for distraction rather than hunger, walked into town for breakfast.
We were committed; anxiety translated to nervous energy. I found courage thinking about our friends who sailed across the entire Gulf on a six night passage directly from Houston. We prayed. I started the engine, Dawn took care of the lines, and we pulled out of Apalachicola at 10:00.
At 1:30, after several joyful dolphin encounters, we rounded the east end of St George Island and entered the Gulf of Mexico. Pegasus left their dock early, putting them an hour ahead of us. The moderate chop that slowed us crossing St George Sound was now joined by large swells rolling toward the coast. This was a new motion for us as Cirila hobby-horsed through these swells. When the timing was right, her bow would plunge and part an oncoming wave, sending a loud gush of spray wide to both sides.
Pegasus slowed so that we could catch up. By late afternoon, we drew to within half a mile, a separation we would maintain for most of the trip. During that time, we also said goodby to visible land, another first for us aboard Cirila. The large swells diminished but were replaced by winds blowing 15-20 mph and whitecaps topping four foot (+) seas. Most were still on the nose, which is the best place for Cirila to take a punch. Our autopilot held our course of 132 degrees as we sat back and held on. And then it got dark.
The last New Moon of 2019 came at 12:15 am on December 26, the night before our crossing. Low clouds cloaked the stars. The winter solstice came just a week before. For our latitude, it was almost the longest, darkest night possible. The only light outside our dimmed pilothouse was the faint glow of Pegasus’s running lights in the distance.
Golden Daze and Escape plan caught up about 9:00 pm, About Time, running slower than usual in the 4 foot seas, was another couple hours behind. We could see each other intermittently on our instruments, either AIS or radar, and our small fleet checked in on the hour via our VHF radios. We all took comfort knowing we were not alone on this dark, dark night.
At 10:30, Cirila began losing rpm on her single 135 hp Lehman diesel engine. Our normal 1800 cruising rpm dropped to 1600 in the course of 30 minutes, indicating a fuel flow problem. The last thing in the world I felt like doing was shutting down the engine and changing fuel filters 45 miles offshore. I alerted our buddy boats of our condition, prepared for the worst, but decided to try switching the fuel flow from our port to starboard tank. I went below, switched some valves, then set our throttle to 1750 rpm. Then we prayed. Thanks to God and all our ancestors, because the Lehman turned 1750 the remainder of our passage.
At about 1:00 am, with six hours of darkness remaining, the wind began to settle. The seas calmed slightly and shifted to our quarter beam, giving us a much need reprieve. A couple hours later, the clouds dispersed and the stars emerged – a stunning, primordial display. If only we could have played on deck and stared up at the heavens; it was still far too rough and dangerous outside, so we settled for glimpses from the pilothouse.
Winds picked up again in the predawn hours, driving 3-4 footers into our port beam. Cirila rolled with the punches, her autopilot working to counter the roll and stay the course. The Lehman was still turning 1750. As we approached our final offshore waypoint, the southeastern sky began to lighten. Then it began to glow a dull pink. We turned to a heading of 90 degrees as the sun rose behind clouds in the southeast.
The crab pots weren’t as dense as we expected, arranged in strands running parallel to the coast, the buoys about 100 feet apart. They were easy to spot and we threaded between them. We had seen worse in Lake Pontchartrain a month prior, when the windshield wiper broke during the steady rain.
In the beautiful light of morning, with land coming into view, we were tap-dancing our way in, giddy in the knowledge that we would survive. Two hours later, we crept into the beautiful harbor in old town Tarpon Springs, backed into our assigned slip, A4, and shut down the Lehman. We secured the lines and cracked our traditional arrival beer, then a bottle of champaign with our friends on Pegasus and About Time. We made it. The Crossing was done.