When the Coronavirus scuttled our plans to be in the Keys last April, we decided to stay in Fort Myers. We’re still here, but we’ve both been busy. Not only have we gotten our golf clubs out, but Dawn’s been working towards becoming a certified Aromatherapist, and I’ve been writing. Not much on the blog, but on a project I started many years ago.
A Change of Plans” is my debut novel. The story begins with an obvious autobiographical slant (especially if you read our blog), but soon involves four Columbian siblings caught up in the drug trade, often against their will.
Like us, Jake and Gina Adams sell everything to buy a boat and go cruising. As their adventure begins, they discover that their boat’s prior owner had a secret past, one that puts them in mortal danger.The couple must join forces with a few of the dead owner’s old friends to unlock his secrets, then together embark on a quest to beat traffickers to millions of dollars they believe is buried in the Virgin Islands.
In a race against drug cartels, time, and the law, all paths cross near Tortola, in a fantastical maritime adventure about friendship, trust, redemption, and ultimately, a change of plans.
Follow the links below to order your copy:
Amazon – available as ebook for Kindle or in Paperback.
Before we share thoughts on our time here, how about a little history? Fort Myers lies along the southern bank of the Caloosahatchee river in Southwest Florida. Local natives, the Calusa, knew about this place for a few millennia, earning them not only the naming rights to the river, but squatters rights to the best real estate. Places you’ve heard of like Fort Myers, Naples, Sanibel, Bonita Springs, Marco Island – all were Calusa territory, until Ponce de Leon started poking around in the sixteenth century. Spanish missionaries tried to save the Calusa from themselves, offering salvation through slavery and Jesus. Having survived happily for 5000 years fishing, boating, and partying on the local beaches, the Calusa had little interest. Sick of the mosquitoes and being killed by these natives for two centuries, the Spanish traded Florida to the British in exchange for Havana, which ironically, they had just lost to the British during the French and Indian War. The British, sick of shoveling snow and worsening colonist attitudes up in Boston and New York, needed a place to retire and play golf. The Calusa were not much interested in the British either, but the British had guns and preferred the more agrarian Seminoles, so they gathered up the Calusa not already killed by the Spanish or COVID-1, and shipped them to Havana.
Colonists were so sick of the British, they started a war to kick them out of America. While the British were distracted, and perhaps owing to nostalgia, or to flee the Calusa that the Brits sent to Havana, the Spaniards invaded Southwest Florida, winning back the entire territory from Britain. Like a Risk player with only one army per territory, the Spaniards were overstretched. They also apparently forgot about hurricanes, alligators, mosquitoes, and the heat, so they sold the entire Florida territory to the new United States for five million bucks and a chunk of Texas. Within 6 months, they lost Texas to the Mexicans, but kept the money. Florida just didn’t work out so well for the Spanish.
Florida thus became a US Territory in 1821. New settlers and the first wave of American retirees began to descend upon this new territory. Native Floridians, mainly the Seminoles at this point, worked hard make the new arrivals feel unwelcome. The army built an outpost along the Caloosahatchee to protect these early settlers, creatively named Fort Myers after the son-in-law of the commander of a bigger fort in Tampa. Hopefully, there will never be a town named Fort Kuschner.
Florida achieved statehood in 1845, and a decade later, after herding the remaining natives to Oklahoma, Fort Myers was abandoned. It was reoccupied by the Union army briefly during the civil war, in an effort to disrupt the supply of beef heading North to the Confederate Army. It was the Union Army’s southernmost outpost. After the war, ten families living nearby disassembled the fort, and used its wood to build a new town, first platted in 1876. Then, in 1885, a 38 year-old inventor from New Jersey, escaping the winter doldrums, came upon the town when steaming up the Caloosahatchee, chasing tarpon. He bought a small house and fourteen acres along the river, where he would spend the next 50 winters. His name was Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison’s winter home Along the Caloosahatchee. Beats Mir-a-Lago any day.
Edison, who grew up in Port Huron, became friends with another Michigan guy named Henry Ford. Once Henry’s new factories started spitting out Model T’s, he built a vacation home next to Edison’s. They hosted the rich, the famous, the titans of the burgeoning industrial age. They could not have imagined then how much their inventions would change life on earth – or that their side effects would change the earth itself. These were the first Snowbirds, and unwittingly, the captains of climate change.
Like Edison, we arrived by boat and took an immediate liking to Fort Myers. The Municipal Yacht Basin was built as a public works project during the Great Depression, and is a shining example of a well run City marina. Though the facilities are a bit worn, the staff is competent and friendly. The ship’s store is stocked better than some West Marine’s, and priced better. Best of all, the marina is a short two blocks from a vibrant and charming downtown. The spot Edison picked for his winter home 135 years ago is just down the street.
We enjoyed the downtown immensely the first ten days of our stay. That first night, after our long cruising day, we had dinner at the Downtown Social House, and met Jim and Mary there, our friends on Pegasus. It was early March and CoronaVirus was still a Wuhon phenomenon. On the 8th, we met Dawn’s childhood friend, Bridgett Darnell, and went to see the local pro hockey team, the EverBlades (yes, what a great name). It was great fun, and though the team was playoff bound, it would be the last game they played before shutting down the season.
Young heroes, driftwood, seashells, and the Sanibel lighthouse
The following Monday, we went to the Edison-Ford Museum with Jim and Mary. The place was definitely worth the visit – in fact I want to go back. The following day, we drove to the beach on Sanibel Island, widely known for its fantastic shelling. Because parking at the beach is a gaudy $5.00/hr, we didn’t stay long. We then drove up island and stopped by the historical museum, a well-executed depiction of life on Sanibel before the bridge was built and word got out.
By that week, Coronavirus was killing a lot of Italians and Spain was thinking about another shot at Florida. Major League baseball cancelled spring training the next day, the week before our planned visit to Lakeland with Dawn’s brother Gary and their folks. We had a nice AirB&B reserved and great seats to see the Tiger’s play the Blue Jays, Yankees and Marlins.
Coronavirus was getting scarier, and social distancing had begun – out of fear not mandate. You may recall, Spring breakers were still infecting each other in Fort Lauderdale. We continued to enjoy downtown, testing our budget over oysters and mojitos at Izzy’s, burgers and beer at Ford’s Garage, crab and margarita’s at Pinchers, and Pizza at Capone’s. We were able to cancel our rental house in Lakeland, and Dawn’s parent’s cancelled their trip to Florida. Both the Tigers and our AirBnB host refunded us fully.
Happy siblings, good food, great beer, and mediocre music on the last open night in Fort Myers
Gary, still in need of a vacation, flew down to Tampa anyway, staying the week with us aboard Cirila. That first night, we ate dinner on the balcony at Patio 33, listening to live music played in the courtyard below. Business had already started to slow, so the bouncers let us on the rooftop lounge the Firestone Grill and Martini Lounge, despite our boaters attire – tee shirts, shorts and flip flops. The next evening, Bridgette joined us for BBQ at The Lodge, and afterwards, we walked the thinning streets, sipping road cocktails with folks trying to get in one last St. Patty’s week drunk. It was March 22 – Fort Myers closed up shop next day.
Cirila, the prettiest boat on H Dock at the Yacht Basin
We made the best of things the rest of our week with Gary, – eating well on board, listening to music and drinking beer all day. Reading the news was hard – the virus was spreading fast in the US, and we were not yet desensitized or hardened by it. Our friends John and Ruta Kalnins were in Florida and had planned to visit, but called a wise audible and drove home to Michigan instead. Gary also made travel adjustments, rebooking his flights on a nonstop from Tampa to Detroit in order to avoid potential exposure during an Atlanta lay-over.
The pilothouse converts to my painting studio in about 10 minutes. No lack of natural light!
Our plans to spend April in Marathon, down in the Keys, were dashed when the whole archipelago shut down for non-residents. Then, marina’s up and down the East and Gulf coast began to shut down to transient boaters. Tucked in our secure slip in a nice place, we extended our stay in Fort Myers. We’ve been hunkered down ever since. The few restaurants downtown that did offer take-out have since closed, so our galley has been a busy place. Because there is no urgency to anything but safe isolation, I’ve been more motivated to paint, read, and write than to work on boat projects. Dawn sewed masks for us, made more for our boating friends, and is working to replace that cushion that blew off the boat in New Orleans. Screen time on our devices is way up; the Apple Store seems to be the only economic beneficiary of our quarantine. The liquor store hasn’t done bad either! We count our blessings to be here, together, in our self-contained little world, unstressed by lost jobs or overwhelming bills. We pray for those not so lucky.
Florida has it’s Emerald Coast, Treasure Coast, and Space Coast. Tampa’s deranged author, Tim Dorsey, calls Florida’s southwest between Sarasota and Marco Island, the Retirement Coast. We left Twin Dolphin Marina in Bradenton on a sunny morning in early March, bound for this mecca of sand, water, and aging baby boomers.
The Manatee River flows into lower Tampa Bay after passing between the DeSoto National Memorial and Emerson Point Preserve. Hernando de Soto landed here in 1539, likely by accident since shoals line a very narrow channel flowing out around the point. Just before Tampa Bay discharges into the Gulf of Mexico, the Southbound ICW re-forms in a channel tucked behind Anna Maria Island. Southbound through Anna Maria Sound, under a few drawbridges, then into Sarasota Bay, the waters get clearer with each passing mile. We were bound for Venice FL, the first stop on our planned three day voyage to Fort Myers.
Sarasota is a long way from Galveston!
It felt good to be on the water again! We blocked the cool easterlies by winging the port pilothouse door, opening the leeward door wide to take in the beautiful water and watch our frequent dolphin escorts. Not until crossing Sarasota Bay and passing the city itself do the shorelines draw close enough to gawk at the homes lining the banks. Then, rounding Sarasota pass and entering Roberts Bay, the white sand bottom and crystal clear water made our jaws drop. The cruising grounds behind Siesta Key are the most beautiful we have seen. The beauty continued for two hours, through connecting bays and channels, all the way into Venice.
A pretty Krogen Express adjacent to the Dockside Grill in Venice, FL
Venice was a perfect stop for a captain still recovering from the Bradenton Blues. The marina was quiet, small, and friendly. We enjoyed beer and fish & chips from the bar at the stellar Dockside Grill, directly adjacent to the marina. Afterwards, we sipped drinks on the flybridge, enjoying the spectacle of retirees also cocktailing, watching the sunset from the decks of mobile homes lining the waterfront. A gay live-aboard couple named Bob(s) almost convinced us to stay an extra day, encouraging us to see the town, but we pushed off early the next morning, undoubtedly saving significant further expense at the Dockside.
Two quick bridge openings started our day, followed by a long stretch of canal lined by bike trails teeming with retirees. Walking, jogging, biking and blading, they were out en- masse. Further south, the bay widens but is only a couple feet deep outside the marked channel. Mainland runoff from inland waterways named after alligators cloud the water and silt the bottom – lost is the aquamarine blue that mesmerized us the day before. Between the inlets that occasionally break through the barrier islands, the incoming tides from the Gulf alternately pushed and pulled Cirila, like a marble on a teeter-totter.
A wee cottage for the 1%
We passed under the Boca Grand Causeway, connecting Gasparilla Island and the town of Placida on the mainland, and entered Gasparilla Sound. With the wealth of Boca Grande on our right, and uninhabited wetlands on our left, the waters changed color again and we entered Charlotte Harbor. Because Charlotte Harbor is big, beautiful, and provides consistent depths of ten feet or more sailboats become more abundant. It indeed feels like big water, offering no clue that just inshore, millions of retirees are driving custom golf carts around 500 acre trailer parks, drinking margaritas and smoking cigars.
We crossed the mouth of Charlotte Harbor early in the afternoon, with original plans to spend the night at anchor in Pelican Bay, adjacent to Cayo Costa State Park. It was highly recommended by our friends on Pegasus and the Bob(s) in Venice. But because we made good time and winds were expected to increase in the coming days, we decided to press on all the way to Fort Myers, and not risk fouling up the cruise by running aground in the shallow approach to the bay. Other potential anchorages off Useppa Island and Cabbage Key were tempting but not dog friendly, so we pressed on. Interestingly, Useppa is a now a privately owned retreat, the pristine white cottages lining its banks hiding the fact that it is a hurricane magnet and in 1960, was once the CIA’s training ground for the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Bar and Grill on Cabbage Key, just opposite the channel from Useppa, is said to have inspired Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. This area is definitely ripe for further exploration on another visit.
Just beyond lies Pine Island Sound, separating the sparsely populated Pine Island near the mainland, from the barrier islands Captiva and Sanibel. At seven knots, it seemed to take forever to transit this Sound, bringing back memories of those last few hours in the car on a childhood beach vacation. Finally, our heading veered east and passed the Ding Darling National Wildlife refuge on Sanibel. Here, the navigation channels became increasingly narrow and complex in the boaters paradise (or hell) approaching Cape Coral and Fort Myers. Near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, boaters compete for lack of etiquette awards in a dredged channel fifty feet wide, aptly named the “Miserable Mile”. Anything from twenty foot pontoon boats to seventy foot sport fishers run this stretch three and four abreast, at speed. We’re sure much beer has been spilled here.
Taking in another sunset from the sky hammock in Fort Myers
We bounced on through the mayhem of wakes and entered the Caloosahatchee, and as rivers do, the water darkened. After traveling another hour upstream, past the Thomas Edison and Henry Ford winter estates, we finally entered the City of Fort Myers Yacht basin. We tied up in slip H1, cracked open our traditional arrival beer, and took stock of what we expected to be our home port for the month of March.
I knew something was different when we had popcorn three nights in a row. I’m not complaining because I love popcorn. I’m a popcorn whisperer. I know it’s coming before it makes the boat smell better than bacon.
Hi, its me again!
The TV is key. If I had thumbs, one rule of them would be if there’s no TV, there’s no popcorn. If my people turn on the TV, then touch the black box that makes sound come from everywhere, I get excited. Then, if dad goes to the kitchen and bangs the pans, I know it’s popcorn night!
When popcorn starts falling, we watch a long show called a movie. People use that nickname for pictures that move. Why don’t they call a moving car a movie? Movies with animals are best, especially dogs. Some dogs are movie stars and make money, so I bark at them. Pigs are my favorite though. I never smelled a pig, but since they’re made out of bacon, they must smell delicious. Probably even better than popcorn.
We usually watch movies when it’s cold outside, or raining, or when the wind howls. When it’s nice, we sit outside and don’t watch TV. I like it because people and dogs walk by. We listen to songs. Maybe people should call those soundies. Sometimes dad calls them tunes, but I think “tones” is more logical. People language is weird. I can understand a lot of it but can’t speak it very well. Luckily, I can write. I get excited and bark a whole lot during movies, except when there are wolves or bears. They scare me, so I stay quiet hoping they don’t see me.
This is our boat almost under the noisy bridge.
I digress, which is easy because I get distracted. We ate popcorn three days in a row when we stayed for a long time at the place under the noisy bridge. A weird cat lived next door. There were some big dogs that lived nearby, but since we walked at different times, I didn’t get to know their smells. I didn’t really make many friends there, which is unusual for me.
Even though I’m getting old and my back hurts, I still like to play. When I tease dad with one of my toys, it usually makes him smile and laugh. That wasn’t working then, under the noisy bridge. I’m pretty sure it was because the squeaker in my toy stopped working.
One day, we got up really early. It was so dark, I wasn’t even hungry yet. Mom tricked me by putting special treats inside little cheese balls, which I can’t resist. Then she stuffed me in the bag that means we’re going somewhere. Its a blur from there, but I think we got on one of those loud machines stuffed with too many people. I hate those machines. There’s no leg room, even for me. I can’t see out the window, they make ears hurt, and all the people fart a lot – the silent kind. Its awful when you have a nose like mine. When we finally got outside again, I needed to pee really bad, but it was cold and the ground was white. Something was definitely weird.
Somehow, Uncle Gary showed up with his Jeep, and after awhile, we were at grandma and grandpa’s house. I like it there except when the ground is white, because my feet get cold and I can’t smell anything to pee on. It frustrates me. I worry about getting a bladder infection and having to poop behind the couch. I played with the toy person called Nora, and made sure that she will love pugs forever. After a few days, dad showed up with the giant car. I haven’t seen it for so long that I forgot about it. It made me happy, but it was all very confusing. We drove the car one day and stopped at Aunt Joanne’s house, where Lou lives. It might be my imagination, but I remembered him being much smaller. I went to grandma’s room and made her smile a lot, because I could tell she needed it. Then we drove for days and days. I ate cold french fries and pee’d in places that all smelled like gasoline.
When it started to get warm and sunny again, we got out of the car and were back at our boat. I have stopped trying to figure out how that happens. The weird cat still lived next door and there was a new dog that walked by a few times each day. The noisy bridge was still noisy. Dad seemed sad, which made mom sad, which made me sad. Mom says that when I get sad, my tail stops looking like a cinnamon roll, whatever that is. We lived almost another moon cycle like this. That’s like 7 months for me! I don’t like to use bad words, but it sucked.
I’m the second mate and this is me helping drive the boat
Then one day, dad started to do stuff on the boat. He started climbing under the floor, tapping on the little TVs in the wheelhouse upstairs. Mom started to clean and put things away. Dad started cooking more and we ate some meat. He always saves me some and cuts it up small. Mom makes him because she’s afraid I’ll choke. They don’t realize I could swallow a whole ribeye. Then one day, the loud machine under the floor started and dad carried me upstairs to the sofa. We were going somewhere new.
Even though I get nervous when the boat moves, it was nice to leave the noisy bridge. We stopped at a place called Venice. It was quiet and the water was very clear. I saw a giant fish. It almost made me feel like swimming. Not really. I liked it there, except people were building things with stinky machines and there weren’t very good places to walk and pee. I could tell there were’t many dogs so was happy when we left the next morning. Dad drove the boat for a really long time. I started to worry about food and that we were going to drive the boat at night. Like that one night that lasted forever. But then we came to a place with lots of boats. It’s called Fort Myers and the sun shines a lot here. I like to nap in sunny spots on the floor. Please don’t tell any cats.
At our new place, the sun goes down under a bridge, which is much quieter too.
I got a new play toy with two really good squeakers in it, so Mom and Dad seem much happier now. I can see two bridges, but they’re far away and not noisy at all. Lots of people walk by our boat. They stop to talk so I bark my way into the conversation. They all seem to have dogs – some even have two. Whats really cool is that I’m bigger than most of them. Pretty sure anyway. I also haven’t seen any weird cats. Yeah, I like this place much better.
We had high expectations of our stay in Bradenton. We planned to stay a full month, the first planned long term stay of our trip. Marina economics were one of the drivers. Another was a simple desire to sit still for a bit, to recharge. It didn’t work out that way.
I spent much of our time in Bradenton in a funk. As Dawn extracted from me later, I was ready “to be done” with the Loop. I even felt done with the water. I was very depressed.
Cirila on A dock, where traffic noise only subsided late at night
It wasn’t until late in our Bradenton stay (which turned into two months) that I was able to stack the factors impacting us in January and February, to realize I was depressed, and to understand why.
It started with seeing our new found cruising friends leave Bradenton after only brief stays. Pegasus moved to Long Boat Key, spending a month there. Golden Daze left for Stuart, where they crossed their wake, becoming Gold Loopers. We missed About Time altogether, as we had to be in Michigan during their brief stay.
The reason for our Michigan trip was that Dawn’s uncle Tom was yielding in his fight with cancer. We spent days waiting further news on Tom, mulling our options for traveling North, and in the end, decided to stop waiting and just get up there. Dawn and Lola flew on a one-way ticket to Detroit. A couple days later, I flew to Houston, picked up the car we left there, and drove north, rendezvousing at Dawn’s folks place. About 14 hours into the first day of my drive, near Cairo IL, the flooding and gushing Mississippi river spooked me. Five miles after crossing it, I got a $200 speeding ticket.
The only place we could find in town that broadcast the Super Bowl with volume. Unfortunately, their food caterer never showed up.
As usual, we stayed with Dawn’s parents, Jerry and Lois, who you may remember from the last post. Michigan winter is reason enough to be depressed, especially if you’re visiting from Florida in January. Tom lost his battle during our stay, and while nice to see extended family, those circumstances are never up-lifting. We stayed a few more days before driving to Cleveland for a visit with my mom and my sister’s family, the Montesano’s. In nearly two weeks, we never saw the sun.
These visits foment guilt in me. As if it could be a miracle antidote, I often yearn to live closer. I look at houses on-line and have even engaged a real estate agent to visit a few. Dawn is no fan of this. While discussing this on our drive back to Florida, she surmised that I “was done”. I was shocked, but secretly thought she might be right.
In the week following, back on the boat in Bradenton, this cloud hung over us. Our slip, almost under the highway 41 bridge, was loud; the view from our cockpit, lousy. Our neighbors to one side were battling dementia, terribly sad to see and dangerous if you live on a sailboat. While we made new friends, they were few, as my depressed state zapped my social tendencies. We were lonely there, for to a degree, we didn’t have each other either. I didn’t feel like cooking. Then my mom fell again.
Outfitters worked on this custom boat for weeks, preparing it for the Miami boat show. Yes, that 2,250 horsepower – on a center console fishing boat.
Amazingly, I had not yet realized my funk was depression induced. With Dawn’s encouragement, I countered my sense of guilt and paralysis with another visit to Ohio. Dawn stayed back with Lola, giving me space to figure myself out or perhaps she just needed to be away from my miserable self.
She called in tears one morning, after spending the night in her pajamas, with Lola, taking refuge in the boaters lounge. The electronic gate to our pier malfunctioned and she was locked out. That very night, I called her late and told her to seek shelter immediately in the marina laundry – the area was under a tornado warning and I was watching one’s signature on radar heading right for her. It didn’t touch down in Bradenton, but another did just a few miles north, knocking construction cranes onto the highway.
Our unexpected travels, along with a coming trip to visit friends in Port Saint Lucie caused us to extend our stay in Bradenton an additional month. It was a difficult time for us; it was a difficult time for me. Was I done? Why did I have no desire to be out on the water? I didn’t feel like taking the camera out, and didn’t feel like writing. Subsequent soul searching led me to conclude this was merely depression trying to ensure my misery.
Thankfully, Cirila’s First Mate had a firm hand on the wheel while its Captain was battling his funk. Through our many discussions, one option began to make more sense than any other. We had to leave Bradenton and get back on the water.
Over our final two weeks in Bradenton and having committed to this plan, I started to feel better. A visit with good friends across the state helped heal us. A visit to the Salvator Dali museum was awing and inspirational. I successfully replaced one of our air conditioning units with little fanfare and no cursing. We made new friends and had an impromptu party on Cirila. We slipped lines two days later, bound for Fort Myers.
A sculpture at the Salvador Dali museum in St. Pete that should be titled ‘Mike Escaping the Blues”
We cleared our slip at Clearwater Beach early the day after New Years, added 100 gallons of diesel to our starboard tank, and headed South. We were bound for Bradenton, on the Manatee river just south of Tampa Bay.
A heron people watches as sunset reflects in the surf of Indian Rocks Beach
It was a nostalgic journey. Two years prior, we rented a home on Indian Rocks Beach for a Krueger family vacation. During that vacation, we visited several area marinas – advanced research on future possible live-aboard homes. Our marina road trip included the Harbourage in St. Pete., Regatta Point in Palmetto, Twin Dolphin in Bradenton, and The Moorings on Long Boat Key. The latter two were our favorites. but we had no clue that we would return on Cirila less than two years later.
Since kids were the only ones brave enough to swim in the chilly gulf waters, we rented a 20′ runabout one day to enjoy the intracoastal waters between Indian Rocks and Treasure Island to the south. What a fun day we had! Gary, Dawn and I drank a case of beer while exploring the complex waterways of Boca Ciega Bay. This body of water separates the beachfront communities, like Indian Rocks, Redington and Madiera, from the St. Petersburg metro area to the east. Homes lining these waters range from quaint to corpulent, all making the most of each foot of their precious waterfront. Because we were in a small rental boat, depth and bridge clearance weren’t concerning. We did however, need to control our wake, as this stretch of water consists of alternating “go fast” and “no wake” zones. I successfully splashed the passengers and crew in a few “go fast” zones, to the delight of grandpa Jerry manning the bow.
Mike, Dawn, Lois, Jody, Gary, and Jerry on our rented deck boat, exploring Boca Ciega Bay
Fast forward two years, now cruising Cirila, depth and bridge clearance became relevant. We still needed to control our wake, because a 42′ trawler going seven knots leaves about as much wake as a runabout going thirty. In those stretches where the waterway narrowed, kayakers paddled about, or homeowners had clout, we backed Cirila down a couple knots and had longer to enjoy the passing scenery.
On this leg of our journey, we passed eight bridges, far more than any previous day. Six were drawbridges, with 20-25′ of clearance in their closed position. Most of us have experienced the frustration of approaching a drawbridge, in the car and in a hurry, just as the bells start clanging and gates come down. While frustrating in the car, it’s a happy sound and sight from the water. For sailboats and larger cruising boats, drawbridges block progress and are an important part of the planning process. Cirila’s airdraft is twenty five feet to the top of her lightening rod, and a couple more to the top of her tallest antennae. She needs these bridges open.
A bascule type drawbridge seen through the bow pulpit rail. At this distance of about 1/4 mile, dialogue with the bridge tender begins.
So how do you open a drawbridge? Resources like the Waterway Guide and Active Captain indicate whether a bridge will open on a fixed schedule and/or “on signal”. Bridges on roads less travelled often open on signal, which means the boater can hail the bridge tender via VHF radio, usually channel 9, and request an opening.
“Corey Causeway bridge, Corey Causeway bridge, this is southbound motor vessel Cirila, passing marker Green 42, requesting an opening, over”
Both the boat captain and bridge tender try to time the approach and bridge opening to minimize wait time for travelers, whether they be by car or boat. On busier roads, and during rush hours, many drawbridges only open every half hour. For these, a good captain will synchronize his/her travel speed with an arrival time just before the next bridge’s scheduled opening. I call it marine choreography.
Considering this was our most complex bridge day, we did well, with less than an hour wasted waiting for these six draw bridges. Much of that was at The Corey Causeway bridge. Its tender would not open on signal until we rounded a curve, idled right in front of the bridge, viewed the clearance placard, and confirmed to the tender that we needed an opening. This was very unusual, and almost comical. A sign posted at Florida bridges cautions that a $2500 fine could be levied on the captain requesting an unneeded opening. This bridge tender must have missed that class, and thought he would need to pay if he opened unnecessarily.
In our experience that day and since, the bridge tenders are very courteous and accommodating. The best ones tend to be women. The choreography with the bridge tenders spices up the journey. It is socialism at its finest, at least if your lucky enough have a car or a big boat. If not so lucky, you might think of it as giving food stamps to the more affluent.
Once we cleared the Pinellas Bayway bridge, we cruised east towards St. Pete, then ran south, parallel to the Sunshine Skyway (I-275), before emerging in Tampa Bay. Since it’s a big body of water, Tampa Bay can get rough. On this day, 15-20 knot winds kicked up a moderate chop. Now, better seasoned by our Crossing experience, even Lola took it in stride.
On the south side of the Tampa Bay, we rounded Snead Island and turned upstream into the Manatee River. After a few miles on this beautiful stretch of water, we entered the Twin Dolphin Marina in downtown Bradenton, backed into Slip A13, secured Cirila, and shut down the engine. Twin Dolphin was a favorite when we visited on our Indian Rocks vacation – little did we know it would be our home base for the next two months.
View off Ciriia’s bow, from our slip at Twin Dolphin Marina. I enjoyed the $6 Old Fashioneds’ on the Happy Hour menu at Pier22, seen in the background
We left Tarpon Springs feeling anxiety and a bit of melancholy. Either our stay seemed too short, we were not fully recovered from the Crossing, or perhaps, we just needed more Greek food! Nonetheless, we put those emotions aside, tossed lines, and followed our GPS path back out the Anciote River.
A beautiful home, one of many, along the Onciote River near Tarpon Springs
As was the case for the Crossing, Pegasus was about an hour in front of us, this time not by design. It was a clear, windy day; Saint Joseph Sound was choppier than when it welcomed us the morning after our Crossing. Once behind the uninhabited Honeymoon Island, the waters calmed; Lola relaxed and we got in our groove.
The Clearwater Beach Marina was a layover point for us between Tarpon Springs and our planned destinations south of Tampa Bay. While our cruising pals aboard About Time, Pegasus, and Golden Daze docked at Dunedin, a few miles north and on the mainland side of Saint Joseph Sound, we opted for Clearwater. It seemed like a better place to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and we may also have been ready for some independence.
Our assigned slip was on the open end of the marina, near a large commercial dinner boat. Here, the wind was stiffer, the water rougher, and the current unexpected. After two aborted stern-in attempts, I swung Cirila around and we secured her bow in. While she was happy, the fixed docks, coupled with tidal swings of nearly three feet made getting on and off the boat challenging.
The marina was a hub of commercial activity focused on extracting as much currency as as possible from the thousands of tourists filling the high-rise condos along the beach. Multi-deck dinner boats headed out Clearwater pass for sunset cruises while dozens of fishing charters came in, laying their catch out along the docks for photos.
No, that’s not a real pirate ship
Up and down the docks, deck hands cleaned fish, tossing the scraps to waiting pelicans, the lazy but clever members of their society. In Clearwater Harbor, pirate ships, catamarans, and even boats shaped like sharks, competed for passengers, the tourists aboard probably disappointed because from the inside, their silly boat looked like any other. It was a fun place to stroll, knowing we could go climb aboard our own boat, have a snack and crack a beer without dropping $30. Or $100.
On New Year’s Eve, the last night of a tumultuous and life changing 2019, we cleaned up, dressed up, and strolled the short distance to the beach, looking for a place to eat and celebrate. Fulfilling the strange hankering that hits us only once or twice a year, we settled on Hooters! It was, after all, one of the originals. Our meal there that night still ranks as one of our favorites on the trip. Yes, at Hooters.
Happy New Year from Captain and Crew
After dinner, we stopped back at the boat to grab jackets and Lola, then went to ring in the New Year at the Bait House, a small, gem of a place hidden in the corner of the marina. It was the kind of place tourists don’t find – unless they are there staying on their boat. There might be a semester’s worth of college tuition, in one dollar denominations, tacked to every soft surface, each with some note of humor or love. Lola was our ambassador and we had a ball. I’d be hard pressed to find the dollar we tacked up.
We spent New Year’s Day awash in Dawn’s famous sauerkraut and football, then watched the first sunset of the New Year while walking the beach. Not long after, we were tucked in, making an early night so we were fresh for the long and nostalgic trip to Bradenton the next day.
The first sunset of 2020, over Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico
We cruised up the Anclote River to Tarpon Spring on Saturday morning, like tourists driving the wrong way on a one way street. Weekend fisherman and rental boats filled the channel with competing wakes, racing out into the open waters of St. Joseph Sound. On any other day, their lack of etiquette would aggravate us, however, after our overnight crossing, nothing could dampen our spirits.
The view of our first Tarpon Springs sunset from Cirila
The river winds inland, past small marinas and beautiful homes perched along the bayous. Rounding the last turn, the sponge boat basin comes into view, its commercial seawall lined with decrepit work boats and tour boats advertising charter fishing, glass bottoms, dolphin viewing, and sponge tours. The Tarpon Spring Municipal Docks lay just beyond, a well kept oasis right in the middle of Tarpon’s Greek tourist zone where Nick, its harbormaster, helped us tie up in our narrow slip. Shutting down the engine that morning was an especially sweet exclamation point marking the completion of The Crossing.
Sponge boats and fisherman line Tarpon Spring’ inner harbor
Apalichicola’s fisherman discovered the rich sponge beds of the Big Bend area of Florida, however, it’s auction houses and “sponge exchanges” had long been repurposed. In 1905, an entrepreneur in Tarpon Springs hired a bunch of spongers from Greece to come help harvest this newfound resource. These were those guys in big rubber suits and brass diving helmets you see in old movies. They effectively put Apalachicola out of business while also planting the seeds, literally, that made Tarpon Springs the intensely Greek cultural enclave that it is today.
Sponges sorted by species, size, shape, and quality. Who would’ve thought shopping for natural sponges would be fun. The owner in the photo was lamenting the advanced security teams preparing for the arrival of Greece’s Prime Minister for Epiphany.
Couldn’t get a clear view of Hella’s pastry counter because of all the patrons. This bakery was smaller, and a few doors down.
Tarpon’s Greekness is surely less evident in the parts of town where chain restaurants, big box stores and strip malls make it look and feel no different than Bethesda or Des Moines. Along its old waterfront though, it’s striking. We relished our first meal of Gyro’s at Yiani’s cafe, on Dodecanese Blvd, just a hundred steps from the marina. We ate more Greek food a couple nights later at Dimitri’s, their menu laden with lamb and spinach, feta and filo. We asked for help with some provisions we bought at the Halki Market because the labels and cooking instructions were in Greek. I couldn’t avoid Hella’s Bakery, with it’s fifty foot display case teeming with pastries so diverse and which looked so scrumptious that I spent over $50 there. Our chins and fingers dripped honey for a week.
This striking Greek woman must have owned Yianni’s Cafe. She was never not there.
For seven weeks and for 750 miles, we sailed east. Through Louisiana’s bayous, across the Mississippi Sound, and finally along the Emerald Coast, we pressed eastward, as Apalachicola and Houston lie on nearly the same latitude. Cold fronts punctuated our weather patterns along the way – three day bursts of northerly winds and rain separated by shorter spells of southerly breezes and sunshine. Weather windows ruled the day.
In Tarpon Springs, that all changed. We are southbound now. The cold fronts, when they come, are less intense. The days are getting longer, the nights getting warmer. Jeans and sneakers have been stowed, replaced by shorts and flip flops. Even the palm trees seem more relaxed.
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.
A joyful sunrise! For 12 hours, it was pure blackness out those windows.
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.
After Sandestin, Panama City was like an over priced motel on the road to Apalachicola. We stayed comfortably at Treasure Island Marina, tucked up in the Grand Lagoon with the only other marinas that survived Hurricane Michael. A nearby dog park with grass fitting of Augusta National was most memorable – especially for Lola. After one night, we pulled off our T-head slip at sunrise, with Golden Daze and About Time fifteen minutes ahead of us, and Pegasus fifteen behind.
Panama City marks the eastern edge of the Emerald Coast; continuing eastward begins the transition to Florida’s “Big Bend”, first to the town of Apalachicola, then Carabelle. Our trek to Apalachicola was long and beautiful, but somber. Large bodies of water, like St. Andrews Bay, East Bay, and Lake Wimico were joined by winding sections of the ICW. Half of the nine hour journey meandered through the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Michael, cypress and pine along the banks snapped, all pointing to the path travelled by Michael’s eye.
The sun casts a glow on reeds and a fish camp as we entered Lake Wimico
Native Americans camped around current Apalachicola for thousands of years. Spaniards explored here, but the shallower bay waters were not as easy to navigate as Pensacola to the west. Inquiring minds might wonder about the “cola” suffix of these old Florida towns. It apparently comes via the Spanish, from latin roots meaning ” to till, cultivate, inhabit”. This of course makes no sense when thinking about CocaCola and PepsiCola.
In the 1800’s Apalachicola became a key lumber town, with mills lining the banks of Scippio Creek, hewing cypress ties for the burgeoning railroad industry. In the early 1900’s, a rail link joined Apalachicola to transport routes further north, bringing much fanfare and economic growth. When local timber grew scarce, its seafood industry blossomed. It seems every vacant lot along the Apalachicola waterfront is heaped with oyster shells.
Before roads and trucks, this old railroad connected Apalachicola to civilization and markets to the north.
The railroad is long gone, but its trestle over the Apalachicola river remains, a monument to a more optimistic time. A subdued seafood industry survives, but the town relies more on a collection of small boutiques, galleries, and gift shops.
The restored Gibson Inn serves as the town’s centerpiece.
We were supposed to be part of a Christmas Pot luck with about ten Looper boats further east in the smaller town of Carabelle, the typical jump off point for “The Crossing”. Unfortunately, we were unable to travel to Carabelle with our Looper pack that Christmas morning because it was low tide, and Cirila was hard on her bottom in the slip at Water St. Hotel Marina.
A wonderful dinner consoled us on a lonely Christmas Day.
Thus we spent a somewhat lonely Christmas in Apalachicola. We enjoyed a fabulous Christmas buffet at the restored Gibson Inn, the centerpiece of the town. Long talks with family helped alleviate some of the loneliness we felt this Christmas, but not the anxiety over “The Crossing”. It lay before us like a surgery you might not survive. We sampled the local oysters at the “Up the Creek” – they were delicious. It was there, overlooking the river that we saw a large Carver pass by, a Looper named Escape Plan. They were heading directly to Carabelle; we would do The Crossing with them two days later.
For days we relentlessly checked weather, wind and wave forecasts. Suitable weather windows were increasingly uncertain and very fluid. Anxiety raked us every waking moment, and difficulty sleeping assured there were lots of those. At one point it looked as though we might wait two weeks. We needed to time our four hour jump to Carabelle so we could join our buddy boats a day or two before the crossing, staying in the larger town of Apalachicola until then.
A pretty scene in the botanical gardens, symbolic of the journey ahead
Then, late on boxing day, a “very bumpy but doable” window opened on Dec 27/28. The next window might not open for weeks. Our buddy boats over in Carabelle decided to snatch the opportunity and begin The Crossing the next day. We didn’t have time to meet them there, so revised our route and timing to begin The Crossing from Appalachicola, rendezvousing with Pegasus along the way, near East Pass. The other faster boats would leave later and meet us out in the Gulf.