For long open-water passages, a sailor needs a sea-worthy vessel, capable crew and captain, and safety measures in place (equipment, drills, float plans, etc.). But on these journeys, much of it comes down to one critical factor – weather. And that means being prepared, watching, waiting, and then scooting when the time comes. We spent Thanksgiving weekend in Apalachicola, soaking up the town’s local flavors and all the while waiting for a good weather window through which we’d cross a section of the Gulf of Mexico from the Panhandle to Florida’s west coast.
After doing our own weather research, listening to other boaters also waiting, asking local sailors and seeking the advice of weather experts, about a dozen of us agreed with the best minds that we’d likely have a short weather window from Wednesday through Thursday during which we could cross the big water. We watched real-time data on buoys, checked the National Weather Service forecasts, read reports from a Looper favorite named Tom Conrad who provides sage advice to boaters for this crossing, listened to advice from a local dock master and weather guru in Carabelle, Florida named Buddy and also talked to our favorite professional weather router Chris Parker. All agreed it was doable for bigger boats but that it wouldn’t be entirely comfortable. That’s boating.
Looking at the charts and our projected course, we estimated our trip would be somewhere around 230 nautical miles from Apalachicola to St. Petersburg, dock-to-dock, and that we would average 7.5 – 8.0 knots. We set off from Scipio Creek in Apalachicola at 8 am on a cool, grey Wednesday morning, now a week after Thanksgiving. Working our way east about twenty miles between the mainland and St. George Island and passing a dozen boats harvesting oysters, we crossed into the Gulf of Mexico through the East Pass Inlet just shy of Dog Island. We were greeted with light northwest winds at under 10 knots and a mild westerly swell of 3 – 4 feet at 6 – 7 second intervals. Not bad at all and in line with the forecast.
For the next seven or eight hours we moved east and south east, plotting new target waypoints on the hour and making a gentle turn to the south and watching the wind, waves and maintaining our course based on crew comfort, overall distance and the weather forecast. In these parts this is called the rim route, as opposed to the rhumb line. We generally followed the contour of Florida’s coast, looking to stay about 20 or so miles offshore. Since the water was relatively calm, with a slow rolling following sea on our stern and then starboard stern quarter, Jennifer and I decided to use our off-watch time to sleep, something we knew would help us stay alert while driving at night. Keenan also did some driving, and our rule was always to have at least two people in the pilothouse.
By late afternoon we were turned almost due south when we began to spot multiple strings of crab traps. Traps seem to be set most often on the shelf edges, where the water depths change most dramatically. That said, it’s relatively shallow dozens of miles from shore and you might see a trap marker just about anywhere. You don’t want one wrapped in your prop because in addition to interfering with someone’s livelihood, you might disable your boat. Other than getting lucky and having the trap line slide off or putting your engine in reverse and unraveling the wrap, there’s not much to do except get in the water and cut the line. We didn’t fancy doing that way out there and in the dark, though we carry wet suits, masks and knives partly for that purpose.
Since night was approaching and we wouldn’t be able to see the traps to dodge them, we decided to move further offshore, choosing a line about 30 miles out from land. Because the weather had been calm earlier and Jennifer and I were well-rested, we decided to relieve Keenan of his night-time watch duties, and he offered to rise early and take a turn at the helm in the wee hours just before sunrise. He and Daria turned in around 9:30 pm, each with a book and with extra blankets.
As expected, around 10 pm the wind clocked from the NW to NE fairly quickly and picked up in velocity from 8 – 10 knots to 15 – 18 knots. By midnight, winds were a steady 20 knots and gusting to 25 knots. The waves were increasing in height and intensity. We continued to have a WNW swell that combined with a vicious chop offshore generated by strong NE winds as high pressure system was moving over the Florida peninsula and funneling cool air offshore.
From Muddy Waters’ movements, we knew we were in washing machine seas. Like an industrial washing machine. Maybe the type they use after an NFL game between the hated Jets and beloved Dolphins. Because the waves were coming from astern, albeit from two directions, we weren’t pounding, slapping or even getting spray on the pilothouse glass. But, we were rocking and rolling like a Chuck Berry tune. Our stabilizer fins, which function something like the flaps on an airplane’s wings and are controlled by a type of gyroscope, were working overtime to bring us back to a level plain. It was fairly rough and we were rolling (side to side) and pitching (bow to stern) a fair, though tolerable, amount. Every minute or so it seemed a wave would wallop us more violently than the others. We couldn’t see ‘em coming, but we started to time them at about every 60 or 90 seconds.
We’d secured everything onboard, including our two anchors and everything else above and below decks. Other than a few items shifting around in drawers and plates and glasses clanking in the galley cabinets, there wasn’t much noise other than the ttttttssssshhhhhh of the water rushing past the hull. I imagine these masterfully built Krogen trawlers are designed to flex certain tiny amounts given the architecture and materials, but it was amazing how solid everything felt through the rough weather and agitated sea and boat movements. Still, we imagined ourselves like a feather-weight ping pong ball in an air mix lottery machine.
We could clock the wind speed with our anemometer, and with gusts to 25 knots and above, we knew that being 30 or 40 miles offshore would allow wave height to build significantly given the fetch. But measuring wave height isn’t as easy while onboard. Especially when you can’t see squat. In some ways we were happy not to be able to see the seas.
While cruising in the Florida Keys and Bahamas earlier this year, we relied daily on reports from weather router genius Chris Parker. Check our blog posts from February and March and you’ll see our references to Chris, whom we met at a seminar in the Exumas. If you’re planning a trip in the Bahamas, don’t leave home without him, whether on SSB, email or telephone. I wrote Chris once we arrived in St. Petersburg and asked him if he could help me estimate wave heights during our recent Gulf crossing. Here’s what he wrote back to me:
“The buoy 28.5N/84.5W shows wind 16 knots, gusting 22 knots, during this period, with seas at 4’ in 8 second interval. Estimating sea height is difficult, as we on small boats tend to remember the largest seas, and say that was the height of the seas.
Significant sea height (the numerical average of the 33% of largest waves) was probably 5′ (4′ at the buoy, maybe 5′ where you were with wind a bit stronger).
Based on your wind, which was probably 20 knot/gusting to 25 knots, seas should have been mostly 5′, possibly 5-6′. Well-offshore a 20 knot/gusting 25 knot wind might eventually develop 7′ seas. Some seas are much higher than the “significant seas”…maybe one wave every 10-30 minutes can be 2x as large.
Adding to the complexity is the NW-N swell, which may have phased with wind-chop and caused more-numerous waves of 2x the significant sea…so you may have seen one wave every couple minutes in the 8’-10’-12′ range.
But, again, the significant sea height was probably about 5′, maybe 5-6′. You should expect an occasional wave 2x that high. You may have seen one of these larger waves every couple minutes (10x more often than normal) because of the swell from a different direction.”
Thank you Chris for the great information on what was going on in the blue yonder. With all the darkness and movement, we would have easily believed you if you wrote us and said there were battling sea serpents and monsters out there creating roll and tumble seas for our humble little craft that ventured too far from shore!
We also found ourselves in the wheelhouse bundled up with wool hats, gloves, sweaters and jackets too. The chilly air certainly kept us alert through the night. Jennifer was tough as nails, as always, and took solid stretches at the helm while I rested. Because we weren’t running a straight course and had to plot our position fairly regularly as we adjusted based on weather and those pesky crab pots, we were busy looking at our paper charts and chart plotter a fair amount. At one point while focusing on our charts for a little too long while we were rolling in the heavy seas, I felt a deep gurgle in my belly and promptly offered-up the, um, recycled contents of a can of ginger ale to Neptune!
Late in the evening we also saw a few blips on the radar about 8 miles ahead of Muddy Waters. We knew other trawlers were traveling at the same time – coordinated masterfully through the efforts of Brian aboard Spirit of Whitby – and we suspected we were near a few fellow Loopers. We listened on the radio and heard three boats conversing on and off and eventually recognized the names Kismet, Something Special and Lady in Red. We said hello on the marine radio and noted we were a few miles behind their group. We all were having trouble getting strong signatures on the radar displays given the bouncy seas, but we eventually were close enough to see solid radar pictures of the vessels and get a stronger radio connection.
We all noted that with the quasi-following seas, we were making faster time than originally expected and realized we’d need to slow down so we could arrive at the Clearwater Pass inlet after sunrise. We’d originally planned to steam past Clearwater to another inlet but changed plans as we bounced around. We also heard discussion on the radio of one boat possibly moving ten or fifteen miles closer to shore because of the vicious seas. Another boat seemed to be moving farther offshore because of the crab pot risks. By then, however, we were having trouble hearing anything clearly on the radio, so we weren’t sure if it was the same three boats having this discussion or some other boats. We eventually lost track of the three boats on the radar.
After a few more hours, we saw three boats on the radar again, this time astern of us a few miles. We assumed that we’d passed the three boats we’d first seen and were now ahead of them. I heard distant discussion on the radio from Kismet and Something Special about temporarily proceeding past the Clearwater inlet to run a north-south course in the heavy seas until sunlight. Mistakenly assuming they were the vessels astern of us, I hailed them and asked if they were near the inlet or, like us, still twenty miles from it. Since I assumed we were just ahead of them, and I gathered from our charts that we were still far from the inlet, I was concerned they weren’t in the position they thought or, much more likely, we weren’t in the position we thought.
I was wrong of course, as they knew exactly where they were, and they confirmed they were indeed almost abeam of the inlet. Hmmm. Turns out the boats astern of us were from a different group. I was watching the boats on the radar behind us but listening to the boats on the radio ahead of us. Eureka! Given our tired and woozy state, Jennifer and I celebrated solving this little positional puzzle that in our minds was nothing short of a monumental breakthrough in the geographical earth sciences. Well, that’s what it felt like to us at the time anyway.
One of the vessels was Wonderland, another Gina Lee and the third we never identified. Wonderland and Gina Lee, both of whom we’d met in Panama City, had run the rhumb line from East Pass inlet, departing a few hours after us but driving a more direct route and arriving at the same time. They too had a rough ride, as they were even farther offshore much of the way. By this point we were about fifteen miles from the Clearwater inlet and sunrise was fast approaching.
We learned from Wonderland that the captain aboard Gina Lee, hired specifically for this run to accompany the owner, was highly experienced in these waters, and we asked if we could follow Wonderland and Gina Lee through the shelves and crab pots and into the inlet. With the wind still honking, we turned to port and headed toward the inlet with a bright rising sun in our eyes. We dodged a few crab traps and then…near silence. No whoooooosh of the waves screaming past the hull, no sea mountains to climb. We were through the inlet and in calm waters. Relief. Just then the kids woke form their slumbers, noting only that the ride was a little bumpy maybe but not too bad. Not. Too. Bad. Did I hear that right? To the brig with the both of them!
Once in the smooth waters of the Gulf ICW, we spent the next few hours winding our way into Tampa Bay and to St. Petersburg. Dock to dock the trip took us nearly thirty hours, the time just about the only similarity to our last long passage, that one in the Atlantic, straight from Delaware to New York. We burned about 105 gallons of diesel, so about 3.5 gallons per hour, cruising at an average of 1800 RPMs.
Though we’ve been in memorably rough seas a few times – in the Exuma Sound, Tongue of the Ocean, Pamlico Sound, North Channel, and on Lake Michigan – the overall conditions crossing the Gulf were as taxing on us as any we’ve experienced on the Great Loop. We were happiest of all to see the reports by the end of the day from the other boats that had also arrived safely – shaken, not stirred – on Florida’s west coast. Many more are waiting out good weather on Florida’s Panhandle. Wishing them wonderfully wide weather windows.