Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ft Walton to Pearl Bayou

After the fiasco at the Ft. Walton docks last night, we were well and truly happy to be underway this morning, and we left the dock at 0630. The winds were light enough that we considered going offshore at Destin to run outside to Panama City. But, the weather gods can be fickle, and I did not feel like getting beat up if the winds suddenly picked up.

As we entered Choctawhatchee Bay a small trawler blasted past us. It was the C-Dory 25’ trawler that had been at the docks with us last night. He had been awakened by the ruckus on the dock, too. There was a bit of a chop on the bay and he eventually had to slow down. The pounding was just too much for him. We hardly felt it, and I was glad we had stayed on the inside.

While it was overcast and cool this morning, it turned into a beautiful, sunny day later. It warmed up to around 70 degrees with a light breeze. It took us about 3-1/2 hours to get across Choctawhatchee Bay. By 1000 were entering the narrow ICW between Choctawhatchee Bay and West Bay near Panama City.

This section is quite narrow in places, and is often transited by tows (tugs pushing barges). It can be a bit harrowing when needing to pass them, especially in the many bends in the channel. We had a few tense moments when passing a tow with fully laden fuel barges. I was coming up on his stern as he was approaching a bend in the channel.  I called the tug captain on the radio and asked which side he would like me to pass him on, and did he want me to wait until we got through the turn ahead. He responded to come on ahead, pass him on his port (left) side. He was going to favor the outside of the bend (right side of the channel) so I would have plenty of room. He was doing 4.5 knots, and I was doing 6.5. As the tow was three barges long it was going to take me a while to creep past him.
All was well until I got about half way past him. Then he started to creep to the left and crowd me against the bank.  As anyone who has been around tows knows, these guys suck all the water out of the banks as they pass, and then it rushes back in. This was beginning to happen directly below me, and the depth dropped from 12’ to 7’ in a matter of seconds. We only need 5’, but in anything less than 7’ the boat gets squirrelly at cruising speeds. This is because the stern squats a bit at speed, and in less than 7’ the rudders get very close to the bottom. The flow of water over the rudders gets very turbulent, the net result is they become much less effective. What this meant for me now was the bow was veering off towards the barges!  I swung the wheel hard to the left and then we were veering towards the bank.  This nerve racking cycle went on for several agonizing minutes as I ever so slowly moved ahead of the tow. I swear I could hear that captain laughing as he watched me spinning the wheel from side to side. 

I must say this is not our usual experience with passing tows. In situations like this the tug captain usually throttles back to allow us to get past him quicker, and reduce the chance of sucking us into the side of one of the barges.  Earlier in the day I heard other boats talking to the tug and this was what the captain offered to do. But they must have had a shift change, as the guy I talked to was not the same voice I heard earlier. But, all’s well that ends well. We made it past safely, and I only peed myself once. J

We finally exited the narrow ICW channel around 1300 and entered West Bay, just west of Panama City. As we entered open water we got a radio call from a boat coming up behind us. He kindly offered to give me a slow pass if I would throttle back to allow him to come around. This is always much appreciated, as it minimizes the wake these fast boats throw. I pulled back to idle and he came past us with very little wake. Once ahead he opened it up. When I saw the wake he left I was doubly happy of his considerate action.

That happiness was to be short lived, however. A large, fast moving blob appeared at the top of the radar screen, headed directly at us. It was about three miles away. I grabbed the binoculars and scanned the horizon. There!  A very large sport fishing boat, at least 50’, was heading right at us. Even at this distance I could see the tremendous wake he was throwing, at least 6’. This was not going to be pretty. I called repeatedly on the radio to request a slow pass, but no answer.  I warned Paula, cooking in the galley, to secure as much as she could as we only had a couple of minutes. I checked the chart and saw that depths outside the channel were increasing, so I started angling out to put as much distance between us as I could. He passed us about 50 yards away, never slowing. It was close enough that I could hear the high pitched whine of the engine turbo chargers. I turned directly away from the wake in an attempt to outrun it, but that was a wasted effort. At least it had dropped to only 3’ by the time it caught up to us. I made a hard u-turn so we could take it directly on the bow. I heard a couple of crashes from below, but not too bad. Its guys like this that gives sport fishers a bad rep.

As I looked astern for the sport fisher, I noticed that Bob and Gayle, on M/V Stylist, had caught up to us. They were still at the dock when we left this morning. But they cruise around ½ to ¾ knot faster than us so can cover a bit more ground each day. They passed us as we neared Panama City. We chatted on the radio and Bob said they were planning on staying in Smack Bayou. I warned him there was only room for 1-2 boats in there, and the entrance channel was very narrow. He said the guide book said how scenic it was and he was going to give it a try. I told him we were going about 30 minutes further to Pearl Bayou. It is much larger, room for at least a dozen boats, and easy to get into.
I had considered stopping for fuel in Panama City. Not that we needed any, but the two city marinas had the best prices we had seen since leaving Mississippi. I could probably squeeze in two hundred gallons. But I got an email from a fellow boater saying the best prices could be had at a fuel dock in Ft. Myers Beach. I have twice as much fuel as I need to get that far so just decided to wait.

As we passed Smack Bayou I saw Stylist heading in. He got right up to the narrow entrance channel then did a quick 180 and headed back out. He called me and said there were already two sailboats in there, and he felt the entrance channel was too narrow for his 50’ boat. He was going to proceed to Pearl Bayou and would meet me there.

We arrived at 1530, a few minutes after they did, and found it just as we remembered if from our last visit five years ago. There were only two sailboats here, one obviously derelict. But there was more than enough room and we dropped the hook a short distance from Stylist. This is a beautiful spot, surrounded by a thick forest of pines and oaks.  We often see bald eagles here. There is a recreation area at the entrance, but that is part of Tyndall Air Force Base, as is all the surrounding land. It is generally very quiet, but there is occasional jet traffic.

We watched a beautiful sunset, ate dinner, and went to bed. After all the racket from skate boarders and pissed off ex-husbands last night, we were looking forward to a quiet night at anchor, and a good nights sleep!

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