Growing up on the west coast as we both did - not to mention raising our families in Oregon - we somehow both feel a little more at home on this side of Florida than the Atlantic coast. To us, it's a little weird (even after more than two years on or near the Atlantic) to seek the sun rising
over the ocean rather than setting
Threading our way south and then westward once we passed Key Largo, we were hoping to stop in Marathon, where we had spent more than five weeks last winter and where several friends are wintering. Unfortunately, though, this year's El Niño weather has resulted in a larger than usual crowd there. Every time we called the marina or friends for an update, we heard there were at least 30 - and often more than 50 - boats waiting for a mooring ball. The thought of dozens of boats crammed into Boot Key Harbor - a pretty tight anchorage to begin with - gave us the shivers.
So instead, we sailed up through the Channel Five Bridge near Fiesta Key into Florida Bay, the body of water that separates the Everglades from the Keys. After spending one night at anchor just inside the bridge, we crept across the very shallow bay the entire next day. The water there is only about seven feet deep, which is always unnerving with a six foot draft. Even worse, though, the sea grass there was so thick and grew so high that our fish finder display was showing just over five feet and the depth alarm was sounding repeatedly. Larry finally had to turn that off so I wouldn't have a nervous breakdown. We basically dragged our keel through that grass for miles and miles, finally figuring out that by throwing out our genoa, Thalia would heel just enough to reduce the drag and allow us to skim along.
It was a relief to finally round the southwestern corner of Everglades National Park and spill out into the Gulf of Mexico. Our first surprise was how green the water is in the Gulf - quite different than what we'd seen before in Florida waters. It's not quite as clear as the Keys, and is a vibrant jade green. Even a few miles from shore in that area, it's only eight or nine feet deep, still shallow but a much more comfortable depth for us.
Our first Gulf Coast destination was the Little Shark River in the Everglades, where we entertained ourselves watching a vast array of avian friends. We saw no one but several sailboats, plus a few fishing boats running in and out the river. There were no roads, no lights, and no cellular coverage whatsoever. It reminded me a bit of Glacier Bay in Alaska, which is also a delightful step back in time.
A glorious sunset at pristine Panther Key in Everglades National Park.
The next morning we sailed up to anchor for two nights at Panther Key, another uninhabited island. During the day, we walked on one of the key's narrow beaches, bordered by an impenetrable thicket of mangrove trees with their primordial air roots reaching down into the salt water to form skeletal teepees all along the shore. There were very few people: again a few sailboats and fishing boats, as well as a trio of campers who had kayaked for miles down the river to get there.
While it was nice not to have modern life intruding for a few days, we eventually realized this also meant it was impossible to access GRIB files or other weather data on our iPad to determine when exactly to continue north. The Gulf of Mexico has a reputation for being unpredictable and at times extremely uncomfortable, and this year has been a poster child for crazy weather. However, we did have older GRIB files and the generalized weather reports on the VHF radio, so we moved on and had a comfortable sail up to our next destination and our first taste of civilization on the Gulf coast.
We spent two nights anchored in Factory Bay at Marco Island, a small but very comfortable anchorage. Our one day there, we walked around town, getting haircuts, enjoying lunch and later ice cream, and buying a few provisions at a supermarket. The town was nice enough, but very much like many others we've seen in the Keys: a busy four lane highway runs right through town, with businesses on either side. After just one day, we were ready to move on to Naples, wanting to leave ourselves more than enough time to arrive before my sister Rebecca's planned visit.
Several years ago, when we finished our advanced sailing certification in Fort Lauderdale, we drove across the state to see Naples, a city we'd heard much about from friends Lucia and Bob, who own a vacation home there, and my Mom and Al, who enjoyed visiting there. Rebecca's sister-in-law Terri and husband Michael also own a condo there and were in town, so we booked a week, spending a few nights in the mooring field and then moving to the municipal marina for the four nights of Rebecca's visit. Naples, an extremely wealthy community, isn't exactly friendly to transient boaters, with a shifting, shoaling entrance, no anchorages whatsoever, and a strict four-night limit for either the mooring balls or the marina.
Sister Rebecca and me had a wonderful time catching up in Naples.
It's quite a large city, very clean, with many restaurants and great boutique shopping for those so inclined. The neighborhoods are extremely charming and walkable in the downtown area, which then spills out along the Tamiami Highway into large areas of strip malls and big box stores. Since Rebecca had rented a car, we were able to cover more ground than we normally do, including driving up to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, where she and I had spent some time vacationing with our family many years ago. On this day trip we walked through the J. K. "Ding" Darling Nature Preserve, did some de rigueur shelling on a beach (the gorgeous beaches on both islands are graced with billions and billions of shells), and had a superb grouper dinner at Captiva's Key Lime Café.
This white ibis fishing at "Ding" Darling Nature Preserve was one of thousands of birds we saw.
Fort Meyers Beach
Once Rebecca left town after her too-brief visit, we took off north toward Fort Meyers Beach, which has a large and very reasonably priced mooring field. The town is just east of Sanibel Island, where the Caloosahatchee River empties into the Gulf. We'd heard reports of some pretty foul water having made its way down the river right about the time we arrived, due to a release of water polluted by agricultural chemicals and fertilizer from the huge sugarcane plantations surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Heavy rains had flooded the fields, whose polluted runoff was then pumped into the Lake, causing it to rise to levels that threatened the dikes. So the Army Corps of Engineers felt they had to release the water, which was threatening the integrity of the dikes. The massive release then made its way east to the Atlantic out the Saint Lucie River, and west to the Gulf out the Caloosahatchee. As we neared the Fort Meyers Beach shoreline, the water changed dramatically from its usual jade green to a more viscous brown like you'd see in a mud puddle. A very, very large mud puddle. We assume the Clean Water Act simply does not apply here.
Polluted waters from the Okeechobee runoff lap up at Fort Meyers Beach.
So we were a little uneasy about being there right then, but booked a week in the mooring field anyway, as we were overdue for some boat projects. Turns out the town was also inundated in another way: spring breakers were everywhere, and Fort Meyers Beach is very much the kind of place spring breakers love. It has a huge bar, restaurant, and gift shop scene, not to mention a very nice beach that unfortunately at that time was temporarily awash in extremely polluted water. I was a little shocked to see anyone wading in that surf at all.
We did enjoy our stay, though, and made significant progress on several projects, including building a new charcoal filter for the holding tank, adding several coats of varnish to the exterior trim of the boat, and cleaning and polishing all the stainless.
Another highlight of that visit was reconnecting with our friends Gary and Jana, whom we had met and become very fond of during our stay in the northern Chesapeake last fall while waiting for Hurricane Joaquin. They were not onboard their lovely boat Mañana while we were in Fort Meyers Beach, but instead were staying with Jana's mom. We picked them up in our dinghy and had them onboard for dinner and a wonderful evening of catching up with each other.
As we headed north toward a long-awaited rendezvous with our friend Barbie in Sarasota, we realized as we neared Sanibel Island that it would be simple enough to anchor out right off one of the beaches there, with their tempting treasure troves of shells. So we did, taking our dinghy ashore that afternoon for one beach walk and then again quite early in the morning for another. The morning shelling walk was the best, with a gorgeous sunrise, very few other beachcombers, and a significant haul of colorful shells. And fortunately, the Okeechobee runoff had not yet ventured that far out.
Leaving our Sanibel anchorage, we rounded the north end of Captiva Island and entered the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW) through the Charlotte Harbor Inlet. This was our first experience with the Gulf Coast ICW, which we avoid in many areas due to various hazards like shallow water and bridges that are just a bit too short for us to clear. However, this stretch was quite pleasant, other than having to pace ourselves over two days to get through quite a few bascule and swing bridges. We saw almost no other sailboats on this stretch, which is dominated by fishing and speed boats, as well as pontoon boat excursion rentals. The last stretch of this, past Venice, was quite narrow. We had a lot of gawkers pointing at us as we motored past the condos tightly packed along the canal. "Oregon! They're a long way from home!"
The Sarasota Bay finally opened up before us, and we were surprised and pleased with how lovely it is. All of a sudden we were back in that pretty pale turquoise water we associate with Florida, with beautiful homes lining the bay and a majestic bridge and city skyline looming just north of us.
Barbie at the helm of Thalia on a glorious day sail around Sarasota Bay.
The mooring field there at Marina Jack's is spacious and extremely well run. We never once used their facilities the week we were there, however, because Barbie picked us up at the dinghy dock shortly after we arrived and whisked us back to her lovely new home about half an hour northeast of downtown Sarasota.
Our first ever polo match was quite exciting to watch!
Of course I was absolutely rivited by the Clydesdale team, which I followed around the field during a break in the game.
We were then treated to an extraordinarily restful week of great food, wine, music, and conversation. We watched a polo match with Barbie's friend Beverly while enjoying an elegant picnic with VIP seating. Barbie and I had a girls' day shopping and lunching on my birthday, while poor Enzo finished our taxes back home. We all spent a lazy afternoon swimming in the pool and hanging out at the jacuzzi. We visited the fabulous Ringling Bros. museum. We had a great evening of beer and appetizers and really good live music with several other friends on St. Patrick's Day. And Barbie drove us to Whole Foods on our last day so we could re-provision before moving on. Sarasota is a lovely city and we really had a delightful time.
Wonderfully funky wall art outside a bar and café in Bradenton Beach.
Gulfport and Saint Petersburg
Continuing on up the ICW, we finally arrived at our furthest-north destinations, first spending several nights anchored at the sweet, funky little town of Gulfport, and then sailing up Tampa Bay's west side to Saint Petersburg, where we are now moored.
View from Thalia's mooring in the basin at Saint Petersburg, with the majestic Vinoy Renaissance Hotel rising in the background.
We couldn't believe it: what a beautiful city this is! While both Naples and Sarasota are very nice, St. Pete really stole our hearts. The entire waterfront is a huge public park of green space and beaches that stretches for miles. Tropicana Field and the Dali museum are clearly visible, the latter looking like a melting glass geodesic dome wedged between two enormous concrete blocks. Huge banyan, kapok, live oak, and palm trees grace the lawns of the city park, along with an extensive network of sidewalks wide enough to accommodate bikers, walkers, dogs, and Segway riders. The tiny harbor where we're moored is surrounded by parks, with the lovely historic pink Vinoy Renaissance Hotel looming over the north side. High rise condos, office buildings, and the many beautiful homes are all back several blocks from the public waterfront.
A peek of the Saint Petersburg harbor from the interior of the atrium at the Dali Museum.
Captain Enzo showing off his new haircut outside the terrific old-time barbershop he found in town.
We enjoyed several days here, wandering around the city, visiting the Dali museum and the farmers market, and taking long bike rides to explore downtown. We had a wonderful and very reasonable dinner at Mexican restaurant Red Mesa. And then we decided we'd better start heading south again, given that we need to get all the way back around the state and then head up to North Carolina by June 1 for a rendezvous with the yard where Thalia's hull is to be repainted.
The City regularly prunes the air roots of these monstrous banyan trees, which we overheard a tour guide say would eventually otherwise grow to the size of a football field.
A Sad Turn of Events
We had only made it one day south and were anchored out, planning our next day's travel, when the call came from my brother and sister that our beloved Al Haussener - Mom's full time companion and our virtual stepdad - had had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and was not expected to live. What followed was a pretty horrible - and sleepless - night, communicating as I could with my siblings, both of whom were driving from opposite ends of California to get to the San Francisco hospital where my Mom sat vigil at Al's bedside. Larry and I also managed to track down Al's son Mark, who was aboard Blue Star in a remote spot in the Virgin Islands, and who then had to scramble to try to get home.
Nancy and "Albear," as we knew him, during our trip together to Kingston, Ontario.
The call that Al had passed away came in the middle of the night. We had slept a few hours but both awoke about 1:10 am. Five minutes later, Dan and Rebecca called to let us know Al was gone. Our hearts broke. As I wrote in a Facebook post a few days later, Al was the closest thing Larry and I had to a father since our own Dads passed away. He was wise, compassionate, witty, deeply caring, and more full of intellectual curiosity than anyone I've ever known. We are deeply saddened.
Because of this turn of events, we decided to return to Saint Petersburg so we could leave Thalia in a safe harbor to fly home to be with Mom. We're back on a mooring ball now, moving to the marina Monday to secure Thalia, and then flying out Tuesday early morning to spend ten days in Tiburon with Mom. Once we return on the 15th, we'll restart our voyage south with heavier hearts.
Sunrise this morning in St. Pete was all the more glorious after a stormy day yesterday.
I do believe we'll be back here. Saint Petersburg has even made the short list of cities we're considering moving to when we wrap up our travels. We really like the city's vibe, its size, its energy. Another thing that just feels right about Saint Petersburg is that even though we can watch the sun rise over Tampa Bay, we can also see it set to the west. And to a small degree, that makes us feel a bit more at home.