November 15 - December 31, 2009
Back in the USA, but not in Texas
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
"I won't cross the Gulf of Mexico in a cold front and
that's final!" I insisted, arms crossed and jaw firmly
When we bought Caribbean Soul five years ago, Nick
had crossed the Gulf from Florida to Texas with a captain
and another sailor a week before Christmas. It was a quick
trip since the boat averaged better than hull speed as two
cold fronts passed during their five-day passage. At times
they had to hand-steer the boat since the autopilot flatly
refused to function while falling off confused waves at double
hull speed. The boat came through just fine, the only damage
being a toilet paper holder that Nick broke with a full-body
slam. Everything in the boat was wet, and Nick's midsection
was covered with bruises.
"This time you only have a petite woman and a geriatric
dog as crew, and we can't handle gale force winds and breaking
seas." The captain shrugged, relieved I'm sure to be
forced not to take another ass-whoopin' in the Gulf.
It was early November and we'd narrowly avoided disaster
when Hurricane Ida passed just to our east in the Yucatan
channel. Our thoughts now returned to the possibility of a
weather window to cross the Gulf to Texas. Our chances were
slim since the same El Nino that had suppressed hurricane
season was now bringing an early start to winter in the southeast
U.S. I was already contemplating a run back to Roatan for
more scuba diving.
However, when we talked to our weather router, Chris Parker,
he forecast an opportunity with at least six days of favorable
weather. As the time approached, his forecast and our Internet
weather sources continued to hold. A mild cold front would
push just off the Texas-Louisiana coast by midweek. The plan
was to sail due north until the cold front dissipated to our
west, and then turn west in a moderate north wind. We'd sail
into Corpus Christi with a light east wind pushing our stern.
Feeling optimistic, we dug our cruising chute out of its tomb
in the v-berth in anticipation of a glorious downwind run
through the Port Aransas jetties.
On a sunny Sunday, we departed Isla Mujeres for what would
be our longest passage with just the two of us. The wind and
seas were gentle, but we weren't in a hurry. An hour out,
Nick caught a 48" wahoo, which filled our freezer and
precluded any further fishing. The sun flashed green as it
dropped below a clear horizon our first night out. No moon
replaced its light, and we sailed close hauled into a black
But we weren't alone. A few miles ahead, an array of bright
white lights indicated at least a dozen Mexican fishing vessels
plying the shallow Campeche Bank. Many of these boats didn't
display red and green navigation lights so we couldn't determine
their direction, which changed constantly as they meandered
on no particular course. We kept trying to aim for a black
fairway amid the lights, but it was a moving target. Finally
we rolled up the jib and started the engine since it was apparent
we'd have to weave through the boats.
As we got into the thick of them, one boat in particular
was headed straight for us, ablaze in amber light with outriggers
down. As it neared, the captain pulled in his gear and sped
up, still on a collision course.
"He's going to hit us! Turn around!" I demanded
with the earnestness of someone staring down the barrel of
a gun. A few more unbearably long seconds passed before Nick
decided for himself that the fishing boat indeed had no intention
of altering course. Nick whipped the wheel to starboard and
did a complete circle coming around behind the fishing boat.
In the darkness we could barely see the lumbering hull of
an old shrimp boat passing a hundred feet away. It took another
hour to get the pack behind us and return to our course and
two hours for me to coax my heart out of my throat.
Day two brought more mild weather and slow progress north.
Another green flash celebrated the day's end, and more fishing
boats prowled the moonless night.
Tuesday morning brought a big surprise when we checked in
with Chris Parker.
"There's been a change in the forecast, and it's not
a good one." Chris explained. The cold front was coming
off Texas a little stronger than predicted, so we would catch
the edge of it after all. However, that wasn't the bad news.
A low pressure system was predicted to form off the Texas
coast on Friday and move east with gale-force westerly wind
and thunderstorms. By Sunday, a second and much stronger cold
front would enter the Gulf. Our weather window had just vanished.
As we contemplated our predicament, the wind died completely
causing the sea to imitate a mill pond. To our the west, the
sky was blue-gray and ominous. By late afternoon, the northwest
wind whistled through the rigging at 20 knots and the seas
built to 6 feet. The boat motion was uncomfortable through
the night, but conditions were no worse than a brisk trade
On Wednesday morning, the northwest wind had subsided to
10 knots and we called Chris Parker for an update. The low
pressure system was still in the forecast. He recommended
sailing northeast until the wind clocked and then trying to
reach the upper Gulf coast. We laid a rhumb line for Tampa
Bay and made good time in that direction. By Thursday, the
wind and seas were still northerly, making a turn to the upper
Gulf coast unfeasible. We were making 7 knots pinching high
on the wind to Tampa Bay, so we continued on that course realizing
that we would arrive in the U.S. farther from Texas than we'd
been in Mexico. Dispirited, we watched the sun set off our
stern and realized we wouldn't be home for Thanksgiving after
Nick landed this wahoo just north of Isla
When the wind and sea became calm in advance
of a cold front, we
spotted two whales swimming south. This was our first whale
A ship passes as stormy skies build to the
During the cold front, the most comfortable
place to sleep was in the
floor with Dakota.
Tampa Bay, Florida
By late afternoon on Thursday, November 19th, we were approaching
the Eggmont sea buoy outside Tampa Bay. Knowing we'd arrive
after dark, we chose this well-lit ship channel entrance with
no bridges to hinder our passage.
Our AIS system identified shipping traffic in the area, and
I watched the Yellowstone exit the channel and head
northwest. A few minutes later, I was surprised to see the
massive ship change course with a heading directly across
our bow. AIS confirmed what our eyes could see, the Yellowstone
was going to intersect not just our course line, but us! With
two minutes until impact and counting down, I called the ship
on channel 16. No response. We later learned that ships monitor
channel 13 in the channel. Even so, it was half an hour before
sunset, so we were clearly visible. The ship's captain could
have set a course to go behind us, but instead he forced us
to alter course and run along his starboard side to avoid
being reduced to a watery smudge. I was furious at this blatant
and dangerous disregard for a smaller, slower boat. If Caribbean
Soul had a cannon on her bow, I'd have sunk the Yellowstone
as a service to mariners everywhere.
After a long trip down the ship channel (and yet another
averted collision course with a pilot boat), we turned south
and headed for the Manatee River. Lining up flashing red ranges
and locating day marks with our spotlight, we navigated the
narrow channel in the darkness to reach the Regatta Point
Marina. By midnight, Caribbean Soul was tied to their
fuel dock. After three and a half years in the Caribbean,
we were back in the USA. In the eerie night calm, we shivered
from the unfamiliar chill and fell exhausted into our bunk.
We spent a pleasant week at Regatta Point marina where we
were well-treated by the staff and other boaters. The marina
had the nicest amenities of any we'd ever been at, and they
provided turkeys for the boaters' potluck Thanksgiving feast.
It was tempting to stay longer, but a short weather window
opened for the offshore trip across Florida's Big Bend to
Our last night in Tampa Bay was spent anchored
in the Manatee River.
Panama City, Florida
Flat seas and calm winds made for an easy two-day/two-night
motorsail to Panama City. As the curtain of night fell, I
kept watch for shooting stars that streaked in the blink of
an eye across the moonless sky. Later, the crescent moon laid
a shimmering pathway before the boat. In the darkness, I wondered
which was the harder transition: leaving home to go cruising
or returning after learning to live a different lifestyle?
In the quiet solitude of night, no one could see my tears
as Eileen Quinn crooned on my Ipod, her lyrics capturing perfectly
the heartache of a returning cruiser:
This is the journey's end. Some of it was heaven; some,
a trial to survive. Through it all I always knew that I was
alive. Now city lights are blinding me. There's not a star
that I can see. Where is the sky? Streets hum incessantly.
I cannot hear the song of the sea. Where am I? How am I ever
going to make it in the panic and the noise? Oh please don't
let the madness take my voice.
This is the gift that hardships bring: I believe that
now I could do almost anything. Tell me that I'll remember
the lesson of the sea. Trading in dreams. What will
you give me for this old one? It's a little worn, but I can
only bear to give it up if another one is born.
We arrived on Monday morning and tied up alongside the Panama
City Marina transient dock with the help of some local boaters.
The marina was cruiser and dog friendly. Dakota enjoyed visits
to the ship's store for free dog treats (sorry, no free treats
for the human crew).
A cold front blew in on Monday night, dropping temperatures
into the 30s. That was just foreplay for the big blow. By
Wednesday morning, thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes, and winds
gusting up to 60 knots had us huddled in the boat watching
the local weather reports. NOAA reported seas offshore of
17 feet. One gust knocked Caribbean Soul on her ear,
sending a glass of water and some books flying over Dakota's
head and across the cabin. We hardly caught our breath before
a third front arrived on Friday, bringing freezing temperatures
and high winds. Fortunately, our central heating system still
worked after four years in the tropics, and we stayed warm
and cozy while the wind howled around us and we asked ourselves,
"Why on earth didn't we stay in the Caribbean?"
When he reeled in his fishing line at sunset,
Nick discovered this
little tunny on the hook.
We bundled up to see the Christmas lights
in downtown Panama City.
The sign reads, "No dogs on grass."
Panama City had freeze warnings while we
were there, but Dakota
was snuggled warmly in his bed.
After three fronts in six days, we finally caught a two-day
break in the weather and motored out of the Panama City Marina.
Just as we cleared their concrete bulkhead, the engine, which
had purred contentedly during our predeparture preparations,
sputtered once and died without warning. The engine wouldn't
restart, so we quickly unfurled the headsail to regain steerage.
Nick bled the fuel line and soon we were motoring out of the
ship channel in a light east wind. Since arriving in the States,
our weather options had been to travel in gale-force wind
or to travel in virtually no wind, a meteorological feast
About an hour before sunrise the next morning, we approached
the busy Mobile ship channel in the safety fairway. Fairways
are imaginary ocean highways that offer vessels safe passage
through the offshore oil fields along the Gulf coast. Of course,
there are no yellow stripes or even navigation buoys to mark
these watery highways. You know you're in the fairway by your
GPS position and the amber lights blazing from towering oil
wells on either side of a ribbon of black stretching before
Turning into the brown and murky Pascagoula ship channel,
we looked astern and bade a final farewell to clear water.
By midday under cloudy skies and drizzle, we arrived at the
Biloxi Small Craft Harbor. Meeting us on the dock was Al,
a silver-haired gentleman who caught our lines calling out
"welcome to Biloxi" in the soft drawl of the deep
"It's not the Biloxi I grew up in," Al lamented.
Although grand casinos lined the beach highway, Hurricane
Katrina's wrath four year's earlier was still visible in the
area. The marinas in Biloxi had just recently reopened with
limited slips and no amenities.
In Biloxi we got around on foot and by public bus. Riding
public transportation also put us in contact with local people,
although certainly not the most prosperous members of the
community. The impression we got from both white and black
residents was that the recovery money had done little for
them, that it mostly went to rebuild the casino business.
One white man said he lived in a tent in his front yard for
nine months, through the winter, because no "toxic FEMA
trailers" were available.
Of course, the weather dominated our stay in Biloxi: a series
of cold fronts and low pressure systems that brought high
winds and thunderstorms, plus a warm front and two days of
dense fog just for variety. We only intended to stay a few
days, but two weeks later we finally cast off the dock lines
and headed for Louisiana.
"Will we ever leave Biloxi?" Dakota's
expression mirrors that of the two-legged crew.
A foggy morning at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor.
Deanna and Dakota walking in the fog along
man-made beach front.
On December 20th, a cold but clear Sunday, we motored across
the calm, brown water of the Mississippi Sound to an anchorage
in eastern Louisiana. On the VHF radio, the tow boat captains
were analyzing the surprising defeat of the New Orleans Saints
at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys the night before. While
it was tempting to chime in with a "how 'bout them Boys"
retort, New Orleans fans are quite devoted and we decided,
in the interest of not being run out of the waterway by a
fervent fan pushing a six-pack barge, we'd best snicker in
The western side of the Rabbit Island anchorage was occupied
by a derelict oil rig, so we chose the east side with a nice
view of the rusty railroad bridge. The nighttime temperature
was right at freezing, so we ran the generator all night to
power our central heat and stayed cozy and warm.
On Monday morning, we motored up the muddy Rigolets inlet
to Lake Ponchartrain, dodging crab pot buoys in the channel,
to arrive at Caribbean Soul's new home for the remainder
of 2009: Oak Harbor Marina in Slidell, Louisiana. Two days
later we rented a car and drove home to Texas to spend the
holidays with our family for the first time in four years.
As 2009 comes to a close, Caribbean Soul's crew is
adrift with a jello plan that wobbles in a different direction
each day. The boat is for sale but not yet in Texas. The crew
is seeking employment but not sure where to live. The cruising
dream has been achieved, and that chapter in our lives is
closed. All that remains is our memory of freedom and adventure,
clear water, pristine reefs, and the many friends we made
along the way. The next dream is unformed; the future, a blank
Derelict oil well at Rabbit Island--quite
a change from the anchorage pictures we've posted these last
Railroad swing bridge spanning the Rigolets,
viewed from Rabbit Island anchorage.
An incredible sunset at Rabbit Island. Even the rusty oil
derrick looks picturesque in the right lighting.