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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 set.

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 abyss.

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 wind day.

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 all.

Nick landed this wahoo just north of Isla Mujeres.

When the wind and sea became calm in advance of a cold front, we
spotted two whales swimming south. This was our first whale sighting.

 

A ship passes as stormy skies build to the west.

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 Panama City.

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.

Biloxi, Mississippi

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 or famine.

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 you.

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 south.

"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 Biloxi's
man-made beach front.

Slidell, Louisiana

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 silence.

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 page.

 

Derelict oil well at Rabbit Island--quite a change from the anchorage pictures we've posted these last few years.

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.

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