Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ft. Walton Beach to Panama City

Another beautiful day, another 75 miles or so.  I mentioned the city park in Ft. Walton Beach in yesterday's post.  Here it is from the water at 7 AM this morning.

And we stirred up a flock of pelicans not long after that. Speaking of birds and animals, I should note that all the cruising guides from Galveston to here tell us to watch for alligators and bald eagles.  We have seen exactly zero of these thus far - none, nada.

When you leave Ft. Walton Beach, you begin about a 35-mile run across the open waters of Choctawhatchee Bay.  It looked like most open water, pictures of which I will spare you from.  But when you leave the open water, you run an interesting 18-mile narrow canal nicknamed the Grand Canyon, a relative term considering it's in Florida.  Here's the entrance as you leave the bay.

You can see the open bay behind the boat below with Rhonda at the helm.  Yes, I know our boat looks like the Clampetts, but when you do an early morning departure with all things cold and damp (temperatures in the low 40s), you kind of throw everything  "somewhere" just to get moving and sort it out later.  The bike thing was a last minute decision when we left Orange Beach.  We definitely want them aboard for getting around towns with no courtesy car and places too far away to walk for what you need.  My bike is on the aft deck rooftop inside the dinghy, just haven't gotten Rhonda's up there yet.

Once inside the canal, the Grand Canyon gets its name from these high (for Florida) sandy banks.

The long stretches and occasional curves make for pretty cruising and pics also.

Leaving the Grand Canyon, you enter another large bay which leads you to the Panama City area.  There was a huge fire in the distance on our port side.

Instead of continuing on to Panama City, we hung a left about half way through the bay for some friends' home on Fannin Bayou in the city of Southport.  Here's the story on how we met Rich and Mary Gano.  Six years ago we were doing a fall cruise on the TN River.  Our boat at the time was  a 1972 wooden hull 32' Grand Banks, a beautiful boat I might add.  Here's "Help Me Rhonda II" docked at Hales Bar Marina in Guild, TN. 

We got up early one morning to head downstream and I called the lockmaster at the Nickajack Lock nearby to be sure there would no delays.  He said "if you can get here in 20 minutes, I'll get you through.  If not, there will be a 4-hour delay for a barge coming upstream for a lengthy lock-through."  I told him we would be there and we got busy leaving ASAP.  (We probably looked like the Clampetts then also).  As we left the dock I noticed a 42' wooden hull Grand Banks that had arrived after dark the previous evening, named "Calypso."  The owner was on the dock, we waved and he asked "where you headed" and I relayed the   lockmaster's comments.  He said " We're heading downstream also.  We'll lock through with you."  Sure enough we made it in time but hit a solid wall of fog just before entering the lock.  You could no longer see the lock!  The 42' GB driver said, "just follow me in."  Well, he sounded like he knew what he was doing so I thought what the heck, why not?  We followed him in and locked through successfully in very dense fog. We traveled the TN River together for several days with Rich and Mary Gano and have stayed in touch ever since.  Oh by the way, he's a retired boat driver for the US Navy so he did have the experience!  Meet Rich and Mary 6 years ago.

And here we are aboard Help Me Rhonda II.

And the 2 Grand Banks together at Ditto Landing on the TN River in Huntsville, AL.

We've kept in touch over the years but it's the first time we've had the four of us and the boats together again.  Rich and Mary still have "Calypso" and we're now up to "Help Me Rhonda IV" - parked together below at their dock in Southport.  Neat story, huh?

We went out for dinner this evening at The Shrimp House in Panama City and will spend tomorrow getting caught up with stories and more stories (mostly about boats and maritime stuff, duh).  We'll probably continue on our trip Saturday.  Thanks again Rich and Mary for having us at your dock and in your home.  Good folks!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ft. McRee to Ft. Walton Beach

We decided to stay an extra day at Ft. McRee due to weather.  A huge front rolled through about mid-morning with some heavy rain, thunderstorms, and wind with gusts to at least 40 MPH, maybe higher.  The anchor held just fine and there were no problems but at one point I was concerned enough to fire the engines up in case we needed them to hold our position.  Things finally settled down and we actually had a neighbor join us later in the evening.  We spent the day catching up on everything (there is always something that needs to be done on a boat) and I got a couple of special projects done.

Well, we've now had our first mechanical issue of the trip.  We have three banks of batteries on the boat - cranking batteries for the 2 engines and the generator, one "house bank" for all the 12 volt stuff like bilge pumps/some lights/electronics/etc., and a single separate battery for the windlass (raises and lowers the anchor, it's heavy).  The cranking and windlass batteries are relatively new but the house bank (8 deep-cycle 6-volt golf cart batteries) are getting some age on them. While I'm on the electrical stuff topic for non-boaters that may be reading this (over 4000 hits thus far), boats have 110V alternating current power systems just like your house, and separate 12-volt systems.  The AC 110 system is powered by shorepower hookups or a generator (ours is a 7.5 KW).  We also have a 3000 watt inverter that converts the DC power from the house battery bank to AC power if you want certain things to have 110 power when you don't have shorepower and don't want to run your generator.  A refrigerator is an excellent example.  Obviously, there is limited power available in the house bank of batteries and eventually they have to be charged and in our case, a 140 amp charger is part of the inverter equipment.  To run the charger you have to have shorepower or the generator running. Hope all that made sense.  There's more to the story like alternators on the engines but that's generally it.  The point is, you are constantly monitoring all of the above to ensure you always have the right kind of power where you need it and when you need it.

So back to the mechanical issue.  I replaced 2 of the 8 house bank batteries before we left Galveston and was hoping the other 6 were OK.  Our 2-day anchorage confirmed they were all starting to lose their "uuumph" and had to be replaced.  We are visiting some friends in Panama City starting tomorrow and Rich and I had planned to swap them out ourselves but this morning I began to worry a bit that they might not even last that long (when batteries go, they go quickly).  So about 1 o'clock I made a phone call to one of the service yards in Ft. Walton Beach.  It's literally called "Boat Marina and Boat Yard" which sounds more to me like "what they do" but it is what it is.  They do not do electrical work but gave me the name of a guy that does the battery work for them, I called him, told him what I needed and within 15 minutes he confirmed he could get the exact brand/size/etc. of batteries I needed, we agreed on a price and he agreed to meet me at the marina (we were only about an hour away).  Sure enough he was waiting at the dock when we arrived and he and his helper had the old ones out and the new ones in in about an hour.  Folks, it does not go any slicker or faster than that.  So, let me put in a plug for Glen and Ken at Best Marine Services.  Definitely a "how else can I help you" attitude.  The marina had slips available also so we rented one, put clothes in the washer, and headed to town to sightsee.

I have decided that as we travel we should continually update a priority list of  "I could live here" cities that will change as we visit new places.  If you recall, Morgan City, LA was the first one of those cities we chose but it now holds the #2 spot behind Ft. Walton Beach, FL.  First of all the water is beautiful here (clean and clear vs dirty and dark) as well as the sand (white sand vs brown mud).  The arrival by water from the west is absolutely beautiful with live oak trees and antebellum homes in abundance.  Take a look.

Across the waterway is Santa Rosa Island which runs from Pensacola to Destin and is mostly uninhabited except for short stretches of beach towns.  The rest is owned and operated by the military.  Rhonda decided today that the the sand on some of the higher sand dunes looks like ski slopes.  This is not one of those with the high sand dunes but you get the idea.  The beach and Gulf of Mexico is just on the other side.

They make a big deal here of a pirate called Billy Bowlegs with an annual festival every year for the past 58 years.  They have a beautiful waterfront park (which they just featured on the evening news).

There are some neat shops in their downtown area.  This one specializes in guess what?  Yep, The Buccaneer Gift Shop specializes in a variety of Coke Collectibles with bottles from the 1940s, signs from the 1920s, and a cooler from the 1930s.  There's an almost infinite supply of everything "Coke."

In 1976 they did a restoration of the Camp Walton Schoolhouse that was in operation from 1912 to 1936.  It was closed for the evening but looking inside they had things like a pot-belly stove and old-timey desks with chalk boards on each one, very nicely done.  I bet the kids were well-behaved back then too!

There was a camelia garden with each bush sponsored in memory of deceased friends and family members from the area.

Here's one of many Christmas trees around town.  It's in the park mentioned previously and will be lit tomorrow evening after the town's Christmas boat parade that starts at "Boat Marina and Boat Yard" and ends at the park with much ado about the tree I'm sure.

And how about the marina with peacocks, guinea hens, fruit trees, dinosaurs, and concrete boats for an office.

We had dinner at the Crab Shack.  It says on the sign that it is the "original waterfront crab shack" and everyone that recommended it made a point of that.  So I asked the waiter what was the significance of that, and being the smart-aleck that he was (not really, he just jumped on an excellent opportunity), he said "it means it was the first one."  I have to admit, I set myself up for an easy one with the question but my point was how did that relate to places like the Joe's Crab Shack chain? It didn't change his answer so we moved on to things like ordering food and eating.

Anyhow, back to the "I could live here" cities.  We saw all of this in about an hour of walking a few city blocks, the town just had a good feeling about it, and there's a reason they call it "The Emerald Coast."  I'm sure there's more.  #1 on our list for now.

One more interesting story for today, or at least I think it's interesting.  Between Pensacola and Ft. Walton Beach is a town called Navarre.  Never heard of it before today and still don't know how to pronounce it.  The story goes like this - a US colonel from WWI met a woman in France (Noel) that he fell in love with and wanted to bring her back to the states.  However, immigration laws at the time would not allow him to bring her here as a fiance' or wife, but he could bring her here as his legal child so he adopted her and brought her back to the Florida panhandle.  That's pretty creative.  The soldier, Guy Wyman, bought a large amount of land, Noel named it Navarre after a province in Spain close to France, and they platted the town in 1925.  However, they couldn't afford the taxes in years to follow and ultimately were forced to sell the land.  Here is a small portion of it today.  Taxes are probably a bit higher but the locals call it Florida's best kept secret.

So, it's been a long day but a good day, even with the battery diversion - most days are while traveling on the water.  We started about 6AM and went nonstop til dinner. It's almost 10 PM now and I still haven't had my tylenol and hot shower for the day.  I'm not sure if this trip is going to get me in better shape or kill me.  When we finished dinner, Rhonda asked "Are you ready to go?"  I said "I'm not sure I can" as I was pretty tired and sore just about all over.  As we were walking across the parking lot heading back to the boat, she needed to check something so she said "Stop just a minute."  My response was the same - "I'm not sure I can."  But we'll give it another go tomorrow, about 70 miles to Rich and Mary Gano's home in Southport, north of Panama City.  Gonna bypass Destin even though we know it's a beautiful place also.  Just don't have time to see them all.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Orange Beach to Pensacola

What a nice day.  I got up early and took the rental car into town to check on the truck at the body shop, drop off some mail at the post office, and got some banking done at Regions.  Then I turned in the rental car at Hertz and had a really nice conversation with Marion, the driver who took me back to The Wharf.  His son is in the pilot training program at Auburn (our son Scott is a commercial pilot) and his daughter is an air traffic controller at Las Vegas getting ready to transfer to Sacramento (that's the second controller family we've met on this trip).  Guess what we talked about?

With all the problems associated with me wrecking the truck last Wednesday, this week has really worked out nicely.  We paid our bill and departed The Wharf.

We decided on a short 20-mile ride to an anchorage south of Pensacola at Fort McRee.  Another boater that visited here called it Ft. McCreepy and we agree.  

We took the dinghy over to the island and walked a short distance inside the fort.  After about 175 years it was in rough shape with lots of holes in the concrete floors, dark, cold, and CREEPY.  Plus, our flashlight was weak so we didn't dare go very far. We found at least 2 entrances like this one.  Ft. McRee was one of three forts built to protect Pensacola and its natural harbor.  Because of the difficulty accessing it from the mainland, it has pretty much been left to the effects of the elements.

Here's a pic of the fort from a distance.  Just about the entire treed area is the fort.

On the way here, things started to look a lot more like Florida - bright colors and white sandy beaches.

Here's the dinghy on the beach with HMR anchored in the distance.  There were no other people on the island.  We had it to ourselves.

I've got quite a few shots of the pretty water and the white sand, quite a change from TX, LA, MS, and AL.  The colors are much brighter than shown here.  It was a very overcast day.

This one is from the top of the fort.

Rhonda walking the beach and comparing her foot size to one of the many birds on the beach.

These are some big birds, I assume herons.  Lots of pelicans today also, which by the way are my favorites around the ocean.

Here are a couple perched on the Minimum Wake sign.

Rhonda would like to have taken this shell home but someone was still living inside this one.

And, HMR at anchor.  Hoping for a nice peaceful evening.  The forecast is for some showers tonight/tomorrow morning and a couple of hours of thundershowers tomorrow around noon.

Not sure about our plans for tomorrow, gonna have to watch the weather.  Our next anchorage is 32 miles east at Spectre Island.  Oh yeah, one other neat thing about this anchorage - it's just a short distance away to Navy Pensacola Air Station, so the Blue Angels and other aircraft practice overhead a lot.  Sorry, no pics, maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

It has been a crazy week.  We arrived at The Wharf in Orange Beach, AL last Monday and just decided to delay a week here with lots to do.  It is a beautiful location with lots of shops and restaurants, and they had some nice Christmas decorations out for us also.  Notice the ferris wheel to the left.

We parked the boats and headed to Lake Charles the next morning to move some cars.  Let me just say that cars are an aggravation when traveling by boat - there is just no easy way to move them.  We considered selling both of them before leaving Galveston but decided we would need at least one for our planned extended stay in JAX and we ended up just keeping both of them.  So, we had to deal with them before we got much farther away which would make it even more inconvenient.

Clint and Linda rented a car in Orange Beach and dropped us off in LCH to get our two vehicles that had already been moved to that point and they continued on to Harborwalk to pick up one of theirs and head to their home in Sulphur Springs, TX for Thanksgiving, dropping the rental car off in Houston.  That turned out to be about a 750-mile round trip for us in one day and we were very tired.  Our plan then was to drive our vehicles the next morning to Jacksonville, FL to spend Thanksgiving with Rhonda's family, leave our car there for when we get to JAX in a couple of months, and return to The Wharf in the truck.  The company our son Scott flies for makes pretty regular trips to Gulf Shores (next door to Orange Beach for you non-Alabamians), and his girlfriend Rachel would drive our truck back to our home in north AL the next time an empty seat was available on the plane headed to Gulf Shores.  Oh, I wish the story was as simple as above.

We were already tired but got up early the next morning to get on the road hoping to beat most of the day-before-Thanksgiving traffic.  As I am pulling out of the parking lot, I delay at the gate for it to open.  It swings toward you going out and then toward the sides.  I decided to move toward the middle of the exit to be sure and miss the gate, now on my right.  Unfortunately with the early morning sun right in my face, I did not see the steel post in the middle of the exit and proceeded to hit it with the left fender of the truck.  Honest to goodness, I still had my foot on the brake and barely touched the thing, but it bent the fender up against the tire, damaged the front grill, broke a light, and put a nice wrinkle in the hood.  So much for getting ahead of the traffic.

The truck was not driveable and our insurance folks back home don't open until 9 AM, so we pretty much decided to forget travel that day and just deal with the insurance stuff.  Cathy with State Farm was wonderful - got the tow truck moving our way, made plans with one of their pre-approved body shops in Foley (next door to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for you non-Alabamians), and also set us up a rental car in Foley.  That went pretty smooth but it still takes hours to get it all done.  So, we ended up traveling on Thanksgiving day and arrived in JAX a little before the turkey came off the grill.  We had a very nice meal with Rhonda's parents and her sister's family.  Her sister's husband's parents also joined us - the Nettunos.  One thing you can always count on when visiting the Minshews (Rhonda's maiden name) - they are all darn good cooks, and they don't just cook on special occasions, i.e. I am a well-fed man! We always play a round of dominoes with our niece Casey and nephew Trey so that was next after dinner.  Brother-in-law Tony also joined us.

The day after Thanksgiving I spent some time checking out marina locations in JAX - we plan to spend a couple of months there early next year.  Rhonda spent the day visiting with her family and we went out to dinner with her parents at a really good pizza spot in JAX beach, Mellow Mushrooms.  Rhonda's sister, Kelly, was really sweet and made 2 pecan pies just for us (she didn't think the first one turned out so well but we thought it was great).  We left on Saturday and had an uneventful trip back to The Wharf, except for trying to get a head start on those pecan pies while moving down the highway!

As I've noted previously, we always enjoy visiting churches wherever we find ourselves on a Sunday while on the boat.  Usually we have to walk or get a ride but this one was easy since we still had the rental car.  We went to FBC of Orange Beach.  What a friendly bunch!  It was a little funny - after the typical "Hello how are you, glad to have you, I'm ______,"  everyone of them then asked, without missing a beat and using the exact three words almost like a rehearsed line - "Where y'all from?"  Rhonda sneezed once and about 50 people said "God Bless You" in unison. Again, what a nice group of people.

After church and while we still had the rental car, we decided to reprovision at Lowes and WalMart.  Then we checked out new possibilities for our phone, IPAD, and WIFI service.  We have 2 regular phones that are past the 2-year agreement period, an IPAD with a monthly data charge, and our laptop that we normally just use when WIFI is available at our marina stops.  So far, the WIFI service has been intermittent, generally unreliable, and at the least - aggravating to deal with.  So, the short version is that we got a new smart phone that provides us with internet service and a 4G hotspot so we now have our own WIFI, and we increased our data plan from 1G to 2G, rolled the IPAD in with the smart phone, and got it all for the same money we were spending just on the old phones and the IPAD service.  Now, if we can just learn to use this new smart phone (I'm using the hotspot now - pretty cool).  As it turns out, it takes about as long to change your phone service as it does to have a wreck and deal with insurance, tow service, body shops, and rental cars!

With all the above going on, I haven't had as much time to plan as I normally take, so we are keeping it simple tomorrow - return the rental car and get moving again.  Clint and Linda are not back yet so looks like we will be traveling by ourselves and they will be playing catch-up again later.  We plan to make only about 20-25 miles tomorrow and enjoy a nice anchorage at Ft. McCrae, adjacent to the beach and close to Pensacola.  

Thought I would close with some other shots from The Wharf.  This heron seems to hang around a lot on the docks and doesn't get very nervous with all the people.  I'm just a few feet away with this pic.

And a few night-time shots before we head eastbound again tomorrow.  Gets me in the Christmas spirit.