Big Water

Dolphins
Nothing like being greeted by Dolphins!

Then there’s the sea birds. Well offshore we will find various species of sea birds, some large, some small all busy collecting their daily groceries. A few times we’ve come across large flocks of sea ducks or inland sea birds rafted up out over deep water. They seem perfectly content to paddle around, visiting and chatting away.

But there’s more. . .fishing nets and sometimes large logs or debris washed out to sea by storms on shore. Loose crab pot markers and big things we don’t really recognize. Even though we’ll set a course and keep to it for the most part, we still need to keep an eye out for the surprises sure to pop up.

I wrote previously about the big waves and the issues with keeping comfortable in rough seas. But sometimes we can mitigate a rolling swell by pretending we’re a sailboat. We’ll ‘tack’ into the waves, then fall off and find another line that might limit the rolling. Yes, we cover more ground and we take longer if that happens – but we can manage the ride much better. And then there’s the ‘no waves’ crossings. Calm waters and little or no wind.

Many boaters will buddy up with other boats when making long crossings, trips like Cape May, NJ to New York where the entire trip is offshore. Or shuttling back and forth on the Great Lakes from one side or the other. It can make for some interesting radio conversation between boats and there’s a true feeling of camaraderie. We’ve done it a few times and it’s nice to end up in a strange place with good friends nearby to help with lines or share a meal at the end of a long day.

But most times we seem to end up going it alone. Our longest passages have all been alone. We watch the weather closely and make our decisions based on at least 3 or 4 weather services. If the vote isn’t a majority of services in favor of good conditions, we just don’t go. And that’s a big part of Big Water. The waiting. Unlike staying busy training for that swim meet or football game, we just wait. Shangri-La is ready, fueled up and inspections done. And we wait. Then, when the window opens it’s cast off and head to sea.

Our first offshore run was a bit over 90 miles. Cutting the corner from Brunswick GA to Hilton head. At one point we were around 23 miles offshore. No big deal but it was exhilarating to watch the condos fade over the horizon and cell phone signals die off. Then to realize it’s just us and Shangri-La. Pam and Sarah down below, rumbling along happy as can be.

Well one hopes so. Part of our routine when we’re offshore is to do regular engine room checks. Jan takes the helm and I crawl down in the ER (Engine Room) to take a good look around. It’s noisy. Two 5.9L Cummins rumbling along at around 1,400 rpm in what is basically a typical residential bathroom laid on it’s side. The ER is well lit and with the help of my handheld flashlight, I peek below each engine looking for stains on the diapers. Yes, diapers. Below each engine is a pan lined with oil absorbing material. Should any fuel or oil leak onto the stark white fabric it immediately shows up. I’m also checking belts to see if there is anything odd going on there as well. With an infrared temp gun, I can shoot any area of the engines, exhaust, stuffing boxes and transmissions to confirm nothing is getting over temp. I also check the raw water sea cocks to be sure we’re not shipping any water and to check for air leaks that may cause the engines to be starved for cooling water.

All is good, so I make my way up through the hatch in the solon floor and rejoin my mate on the bridge. Unless it’s craptootie out. On some occassions it’s just no fun to spend a full day up top. Too much rolling or really crappy weather make it too uncomfortable. Yes, even the best forecasters can get it wrong. Mother Nature has her own rules. On those days (we’ve had maybe four) we both go inside and navigate from the lower helm.

Jan? She stays busy. Think of all the things one does in keeping the house tidy. She will make the bed and clean up the galley. On calm days, no big deal. When we’re rockin’ and rollin? It’s a challenge to say the least. Somewhere about an hour into the trip Jan will put together a hot breakfast for us to enjoy while underway. Timing is everything, so if we had decided the night before to leave in the morning, odds are we’re up before dawn and casting off at first light. Pitch black in some cases if we need to take advantage of tides. So the first meal is usually served once we’re underway and our house is in order.

After that, we will take turns at the helm scanning the instruments, watching the course and the auto-pilot to make sure she’s keeping us on track. I hesitate to take naps on long trips. Anyone who knows me also knows I can sleep in the bucket of a back hoe loading rocks at the quarry. I’m afraid the thrumming of the engines would put me out for the whole trip. We do keep both radios scanning the appropriate channels to stay in touch with what’s happening nearby. More than once we’ve heard calls for assistance and altered course to take a look around. The US Coast Guard usually makes those announcements – as they can send and receive from much farther away than most of us boats on the water.

Grand Banks Love
Eddy and Linda admiring their beautiful Spiritus from Shangri-La

One of our long runs was split into two days. We left Mackinaw City Michigan heading for Door County Wisconsin. With another couple aboard their boat Spiritus we crossed under the Mighty Mackinaw bridge heading west. A most unusual trip – each time we made a course change, the wind changed to right on the nose. The two foot chop was very easy on us coming from head on. Seemed like the Lord was guiding us around the shoals and into the harbor with perfect winds and seas. The first night we anchored out in the bay on Beaver Island. That evening six of us met ashore to enjoy the sights and dine in a local bar. Meeting new boaters is automagic in so many harbors.

The next day Spiritus left Beaver Island at O’dark thirty heading for Washington Island some 80 miles west at the tip of the Door County peninsula. We travel a tad faster and planned to catch up with them later in the day. For 30 miles we watched them edge ever closer – first a blip on the horizon then coming into focus the closer we got. We ended up in a tiny fishing village with just room for the two of us and one other cruiser. It was an amazing trip.

Open Water
Alone – What an Exhilarating Feeling!!

Leaving Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin August 26th heading for Ludington, we started out alone to cross Lake Michigan. Nearly 100 miles, this one would be a biggie. As the coastline of Wisconsin faded in our wake, the fog rolled in. For the next 9 hours we were blanketed in a thick veil of mist. The lake was as calm as I’ve ever seen. The entire trip. It was eerie. Our loud hailer has a ‘fog horn’ setting where every two minutes it blares a horn blast. The entire trip we announced our arrival to the mist. We saw one other boat, an offshore commercial fishing boat, slowly idling along at right angles to us. With our radar, we can see out to nearly 20 miles. Nothing. Not a single blip. Standing on the bow, the breeze of our momentum is the only air moving. It’s 70 degrees. What an incredible trip!

Then, later in September, one more long one on Lake Michigan. A straight shot from Pigeon Lake near Grand Haven, Mi across to Hammond, In. We had one large sailboat off our port quarter about 4 miles back with us for a very long time. Eventually he fell away, over the horizon and we motored on, again alone. This one, over 100 miles was our last big water for a while. All went smoothly and the forecasts were spot on.

Crossing the Gulf
The Big Bend

Big Bend. The Granddaddy Crossing of our Great Loop adventure. After making our way 1,200 miles down the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers then the rivers and lakes that form the Ten Tom waterway, we’re in Mobile. Crossing the panhandle of Florida the ‘jump off’ to get across to Tarpon Springs is Apalachicola or Carabelle. We elect to start off from Apalachicola, since we’ll be leaving around noon. On this trip, Randy will be joining us. We met him and his wife Sherri waiting for the opening of the Erie Canal – back in May. Could we do it alone? Sure. Is Jan comfortable being alone at the helm in the dark knowing I’m in a coma down below? No. Randy has offered to join us for this leg. It will be 23 hours steady running to get to Tarpon Springs. We’ll be a good long ways off shore – and running all night in order to enter the Southern Crab Pot Kingdom a little after sunrise.

Our good friend Eddy the Weathermaster has given the go – we leave tomorrow. Randy comes aboard around 11AM and by 1PM we are heading down the river out to sea. Conditions are incredible. Not even a wind ripple on the Gulf of Mexico. Eddy nailed it. Watching a magnificent sunset gave both Jan and I chills as we motored south cutting a straight path to red buoy #2 many hours away. We take three hour shifts at the helm. It’s a beautiful night and we elect to run the boat from the bridge, under the bimini where we can touch the stars with an outstretched hand.

Great Loop Great Crossing
Randy and Jan waiving bye bye to Sherri on shore – 23 hours to go!!
Radar, our pet Owl stands guard up on the Mast

Jan has the meals all planned and we are treated to a hot dinner of bacon wrapped chicken as the sun goes down. She has snacks and beverages ready to go so we’re never wanting for something to munch on. I walk down to the deck, hearing that signature ‘extra’ splashing that announces we’ve got company. There, in the half moon light is a pod of dolphins playing, leaping and splashing alongside us. I hear an odd whistle and look up to see the huge wingspan of some seabirds crossing overhead. The moon peeks out from scattered clouds. This is incredible.

Gulf of Mexico Sunset
Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico

We’ve never slept aboard while underway. What an experience. Jan and I lie down to take a nap in the V-birth. The rushing water against the hull, the gentle roll of the swells has me in REM stage sleep before the light bulbs we just extinguished can cool off.

Later around 3AM while I’m on watch, a notice to mariners comes across the radio. Some boats on the same trip we are, about 25 miles ahead of us have seen a red distress flare and reported it. The Coast Guard is giving the coordinates and we’re in the area. We slow down and it’s all hands on deck while we do some searching. Radar shows nothing near us and with Jan scanning the water with the light while Randy and I try to pick out anything that looks unusual we come up empty. We let the USCG know we’ve searched with no luck and rejoin our course line heading south.

About 2 hours before dawn we begin to pick up a bit of wind and the seas build coming out of the South East. It’s not ‘rough’ just a pleasant rise and fall as the waves meet to discuss which way they want to get organized. By sunrise we are making good headway in a rising swell that still offers no inconvenience but keeps us on our toes moving about the deck in the dark.

Sunrise West Florida
Sunrise Heading to Tarpon Springs – still 4 hours out

If the sunset was exceptional, the sunrise is incredible. We’ve made it most of the way and Shangri-La has performed flawlessly as we nose southeast into the sun. As planned, we come into the Anclote River Bay right on our marker #2 and make our way to the marina in Tarpon Springs. By noon we’re tied in and it’s high fives all around. Yes, some days can get snotty off shore. Others are nearly a religious experience while we are immersed in all of God’s glory, alone at sea. The perfect place. . .to Eat Life.

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