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Monthly Archives: February 2016

(The weather screen shots will have to be zoomed in order to see them.  Working to fix the HTML…sorry.)

Husband had to go back to Texas to take care of our taxes and for a doctor’s appointment this morning so this day finds me alone on the boat at Panama City Marina with our two kitties, Spook and Winkie. Chuck returns mid-morning on Saturday. It’s the first time I’ve been alone on the boat for more than a day or so. As Husband had to be at the airport for his 6:05 AM departure this morning, we rented a car yesterday to see more of the area than our bicycle rides could show us.

Panama City is actually a metroplex with the two major areas being Panama City and Panama City Beach. There is a world of difference between the two. Our marina is in Panama City proper.

Panama City (PC) appears to be a mere shadow of what it once was. PC sits at the back of St. Andrews Bay, perhaps 5 miles or so from the Gulf of Mexico and the gorgeous white sand beaches this area is known for. One can tell that once it was a grand place. Beach Drive winds along the bay and has more than its fair share of beautiful, big, unique, and old homes. But, go just a block off of Beach Drive and one is instantly transported to neighborhoods that have, to be polite, seen better days…much better days. We’ve talked to more than one local who has told us they moved away from the city proper twenty years or more ago and that all the tea in China could not get them to move back.  It’s hard to blame them.

Our marina is gated and patrolled at night by security guards. Both of the guards we’ve met have told us that PC is not safe at night and, like many cities of this size everywhere, is saturated with drugs and crime. The homeless are numerous and visible, noticeably visible just a few blocks from the marina. The further one gets from the water, the worse the neighborhoods appear. Though by all accounts the day time is safe, we’ve been told that certain areas close by are not to be visited at night. We’ve taken their advice to heart.

However, Harrison Avenue, their main street, seems to have benefited from some type of downtown revitalization project in the fairly recent past. This street is clean and has shops and a restaurant or two that we’ve been to…on our bikes during the day. The PC City Hall and a civic center of sorts is brand new and adjacent to the marina. Harrison Avenue dead ends at the marina. All in all, though, Panama City is not a place one might want to retire in as far as we’re concerned.

If one heads west on Beach Drive, within a few miles there is a bridge that crosses part of St. Andrews Bay. On the other side of that bridge is Panama City Beach (PCB) and it’s a whole different animal altogether.

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PCB is right on the Gulf of Mexico. For miles and miles there are huge high rise hotels and condominiums. Every conceivable shape, form, and fashion of tourist business (trap) line the roads. The beaches are the most beautiful powder white sand one could imagine. Upscale restaurants and pubs are everywhere, boutiques abound, and, of course, more tourist shops selling Florida trinkets, T-shirts, bikinis, and sea shells than one could shake a stick at. I dare say there is something in PCB for everyone, regardless of age. For a youngster, PCB would be the next best thing to heaven; it’s a wonderland of things to do.  PCB is also clean and I’m sure also has its share of homeless as well, though if they do, we didn’t see them. PCB is what I’m sure people think of when they think of Panama City, Florida.

We had lunch at a restaurant called Harpoon Harry’s yesterday. It was superb. But there were innumerable restaurants of every conceivable fare everywhere for miles and miles. And, more being built. Construction in PCB is in nothing short of boom times.

At this time of the year there are thousands of snowbirds in PCB. The snowbirds are generally older retired folk from up north, down here to escape the harsh winter. And, the establishments cater to them. At Harpoon Harry’s yesterday it was Wisconsin Day…the eatery was almost full up with older couples with tags on stating their name and what part of Wisconsin they were from. Next week is Michigan Day. We talked to a few of these people who were unanimously very friendly. It was obvious they were having a ball.

Though I’m sure the owners of the businesses would disagree, one thing virtually every local we’ve talked to dreads is Spring Break , set to commence around Easter here. We heard on the news a few days ago that the Emerald Coast expects more than a million kids for the festivities and Panama City Beach is one of the biggest draws.

In spite of the dozens upon dozens of hotels, condos, and resorts that line PCB, interspersed between these huge developments are a generous number of single family residences right beside some of them, right on the beach. I can just imagine the angst to these homeowners when a few hundred thousand teenagers are thrown into their pot…hell bent on having the blowout of their year.

Like much of America, there is a clear line in the PC/PCB area between the haves and the never will…have nots.

On another front is the topic of weather windows. In sailing, a weather window is a time span in which the weather is favorable for a passage (going from any given point “A” to any given point “B”). A weather window can be as short as maybe hours, or can be as long as days. Anything much longer than a week or so is ridiculous because the forecast, no matter how great the weather guru making the call, changes.

Weather is simply everything to all mariners…regardless of the size of the vessel. The weather can make a passage one of the most enjoyable experiences imaginable if favorable or something akin to a living nightmare if not…as was the case of our November, Friday 13th bomb.

There are countless sources for a sailor to utilize in predicting the weather. We use fifteen or so different websites to come up with our weather windows. Some of the sites require a paid subscription to get the forecasts, others are free, and still others are a combination, depending on how much one might want to spend. There are even private and professional meteorological services who will call or email your weather window…for a fee. Some sources are obviously better than others.

In our case, and through trial and error, our “go to” weather sources are Predict Wind and Buoy Weather, both are sites we pay for access. We then use NOAA and the other free sites to keep our primary sites honest. All of the weather comes from NOAA in the long run, the sites simply boil the information down to a forecast…read forecast as an educated guess.

Nonetheless, if all or even most of the forecasts agree the weather should be good then chances are it will be good. Still, one rolls the dice and hopes for the best.

Here is the current departure forecast from Predict Wind for our next passage from Panama City to Tampa:

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And, here is the current sea state forecast for the next six days from Buoy Weather for a point that is essentially right in the middle of that little missile test range I last wrote about:

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The color ticks represent sea states:  red is dangerous seas, yellow is small craft advisories, and green represents a pleasant sea state.  It should be noted that with Buoy Weather, the forecast is for a single specific set of coordinates, not for the entire route of the trip, while Predict Wind is the forecast for the entire passage route. It should also be noted that weather deals in everything but absolutes or in other words, what is predicted today may not hold up when the same variables from the same sources are viewed tomorrow. Sometimes the weather just goes to shit in a basket. Take for example the yacht Southern B.E.L.L., an 80’ Hatteras motor yacht. As you can see from the photo, it dwarfed our 52’ Tayana, which in turn dwarfed the other sailboats in the marina.

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M/V Southern B.E.L.L., left Lauderdale Marina over a week ago to, of all places, our hailing port of Kemah, Texas. Night before last they were caught offshore when one cast iron bitch of a front came through, by far the strongest front we’ve seen since we left way back in early November. There were four crew aboard; the skipper and first mate were paid delivery crew with over 30 years of experience each…the other two crew were related to the owner. They caught the front head on.

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According to the skipper and mate, who dropped by our yacht for a beer last night, their boat was tossed around like a cork in seas roughly the same intensity as those we experienced when we were caught offshore back in November, Friday 13th. They surfed down the waves at dangerous speeds of over 25 knots as they limped over the St. Andrews Bay inlet bar getting inside of the bay before they then circled inside the bay until the wind laid down after the front passed. They said that every single item inside the boat, bar none, that wasn’t physically attached to the boat itself gave way as the yacht waffled back and forth through a 45 degree heel, port to starboard and back again. The captain had a large abrasion on his forehead gained when he was thrown across the wheelhouse on a particularly fierce wave. They lost their autohelm one hour out of Ft. Lauderdale and had to hand steer the entire way. Their stabilizers malfunctioned, and so far in the trip they’d had to change out the fuel filters no less than ten times. Their ports leaked and the mate indicated every single changing of clothes he had was soaked. As they both said, it “wasn’t fun.” I don’t doubt it.

The point? Everybody misreads the weather sooner or later…and, misreading the weather sucks. It isn’t fun.

There is a couple of things of note about this story. One is that though our boat is some thirty feet shorter than the 80’ Hatteras it would probably have handled those seas as good or better than the motor yacht. The reason being we have 14,800 pounds of keel that dampens the roll and rights our vessel…motor yachts don’t have that kind of keel weight. Another is that the skipper actually lives in League City, Texas where our home is…his mate lived in Texas City, Texas, just down the road…the owners are from Houston I believe. And, lastly, the crew was bringing their yacht to Kemah, to be berthed at the Kemah Boardwalk Marina…small world, as they say.

I’m somewhat amused with those who prefer catamarans to monohull sailboats, invariably because the cats “ride better.” Cats also capsize better. If a sailboat rolls or is knocked down it is self-righting because of the heavy keels…cats don’t self-right, they stay upside down. There is a very good reason why catamarans have escape hatches on the side/bottom of their two hulls.

There is an Old Breton prayer that has been quoted a billion times by sailors, the first lines being so very true:

Thy sea, oh God, so great, my boat so small.

Go out and play on the ocean and try to tell me otherwise…I dare you.

And, lastly, our hot water heater crapped out.  So, out with the old and in with the new.  After we yanked the old one out we were amazed it’s worked as well as it did for the past few years.

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My hero…

 

 

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Missile Test Range

Above is a screen capture of our optimum route from Panama City, Florida on down to Tampa.  The route is defined by a blue line.  One might notice three things from this OpenCPN chart screen shot.  The first thing one might notice is there is a pink outlined area that starts just outside of Panama City.  The second would be that no such other pink defined area is shown anywhere else along either the Gulf of Mexico side or the Atlantic side of Florida or along the upper Gulf of Mexico coast; in fact, to date, we’ve never seen such a demarcation line on our nautical charts anywhere we’ve ever sailed.  And, thirdly, our optimum course shows we would have to transit the entire length of the demarcated area, right down the middle of it.

If we zoom into the area it looks like this (click on the pix to enlarge):

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And, if enlarged further, we go to this (click on the pix to enlarge):

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Yes, as can be seen, our optimum route to Tampa takes us from one end to the other, right through the middle, of a missile test range.  This is no joke!  When something like this shows up on the charts one had better do the research…so, we did.  The appropriate note for this chart can be found HERE …the “regulations” for this area are, emphasis mine:

(b) The regulations.
(1) The area will be used intermittently during daylight hours for a week or 10 days at a time. Firing will take place once or twice a day for periods ordinarily of not more than one hour. Advance notice of such firings will be published in local newspapers.
(2) During periods of firing, passage through the area will not be denied to cargo-carrying or passenger-carrying vessels or tows proceeding on established routes. In case any such vessel is within the danger zone, the officer in charge of firing operations will cause the cessation or postponement of fire until the vessel has cleared the portion of the danger area involved. The entire area involved will be under constant observation of both surface patrol vessels and air patrol planes prior to and during periods of firing and notice will be given to vessels and tows of intention to fire by buzzing low over the vessel, upon which signal vessels and tows shall proceed on their established course promptly and clear the area as soon as possible.
(3) All persons and vessels, except those identified in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, will be warned to leave the immediate danger area during firing periods by surface patrol craft. Upon being so warned, such persons and vessels shall clear the area immediately. Such periods normally will not exceed two hours.
Since we have been here, quite regularly modern fighter jets have flown back and forth, north to south towards this area.  It turns out that just outside of Panama City is Tyndall Air Force Base and the area is actively used routinely and regularly for target practice against drones by the most advanced fighter jets our nation deploys.
As it turns out and as we’ve been told, every morning at 5:00 AM and 7:00 AM, as well as during the day, on VHF Channel 16, announcements are made as to when the range will be “live” and the area closed.  It is not a small area, roughly 18.5 nm wide at the narrow north end, 34.6 nm on the south end, and 83.8 nm at it’s longest.  We’d prefer to go as our route line shows, right down the middle of it for that would be the shortest route for our next leg.  On the other hand, though we have a big and very strong yacht, we seriously doubt we can stand up to the F-22A Raptor.
Stay tuned…

 

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This heron was 3′ from toes to beak…he walked right up to us.

If one sails, then one gets up close and personal with weather. In our case, we use around fifteen different weather site pages to divine our weather. The major weather variables that we consider are wind speed, wind direction, wave height, wave direction, rain chances, current, tide, and air temperature. Most of the time, we are reasonably close to being right. So it was we determined that Friday, January 29th, at first light we would head out for the 193 mile overnight passage to Panama City, Florida. The weather conditions, as we saw them, should have been near perfect for this leg of our trip.

The day before we returned our rental car, paid the marina fees, and prepared the boat for the passage. Anyone who sails knows that preparing a sailboat for a passage is a chore; it took us most of the day to accomplish it. We set the alarm for 5:30 AM and went to sleep.

When the alarm went off the next morning we got up, turned on the coffee pot, and rechecked the weather. The weather checked out and after a couple of cups of coffee we started the engine and eased out of our slip…it was just before 7:00 AM.

From Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi to the inlet just west of Ship Island is about 17 nautical miles or so, or about a three hour motor…about a quarter of that distance is in a very shallow channel leading to Mississippi Sound proper. On the way I prepared some biscuits and sausage for breakfast, anxious to see the weather offshore. The temperature was 38 degrees, but severe clear with not a cloud in the sky.

The air temperature aside, the weather as we determined was to be 10-15 knots of wind initially from the west, then backing off to the south-southwest, before eventually backing around even further to the south, then southeast, and then to the east. As our bearing was to be almost due east, the weather models forecast most favorable winds for 94% of the time, the remaining time was forecast to be right on the nose and out of the east just as we were finishing up. The seas were forecast to be one meter or less for the entire trip.

As we exited the Gulfport Ship Channel and turned to port, we set our Chartplotter for a bearing of 94 degrees…to be changed to 90 after we cleared Mobile, Alabama. The true wind was, indeed, within the 10-15 knot range, the wind direction was right on our quarter allowing for an easy and gentle broad reach…the seas were a couple of feet at most. To a sailor, this was weather heaven. We put up our huge genoa…the boat quickly accelerated into the high 7s to low 8s knot range. We flew down the coast no more than four or five miles offshore. When others wish sailors the classic sendoff of “may you have fair winds and following seas” the weather we were in was exactly what they are wishing for us. And, after our November, Friday 13th nightmare, it was exactly what we needed.

It was a great day of sailing. The weather warmed up a bit as there was not a cloud in the sky. We skirted the Mississippi Sound barrier islands by only a few miles in 40 feet or so of water. We were both, however, somewhat surprised by the number of offshore rigs and structures we were encountering. Not quite as much as offshore Louisiana, but certainly enough that we had to keep on our toes a bit.

We cleared Mobile Bay just around dark. The Mobile Bay area had both rigs and anchored freighters and tankers, two things we hate to encounter offshore. Perhaps 15 miles or so past Mobile Bay, however, the rigs disappeared and the night grew dark under an, at that time, moonless sky; there were at least a gillion stars out.   We reached our waypoint south of Pensacola and changed our Chartplotter bearing to the exact opening of St. Andrews Bay inlet…for the first time, Panama City and Florida were on our screen. The Chartplotter gave the distance as 98 nautical miles, with an ETA of around 10:30 AM the next morning. The time of the course change was almost exactly straight up midnight.

I went below for a snack and to use the head. It had gotten quite chilly by this time so I brought two light blankets with me to the cockpit. Husband was at the helm. As soon as I was settled in and all snug and warm, we heard the first hiccup from the engine.

Perhaps a word on night sailing is in order at this point.

I read over and over and over how much some enjoy sailing at night. I, however, don’t enjoy it at all if there are only two of us on board with no crew. If we have a threesome or more on board, I’m all in. But, I personally don’t enjoy sailing our yacht at night when just Chuck and I are on board. We do it, and will continue to do it. But, it’s not one of the more enjoyable aspects of sailing to me.

Our yacht is a big boat. There are huge forces acting on it all the time. At night, one’s field of view is mostly limited to the Chartplotter that displays radar and AIS information. Even with that, one must be vigilant more or less 100% of the time and constantly scan the seas for whatever might be out there. With one person alone at night in the cockpit I personally find the experience a nerve wracking endeavor. The time crawls by. Minutes seem like hours. If on a watch schedule, there is no reprieve, one dashes below for a quick snack or to use the head and then it’s back to the helm.  We prefer there be two people in the cockpit at night if at all possible.

Consequently, when Chuck and I sail at night we generally take small catnaps in the cockpit. Nonetheless, invariably, it ends up that we are both up all night. Countless people who don’t sail have asked what’s the big deal with just staying up all night sailing the boat, after all, it’s not like one stays up for days on end? All I can tell them is that staying up all night running a fairly large sailboat is just not the same as simply staying up all night doing something/anything else. A world of difference is not an exaggeration.  Us both being in our mid 60s doesn’t help at all either.

With a third person, however, it’s an entirely different ballgame. With a third member crew, it is much easier to set an easy watch schedule in which everyone on board generally has the regular opportunity to get several hours of sleep during the night, while at the same time there are generally two people in the cockpit.

But, on this trip, there was just the two of us and even as the sun started to set I began to absolutely dread the coming night.

So, back to the trip.

When at midnight we heard the first blip from the engine Chuck was at the helm. I asked him if he heard the engine miss. He said he did. The wind had died to almost nothing. We were now running with what wind there was alternating 10-15 degrees either side of dead astern and we were in a very gentle following sea. Our speed had dropped to the 6s.

About twenty minutes later we heard the hiccup a second time. That was enough for us to start surmising what the issue might be. Diesel engines generally either run like a top, or they don’t run at all. Our engine missing a couple of times over twenty minutes is not our definition of running like a top.

And, then about 10 minutes later, the engine missed a third time. The sound was every bit like the fuel filters were fouled…a common thing really. Still, it is much better that the engine keeps running than it die on its own. We discussed the filters, possibly having taken on contaminated diesel somewhere, and a few other possibilities, including perhaps having the working tank run out of fuel…then the engine missed yet again.

Chuck made the executive decision to go below and change our working fuel tank (our boat’s 180 gallons of diesel is divided up almost equally between three fuel tanks). Thankfully, that seemed to have cleared the issue up…the engine ran perfectly for the rest of the passage.

This episode is quite illustrative of the excitement that can come out of nowhere while sailing fairly long distances. If we had not cleared this problem up, at the very least we would have had to change out our fuel filters and restart our engine. Not a big deal, if the engine restarts…but suppose it had been a problem we could not have fixed and the engine didn’t restart? Well, also not a big thing, really, after all we are on a sailboat. However, though not a big deal per se, if the engine had quit and we could not restart it would have been a huge, huge pain in the ass. It was shortly after midnight, we were about 20 miles or so offshore, and the wind was all but nonexistent. What wind there was could have pushed the boat only around 3 or 4 knots at the very most…it takes 6 knots of wind to even move our boat. The nearest port we could get into would have been Pensacola, Florida…probably five or six hours away at least at those speeds. The thought of having to head to Pensacola for an engine repair bobbing along at 3 knots was miserable alternative to me.

But, alas, that didn’t happen, and the engine ran fine from there on out. But, the wind also didn’t fill back in. We watched our 10:30 AM ETA slowly slide toward the afternoon. Our speed dropped to the high 5s and low 6s.  Thirty or so miles from the inlet, what wind we did have indeed switched directly to the nose.  We increased the RPMs a couple of hundred and maintained a reasonable ETA.

The upside of this time of the early morning was that we were all alone on the water. There were no hits on either the radar or the AIS. Earlier in the evening, we watched the moonrise over the water. There is no description for how beautiful that was. But other than the waning half-moon in the sky, there was all but no lights anywhere else, the coast was over the horizon.

Still, the night crawled by, and it was most chilly. We passed the time cat napping, talking, and commenting as the miles slowly ticked off the Chartplotter.

Finally, dawn broke. Life flowed back into us. At 11:40 AM we entered St. Andrews Bay inlet from the Gulf to St. Andrews Bay and Panama City. Around 12:30 PM we pulled up to the Panama City Marina to take on fuel, pump out our holding tanks, and secure our berthing. By 1:30 or so we were tied up, and the passage was over.

As passages go, this one was near perfect in every way.  Would be wonderful if they were all so free of any drama.

We anticipate being here at least three weeks. Chuck will fly back to League City in two weeks and spend about four days taking care of a doctor visit and our taxes while there. Then, it’s on further south.