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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.

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