I ran downstairs to check the engine compartment, convinced the unusual guttural growl I’d heard coming from LaMo’s belly towards the end of my 12-2am shift on watch was a not-so-timid warning sign from our motor baby. My skin was salty from the spray that was bouncing off our bow and my eyes were tired from shifting between scanning the dim lit horizon for other vessels and monitoring the bright red of our radar screen, which showed one, two, three, four cargo ships–disguised as red blobs–crossing over our bow. Each was several miles away but when you’re a 40-foot sailboat motorsailing into six-foot waves at five knots and they’re all 700-plus-foot ships traveling different courses at 30 knots, a few miles doesn’t matter much. The gap can close in the blink of an eye.
And it was my eye that signaled a second cause for alarm this night, as we crossed from Marathon, Florida to Bimini, Bahamas, as it took in a dot of red on the control panel, which indicated our bilge pump was running. Water was somehow coming into our boat and it was enough water to trigger the automatic float switch that’s connected to our bilge. I walked to the bottom of the companionway stairs and said to Barrett in the calmest tone I could muster, “What I’m about to say is slightly alarming…” He looked at me as if to tell me to get on with it, spit it out already. Deep breath in, “Our bilge pump is running.”
At this point, I’d watched the red light flicker on and off for a few minutes. I’d checked under sinks and opened toilet lids and lifted the floor boards from the engine’s freshwater intake area. I don’t know what part of me thought it was better to monitor the little red blip and poke around a bit before alerting my cap of the problem but it’s what I did nonetheless. We traded places, him taking over to search the boat interior in hopes of finding the source of incoming water, me heading back up to monitor the horizon, our radar, and to marvel, with both awe and apprehension, at the rust-colored flickering lightning that lit the southern sky off our starboard bow.
We never did find out where the water filling our bilge was coming from. Instead, we settled on checking the interior for signs of flooding from time to time, kept our satellite phone at the ready, and waited for the sun to rise. It did, just as we made the transition from 2,000 feet of depth to 20 feet, passed our thousand-miles-sailed mark, and officially crossed into Bahamian waters.
What follows is a look back at the first 1,000 nautical miles sailed – from Lacombe, Louisiana to that gut-wrenching Gulf Stream Crossing to Bimini, Bahamas – in photos and stories. Feel free to skim or ask questions about some of what we’ve seen and done. And look forward to more to come here.
Because this was all just the beginning.
When people ask, we say we started in New Orleans. Mostly because “Lacombe,” the small bayou community where my parents live, isn’t on people’s radar. But we found Lacombe to be the perfect place to start cruising. Sure, we weren’t at a marina, so we didn’t have the benefit of talking to other cruisers, but we had family and our amazing “boat guy,” Charles Penny, and between the three of them and a few other neighbors who had cruised to the Bahamas, we were well taken care of in the way of boater knowledge.
We also had our very first date on deck here in Lacombe, which was just featured in the Summer issue of Spoonful Magazine! Stay tuned for photos plus a recipe from the feature, coming to the blog later this month.
BAY ST. LOUIS, MISSISSIPPI
Nautical Miles: 46 NM
Our trip down Bayou Lacombe and away from home was harder than I thought it would be. I remember tearing up as my mom and stepdad waved from the docks while we motored our way into foggy Lake Pontchartrain. We passed by the house I grew up in in Slidell, Louisiana, only this was a shiny new house with a red roof, the old orange-roofed one blown away by Hurricane Katrina. (Cue big emotions!) We were a little shaky making our first ever true marina approach when we reached Bay St. Louis that afternoon and landed in our slip without grace but also without a crash.
It’s been several months of cruising and many marina stays since that first day but looking back on it, I think the Bay St. Louis Marina was one of my favorites. Facilities are brand new and the boardwalk is full of excitement and energy. So much energy that we could hear the live music all the way in our aft berth until at least midnight but thankfully we were so tired from the jitters of our first day at sea that we slept through most of it.
HORN ISLAND, MISSISSIPPI
Nautical Miles: 37 NM
Our first ever experience at anchor – meaning not attached to a marina dock – and I have Horse Shoe Anchorage to thank for helping me fall in love with life on the hook. We were the only boat anchored on this Gulf Barrier Island this warm February night and were amazed by its beauty and serenity. It remains, even after traveling now through the Bahamas for several weeks, one of my favorite anchorages we’ve ever stayed at. There are, however, a few things to note. Like those big cargo ships that passed by in the middle of the foggy night, sounding their horns since visibility was low. And an intensely foggy morning, which kept us on the hook in Horn Island until nearly noon the next day. I’ve learned that foggy mornings are something cruisers can expect while traveling the Gulf Coast in late winter, thanks to the temperature difference between air and water that’s so common. (This also means you have a perfectly good reason to sleep in until at least 8 or 9am.)
GULF SHORES, ALABAMA
Nautical Miles: 51 NM
Jimmy Buffet fandom seems to start here and it doesn’t really subside until you reach the Bahamas. We were surprised to find so few options for anchorages in the area and, after closing my eyes through many of the just-barely-tall-enough-for-our-mast bridge crossings on this leg, we ended up at one of the only marinas around, Lulu’s at Homeport, owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister. The docks themselves were nice at Lulu’s, and the fuel dock attendants were particularly helpful, though we found the food and drink items priced well beyond their worth ($18 pre-mix margaritas, anyone?) so opted to spend most of our time while there on LaMo.
PENSACOLA BEACH, FLORIDA
Nautical Miles: 31 NM
We had hoped to drop anchor in the bay just off the bridge here, but with strong winds blowing out of the north and no safe anchorage to tuck into, we opted for a slip at the Sabine Marina instead. The docks were in disrepair, the dock attendant not quite helpful, but it was nice to be in a “city” again. And, bonus, my mom, stepdad, and mother-in-law all just happened to be passing through the area that night so we got a little love from them. We also stumbled across Island Market, a sweet little boutique market just a short walk from our marina that carried some of my favorite provisions: Snake River Farms beef (see here and here), cowgirl creamery cheese, among other gourmet provisions. It was a small market, and prices were well above average, but still, it was nice to stock up on some of my favorite luxury items after a few weeks in rural Alabama.
Nautical Miles: 55 NM
Our trip from Pensacola to Destin marked our first true “Gulf” outing, leaving the safe protected waters of the Intercoastal to push out into the less predictable Gulf of Mexico. Before we left Lulu’s in Gulf Shores, the dockhand offered a piece of advice that turned out to be one of the best we’ve gotten yet: “Check the weather the morning before you plan to leave and if it shows anything over 3 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, don’t go.” We nodded, said we wouldn’t. “I promise, you will thank me if you take this advice,” he said. I wondered whether we would. Three feet is, generally speaking, small to most cruisers. We cruise in more than three foot waves all the time here in the Bahamas. In fact, nowadays, we get excited when we see the seas are only at three or four feet. But the Gulf of Mexico is a different animal. Its waves often come in rapid succession and they come from all different directions, making anything bigger than a couple of feet feel like you’re a cat in a washing machine.
Our first outing into the Gulf was met with some waves that straddled that three-foot mark but we pressed through them, really pushing our comfort levels, and onto Destin. We’d had some nerves about entering Destin Harbour, cautioned on ActiveCaptain to proceed carefully because of all of the liquored up tourists and Spring Breakers that populate the area. We pulled in around 5pm and only had one Buffet-blaring dolphin tour boat to contend with, the approach nowhere near as difficult as we’d originally thought.
Destin Harbour itself turned out to be a particularly good place to anchor, though it was dotted with many uninhabited boats from locals. Near 360 degree protection from wind and waves, easy access to restaurants, groceries, Waffle House, and vets – of which the latter two turned out to be particularly important. After the scare we had with Bourré’s health, we decided we needed to move the boat from anchor to a marina while he recovered and regained his strength. Marina choices are slim in Destin, and quite frankly fairly overpriced at $4/foot, but we lucked out and found a spot at Harbor Docks Restaurant for $1.50/foot. It’s not your typical marina, the slips are mostly reserved for local fishermen and we were the only cruisers there at the time, but it turned out to be just what we needed: easy shore access, power, and access to fresh water. And the sushi bar and restaurant upstairs became one of our favorite spots to eat in town, even beating out Waffle House, which, ask my husband, is hard to do for us WH-deprived West Coast folks.
PORT ST. JOE, FLORIDA
Nautical Miles: 77 NM.
We hadn’t planned to go all the way to Port St. Joe on this leg, thinking instead we’d stop in Panama City to break up the trip. But the weather was perfect, finally good enough for us to really shut off the engine and sail, so we just kept going. The actual approach into the Port St. Joe Marina was a little more nerveracking than most, with waves crashing into rocks and traffic coming in and out of the narrow entry channel nonstop as we were coming in at sunset. But we both developed a kind of crush on this little town, its residents, and the cruisers we met while there.
It’s a charming town with an early-twentieth century kind of feel to it. Sweet antique shops and general stores tucked behind brick covered building facades. Not to mention an amazing Wood Fired Pizza Restaurant and a Mexican Restaurant that carries some of the best sizzling fajitas I’ve had and I’m not only saying that because they also served me a large margarita with an upside down beer in it that almost landed me ass first in the water when trying to board the boat later that night. (When in the Redneck Riviera…?)
THE GULF OF MEXICO CROSSING
The Gulf of Mexico Crossing was one of my most dreaded and feared legs – there’s nothing like being an incredibly green cruiser, headed into choppy waters, knowing you’re about to be traveling in pitch black dark. But there’s also no other way to do it – the northwestern pocket of Florida, its armpit so to speak, houses no safe anchorages, no marinas, and nowhere for our 5-foot draft boat to park itself to rest. We could’ve broken the trip up a bit more than we did, departing from Carrabelle instead of PSJ for our Gulf Crossing like most Gulf Coast cruisers do, but when the universe gives you a weather window that shows flat Gulf of Mexico waters and mild winds on a full moon night, you take it.
The waves didn’t start off quite as calm as we’d predicted but as the sun began to set, the waves settled with it. From five feet to three feet to one. The full moon rose and lit the waters from above. We decided on two-hour sleep shifts, which works well for us on two-day passages.
It was on my first watch of the trip, the one with a setting sun and rising moon, when shortly after dark, I heard a pufffff coming from the water. I looked over my left shoulder from where I was sitting on the port side stern and jumped a little when I saw a gregarious little dolphin bobbing up and down alongside me. I smiled at her for several minutes until she swam off towards the moon’s reflections on the water. That night also happened to be the eleven-year anniversary of my sisters death and I couldn’t help but feel like part of that dolphin was part of her, sending us off safely into the night.
The next morning, as the sun just started to poke its way above the horizon, we scattered Barrett’s dad’s ashes, him hanging off the transom, saying some final words to his dad before releasing him to the body of water that had shaped so much of his life. After that final moment of goodbye, we turned around to see an ocean of orange and blue morning sky. And it’s moments like that when life and death seem, inexplicably, intertwined. Woven together in a single fabric, one in the same.
Nautical Miles Sailed: 193 NM.
If the Gulf of Mexico crossing was uneventful and calm, our approach into Clearwater was anything but. Currents were intensely strong as we made our way into the Clearwater Harbor Marina, so strong that we had our first ever slightly terrifying dock crashing experience. Luckily, the docks there seem prepared for those kind of approaches and had bumpers everywhere so LaMo survived mostly unscathed. I don’t have much to say about Clearwater, except that I wish the weather had allowed us to leave sooner. The Clearwater Harbor Marina had tour boats coming in and out of the marina from 8am to midnight, dozens of people walking around the docks, making noise, and making privacy impossible. We did our best to go into town across the bridge but found the shuttle system confusing and slow. (Ubers, we later discovered, were actually much cheaper than using the public shuttle.) And we had some bad boat repairs done by S&S Marine. One highlight, however, was the six-seat-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Mana Mana Middle Eastern Restaurant, which made falafel, baba ganoush, and shnitzel full of flavor, which I shamelessly sopped up with the extra pita the owner passed me when he saw my plate was approaching clean. I don’t know where that gem of a spot comes from, or how it ends up in a place like Clearwater, but I do know that if I do ever stop in Clearwater again, it will be solely for meals on repeat at Mana Mana.
MANATEE RIVER, FLORIDA
Nautical Miles Sailed: 39 NM.
Up until this point, we’d mostly motorsailed due to the narrowness of the intercoastal waterways and the easterly tradewinds that kept winds squarely on our nose. On this trip, though, we caught a perfect wind on our beam and sailed into Manatee River at 8.5 knots, a record for us on LaMo. We anchored at DeSoto Point Anchorage, which turned out to be a charming spot to explore and spend a night on the hook. This space also seemed to mark the shift from traveling on a boat to really cruising. We finally felt like had a rhythm to our days and our boat chores and we had other boaters who were also cruising and not just weekending, which was a welcome change.
PELICAN BAY/CABBAGE KEY, FLORIDA
Nautical Miles Sailed: 75 NM
When I posted on Instagram that we’d stopped in the Cabbage Key area, I got countless responses saying this, “Please tell me you tried the cheeseburger!” We did not, mostly because Cabbage Key Restaurant didn’t allow dogs on the island and we needed to spend the evening letting Bourré stretch his legs. Instead, we stayed in a popular anchorage in Pelican Bay and celebrated our one-month-of-cruising anniversary. The next morning, we celebrated a little more with our first ever “runaground” experience—wherein we tried to leave the anchorage at low tide and ended up grounding our boat solidly in three feet of water and some thick muck. The Boca Grande boating community did their best to come to our rescue, trying to tow us out and then wake us out, but nothing worked. Instead, we just waited a few hours until the tide rose, made Christina’s homemade focaccia bread to pass the time, until we finally felt our hull become unglued from the bottom. Word to the wise in this patchy, shallow anchorage: Time your approaches to coincide with high tide, or be prepared to bake some bread.
Nautical Miles Sailed: 80 NM
Up until the present day, there has only been two or three experiences when I was truly nervous for our safety, and the journey to Naples was one. We’d gotten a later start to the day, thanks to our early morning grounding in Pelican Bay. We thought we could make up time but with waves picking up throughout the afternoon, we actually started to lose time. Words of cruisers gone before us cautioned about making the approach through Gordon’s Pass and into Naples and slowly but surely we realized we were setting ourselves up for a disaster – entering the rocky, choppy, narrow pass in complete darkness, in heavy wind, and, the worst, in opposing winds and tides that would create an intense and potentially dangerous chop in the water.
A couple of hours outside of Naples, we decided it wasn’t smart. We needed to find a safe place to anchor for the night and we needed to do it fast, before the sun set. We weighed our options and decided, begrudgingly, that the best and perhaps only thing to do was to turn around, retrace our tracks going back 20 miles north in what had turned into 6 foot waves that were pounding straight into us, and make our way to Sanibel Island. We didn’t arrive there until around 10pm and dropped anchor just outside of the Sanibel Causeway Bridge in pitch black darkness. We had no idea whether we were in an anchorage with dozens of other boats or if we were there alone. We didn’t know if there was a giant rock off our beam or if land was five feet away, except for the information coming from our GPS, which said we were in fact in a safe anchorage. So we threw on our anchor light, made a couple of midnight PB&Js, and hoped for the best. When we woke in the morning we were happy to find calm waters and began to make our way as planned down to Naples.
The next morning, we arrived at City Docks Marina in Naples. I’m not sure if it was the scare from the days before, or if it just felt good to tie up in a safe spot, but we fell in love with the Naples community almost instantly. The docks themselves were well maintained and the dockhands were incredibly helpful in getting us into our slip in some heavy winds. The marina restaurant also had a well-curated menu, which was a welcome surprise to us, and we enjoyed being just a short walk from some great restaurants and shops. We also got to meet Jereme, half of the couple behind the stunning sailing blog, LAHOwind. It was our first, but not last, reminder at just how awesome the sailing community is. (PS: If you have any interest in doing a trip like the one we’re on now, check out Kim and Jereme’s beautiful blog – it’s been an incredible resource for us as we’ve been cruising the Bahamas.)
LITTLE SHARK RIVER, FLORIDA
Nautical Miles Sailed: 66 NM.
The Everglades. I’d never seen them in person but had read about their quiet murky dark side. So imagine my surprise when we made our approach into this anchorage only to be greeted by a fire red sunset melting elegantly into swaggered swamp trees while a nearby fishing boat caught (and released) a six foot bull shark. We clinked our manhattan’s together, taking in the scene and marveling at how somehow few bugs were around despite this being the Florida Everglades.
They didn’t arrive in a slow trickle. They came in like an avalanche. Covering our arms and ankles, Bourré’s fur, flying into our open hatches, thankful to find a home with so much opportunity. We closed everything off as quickly as possible but even three minutes had allowed nearly a hundred mosquitos to set up shop in our boat. We knew sleeping with them inside wasn’t an option so we started swatting. Two hours later, our hands literally bloody and poor Bourré’s face swollen from all the bites (thank god for Benedryl), we’d killed every last one of them. We slept with the hatches closed until about midnight when it got so hot inside we could barely breath. Thankfully, by this hour, the bugs had all gone to sleep and screens were enough protection for us. My word of advice here is this: Close your hatches about an hour before sunset. Keep them closed until the night sky has been black for at least two hours, then slowly try opening one to see if they flood in. Also, anchor as close to the Gulf as possible. We, silly us, love privacy at anchorages and dropped hook about a half mile deep into the Everglades. Between that and leaving our hatches wide open at sunset, I’d say we made arguably the most rooky cruiser moves that anyone has ever made in Little Shark River. Don’t be like us.
Nautical Miles Sailed: 40 NM.
As I mentioned in my last post, we’d planned to stay in the Boot Key Harbor, the mecca for cruising enthusiasts but ended up at a little place called Harbour Cay Club instead. Marathon proved to be the perfect jumping off place for us. We could reprovision at nearby grocery stores, knowing more about our lifestyle habits now that we’d been cruising for nearly nine weeks. We also found plenty of places that offered boat repairs and work, restaurants, and a vet that was able to do one last health check on Bourré before we headed to the Bahamas where vets are few and far between.
THE GULF STREAM CROSSING TO THE BAHAMAS
Nautical Miles Sailed: 135 NM
The Gulf Stream Crossing is probably one of the most highly anticipated, highly dreaded parts of many cruisers’ journey. The Stream, which is really a south to north traveling current that runs along the eastern side of the U.S., moves anywhere from 2 to 4 knots, making navigation just slightly more complicated since it’s currents can steer you well off course. Further, it makes weather watching all the more important – word has it that if you cross the Gulf Stream with winds blowing out of the north, thus opposing the northern-bound current, you’ll end up wishing you hadn’t.
It’s no surprise, then, that Marathon, Florida (and all of the Keys, really) is often called a “chicken haven,” where many cruisers go with intentions to travel to Bahamian waters but end up getting spooked by the extra challenges of the Gulf Stream.
We’d heard the horror stories and decided not to take any risks. Instead, we waited until we saw what seemed like a reasonable weather window and then solicited the expert advice of cruising weather guru Chris Parker for a second opinion. Between our interpretations and Chris’, we settled on a day that seemed reasonable and headed off towards the islands.
The start of it was rough. The middle of it, which you read above, was rougher. But, as with any passage, there was beauty to be found, too. Deep red and orange lightning that lit up otherwise black eastern skies. Smoked salmon and eggs at sunrise. And watching the water color shift from deep dark, almost black navy blue to an almost neon aquamarine as we sailed slowly into the clearest waters on perhaps the entire planet. We dropped anchor on the northern end of Resort World, hoping to escape the hustle and bustle of Bimini Bay. Barrett checked us into customs and immigration and an hour or two later we were toasting each other with champagne, our eyes bleary, our skin peppered with a fine layer of dried salt, and our minds in awe that we’d just sailed 1,000 nautical miles in our little 40-foot boat. We were finally, blissfully, in the Bahamas.