Getting Our Sea Legs, First Overnight Crossing
So we finally did it you guys! We left Pensacola, our safe harbor, and set sail as full-time liveaboards headed for the Caribbean! It took us nearly three months of working full-time on boat projects, plus over two years of preparation to get to this point and it sure was surreal to cast the bow lines for our maiden voyage.
As many of you know, we are newbie sailors. We will never pretend to be know-it-alls or come across as experts. I’ll be writing this blog for other newbie sailors that are trying to navigate their way through the cruising world. We’ll be sharing our experiences, the good and the bad, and offering advice on what to do, and what not to do, as we continue on this crazy adventure.
We picked Black Friday, of all days, to set sail. There’s an adage in the cruising community that says never leave on a Friday. But we chose Black Friday. Good thing neither of us is real superstitious.
Speaking of superstitions, the very last project we took care of while at Palafox Marina was renaming our boat. Quite a few weeks back I ordered new vinyl name stickers from Boat US and to be real honest, I was putting that project on the back burner. Now, I knew there was a renaming ceremony that involved champagne that needed to take place to christen the boat, but what I didn’t realize was how involved that ceremony was! I started peeling off the old name about 5 days before we were to set sail and holy cow, what a chore! It took me up until the morning we left to completely peel away the old name with a heat gun, while balancing on a dinghy in the water. Our last day at Palafox completely got away from us as were were busy preparing last minute details, so our renaming ceremony ended up happening much later in the day than we had hoped for, which led to us placing the new vinyl stickers on IN THE DARK while again, balancing on a dinghy in the water. Not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, BUT once I read the details of the christening ceremony, I found out it’s bad luck to sail a boat without a name so we didn’t dare leave without one. We'd worry about the hailing port later.
If you’re interested you can view all the steps we had to take to rename the boat here.
We had a lovely renaming ceremony at our slip and invited our boat neighbors Dale, Mary, and Kim to join us. All of who are some of the most wonderful people we’ve ever met. We were so thankful they could share this big moment with us! We shared lots of laughs as Tye asked for Poseidon’s favor and read off long passages to the wind gods…none of us really knew what we were doing but we enjoyed the champagne that was compliments of past colleagues at Lemonly. Christening champagne was such a thoughtful going away gift. Thanks Lemonly!
Goodbye My Lady and hello Fernweh! We renamed our boat Fernweh which means "Wanderlust" or "A desire for far off places." Very fitting for our current adventure.
We chose to leave Pensacola in the middle of the night in order to arrive in Panama City before sunset the following day. The Panama City anchorage we had in mind was near a shoal and we run a bit deep with a 6.5 foot draft. Considering the tide, current and wind direction, it was looking like we needed to arrive in Panama City before 4:00pm, so that meant leaving around 1:00 am from Pensacola to make the 15 hour crossing. We also wanted to avoid anchoring in the dark in an unfamiliar area.
We took one last stroll down Palafox street, under the newly lit Christmas lights, and said goodbye to this charming town we grew to love. In hindsight, I would have thought we’d have been more nervous than we were, but I think more than anything, we felt prepared, or maybe we didn’t quite know what we were about to get ourselves into just yet. Either way, we had been prepping for this moment for over two years, 2,415 miles, multiple certifications, transportations, endless projects and setbacks and we were just ready to get going! There’s a certain confidence in preparedness, and in that moment, we felt prepared. So we cast the bowlines at 12:40 am and headed out into the calm black ocean for our first overnight crossing!
We had a wonderful weather window ahead of us. The forecast was calling for 1-2 foot waves and 5 knot winds from the northeast as we headed south for the next few days. The Pensacola channel was relatively calm that night so Tye and I took one hour shifts driving while the other slept (or just relaxed) in the cockpit. There wasn’t enough wind to sail so we motored the entire way to Panama City. It was pretty easy peasy and we were able to drop anchor off Shell Island without any trouble.
That evening we watched the sunset and ran Chappie on the beach while pods of dolphins swam around us.
If you’re unfamiliar with sailing, you basically have three options for your boat when you’re not actually sailing.
- You can purchase a slip at the marina which usually run around $800-$1600 a month depending on where you are and the size of your boat. This option allows you to connect to shore power and you’re right at the dock, which means no dinghy rides!
- You can tie up to a mooring ball in a mooring field at a marina. This option offers a little more piece of mind because you don’t have to worry about dragging anchor but you have to be more self sustaining, meaning you need a large battery bank, solar energy, wind energy or both, and a generator and water maker is also a plus, but not necessary. Mooring balls usually run around $20-$30 a day or around $350 a month.
- You can anchor. But you can’t just anchor anywhere...in certain places. You’ll want to check Navionics, or your form of charts, for designated anchor areas. You'll need to know the depth, wind direction, current and tide as well. And make sure to check multiple sources! All of those play factors on where you might want to drop the hook for the night. Again, with this option, you’ll need to be self sustaining and you usually sleep with one eye open hoping you're not dragging anchor in the middle of the night but...it’s FREE! And there are apps that will alarm you if your anchor is dragging. Thank you technology.
We purchased a slip in Pensacola but from here on our we plan to either be on the mooring ball or anchor as we head south.
After a restful night anchoring on Shell Island outside of Panama City, we went in to the marina to fuel up and grab coffee. We had a big decision to make. We needed to decide if we were going go to the next closest anchor area which was about 6 hours out of the way at Dog Island, or did we want to pull at 34 hour crossing and head straight across the Gulf to Clearwater, FL? We were leaning towards the latter and after talking to experienced locals in Panama City, they only reassured us in our decision because of the wonderful weather window upon us. So we set off for Clearwater!
The first 12 hours of the day were absolutely beautiful and calm, so calm that we had to motor again. It was also one of the best days of my life because I made friends with dolphins. Besties. They were everywhere! Constantly chasing the boat and dancing around the bow as if they were playing a game. They’re such amazing creatures and a part of me believes they were guiding us safely to Clearwater, somehow they heard we were the rookies out there.
As the sun set, we enjoyed a veggie tray and chips and salsa in the cockpit while listening to Bahamas music, not a worry in the world. But things quickly took a turn for the worse as we headed in to our second overnight crossing.
Just as I finished my two hour shift, those 1-2 foot waves turned into 3-4 foot rollers and then 8-10 ft (keep in mind this is an average, some waves were higher, some lower) as the wind increased to roughly 15-20 knots from the east/northeast. At this point in time, it’s well past sunset and black as can be out on the water. We’re 60 miles off shore and land is nowhere in sight. All of a sudden we were in that situation that we said we’d never get in to. We only planned on being fair weather sailors and if the weather window wasn’t there, we wouldn’t go out. Simple as that, right? That was our safety plan all along, but somehow on day 2 we were becoming seasoned sailors real fast.
Waves were crashing in to the cockpit and because I was 1) too scared and 2) not quite strong enough to steer the boat into the waves Tye ended up driving ALL night in super rough seas. We were of course at all times wearing our lifejackets which were connected to our jack lines, which means as long as we were strapped to those lines, there’s no way we could leave the boat. I was curled up in a ball between a bunch of blankets and pillows in the cockpit holding Chappie, who miraculously slept through pretty much the entire night, even though we took a few waves to the face. Just as long as she’s touching one of us, her world is perfectly fine.
And to no surprise, it was a washing machine down below. We listened to all our belongings hit the walls all night long. Just when you think you have everything secure mother nature will show you otherwise. Maps, charts, clothing, power cords, dishes, cans…absolutely everything was flying loose below but there was nothing we could really do about it because it was impossible to even move down there without getting thrown from one side of the boat to the other. At one point I tried to make it up to the front v-berth and I felt like I was cresting Mt. Everest with all the elements against me, one slow foot at a time.
This went on for hours and it was EXHAUSTING. I was exhausted and I wasn’t even driving. We felt like we were stuck in a time warp. Our surroundings never changed…just blackness, constant rolling, and crashing waves one after the other. I may or may not have had a "I don't want to be here!" melt down. The boat would keel so far over that I thought we were going to roll. I was pretty shook up, just not expecting to be in a situation like that right off the get-go, especially when weather called for calm seas and little wind. Tye on the other hand was “Mr. I Got This, I was Born For This.” I run a little on the high anxiety side, but Tye is always so calm, cool and collected under pressure. He captained our ship all night long, taking waves and harsh wind to the face like a pro, staying positive, never showing any fear, always reassuring me the entire time that we were safe and the boat was built to handle so much more...all while going on over 24 hrs without sleep. I don’t think there’s any real way to prepare for a situation like that other than to just be in it and get through it.
In all reality we were completely fine, just very uncomfortable. I know people sail in much more intense conditions (and you experienced sailors are probably laughing at me right now). We had every safety precaution checked on board and lifeline available to us, and we knew what to do and how to handle the situation. It was just a little bit more than we were expecting to take on this early in our sailing career.
It was an invaluable learning experience to say the least. It has made everything since that experience seem like a walk in the park and it allowed us to really see what our boat can handle and what we can handle. We later came to find out that that crossing can be notorious for rough seas and it should be the roughest we'll see for awhile. It was also the longest crossing that we'll ever have to do. We now know to watch out for a large body of water that’s relatively shallow, because even a small increase in wind can create large, choppy waves, especially if it has a long distance to travel, which is exactly the case for the Gulf of Mexico in that area, and exactly what we got into regardless of the weather prediction. We will be paying attention to those detail in future crossings.
After 12 hours we started to see some relief and it seemed to only get better the closer we got to land. I’m kicking myself now for not documenting that experience, but at the time I could hardly move on the boat and it just didn’t seem worth it. We did capture this video the next afternoon after things had calmed down.
That evening turned in to perfect sailing conditions so we raised the main and sailed into Clearwater, FL. It was dark as we approached Clearwater under sail, which in any other situation would have made us uncomfortable, entering a new channel and anchoring at dark, but after what we had just been through it was the biggest sigh of relief…land ahoy!