Of the myriad of choices Loopers have on this 6000-mile journey, there is probably more discussion and angst expressed over the decision as to whether to cruise around the Big Bend of Florida, which is shallow and rocky, or cut across the Gulf 180 miles from the Carrabelle vicinity to either Tarpon Springs or Clearwater. We chose the cut. There being a large field of crab pots* upon sight of land on the other side, one must make the approach in daylight, and preferably late enough in the morning that the sun in not blinding, since it is a south easterly route. Walking back that time table, one calculates that at 8 to 9 knots, one needs to allow 20 hours to cross, which means leaving harbor around 3-4:00pm, cruising overnight, and arriving at one’s destination around noon.
We caravanned with three other boats. Watching the cloak of darkness fall around us stirred up feelings of awe and vulnerability, even with our perfect weather window, the flat seas, the straight route, and the minuscule chance of anything intercepting our path. Steve and I took turns at the helm, an hour-and-a-half on, an hour-and-a-half off. We buddy-checked by radio every 2 hours and reported on conditions more often as needed. While the cabin was warm, steering the boat from below while standing for 20 hours was out of the question, so we bundled up in layers upon layers, topped with our foul weather gear and stood watch with autopilot from the more exposed fly bridge. I was grudgingly warm enough if I tucked my nose under my scarf, but this is not something I want to experience with any regularity!
As well-prepared as we were, each boat experienced its own drama at some point during the night. We watched the lead boat wander off course, as it lost electric power and its ability to steer for perhaps 10 minutes before they identified the problem and were able to correct it. The incident which affected us happened after dark as we were beset by fog. With radar the fog should not have posed a problem, but Steve suddenly lost the GPS track on the navigation screen and became disorientated. The problem with buddy-boating is that it creates obstacles to hit in such situations, and we had a near miss, as a red light** flashed across our bow and then disappeared into the fog. Steve jammed the boat into reverse to avert a collision, and I, now awake from a nap below, saw two loop-de-loop tracks in the lower nav station and quickly had a sense of what had happened. We learned later that the skipper of the “near-miss boat” was also having technical issues, and with his nose buried in his iPad, he was totally unaware of the near disaster. All’s well that ends well, and we are wiser for these experiences—wiser and very grateful.
We were greeted at our destination at Turtle Cove Marina in Tarpon Springs by Loopers assisting with our lines. We wonder if there is any other activity in which one has a ready community nearly everywhere we land!*** We were invited to docktails at 5:00, and after changing into SHORTS (yay!) and washing the salt off Pearlie, we crashed for a couple of hours.
Dock tails were fun, with unapologetically liberal folks from Wisconsin and Utah…and quieter folks from Alabama. One guy who worked in the State Department asked Steve if we’re readers and wondered if we would read his novel. As much fun as we had, the snacks were mostly stale chips, and so we scoped out a lovely Greek restaurant and shared a Greek salad (traditional, with a hidden scoop of potato salad in the middle–yum!), a gyro, and baklava cheesecake (evidently, the Greeks invented cheesecake, too!), and I savored a thick, muddy Greek coffee.
Tarpon Springs still today is the largest Greek settlement in the U.S. The sponge industry moved northward from the Keys, by 1900 Tarpon Springs was the largest sponge port in the US. The Greeks, having depleted their sponge fields, set their sights on the vast supply in the Gulf of Mexico. In the next few years they brought experienced divers, and by using rubberized diving suits and helmets, were able to increase the harvests. By 1905 over 500 sponge divers were at work, utilizing 50 boats, attracting sponges traders in silent auctions and supporting industries, such as restaurants. For the next 30 years, the sponge industry out of Tarpon Springs was the largest industry in Florida, larger than the citrus industry or tourism, and Tarpon Springs became known as the sponge capital of the world. Fortunes shifted quickly when a blight in the 40s nearly wiped out the sponge fields. Finally in the 80s new beds were found, and sustainable sponge harvesting started booming again. The Deep Horizon BP oil spill also posed a major setback for the shallow beds around the Big Bend area, where the most desirable Wool Sponges grow, but they, too, are gradually recovering. Steve and I couldn’t resist the pitch: luxurious natural sponges—antibacterial, sustainably managed and harvested, lasting 5 years, a way to support local industry, light and highly packable for schlepping on the boat…. We bought a sackful! On our final evening in Tarpon Springs, we met our Gulf crossing partners to celebrate and debrief. It was a spirited evening, and we look forward to running into these good folks again.
*Crab pots are cages set out and tended by fishermen which are marked by a floating ball attached to the cage by a rope or wire. In these waters, they literally catch stone crabs, but boaters use the term “crab pot” generically, meaning any sort of fish or sea life trap. Tangling your prop in one of these can ruin your day.
**A red light is the port side (left side facing the bow) navigation light. Seeing the red light in front of us meant that the boat was crossing our path from our right to left and communicated to steer right to go behind him to avoid colliding.
***How do folks know we are Loopers? Well, we all sport a burgee, a pennant on our boats. One Looper has said that the burgee is better for meeting people than a puppy. Loopers also stay in touch! We added our name to the “Class of 2019” through the daily online forum, and one of the newest technologies for tracking Looping boats is through NeBo. A lot of folks watch to see who is coming into harbor and are ready to lend a hand. Others keep track of fellow loopers who they want to remain in touch with through NeBo. If you are interested in watching our progress, you can download the app and…ask Steve to coach you.