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By Gary Blankenship, Tallahassee, Florida

The weather gods were smiling. As a nervous weather watcher, I had hovered all week over weather reports for the Pensacola, FL, area, scene in mid-May for the first Florida 120 group cruise. Modeled on the successful Texas 200, more than 20 small boaters, in craft from 10 to 28 feet, gathered to cruise the bays and sounds from Perdido Bay, Alabama, to Navarre Beach, Florida.

The forecasts had not been totally encouraging. In the days leading up to the Thursday start, weather forecasts ranged from 30 to 60 percent chance of rain for the first couple days, with a cold front moving in late on Sunday, the last day of the event.

Olivier Chamel, architect and friend, was along to sample the small-boat cruising life, as offered in Oaracle, our 20-foot Jim Michalak Frolic2 design.

Most participants arrived Wednesday night, but we made the four-hour drive from Tallahassee early Thursday, picking up an hour on a time zone shift on the way. We arrived at 9:30 a.m. local time as a Bolger-designed Martha Jane – the last boat except us – was getting ready to leave the launching ramp at the Pirates Cove marina and restaurant, the starting point.

It took about an hour to prep, launch and load Oaracle - and violate again my silent pledge not to just throw the gear and dry bags, hodge-podge style, in the cabin and take off. The light winds soon filled in to a steady 10-12 knots, and ahead enough to necessitate long and short tacks in Perdido Bay. We were soon sailing with a Stevenson Weekender, the Martha Jane, and Embers Watch, Bill and Paul Moffitt’s Mikesboat design, Mikesboat is another Michalak offspring that is a cousin to Oaracle (a little bit shorter, a little bit wider, a little bit heavier, and no cabin. . . ).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juTPHZnjVhk

Puffy white clouds in the sky, and all would seem perfect. Except I had to listen to the weather radio. It promised good weather today, followed by a 70 percent chance of rain on Friday, 50 percent on Saturday, and 60 percent on Sunday, ahead of the cold front. At least the cold front arrival was still predicted for late Sunday, after we all should be off the water.

If I had heard that forecast before leaving home, I might never have left. But with such delightful weather, it seemed a shame not to go on.

After a few miles, the bay narrowed to a channel, which, after a short distance, was spanned by a high bridge. The challenge here was being faced by a fluky headwind, and an adverse current. We arrived at the bridge along with a Compac Suncat, a MacGregor 26, and a meticulously finished 10-foot gaff sloop. As late arrivals, we weren’t sure who among them was part of the cruise. As it turned out, they all were.

The MacGregor towed the gaff sloop through, and Olivier manned the oars and soon had Oaracle through. We had about three or four tacks to make before the channel turned east and widened into Big Lagoon. I had expected we would leave the little gaffer behind, but it hung with us, tack for tack until we got around the corner and, heading on a straight course for the first time, Oaracle’s longer waterline length would provide an advantage. It was obvious the little sloop had a thoroughbred performance as well as appearance.

We now had a pleasant sail, not quite hard on the wind, up Big Lagoon to Sand Island, a sandy oasis on the west side of Pensacola Inlet and immediately south of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, which announced its presence every few minutes with a jet overhead. Fortunately, they weren’t too loud and didn’t fly at night. We caught up with most of the fleet here, another MacGregor 26, a Vagabond 20 sloop, a striking clear-finished aluminum 28-foot sloop, a Wayfarer dinghy (the first I had ever seen), an AMF Apogee sloop, a Windrider 17 trimaran, a Laser, Chuck and Sandra Leinweber from Duckworks in their Ladybug, a Grumman canoe fitted with amas and a sail, a Norseboat, a Sea Pearl 21, a Precision 16.5 foot sloop, and many more. A small boat enthusiast’s heaven, in other words.

Tents were pitched and numerous conversations struck up, and boats inspected as the sun drooped westward. We chatted with Chuck and Sandra, Olivier set up his tent (Oaracle’s cabin is a bit crowded for two, especially in warmer weather, so Olivier used a tent while I slept on the boat), and we went to the sunset campfire where Scott Widmier, organizer of the Florida 120, explained the coming days’ plans. He also passed out a playing card to each boat. Cards would be distributed at the end of each day and for notable acts, such as completing the course without an engine. Participants had contributed surplus and useable gear, and at the luncheon at the end of the cruise, whoever had the best poker hand from his or her assembled cards would get the first pick of the booty, the second best hand would bet the second pick, and so on.

Alternate stopping points were also set for the next day. The goal was Spectre Island, a wild, spoil island in the Intracoastal Waterway were Santa Rosa Sound narrows, about 38 miles away. The winds would blow easterly in the morning, meaning a lot of tacking until they shifted southeasterly or southerly in the afternoon. Scott advised everyone to listen to their radios at 11, noon and 1 p.m. where the group would gauge progress and decide on a possible earlier bailout point.

We were up shortly after sunrise, and after breakfast and breaking camp, hit the water, not long after Scott in his 12 foot catboat, Little Gem, the canoe, and a couple other boats. The Wayfarer left right after we did, and it was instructive to sail with them for a while. I had been to this Sand Island the previous month, taking my nephew, a Marine captain at the Naval Air Station for some special training, for a ride. We had sailed the narrow channel south of Sand Island in these exact conditions: light to moderate headwinds and a foul tide. At least I had some local knowledge. We worked our way through, watching the Wayfarer. Although nearly as fast on the wind, we couldn’t point as well, not surprising considering it’s a stayed Bermudan rig and we were an unstayed balanced lug.

Clearing the channel, we were off the mouth of the Pensacola Inlet, an interesting area to sail. The tide was rushing in, where it split into three areas: Pensacola Bay to the north, Big Lagoon to the west, and Santa Rosa Sound to the east. That made for variable currents. Throw in a generous dollop of motorboat wakes and the normal wind generated chop (not too bad as the winds were about 10-12) and you have a potentially challenging mix of conditions.

Oaracle handled it well as we took long tacks eastward. At one point, we were about 100 yards from Embers Watch when a large powerboat charged between us, throwing a generous wake. Olivier turned into it, and the boat cleaved through and over the worst of it, continuing on its way. We turned and saw Embers Watch, closer to the wake than us, take it like a broaching whale, seeming to come nearly out of the water as she leapt over and continued on her way, as though this were an every hour occurrence.

Once past the bay and into Santa Rosa Sound, we finally had a bit of favorable tide as we beat the last miles to a bridge that connects Pensacola to the beach. The sound was wide, more than two miles. We generally ignored the chart. If the leeboard hit and kicked up, we simply tacked back to deeper water. At the bridge we had the current, but not the wind, although it had shifted somewhat to the south. We approached from the south on the favorable angle and then cut through the middle. As the sail luffed, Olivier gave 10 or 20 strokes from the four-foot wooden paddle he had given me and we were through.

Some folks on the other boats had mentioned a good hamburger joint on the south beach, once through the bridge, and it was now about lunchtime. Our tack was carrying us that way, but we didn’t see anything that looked likely, and I think we were reluctant to break our sailing momentum. So we tacked back east. The wind had shifted enough so that our tacks were now short tacks to the south and longer tacks to the east. We listened to the radio at the appointed time and the group decided because of the headwinds, we would stop at Navarre Beach, about eight miles shy of Spectre Island. There was a beach on the southwest side of the bridge there and that was our goal. The afternoon was filled with enjoyable sailing. The sound was a couple miles wide, there was no shallow water to be concerned with and the wind was increasingly becoming favorable. We made a couple tacks after the bridge and then it shifted enough that no further tacking was needed. We watched the bridge behind us drop below the horizon (it takes a while when the bridge is 70-feet high) and watched for the Navarre Beach bridge to appear. We also watched a thunderstorm a few miles inland to the north that appeared to be tracking our westward movement. But it stayed over land and made no menacing move toward us, and eventually broke up.

A definite nicety for sailing on a day like this was Oaracle’s bimini. Although only three feet long, it provides welcome shade for most of the day. Mid-May qualifies as early summer in north Florida, and although not unduly hot, the shade was very welcome. Based on this trip, I’ve figured that the bimini can be made another foot longer for even better summer sun protection.

By 4 p.m. we were approaching Navarre Beach and we scanned the land looking for a landing point. I didn’t see any other boats on the only beach we saw, which surprised me. There had been plenty of boats ahead of us. But it turned out they had all stopped at the burger joint and we were the first ones approaching the beach, accompanied by the aluminum sloop, which made for the dock at the nearby restaurant, which was separated from the beach by a public launching ramp. I was a bit nervous. The beach was very nice, but there were six oceanfront condos not too far away and I had visions of the occupants calling the cops when a vagabond clutch of small boats pulled up and sprouted tents.

But the folks on the aluminum sloop were more practical. They talked to the owner of the restaurant, who also apparently owned the beach. He was delighted to learn of the cruise and extended an invitation for everyone to pull up, pitch tents and make themselves at home. He later showed upon the beach and passed out tickets from free beers at his restaurant and bar. He also huddled with Scott and offered, if the cruise is repeated next year, to meet us on the beach with a prepared BBQ, if he gets a head count and six hours notice on the appointed day. I have a new definition for southern hospitality.

We were warned the band might be a bit loud that night, but it wasn’t too obtrusive and quit at a reasonable hour.
Olivier and I used the restaurant’s outdoor shower (the one at the launch ramp restroom was broken) and had a good, reasonably priced meal there. It was a punctuation mark for a long day of great sailing.
There was more wandering of the beach examining boats and chatting with owners, but we were in bed fairly early. A long day of sun and sailing will do that. I even wound up cutting short my normal pre-sleep reading.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSg5R0gcr7I

The next day, Saturday, we began retracing our steps. But unlike the first two days, there would be no windward work. It was all off the wind. Interestingly, while windward work tended to separate the fleet, going downwind seemed to keep it together. We would have several boats from the group in sight all day.

It was a lazy day of sailing, as the wind varied from light to moderate. It went light as we approached the Pensacola bridge after several hours, and we drifted through behind the Wayfarer and the Windrider. A few more miles brought us to the inlet and the convergences of the bays and sounds.
Most of the fleet elected to hug the southern shore, along the national seashore that dominates most of the Florida 120 course on the south side.
We headed straight across – aiming at the channel south of the Naval Air Station and north of Sand Island – because I thought it was shorter. Maybe it was, but the boats behind us to seemed to catch up. Maybe we hit an adverse current.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8CFdItyXUI

Anyway, past Sand Island, we headed south for the last night’s anchorage, this time on the national seashore. It was gorgeous. Once around a protecting shoal, there was plenty of calm, deep water for the keep boats, and it was protected from passing motor boat wakes for those of us who beached. A couple hundred yards over the low dunes was the ocean. There was so much great beach that even on a weekend, it didn’t get crowded. It is perhaps worth mentioning that while I had been to Pensacola before and had heard of the Gulf National Seashore, until my visit for the Florida 120 and to see my nephew, I had actually never been to the beach there and didn’t realize the extent of the national seashore. I was amazed; something like 90 percent of the southern barrier island along our course was pristine and undeveloped. Simply pull up and claim your own section of splendor. Some others in the group had more local knowledge and I gathered that camping is allowed along some sections and frowned upon in others, so do some advance checking.

An acquaintance who grew up in Pensacola told me until the area was belted by a couple major hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, the dunes on the barrier island were as high as 50 or 60 feet and actually formed bluffs in some areas, but the storms reduced their heights by half or more. Still, you won’t see beaches and water like this in many places.

Once settled on the beach on Saturday afternoon, we tracked down Bill and Paul Moffitt and took out Embers Watch. Olivier is interested in building one, or a modified, pointy-bow version.

It was interesting to see its greater weight and slightly wider beam in action, and feel the way it carried momentum through tacks, unlike the much lighter Oaracle. Then Bill and Paul came along to try Oaracle, to see what life was like on a slimmer, lighter craft. Great, great fun.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsfWHmvdJoE

We had a final campfire and at Scott’s urging, each of us told one thing we learned on the cruise, and our most embarrassing moment. I should have taken notes. There were many funny stories – the Wayfarer’s crew’s unique technique of flying the spinnaker underwater and from the keel comes to mind – and learned lessons, most of which have slipped from my grey matter. Except for the bailer stories.

Several of us had embarrassing moments that centered around the wonderful alternative use of the bailer when on a small boat and Mother Nature calls. The guy on the 10-foot gaffer had the first and funniest, but we’ll forego the details . . . .

My own bailer story happened on Friday. I was wearing my commendable sun pants, a nylon garment that keeps you cool while protecting from sunburn. But mine have the drawback of not having a fly. Even though shore may be a half mile or more away, I’m reluctant to moon it, so I’m bracing against the motion of the boat, trying to hold the pants down, but not too low, the fly of my underwear open and keep the shirttail out of the way, while also holding the bailer and trying to relax my bladder. (At least Olivier was doing the steering.) I finally manage to get the chore accomplished and turned around, full bailer in hand, to find the J-28 crossing behind us on a tack, someone memorializing the passing by shooting a video clip. At least my back was to them.

(Olivier’s story was a land variation of the bailer stories. Two of the three nights ashore he was hit with an urgent, full–dark, middle of the night call of nature, only to have the tent zipper jam . . . .)

There were impressive thunderclouds to the east and northwest this last night, but none was moving closer. The weather forecast still gave a good chance of rain the following day, before the cold front moved through in the evening.

We got up with the sun on Sunday, the last morning, had breakfast and broke camp for the final time.

The smaller boats, as usual, were off first. There was an impressive, massive black cloud to the southwest, emitting frequent rumbles of thunder and threatening to move northward across our course.

We left just before 7 a.m. in what turned out to be the best wind of the day. We slid easily downwind in Big Lagoon, noting as we reached the west end the location of Big Lagoon State Park with its excellent launching ramp – something to remember for future easy visits to this pristine area. But about the time we got past the park and the waterway narrowed into the channel leading to the bridge, the wind died. At least this time we had the tide with us.

I got out the oars and began to row, spurred by the still-rumbling storm to our south. We got past the bridge and toward the beginning of Perdido Bay after 45 minutes of two-oarspower effort and then a light wind came back. We were in company with David Gutowski in the Norseboat and Scott in Little Gem, enjoying the conditions.

After about 15 minutes, the wind died and the oars came out again, and I noted Scott could row Little Gem faster than I could Oaracle, at least at a relaxed pace. The wind teased us with a little more off and on action, and then seemed to settle in with interest. We got most of the way across Perdido Bay, watching more black clouds to the south, and now some to the north, but still not near us. About a half mile from Pirates Cove, the wind died again and I got out the oars again, vowing to ignore the fickle wind gods and finish by rowing. We arrived just before 11 a.m.

We found out the smaller boats, which finished ahead of us, had made it to the bridge before their wind died, but it never returned for them and they had to row and paddle the rest of the way. Not long after we got back, a decent wind filled in, from the southwest I think, and blew for about an hour, helping those still on the water. It turned out our arrivals were nicely spaced, so that we never over cluttered the launching ramp as we derigged, hauled our boats out, and made them road ready for the trip home. Not long after noon, everyone was in and we met at the Pirates Cove restaurant for a last lunch, the comparing of poker hands and passing out of gear, and the sharing of stories and thoughts about how much fun this would be to do again next year.

We were now surrounded by a ring of dark, threatening clouds, but our luck and sunshine continued to hold. As the lunch broke up, the first spatters of ran fell as we walked back to the truck. It rained on us for the entire four-hour drive back to Tallahassee.

The weather gods had indeed smiled and timed everything just right.


*****

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