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by David Nichols - Austin, Texas - USA

St Joe to Pensacola

Anybody that likes sport fishing will like St Joe because St Joe is all about sport fishing. About 90% of the boats in the Port St Joe Marina were sport fishing boats.

The marina is very nice and the entrance is well marked. It has a bit of a tricky little dog leg but it's easy to slip into the breakwater. We waited in line with several 50 and 60 footer sport fishers at the fuel dock before we put Valora in her assigned slip.

With fuel over 4 dollars a gallon I was very happy my fuel consumption was considerably less than those big ladies. Valora burned less than their generators. I didn't even want to think about what those captains had to cough up; talk about bleeding money.

One reason those big ladies' generators burned so much fuel is they ran all the time because the air conditioners ran all the time. It was hot with a capital H and because it was so hot I made the decision to buy a small 110 AC unit. These small units can fit in the companionway or hatch and cost a little over a hundred dollars.

Thankfully there was an Ace Hardware about three blocks from the marina. We borrowed a cart from the dock, walked up to the hardware store, and pushed a little AC unit back to the boat in the cart.

It took just a few minutes to jury rig a system to support the unit in the companionway. It turns out that two cans of soup were just the right height to support the back end while the front was being help in place by the drop boards.

It took just a few more minutes to cool the cabin down to almost Fall-like temperatures. There were no blankets on board because in June on the Gulf Coast who needs them? But fortunately the clothes we wore in Vermont and Maine were on board so we rigged blanket like configurations.

The first night I slept like the dead and the next night and the next night after that. We were stuck waiting out bad weather and a window was no where in sight.

About 4 days of waiting and we think we see a pattern. The thunder storms seem to die out after dark without the heat from the sun to drive them. It seems logical that a night time run off shore to Panama City would work. Making a land fall in the dark is never a good idea but the pass is well marked and Gene had done the pass at night.

In the late afternoon, I settle up with the marina (this made me miss the municipal dock in Apalachicola) and we head out, after a long hard look at the MX weather. It appeared that a window had opened and right at sunset we cleared the pass at St Joe and set a course for Panama City.

Somewhere before we reached half way and the point of no return a huge thunder storm appeared out of nowhere. When the lighting lit up the cloud column and it was easy to see the well developed anvil. It was a monster. The MX weather showed it arriving in our lap before we could make the pass at Panama City so we turned around and made for St Joe as fast as Valora could carry us.

This night run was not as bad as the other one. St Joe Bay is fairly deep and the only tricky place is right inside the pass, where it is possible to run aground if you aren't paying attention.

Actually the only scary thing was the monster chasing us. I'm proud to say I was at the helm the entire way; going out and coming back.

We docked next to a sail boat with a mast about 10 taller than Valora's 20 minutes or so before the monster caught up with us. Every time there was a lighting flash close to us and there were a great many, I was very thankful for that tall mast next to me.

Of course, there was no guarantee that we wouldn't take a hit but with all the tall targets (many of the big sport fishers had outriggers that stood as tall as Valora's mast) in the marina our odds were much better than if we were isolated.

Three more days of waiting and then we got a break.

Westward movement at last! Panama City (and beyond) here we come.

Finally, a break in the weather. The constant parade of red patches and little lighting bolts across the MX Weather screen lets up and the chances for thunder storms drops to 30%. Not great but so much better than the 70 to 80% of the last week or so.

I make the decision to leave quickly so not to waste a moment of the window and soon we are through the land cut (the Gulf County Canal) and back into the ICW which is the South Prong of Wetappo Creek.

It's not quite as nice as the earlier stretch but much better than the land cut. This section was not as isolated. We knew we were in Florida.

There was not much to do but stay in the shade and occasionally adjust the auto pilot... It was Gene's watch.

.. and watch out for the tourists in air boats...

.. and avoid the barge traffic. We hadn't seen any barge traffic until this point.

The barge was doing a solid 6 knots and Valora was chugging along at about 5.8 knots so we decided to back off the throttle and have the barge pass at a point of our choosing.

What we didn't want was to find ourselves sandwiched between this West bound barge and an East bound barge in a very narrow part of the ICW. The area we were in had plenty of room for us to slide over so we dropped back to 3 knots.

Once Mary Sue was several hundred yards ahead life returned to its leisurely pace of 6 knots and tweaking the auto pilot. It was my watch.

I was surprised by the appearance of a small pod of dolphins. We seemed so far from the Gulf and the bays but we were closer than we thought. The dolphin's pace seemed to reflect our own leisurely pace as they slowly rolled at the surface. They didn't seem to be feeding or playing; just sight seeing like us.

This easy going didn't last long and the sound of thunder reminded us that we had a storm cell bearing down on us. It appeared that 30% was about to become 100% and this cell had lots of lighting.

The prudent thing was to pull over and nose up against the soft sand and close to the tall trees. We weren't far from the open water of East Bay and this was a better place to let the cell pass and get ahead of us or catch us.

The XM Weather seemed to indicate the cell would intersect our path at the head of East Bay and by stopping now we would more than likely not get caught in the storm, even though the center of the cell was less than 5 miles from us.

It took about 30 minutes for the cell to move on and then we headed for the open water of East Bay. We seemed to find another tiny window and wanted to take advantage of it, even if it was very tiny.

This was the pattern for the remainder of the trip. Each day we started out was like playing Russian Roulette and each day I wondered if we would land on an empty cylinder.

The real problem was that we didn't have to move each day. We elected to move or not to move as there was no schedule we had to keep. If it had been necessary that we move then we would have just had all the storm gear handy and hoped the gods of the Sea and our angles protected us and the ship. Obliviously, I didn't like playing every day. I suppose I could have gotten into the spirit of things and enjoyed the game but it sure seemed to me that the odds, as always, were in favor of the house. If I win, I move farther West and closer to home but if I lose, I get to replace several thousand dollars worth of electronics and completely rewire the boat and that was the best case scenario.

The storm cells moved across East Bay and we did too. We managed to land on an empty cylinder as we slid to the South of Panama City and headed for Pensacola.

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