Having completed the Inland Rivers, we slow waaayyy down as we enter the Gulf of Mexico starting with a stint in the boatyard ‘on the hard.’ We then relish being back on the ICW as we cruise along Florida’s ‘Forgotten Coast’ of the Panhandle while keeping an eye on a weather window to make ‘the crossing’ to Florida’s upper west coast.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
One of the biggest attractions of The Loop for us is exploring new places. A quick online search yields plenty of ‘Top 10 Things to Do’ lists for any place you visit. Fellow Loopers are quite generous with suggestions and recommendations, not to mention any local that you simply ask. Dave and I love finding the hidden gem, the quirky, or the unique tidbit of history in every place we go. It’s especially sweet if we stumble upon it accidentally, or if a place totally exceeds our expectations.
The Florida Panhandle and upper Gulf Coast was a pleasant surprise and one of the most underrated legs on the Loop. Everyone gushes about the Keys . But when Hurricane Ian hit and wiped out the cruiser’s haven of Ft. Myers, we all had to rethink our Florida itineraries, starting with slowing our roll after Mobile Bay and spending more time in the Panhandle. After the intensity of the rivers this slower pace was quite welcome, allowing us to enjoy the journey as well as the destinations. We also had a pretty long list of projects and things to get done that needed chipping away, such as getting the boat whole again.
The Alabama Coast
Priority number one was the starboard engine and its oil pressure issue that had plagued us all the way down the rivers. After continuing down Mobile Bay from Fairhope, we turned onto the Gulf ICW (GICW) and pulled into Saunders Yachtworks. We had a great view of the GICW and all the boat traffic. It did not escape us that at exactly this time last year we were also sitting in a boatyard waiting to get the port engine fixed, watching all the other cruisers going by and wishing we could join them. Gotta love the irony.
Dave had ruminated on the engine issue all the way down the rivers, and narrowed it down to one of two things: a clogged oil cooler (the easy fix) or a clogged lifter (would require taking the engine out of the boat, so not an easy fix – been there, done that). He had already ordered and received a new oil cooler at one of our stops in Kentucky, and after a consultation and blessing from the mechanic at Saunders one morning he got to work changing it out himself. It was just four bolts to remove and replace the brick-sized unit, but its location required Dave to lay across the top of the engine and effectively stand on his head to deal as he felt his way to each of the unseen bolts. After a few hours of work punctuated by occasional dizzy spells as blood pooled in his head, he was ready for the test run. He cranked up both engines and we both stared at the display anxiously staring at the oil pressure and oil temp readings. SUCCESS!!! Happy dance! It’s noteworthy that the mechanic later said he was glad Dave wanted to change it out himself because when he saw where it was located he really didn’t want to do it.
Gulf Shores Nov 12 - 22
Next up was hauling the boat out to clean and redo the protective bottom paint. Since this would be a very messy, stinky job and Roxy can’t climb ladders, we found an AirBNB near the beach to stay in for the six days it was going to take. The beaches of Gulf Shores totally caught me by surprise. Miles of beautiful fine white sand beach is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Alabama – at least, not up to now. Make no mistake, there were still the usual surf shops, kitschy restaurants, and themed amusements of every tourist beach. But it was on a smaller scale.
A nasty cold spell limited us a bit, but we had time to meet some Looper friends at the iconic Lulu’s (owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister), explored nearby historic Fort Morgan, and took Roxy for walks on the beach. We also went to Flora-bama with some other Looper friends, a beach bar with several music stages that’s right on the Alabama-Florida border. And honestly, it was nice to stretch out in the condo, watch some mindless TV, and enjoy long hot showers that we can’t do on the boat. But after six days we were also ready to get on our way.
Orange Beach Nov 23 - 26
See Level went back in the water the day before Thanksgiving, and after we’d washed the incredible amount of dirt off her she had accumulated in the boatyard it was a short few miles along the GICW to The Wharf Marina in Orange Beach for the Thanksgiving weekend. We had a small Thanksgiving dinner on the boat with Patty and Gary from Inconceivable. We hadn’t seen them since Paducah, KY, because we had to accelerate our itinerary to get the boat fixed, while they had to slow down for insurance reasons. So sharing Thanksgiving with them was special.
The Panhandle of Florida
And then we were back in Florida, crossing a state line but this time it wasn’t a new state as we had started our Loop in Florida. We started to get an inkling that we really would be completing a loop in our travels. We were once again traveling in an ICW, with sheltered and well-marked channels, developed areas on both sides, and lots of other boat traffic. Best part is that we were seeing dolphins! We also had to start considering tides and changing currents as we planned docking and tying up to fixed docks, and transiting shallow areas. It felt familiar in a hey-we-kind-of-know-what-we’re-doing-now kind of way, and that felt good.
Pensacola Nov 27-28
Being Navy types, we had this pre-conceived notion that Pensacola would be more about the base there than anything else, home of all things naval aviation including the famous Blue Angels. Au contraire, it is a town with an incredibly diverse history. Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags because it has been governed under five different countries – Spanish, French, British, US, and Confederate. Okay, so the last one wasn’t a completely legal country, but apparently by virtue of having a flag they get credit in the entymology whereas the Native Americans who actually were the first ones there not only had their land and culture taken from them by the Spanish (and all that followed), but then the Americans didn’t include them in the motto because no one told them they need to have a flag, which would have made it the City of Six Flags and present day Americans would think it was all a giant amusement park with roller coasters. Not that most Americans even know about the five flags. American history really has a lot of explaining to do. But flags aside, we were impressed with Pensacola.
We did a really fun Segway tour with the Inconceivable crew, seeing how the city embraces the arts, its parks, and a great restaurant scene including the Saville Quarter with its own salacious history. There was this very colorful Bubble Art installation over this street. The Bubbles then also appeared randomly all over the downtown area.
BONUS: no Middle Agers wiped out on the Segways.
A visit to Joe Patti’s Seafood, a major supplier of fresh seafood to restaurants, was a Pensacola experience. Joe Patti is credited with introducing shrimp to the American public. During WWII, he had a contract with the US to use some of his boats to ‘patrol’ the East Coast and in exchange they would serve his shrimp to the troops. When the war was over, the troops returned to their hometowns all over the country and sought out this seafood delicacy, thus created a widespread demand for shrimp. One can only wonder what might have been if they had a Shrimp Flag.
Frank Patti – Joe’s son – was holding court the afternoon we visited, perched on a bar stool and calling out the numbers for next up customer along with a rolling banter over the PA system. in Pensacola
Shalimar Nov 29 - Dec 1
Two Georges Marina in Shalimar really was just a nice enough place to wait out a couple days of bad weather. Not much to see or do here. And then the second day of bad weather never materialized, so we wished we had moved on earlier. They did have remarkable sunsets both nights we were there, though.
with an eye on 'the crossing'
A major waypoint on The Loop is crossing the open water of the Gulf to get to the west coast of Florida; it’s essentially cutting the corner from the panhandle to the west coast, as you can’t cruise the coast all the way around. For most Loopers, this is one of the most angst-inducing days because most of the Loop is in protected waterways, rivers, and lakes. This is also where you really need to be patient for the right conditions. There are two options. One is a long 140 mile crossing all the way to Tarpon Springs or Clearwater (the hypotenuse of the triangle), requiring winds and seas to both be good continuously for before, during, and after the transit, requiring patience. The second is a shorter 70 mile trip to Steinhatchee, then two or three shorter trips going down the coast to Tarpon (the straight over and down, also called the Rim Route). The former requires travel overnight for all but the fastest boats, while the latter requires several days of shorter periods of good conditions, and/or being willing to potentially get stuck somewhere for a few days waiting.
So making our way along the Panhandle we were keeping a close eye on the future weather. We had planned to ‘cross’ sometime after Dec 10, but a lovely prolonged window was opening up the week before. There had been a large group of Loopers waiting to cross in November because there was a record low number of good travel days, with some waiting in Carabelle (the staging point) for over two weeks. And since windows don’t stay open very long, sometimes you just have to adjust your plan to suit Mother Nature’s whims. We started advancing our itinerary to allow us to take the opportunity if it presented itself, dropping off a couple stops and/or shortening our time in a place. It’s just the part of boat life.
Panama City Dec 2 - 4
Before Ian, there was Hurricane Michael in 2018, the Cat 5 Hurricane that no one heard about (no flag, ya know) that did tremendous damage. The Panama City area is still recovering, to the extent that we actually had to stay across the water at Panama City Beach and Uber in because the downtown marina was still not rebuilt. We found the downtown loaded with personality, with a vibrant restaurant, brewery, and arts scene with a vintage vibe. Found a holiday crafts festival and farmers market going on the day we were there.
During our three days there, that great weather window further developed for the coming days and many other Loopers joined us in making a run to get to The Crossing. The morning we left at least half a dozen other boats were right behind us, with more a day or two behind.
Dinghied over to nearby Shell Island, where we could walk barefoot on the fine sand beach and enjoy the warm clear blue-green water. I hadn’t known how much I had missed this and we realized that we really were back in Florida.
Florida's Forgotten Coast
Apalachicola Dec 5
Apalachicola was a favorite stop even though it was just one day. It’s the poster child for Florida’s Forgotten Coast, dubbed ‘forgotten’ because the stretch was left out of Florida’s tourism promotions. The town is true Old Florida, with its low key shops and restaurants housed in repurposed ice houses, sponge exchanges, cotton markets, and oyster houses. Several spots had a ‘last gasp of the hippie movement’ vibe. The town dock where we stayed had a quirky giant Christmas tree made from fish netting and decorated with crap trap floats and nautical life rings that fit perfectly with the town. The dockmaster is also the chief of police.
Dog Island Dec 6
We would have liked to stay longer in Apalachicola, but that great weather window we had been following was turning into beckoning French doors flung wide open. We knew this was a gift to allow us to cross and still have several days of great weather to move south, so we booked over to anchor at Dog Island to stage for a daytime crossing. We had seen/heard both that dogs were and that they were not allowed on the beach. Deciding that if you named it Dog Island it would be completely unethical to then not allow dogs and finding nothing posted stating otherwise, we took a quick stroll to allow her to do her business, then enjoyed a full moon on the peaceful water. It doesn’t get better than this.
Dec 7, 2022
We woke to fog heavy enough we couldn’t see the beach a mere 100 yards away. As soon as it was light we pointed the dinghy in the direction of the sound of the beach for a Roxy potty run. The hard part was going to be returning to the boat. But thanks to GPS technology we could drop a pin before we left the boat and record our track to shore. Similarly, Dave had saved our track from when we left the channel to go to the anchorage, and so we raised the anchor and with me on the bow as a physical lookout and our foghorn sounding we followed our ‘breadcrumbs’ back to the channel, where we could then maintain the plotted course between channel markers.
The silver lining to heavy fog is that they typically go along with flat seas. We briefly picked up a dolphin escort as we headed into the Gulf, which we heard before we could actually see them in the heavy fog. Our choice to anchor at Dog Island proved a good one, as it was only about 15 minutes of creeping around the tip of the island instead of 90 to get out from Carabelle through the fog to the open water of the Gulf, where we didn’t have to worry about running into land. Twenty minutes later, we popped out of the fog bank into sun sparkling off glassy seas with the mildest of a swell that continued until we were pulling into Steinhatchee Marina. It had been an open water crossing of every cruiser’s dreams.
As awesome as the calm water, blue skies were, the most memorable part was the three dolphins that joined us for 20 minutes of our trip. They swam alongside, cut back and forth across our stern wake, and raced ahead to dive under our bow. It was spectacular and I was thrilled.
Florida Gulf Coast Rim Route
Steinhatchee Dec 7-8
There wasn’t much to the town of Steinhatchee, with its small but well-maintained older homes. It was another town that so far had avoided mass development for tourism. There were several other Loopers that had come in after us, and we enjoyed a celebratory steak dinner at the marina restaurant with new and old friends. We stayed a second night and greeted Inconceivable when they pulled in the day after us. They hadn’t been as lucky on the crossing and had fog most of the way. We felt like we had won the weather lottery.
Shortly after leaving Steinhatchee we ran into fog and had to slow way down, with Inconceivable behind us. We were now in the land of crabpots, and had to be vigilant to spot them in the fog. At least the totally flat seas made it easier to see them. But it took both of us scouring the waters ahead as well as watching the radar for other boats and big hazards that we wouldn’t want to run into. We got pretty good at spotting one crabpot and then knowing where to look for the next one in the line to appear out of the fog, and successfully navigated through them all. Once we got out of the fog, it was a glorious trip with lots of dolphins along the way, especially in the tortuous channel approaching the anchorage at Cedar Key.
Cedar Key Dec 9
Cedar Key is a quaint, very small tourist and recreational fishing town that still has the undeveloped Old Florida feel. We walked the few blocks of the town, ending back at a restaurant for dinner looking out over our anchored boats. The anchorage was very nice, with a view of the lights of the town waterfront in front of us and Inconceivable being backlit by a near-full moon behind us.
Tarpon Springs Dec 10-18
Another transit that started out clear but we then ran into a heavy fog bank. Once again we found ourselves dodging crabpots with foghorn blaring and radar spinning.
Tarpon Springs has the largest Greek community in the states, born of mass immigration 100 years ago as the sponge divers were enticed over from Greece. Sponges are still an industry here, but not as big as blatant tourism. The town has retained its Greek culture through the generations, I think because they prominently display the Greek flag everywhere. It was Greek food heaven, and we made the rounds of several restaurants and bakeries in our nine days here. I never knew there were so many variations on baklava.
We spent nine days in Tarpon because we had been unable to move up our reservations further south with the upcoming holidays leaving marinas booked. So we decided to make life easy and stayed the extra days there, allowing plenty of time to explore all aspects of the town.
One day while in Tarpon we took the trolley down to Dunedin, a suburb of Clearwater about 15 miles south. This had a great small-town community feel, and was decked out for the holidays by local businesses adopting a lightpost to decorate. There were many other art displays, from murals to sculptures to bike racks.
Tarpon marks the end of our travels in the Panhandle and Old Florida. This leg of The Loop has well-exceeded our expectations. It is worth noting, by the way, that this route from Fairhope AL to Tarpon Springs could also be done as a road trip (except for Dog Island, or course – definitely need a boat for that one), with every town having some cool looking Inns, old-fashioned Bed and Breakfasts, or other lodging. Continuing south from here will be the bigger cities and stops of the ‘modern’ Florida coast, developed for the tourism economy and seasonal living. We will be entering the land of condos, snowbirds, and spring break destinations as we make our way down to The Keys, with our pace becoming even slower as we indulge in a winter in the sun and clear blue waters as we navigate along all the miles of Florida coastline. The reality is that we are actually on our last major leg of our Great Loop Adventure.
You can bet when we cruise back into St. Augustine in the spring, it will be with flags flying.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 37
- Travel Days: 10
- Days boat out of the water: 7
- Miles Traveled: 491.9 (427.7 nm)
- New States Visited: 0
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 127
- Miles Traveled: 5251.6 (4566.3 nm)
- States Visited: 18
- Provinces Visited: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.