Florida Panhandle Cruise, April 2003


"Searching for Crooked Island"
Story and Photographs by David Liscio

The morning sea breeze is already up and rustling the palmetto fronds as we emerge bleary-eyed onto the balcony of our Pensacola Beach hotel room. We are pilgrims from a cold planet, New Englanders eager to embrace the Florida Panhandle for warmth, sunshine, blue skies and the chance to sail a catamaran along the unspoiled Emerald Coast. The hotel is serving breakfast but our kids – Zack, 15, and Juliana, 11 -- are rifling through suitcases in search of bathing suits. It’s late April and the locals are in sweaters, but the 70-degree air temperature seems an inferno after Boston’s bitter cold, and within moments the kids are splashing in the pool to the horror of the housecleaning staff. Through the magnolia trees and jasmine we can see the Sabine Marina (now the Palace Marina), where the staff  is making final preparations for our bareboat adventure.

Since my wife, Christine, and I are catamaran novices, Bill, owner of the school and charter business, joins instructor Fred Leedy who takes us on a three-hour shakedown in Pensacola Bay. Leedy goes over an extensive checklist while Capt Bill serenades us with Jimmy Buffet tunes that emanate from his guitar. This is our second charter with the small, personalized company, so it’s more like a homecoming. Capt Bill  marvels at how the kids have grown in only two years and they, in turn, want to catch up on his latest tales that are typically laced with humor.

"I can tell you’re all not on island time yet, but you will be soon enough," he drawls, strumming his six-string with gusto as Leedy explains how to raise the lower the rudders and daggerboards on "Destiny," the 34-foot Gemini 105. Crouch tells the story of a recent client who arrived at the dock with an impressive sailing resume and  then proceeded to destroy the mast on the company’s Hunter 36 by trying to pass beneath a fixed 50-foot bridge. "Took two months to get a new mast shipped," he says, emphasizing the need to thoroughly check out the skills of would-be bareboat skippers. Leedy gives us a lift to the supermarket to buy provisions and later we all meet for beers and burritos at Margarita’s, one of several restaurants on the lively Pensacola Beach boardwalk.

Our 12-day float plan for sailing between Pensacola and Apalachicola, or Cola-to-Cola as the natives say, is ambitious when gauged by the pace of the Old South, and by every measure the Panhandle is just that – graceful and unhurried, an anachronism in these fast-paced times. The regional maxim might easily be -- speed kills.

Following Capt Bill's advice, we spend the first full day exploring the waters of Big Lagoon and Perdido Key, nearer to Alabama with its down-on-the-bayou atmosphere, anchoring at night behind cliff-high barrier dunes where we grill our first cheeseburgers in Paradise. We’re psyched just to be here and besides, it’s not snowing.

In the morning, dolphins visit while hawks soar over the trees and schools of mullet burst through the surface in a display of shimmering silver. By now we have the feel of the catamaran, which reaches willingly but doesn’t tack like our Bristol 27.

Inside on the ICW

The Gulf of Mexico is tempestuous, a smooth mirror one day and a Maytag washer the next. But cruisers needn’t fear its moods because the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) affords the option of sailing inside on a system of bays, sounds, rivers and canals.

Since a west wind is blowing 15-20 and the sea is choppy, we sail briskly through Santa Rosa Sound, two miles wide and 30 long, flanked by stands of pine and oak to the north and sugar-white sand dunes to the south. Santa Rosa Island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is why this place is so attractive to nature lovers. The catamaran doesn’t heel. It’s more akin to effortlessly steering a big raft. Warm wind at our back, stereo blasting some Bob Marley tune, we revel in the here and now. The kids dance and fool around on the foredeck. We’re rapidly decompressing from the relentless pressures of home and morphing into escape mode. It feels damn good.

Keeping an eye out for sandy shoals, we drop a lunch hook at Manatee Point near Standard Mile 213, a local favorite for overnight anchorage. The ICW traffic, albeit sparse, keeps us entertained. The ICW narrows just west of Fort Walton Beach so we douse the sails, fire up the diesel and keep clear of a massive gray-painted fuel barge that’s heading our way near a bend in the channel. It seems an eternity as the barge passes by, which makes the kids laugh because it reminds them of the spaceship in the opening scenes of the spoof film "Spaceballs." Tugs, barges, dredgers and other beefy work vessels are common along the ICW.

When the Brooks Bridge comes into view we know Fort Walton Beach lay just ahead. Sailboat masts bristle along the sandy shore as competitors gather for the Corsair Nationals. Corsair owners are unfolding their trailered trimarans and launching them from the beach in the state park adjacent to our destination, Deckhands Marina on Okaloosa Island.

Some of the Corsair racers practice in Choctawhatchee Bay, about four miles east, an expansive body of water ideal for cruisers looking for a relaxing day sail. Depths average 16 feet and the bottom is forgiving. With Destiny secured to wood piers, Christine and I celebrate by downing a couple of cold Red Stripe beers and take in the sights from the cockpit, glad to be in a new place for a day, maybe two. The kids fish from the dock and play with a bold heron that steals the tiny bait they’ve snared with a cast net and placed into a plastic bucket. It becomes a game that lasts for hours.

Though it’s a weekday afternoon, the regulars are already gathered at the marina’s open-air Dock ’O the Bay Bar, where for $12 you can select a thick, marinated steak from the refrigerator and grill it yourself out back, while the bartender rustles up a baked potato and chunk of bread.

At dark, the rustic watering hole’s neon roof trim reflects off the water and the blues emanate from the small dance floor. Our boat creaks contentedly as we play cards and talk about how lucky we are to be here. We’re getting into the rhythm of life aboard – wake to the sun and fresh-perked coffee, outdoors most of the day, bathing suits and bare feet and sand between our toes, sleep by the moon, lulled by the lapping of water against the hull.

In the morning I square away the dockage bill while Christine sunbathes beside the pool of the Leeside Motel, which is part of the marina operation. Later we cross the road to the famously white sand beaches of Fort Walton where the water is lukewarm, the greenish surf chest high as we take our first saltwater plunge. Hundreds of people are sprawled on blankets, wading, playing Frisbee and tossing balls.

The sun is intense as we broad reach for Choctawhatchee Bay where sailboats are moving in all directions. It’s easy to understand why the racers come here with so much room to maneuver. Bluewater Bay Marina, a few miles north, proves a picturesque setting with every amenity, including a courtesy car to lug provisions from markets in nearby Niceville. The marina architecture is creative yet classic. Spanish moss hangs down to frame the docks and waterfront restaurant. It’s a calm refuge where cruisers can get a good night’s sleep.

Outside in the Gulf

Knowing we’ll need a full day to sail outside in the Gulf to Panama City, we leisurely depart in the morning for Destin, a resort and sportfishing community at the southerly end of Choctawhatchee Bay. Passing beneath the 50-foot Destin Bridge, we struggle briefly with the stiff current rushing through East Pass Inlet, an artificial cut that provides access to the Gulf. Guided by local knowledge, we tuck into a deep protected anchorage behind the barrier dunes just beyond the bridge. A dozen other cruising boats are already anchored in the middle but there’s plenty of swing room. Every inch of the shore is packed with townhouses, condos, marinas, stores, restaurants, nightclubs and docks. Destin is clearly a partying town.

We scout the docks for a spot to tie up the inflatable, then linger over superb Taiwanese food at Ms. Chen’s.

A cacophony of clashing music styles – rock n’ roll, country-and-western, drunken sailor and Caribbean – carries over the water as darkness envelopes the harbor and the nightclubs compete for patrons. A battered catamaran named Folly is anchored close by and provides fodder for ghost stories. Juliana’s eyes widen with each spooky detail about Folly’s undoubtedly crazed skipper. It’s after 4 a.m. when the bands put their instruments away and our alarm clock is set for 5:30.

Dawn fog shrouds the catamaran cockpit but we can hear big boat engines idling as the sportfishers and head boats inhale their passengers. We rock in their wake, choosing not to depart until the fog lifts and it’s clear enough to safely navigate the inlet.

The wind is northwest so the catamaran leaps into motion and we spend 10 hours sailing toward the entrance to St. Andrew Bay. It’s pure joy. The swells are 3-4 feet and the boat shudders whenever a wave smacks between the pontoons. We stay about four miles offshore and eventually can see the abbreviated strip of high-rise hotels and condos at Panama City Beach, which has gained recent reputation as a college spring break destination.

Pushing on, the tall buildings fade into the distance and soon we’re passing the outer entrance buoy to St. Andrew Bay. Just east of us lay the magnificent beaches of Shell Island, a wildlife preserve and state park with access only by boat. Three shrimp boats are moving steadily off our bow toward unseen commercial docks, like a scene from Forest Gump.

I call up the waypoints for the bay’s range markers and primary buoys, culled from Maptech’s Marine Navigator software and plugged into my handheld GPS before leaving home. Inside the bay we follow the channel until the water is deep enough to veer off, vigilantly watching for shoals in the clear green water while sailing toward Spanish Shanty Point, identified by a clump of trees on Shell Island.

Stern-anchored a few feet off the beach, we pack a supper, hike across the 10-foot high dunes to the Gulf and there, with miles of sand entirely to ourselves, swim and collect shells until the sun sets in a theatrical display of red, orange, pink and purple. We remind the kids that this isn’t Disney World, some paper-mache exhibit called Dunescape with a $32.50 admission ticket. It’s the real deal, and while it took some doing to get here, the payoff is all around. Shell Island is a treasure. The fine sand squeaks beneath our bare feet. Hordes of crabs skitter in the tide zone, avoiding sharp-eyed heron on stilt legs whose lightning reflexes deliver small silvery fish to their beaks. Two days blissfully elapse as we explore the beaches and generally do nothing, which is a key item on our list of things to do.

Leaving Shell Island is difficult, but locals say a four-hour sail east will bring us to Crooked Island, an even more idyllic setting. Although the island’s entrance isn’t marked with buoys, the natural opening in the sand bar is among my GPS waypoints, mouse-clicked in advance. Still, it’s hard to spot from offshore, but my Steiner binoculars with integrated compass prove their worth.  

We proceed carefully, the entrance depth just under five feet, and follow the advice we received from another cruiser by rounding the sandy spit that juts out to port. I’m paralyzed by a nanosecond of doubt. Does this guy really know what he’s talking about? Am I nuts to trust a stranger? Am I putting my family in jeopardy? After all, we face another six hours at sea, late in the day, heading for an unfamiliar destination if this quest to anchor behind Crooked Island doesn’t pan out.

The lee side of the beach is straight ahead. The description matches. We anchor where the sand dunes meet the first stand of trees, just like we were told. Since it’s low tide we can bring the catamaran in close without fear of later stranding. Rigging a Bahamian anchor with the stern hook on the beach and the bow in deeper water keeps us from shifting around.

Crooked Island is exotic and remote – no buildings, no people, no other boats. It’s amazing that it exists in the 21st century along the Florida coast and I greedily contemplate not telling anyone about it, but those who appreciate such places should see it before short-sighted businessmen transform it into another homogenous development. On the Gulf side, the surf crashes into standing groves of dead trees, the waves foaming beneath their roots in the sand. Sea turtles come here to next, their holes pocketing the dunes. Pelicans slam the water 10 feet from our boat and emerge with small fish. Loons cry. A mother osprey angrily swoops at my head as I walk the beach with my camera. The attack startles but the bird’s motive becomes clear as I literally stumble upon her new offspring in the underbrush.

The kids, thrilled by Crooked Island, compare it to Castaway, the movie in which Tom Hanks plays a plane crash survivor alone for five years on an island. Can we stay here for a long time, maybe build an elaborate tree house like they did in Swiss Family Robinson?

Ever the nature explorer, Zack picks up a sea cucumber, which immediately squirts purplish ink on his forearm, then nets a toadfish to examine its spiny hide. Julie pokes at a winged skate that’s burrowing near her toes. Christine is lost in the presence of so many shells -- razor clams, augers, oysters, whelks, scallops, sand dollars and conch are strewn across the sand.

She surfaces momentarily to remind the kids of our isolated location and how, despite their father’s emergency medical training, there are things in nature that can kill them, so be careful. The kids nod, knowingly, then run toward the silhouette of dorsal fins in a trough in the sand bar. But there’s no reason to panic. Friendly dolphins reveal themselves, repeatedly leaping out of the water.  

Just as we’re about to reconnect with our primordial past, three F-15 fighter planes from Eglin Air Force Base roar across the tree tops, so close we can examine their landing gear, wing insignia and exhaust flames. We’re jolted back to the present, but the tactical aircraft are impressive and over the next two days we will come to appreciate their aerial ballets. At night it’s eerily quiet except for the surf, and with no light pollution the galaxy seems to go on forever, the known constellations saturated by a million less familiar stars.

Again the weather dictates that we must shove off to make the outside leg to Port St. Joe and the northern tip of Cape San Blas. An early-morning departure puts us by noon at the mouth of St. Joseph Bay, about 12 miles long and six miles wide. Not knowing what to expect, we relish the sight of well-spaced, low-profile buildings along Mexico Beach and untamed miles of sand along the hooked arm of St. Joseph Peninsula, which extends to the horizon.

The peninsula beaches are a wonderland of hermit, fiddler and horseshoe crabs, the tidal zone a racecourse for mullet and dolphins. Fishermen in small powerboats troll back and forth where the shallow green sea meets the dark blue depths. Natives say deer wander the peninsula grasslands, coming out to lick the saltwater while coyotes howl in the dark.

Protected from wind and waves by mounds of sand, we walk the beach and swim until we’re exhausted and hungry. We bake potatoes, concoct a tossed salad and grill Porterhouse steaks as the red sun slips into the sea. After the kids go to bed, Christine and I finish off a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and giddily shine the flashlight into the water to study the phosphorescence. The moon seems close enough to touch. It’s a great night at anchor.

Inside the bay we follow the channel until the waters deep enough to veer off, vigilantly watching for shoals in the clear green water while sailing toward Spanish Shanty Point, identified by a clump of trees on Shell Island.

Stern-anchored a few feet off the beach, we pack a supper, hike across the 10-foot high dunes to the Gulf and there, with miles of sand entirely to ourselves, swim and collect shells until the sun sets in a theatrical display of red, orange, pink and purple. We remind the kids that this isn’t Disney World, some paper-mache exhibit called Dunescape with a $32.50 admission ticket. It’s the real deal, and while it took some doing to get here, the payoff is all around. Shell Island is a treasure. The fine sand squeaks beneath our bare feet. Hordes of crabs skitter in the tide zone, avoiding sharp-eyed heron on stilt legs whose lightning reflexes deliver small silvery fish to their beaks. Two days blissfully elapse as we explore the beaches and generally do nothing, which is a key item on our list of things to do.

Woes of Port St. Joe

Port St. Joe’s industrial economy is in flux, the community struggling to find a new identity. Excavators and other heavy equipment are tearing down the old pulp mills, and though the quantity of oysters harvested annually in the region is remarkable, the beds can’t support every fisherman. Tourism may soon be the answer.

The town’s main street, a row of small stores adorned with a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, is getting a facelift, and plans are under way to build townhouse condominiums next to the new Port St. Joe Marina, where one of the mills once stood. Developers are buying up the land and locals are abuzz with rumors about a proposed amusement park and regional airport.

Several sportfishing charter boats operate out of the Port St. Joe Marina where we’re assigned a lay-along pier for the night. The boats bring in snapper, red fish, grouper, amberjack and cobia, the first mates laying the fish out on the dock as people gather to watch the ritual of gutting and filleting. Christine and the kids seek provisions while I check the engine fluid levels, restock the coolers with ice and await the rich golden light before dusk when photographs can take on a magical aura. Juliana, an avid reader, has blown through all the books she brought along and wants more, but she’s out of luck in Port St. Joe. As one local woman explained, "We don’t have nothin’ like that here. You gotta go to Panama City if you want books."

We plan to return to the peninsula beaches but the weather turns snotty, the seas in the Gulf rising 6-8 feet with the wind topping out over 25. Besides, our time is growing short, so we enter the Gulf County Canal, a wide ditch flowing with brownish river water that connects St. Joseph Bay with the ICW. The diesel pushes us deftly along the flat water.

For the first mile along both banks, shrimp boats are lashed to dilapidated wooden piers. House trailers surrounded by rusted equipment are nestled in the foliage. Barges and tugs are tied to pilings, as though awaiting further orders. We pass beneath a power cable slung across the canal, praying the mast will clear it. Sprawling chemical plants and other industrial facilities dominate the landscape in sharp contrast to the peninsula’s refreshing natural beauty.

The Redneck Riviera

Soon the greenery returns, palmetto trees, oak and cord grass. We chug along at seven knots for about an hour but see only one other vessel before rejoining the ICW, a bass boat with four anglers dressed in camouflage clothing. We slow down to reduce our wake and ask about the fishing. Christine hums the tune from Deliverance.

The ICW is wild along this low-lying stretch known as Harrison Swamp, where thick vegetation includes lush cypress trees with tall roots that perch above the surface like table legs. This is Aplach, an area of the South free of the moneyed New Yorkers and New Englanders so prevalent in other parts of the state. It’s pure Cracker, which is why the Panhandle is often referred to as the Redneck Riviera or LA, for Lower Alabama.

As the ICW widens, camp-like structures appear among the trees, but as we continue toward East Bay, elegant homes with fine docks are more prevalent. This seven-hour journey will eventually bring us back to Panama City via creeks and bayous. We read, bask in the sun and cook an elaborate meal, activities made easier by the catamaran’s spaciousness and stability.

Dockside camaraderie is accelerated by the sudden arrival of different boats and crew. Beer and stories are swapped. Soon we’re all traipsing through the boats, checking out rigging and layouts, debating the virtues of multi-hull over leaner (a colloquialism for mono-hull).

A fast-moving storm catches up with us on Wetappo Creek. It doesn’t take long for skinny water to get whipped into a frenzied state. Waves splash across the dodger, rain hammers the cockpit and clouds darken the sky. We become disoriented approaching Dupont Bridge because it’s hard to see the ICW marks and tell them apart from buoys set for other bayous. We backtrack quickly when the depthsounder shows three feet. Barges and tugs crop up in all directions, making matters worse. After an adrenaline rush we’re back on course to St. Andrew Bay. A Coast Guard patrol boat zooms past, leaving us floundering in its powerful wake. We reach the Panama City Marina by radio. The friendly manager says several cruisers are looking for tie-ups but not to worry, the marina is big enough to accommodate all.

When the rain lightens up we walk to Bayou Joe’s, a funky waterfront restaurant on Massalina Bayou, for fried grouper sandwiches and a dessert of brownies, fudge and ice cream. Bayou Joe’s is a colorful, one-of-a-kind establishment that allows boats entering Massalina Bay under the drawbridge to tie up at its dock – a foot from the dining room patio doors.

Downtown Panama City is old and charming, with squares and fountains and shopkeepers who like to talk. There’s no sense of rush. Mostly they want to know what sort of boat we’ve come by and where we’re headed next. The walls of the local sporting good store are lined with big-game trophy heads. The used bookshop is a gem. There’s a sidewalk café, a place that sells kites and another that specializes in hand-painted furniture and eclectic wind chimes all within a 10-minute walk from the marina. After more than 24 hours the wind settles down, allowing us to sail again in St. Andrew Bay before heading to Bay Point Yacht Club and Marina – where we will leave the boat.

Bay Point is a wealthy, gated community on Grand Lagoon, the marina so meticulously maintained it somehow seems surreal. Many of the sailboats and trawlers are liveaboards. Docks are lined with expensive sportfishers, their tuna towers reflecting under the sun, decks swabbed antiseptically clean, the owners’ luxury cars parked steps away at the curb. The harbormaster’s office is surrounded by condos, a deli with bakery and wine shop, a gourmet restaurant, swimming pool overlooking the bay, and a rental outlet for pontoon boats and other water toys. People in pressed white shorts and tops gather at the dock to discuss golf and boating.

Instinctively we resist the oh-so-civilized veneer. Down to our last rumpled T-shirts, colorful beach towels drying on the lifelines, we cast aside the free newspaper delivered to our boat. We’re out of touch with the world and its scandals, the war in Iraq, the terrorist threat, the foibles of humankind, and for as long as possible we’d like to keep it that way, keep it simple.

Already our conversation is turning from tides and currents, wind speed and course headings, to homework assignments and upcoming social obligations, bills unpaid, soccer games missed, taxi services and flight reservations. It won’t be long before we’re back on the clock, ants marching. But no matter how quickly and mercilessly the mundane overtakes us, we’ll savor the memories of Crooked Island, for it’s there we’ll travel in heart and mind until the charts are again sprawled across the kitchen table and we’re planning the next great family adventure.

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