We have loved the Gulf Intra Coastal Waterway, with its mellow tides, deeper channels, and mix of sheltered waters & wide-open bays. This map shows our route thru the panhandle to Carrabelle, where we jumped off to cross the open Gulf of Mexico to the western Florida coast (more on this later). From Dog River on the western side of Mobile Bay, we went to the Fort McRae anchorage just west of Pensacola, then the eastern side of Choctawatchee Bay, and from there to an anchorage in a little creek just east of St. Andrews Sound at Panama City, and from Upper Wetappo Creek we made it to Carrabelle just before dusk on Saturday (12-7) night.
If this doesn't seem like fast progress to you, then let us assure you that averaging 70 miles on short winter days in a 7-knot boat is a full day's work!
This first photo is Hank enjoying a morning ashore on the island just north of the Fort McRae anchorage (link to Google Map). This is a beautiful spot, with two islands to explore, and is both perfectly sheltered and has good holding ground... firm sand, our anchor loved it... and the channel is deep & easy to find one's way in from the west. This is a totally five-star stop and the only reason we're not trying to keep it a secret is that it's already in all the cruising guides!
This next bit of scenery comes from the channel passing Fort Walton Beach. This wrecked sailboat is on a sandbar just outside the marked GICW channel; we don't know if it's a remnant from a hurricane or a derelict that was abandoned for somebody else to clean up (this is a common problem in Florida).
This photo is of our next anchorage in Choctawhatchee Bay (link to Google Map), just west of the causeway supporting the Hwy 331 bridge. This was not a choice cruising anchorage, but it did provide shelter from the predicted easterly wind (which did arrive about midnight; so the weather forecasters have our sincere thanks), and we took Hank for a walk on the causeway. There is constant commercial traffic, this tow passed our companions on Tom-Kat (link to Tom-Kat's web site) at dusk and several more went by in the night with bright, bright searchlights glaring.
The next part of this voyage took us thru a long, steep-sided canal far inland. This is commonly referred to as "The Canyon" by towboat captains; it's narrow enough that communications by VHF radio with any nearby vessels are needed to arrange safe meeting or passing. It is also tidal and we had an unfavorable current much of the way.
As we passed thru St. Andrews Sound near Panama City, the excitement for today was the arrival of a brand-new Navy ship, the USS Mesa Verde (link). As you can see, we kept well clear of the security zone around the vessel. She is an impressive addition to our U.S. fleet, and we hope that all her future voyages are successful & safe.
Our last two photos show what the scenery is like along this stretch of the Great Loop. Florida has a lot of swampy places and lowland forest, laced with creeks & marshes. We have not seen any alligators yet, but when we take Hank ashore in places like this, we do NOT want to see any!
Our last Panhandle anchorage (link to Google Map) was in a place that looked very much like this last photo, with a fringe of tidal marsh. We were very careful to scout the area and to make lots of loud noise as we went ashore; however Hank was uncharacteristically hesitant to go. In fact he seemed timid, and we wondered if his canine senses told him it was a hostile environment.
From here it was a day's run past Apalachicola to the small town of Carrabelle, where many cruisers get ready to cross the upper-eastern (140+ miles) part of the Gulf of Mexico. This is often called the "Big Bend" of Florida and there is no sheltered waterway. Weather is critically important here!
We don't want to keep anybody in suspense; we made our crossing in relatively calm conditions, arriving safely in Clearwater on Sunday (12-8).
Hope you all are well & happy-
Doug & Kathie