Perdido Bay Sunrise

At 0550 on Saturday Dec 6th, we cast off from Bear Point Marina in Orange Beach, Alabama onto a glassy Perdido Bay with the full moon off the stern rail and rising sun off the bow pulpit. We raised the main and mizzen as an outgoing tide pushed us out of Pensacola Pass head first into rocky 3-5′ seas.

My crew, Randy, and I had a few goals for this trip to Florida’s west coast. I had never been offshore longer than 48 hours, so at an estimated 72 hours, this would be my longest crossing to date. We also were committed to sailing as much as possible–most crossings of this sort turn into motorboat rides and that wasn’t our intention.

We aimed for this to be both a delivery and a shakedown cruise. We wanted to sail as much as possible and see what broke.

It took us a couple of hours outside of Pensacola to reach the tide line which instantly calmed the seas to 1-2′. We killed the motor and raised the spinnaker to try and catch some of the light southwesterly winds, hoping they’d push us towards south Florida. The shifty wind refused to fill the sail and we could still see the beach condos behind us, so we cranked the motor back up to at least get a little sea room between us and shore before we went all hardcore sailor on the situation.

SailingBo sailing across the Gulf of Mexico.
By 1430 we were able to turn the engine off again and sail nicely at 5-6 knots. The predicted 10-15kts from the NE hadn’t appeared yet, but winds from the SW would work for now.

By sunset we’d put a double reef in the mainsail and were still cruising along at 6kts. The wind overnight stayed strong and at some point around midnight a front came through and we doused the main completely, flying only the tiny stay sail, even still maintaining 5-6kts in 8-10′ seas. The Simrad autopilot never missed a beat, allowing Randy and I to take 2 hour shifts; one person napping on the low side while the other person was tied into a corner on the high side scanning the horizon for lights.

With the sunrise came the ability to actually see the waves we’d been dealing with all night.

When we left on Saturday morning, the NOAA forecast for the next 3 days consistently, if not accurately, called for 10-15kt wind with 3-5′ seas. As Randy began to stir at the 6am shift change Sunday, I looked to my left to see a wall of water that reached as high as the first spreader on the mast.

“Um, how big do you think that one was?”

“Not sure. 20 feet maybe? At least 18.”

We both braced ourselves as the boat leaned to starboard, lifted up, then to port and back down. Had you told me 36 hours ago that we would be in 20-30kt winds with 18-20′ seas, I wouldn’t have believed you. Or maybe we wouldn’t have left the comfort of the marina.

But we did, and we were. And you know what?

It was incredible.

The boat, my 30 year old Brewer 42, was loving it, as though this were precisely what she was built for.

SailingBo S/V L'Attitude's Track
For 4 days and 3 nights we rode the waves to our destination. Uncomfortable at times, but generally in a trance-like state induced by the boat’s dance on the water’s surface. The wind held steady between 10-20kts, with the waves bouncing anywhere from 5′ to 20′ for the rest of the trip.

On Monday, day 3, a wave in the distance grabbed my attention. As I focused on it, from several hundred yards away I watched dolphin leaping towards us, sometimes 6′ in the air, as though they were racing to see who could reach the boat first. For hours they escorted us across the Gulf, our own personal entourage.

By sunset we reached the Tampa Bay shipping channel, and all attention turned to the radar and AIS screens. This was a trip of many firsts for me, and besides gaining great trust in the boat, I learned a lot about my electronics.

I had used radar before, but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. In preparation for this trip, however, I read “Radar for Mariners”. I learned enough to avoid a storm using radar on day 1, then keep tabs on a few fishing vessels on night 2 and giant tankers on night 3.

Radar showing a ship 3 miles off the stern.

Radar showing a ship 3 miles off the stern.

The other game changer aboard was the Automatic Identification System. AIS is a fancy system that basically allows big commercial boats to show up on my computer screen, along with information about their speed and destination. So whenever we saw lights on the horizon, or blips on the radar, we were able to go down below and look at the computer to determine if it was a giant ship we should be concerned with. And if it was, we were able to see where they were headed, so we knew whether or not there was any risk of collision.

In essence, it took less than 90 seconds to figure out that our two boats would pass safely 5 miles apart. This, compared to the old way of a crew member taking compass bearings and staring down the faint blip for hours until it disappeared or got much, much bigger. Game changer.

And since most of my current electronics are nearly 10 years old, when we pull the trigger to upgrade, it’ll only get better.

Safely anchored in Pelican Bay.

Safely anchored in Pelican Bay.

By noon on Tuesday, day 4, we had entered Charlotte Harbor and dropped the anchor in Pelican Bay, completing my longest, roughest, most exciting, passage to date. We accomplished everything we set out to do–deliver the boat safely, stay offshore more than 48 hours, sail more than motor, and break something.

But we’ll get into that later. First, here are two short video clips that we managed to get during the trip.

[Video should appear below. If not, click here.]

Related: Read about Bo’s first offshore crossing, over 10 years ago!


Bo is currently based in Orange Beach, Alabama working towards checking #31 off his bucket list. If you’d like to be a part of the adventure, consider sponsoring a mile. To get more info on the curriculum, visit JuniorCaptains.com.