America’s Great Loop: Leg 2

We are excited to resume our journey around America’s Great Loop (May 22, 2020). This time, I will be traveling with my good friend Andre Santos. We’ll start in Cortez, Florida and work our way through Lake Okeechobee and up the east coast.

Thank you for following and we look forward to your comments and advice along the way. Check us out on Facebook at Pontoon Loopers. Cheers all!

Day 8: Cortez, FL to the Homosassa River

Steve and I got up before daylight a idled our way out into the Gulf.  Then we headed north to the Homosassa River.  A honda marine mechanic is there and they serviced the boat.  For now, we are considering how to proceed with the next leg.

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Day 7: Crystal River to Sarasota Bay

Total miles:   1400 miles

Saturday

The winds were calm and the seas were 0-1 foot all day long.  It was Memorial Day weekend and many people were on the beaches and on boats.  For most of the trip, we stayed several miles out to stay out of the shallow water.  My brother enjoys the water and we made several stops to jump off the boat and swim for a bit.  By early afternoon, we made it to the dock of the Seafood Shack in Cortez, Florida.  Below is a video of one of the Florida beaches.

We enjoyed being out in the Gulf of Mexico and even saw some porpoises swimming.

While we were there, we tried to find a hotel.  All were booked.  So, we ended up sleeping on the dock/boat.

While at the dock, I looked over the boat.  Looking closely, I noticed significant signs of mechanical stress to the boat.  Six screws had fallen out of the furniture and other screws were 3/4 of the way out on the swim ladder.  It was the constant offshore pounding that had to be the cause.  A few other boat issues were occurring: motor was stalling due to sand in the lower unit intake,  fuel gauge was broken and there were ripples between the bolts where the pontoons are connected to cross-members.  We temporarily fixed the overheating by blowing compressed air into the water intakes.  That helped.  However, I thought it was time to service the motor and consider putting a hold on the journey.  So the decision was made to head toward Steve’s home and service the motor.

Some of the successes of my trip include:  completing 25% of the loop (1600 miles), completing the Tennessee-TomBigbee leg, solo Gulf Crossing, and not getting lost.

Biggest Feat:  Solo Gulf Crossing on a pontoon.

Scariest Part:  Boating in the Mobile Bay Commercial Traffic Channel during a Small Craft Advisory.

Best Part:  South-Central Florida and spending time with my brother and Gina.IMG_0184.JPG

Day 6: Gulf of Mexico Crossing

220 miles

Friday

Weather was better today.  The seas were 2-3 feet all day and the winds were 10-15 knots.  So, I stayed on schedule and left early Friday morning to cross the Gulf of Mexico.  Some boaters choose a route that follows the big bend of Florida, staying closer to land.  It adds distance and time to the crossing, so I chose a straight shot across.  After exiting south of the barrier islands (St. George Island), I cruised about 4 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.  Contemplating my next move, I was overwhelmed with a sense of uncertainty.  It wasn’t panic but it was this feeling of “should I try it or not.”  It was probably only about 5-10 minutes, but I was wavering.  So much time planning this trip made me feel as if I should give it a go…  And as I sat there, I knew that it was now or never.  So, I turned the boat east, set my way point on Steinhatchee, Fl and powered it up to 30 mph.

Everything was operational and I kept the two way radio set to the weather channel; getting constant updates for the next 6 hours.  As time passed, the islands behind me became smaller and smaller and less distinct.  The voice over the radio was repetitive and sounded like a true friend.  Someone that was constantly helping me as I took this small boat far out into the Gulf.  The water was a beautiful blue color all day and a few clouds were scattered over me.  As I headed through the cloudy areas, I didn’t encounter rain but the water was a bit choppy.   Then it was more like a gentle, rolling sea with a period long enough to follow it smoothly.

Periodicially, I would drift off course because the seas seemed to be pushing me north-easterly.    Then, I would correct my angle.  Over and over, I did this as I made my way toward the west coast of Florida.  Eventually, all land disappeared.  Now, I was completely alone and it was peaceful in some odd way.  A few hours in (maybe 100 miles out) I saw a large sea turtle floating on the surface.  It was my only sighting except for a sail boat closer to the west coast of Florida.

After about 6 hours of travel, I began to see land again.  There is a nuclear power plant at Crystal River (Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant) that has two stacks that make land noticable from further out.   I had successfully crossed the Gulf of Mexico solo on a Tritoon.

I made it on down to Crystal River, Florida where my brother met me.  He lives in the area and I was able to spend the night at his house.  He and Gina were great hosts and I appreciate their hospitality.

155 gallons of fuel were on board on this day.  Midway across the Gulf, a 12v fuel pump was used to pump fuel from an ATL bladder into my main tank.  It was like having a gas station out there on the open water.   Safety equipment was imperative and I had emergency positioning equipment, a satellite phone, and wore an inflatable flotation device.

Day 5: Mobile Bay, AL to Apalachicola, FL

Thursday

Pictured below is a synopsis of the weather conditions as I traveled from Mobile Bay to Apalachicola, Fl.  That morning, I left Dog River Marina (Mobile, AL) at daybreak and headed for the Mobile Commercial Shipping Channel.  Two huge tanker ships were in the channel and I motored in between them.  My job was to stay patient while we all headed toward the Gulf of Mexico. 

The waves were rough and due to my lack of experience, I thought it was OK.  After a few minutes in the channel,  I found out that we were in a Small Craft Advisory.  And worse, “no ship-to-ship communication” was to occur except for emergencies on the 2 way radio set to Ch. 16.  That caught my attention.   Winds were 15-20 knots.  Seas were 5-7 feet with occasional 9 footers.  There were no other recreational boaters out there and I learned a lesson about checking the seas before departing.  

Back to the Channel:  I wanted to get out of it ASAP.   To do so, I increased my speed to pass the ship in front of me on her port side.  I literally felt like a gnat getting smacked around as I passed this vessel.  The ship’s captain and crew probably never saw me.  I stayed far right of it’s wake and ran as close to wide open as I could.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell what was his wake and what was the rough choppy water as I passed him.  It was all rough as hell.  The pounding on the water made my Tritoon sound like a tin can hitting granite.  It was  humbling to feel the power of the water against my small boat.  Anyway, I made it as far in front of that ship as I could and then crossed her path.  I continued up the channel and found a smaller waterway that led to a barrier island.

After getting to land, I tied off at the first dock I could find.  That was at Fort Morgan, just across from Dauphin Island.  Once on land, I considered ending my journey.  More of my luck was used up.  While at the dock, I met a fisherman and told him about trip.  He encouraged me to continue and said that I had made it through the hard part.  If I would go back about a quarter mile and turn east, I could get into the smaller intra-coastal waterway heading to Fort Walton, FL. 

He was correct and that’s what I did.   My navigation chart took me down these intra-coastal waterways and into the center of some huge bays (Perdido Bay, Big Lagoon, and Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Bay, and Choctawhatchee Bay).  These wide bodies of water were as rough as what I experienced in Mobile, Alabama but there were other vessels to contend with. 

Then, in the late afternoon, the day completely changed.  The water became as smooth as glass and I got to travel through some of the most beautiful waterways in the panhandle of Florida.  It was like God thought I had suffered enough and now it was time to see the beauty in life.  I watched birds flying over, families swimming along beautiful beaches, fishermen fishing and an ever changing incredible landscape.  As the sun was setting, I made it to my destination of Apalachicola, Florida!

Interestingly, my pontoons would at times spear the waves and I would get doused with water over the helm.  In hindsight, that was actually a thrill and part of a hero-ing, crazy experience.

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Day 4: Demopolis, AL to Mobile, AL

Demopolis to Mobile:  240 miles.

Sleeping on the boat was better than I thought it would be.   I got good sleep and woke up at 4:15 a.m. to try to get through the Demopolis lock before others were up.  That worked out very well and I was traveling down the TomBigbee before 6:00 a.m.

Going to sleep was a different matter.  I moved the sleeping bag to the back seat and managed to roll off the seat twice while in the sleeping bag.  There was no way to catch myself before hitting the floor.  Embarrassing, but at least no one was watching,  IMG_9202

It seemed that everything went my way today.  I got through the final 2 locks without much waiting and made it to Bobby’s Fish Camp by 10:30 a.m.  That allowed me to push on to Mobile during the afternoon.  Bobby’s is the final place to get gas before traveling the very remote Black Warrior river into Mobile.

For the next few weeks, I will be in salt water.  Tides, winds, and waves will all be factors to consider.  Mobile Bay was rough today (3 foot waves with 10-15 knot winds).   At one point, waves were coming over the front of the boat and soaking the floor.  These conditions are the main reason I stopped at Dog River Marina for the night.  It is a good marina and they have slips available for travelers.

Tomorrow looks like another good day.  The tide is rising through the early morning and the winds are 8-13 knots.  I should be able to cross the Bay in these conditions.

Day 3: Columbus, MS to Demopolis, AL

Columbus to Demopolis:  118 miles.

The weather app showed rain for the day.   It also showed a few periods with lightening.  I decided to go for it (hoping for the best) and left around 7:00 a.m.  The rain began as a sprinkle and lasted several hours.  Later, the storm began to build and it rained heavily.  The lowered visibility made it difficult to see drift wood in the waterway.  I kept my speed at 28 mph and managed to get through it well.  When I get on “bigger” water, I cannot chance it like that.  I will need to be patient and wait for good weather days.  Anyone who knows me knows that patience is not one of my virtues.  Also, my time schedule is short and I need to get back home sooner than later.0A4A0162

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The weather improved in the afternoon which allowed for some great sites.  I’ll share a few below.  0A4A01510A4A0128

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It was good to meet Lock-master Michael (pictured below).  We visited about the ‘loop’ while locking through.   He has experience of the Gulf of Mexico and didn’t like my idea of traveling across the Big Bend of Florida out in the Gulf.   He suggested that I stop in the pan-handle of Florida and trailer the boat around the “big water” area.  He said that the risks are too large:  mechanical problems on the Gulf, big waves, bad weather, run out of gas, etc.  It was out of genuine concern on his part that he shared it.  And I appreciated his concern.  It gave me some hesitation in following through with the plan.

He went on to say that some people may have “80 percent luck” but others (himself included) only have “20 percent.”  I was sitting there thinking that my luck was in the 80 pct range.  But even if it is 80%, that isn’t high enough to risk everything.  So, I will keep his advice in mind and may change the plan.  Changes could include using a different boat or doing sections at different times.  For now, we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Here is a picture of Michael. 0A4A0145

As for sleep, I’m in a covered slip and sleeping on the boat.  No tent, just a sleeping bag on the seat.  It is very pleasant outside here in Demopolis.  The calm breeze feels like A/C.  Frogs and crickets are making peaceful background music.  It would be perfect except for the mosquitos.  My bug spray OFF is full but it won’t spray at all.  I think it’s because it’s a 10 year old bottle.  I need to invest in a new bottle.  Ha!

Lastly, I’ve had the privilege of meeting several loopers today.  Mr. Charlie Hefty and his wife are from Wisconsin.  They’re traveling north on a beautiful Sea Ray called YOTS OF FUN.  William Mayberry is on the trawler OPTIMYSTIQUE. He and his wife reside in eastern Tennessee in the summer and Bradenton, Florida in the winter.  They have taken a sail boat down and up this route 5 times in the past.  Now they are on a 40 foot trawler that they’ve owned for 3 years.  In the next slip over from me are two great guys, Tom and Ryan (father, son).  They are taking there new (to them) trawler “Kismet” south and may head toward New Orleans.  Ryan lives in Chicago and Tom lives in Cincinnati.  If I get that far, I will send them a note.  All of these trawlers are beautiful and are definitely the way to go.

Good night.  Thanks for following along.  If I push it tomorrow, I could make it to Mobile or even close to Florida (completing the first leg of the trip).  We’ll see!

Day 2: Tenn-Tom to Columbus, MS

Pickwick Dam, TN to Columbus, MS.  120 miles.

I woke up early and entered the Tennessee-TomBigbee waterway.   The Tenn-Tom was constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority for commercial traffic.  It connects two rivers to provide a waterway from the Ohio river to Mobile, Alabama; providing an alternate route from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.  When boating the Tennessee-Tom today, I passed about 10 barges and about 10 fishing boats.   There are marinas on this route and it is the preferred route by most long-distance recreational boaters.  Traversed 7 locks today!    IMG_9158

Tenn-Tom Waterway

In the early afternoon, Carol texted me with a weather update.  It showed severe weather approaching Columbus at 5 p.m.  I was able to avoid the storm by making it to the Columbus marina about 30 minutes early.  They gave me a great covered slip and I spent a couple of hours visiting with them while it rained.  Now, I am at a hotel washing clothes, updating the blog and getting ready for tomorrow.   IMG_9169

Columbus, MS marina.

During some posts, I may discuss modifications I’ve made on the Tritoon to make it better for the trip.  Below, you can see two ATL fuel bladders ; each hold 50 gallons of gas.  These tanks plus the 55 gallon main tank allow me to put 155 gallons of fuel on the boat.  Since a gallon of gas weighs 6 pounds, it’s like sitting two 300 pound guys in the center of the boat.  Whether they are full or not, I get about the same 28 mph.   These fuel tanks give me a range of about 300 miles.  IMG_9166

Good night.  See you tomorrow!

Day 1: Kentucky Dam to Pickwick Dam

Kentucky Dam to Pickwick Dam, TN.  170 miles.

Weather has not been on our side.  Four days of thunderstorms and more flooding predicted in the central U.S.

The Mississippi River is flooding and will crest over the next two days.  We drove through solid rain-storms for 500 miles from Tulsa, OK to Paducah, KY on May 20: outrunning two funnel clouds along HWY 60 in Missouri.  We took shelter at a SAMs store.  They were in a “Code Black” situation due to a tornado in the area.  Code Black entails waiting in the center of the store while the storm passes.  It was scary but my family made the best of it.

We made it to Kentucky Dam Marina and this picture is our send off.  IMG_9108

My first day started out well.  My family wished me goodbye and I was on my way.  I got about 60 miles down the Kentucky Lake and was making good time.  But then my boat started having issues.  When I would push the throttle down, it would not plane out well.   Long story short, there was water filling in the center pontoon.  Thanks to help of two great guys at Birdsong Marina on KY lake, I found the leak and fixed it with silicone and a gasket.

The rest of the day was great.   I made it another 110 miles to Pickwick Dam and even went through my first lock.  The engineering of these locks is amazing and it made my day worth it!IMG_9151

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Pickwick Lock

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Pic of a yacht on the Tennessee River.

Time for bed.  Tomorrow, I hope to go through 6 locks on the Tennessee-Tom waterway..

Tulsa to Paducah, KY

Launching the boat.

After two years of planning and preparation, the time has finally come to begin America’s Great Loop!   We are keeping the start date of May 20, 2017.  The map below is a rough estimate of the route and time it will take to complete the trip (Lyn Morgan 2010).  

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My wife (Carol) and our 3 children (Lauren, Brooke and Reid) will travel with me to Paducah, KY this Friday.  On Saturday, I will take off on the pontoon boat ‘TulsaTime’ for a 600 mile journey down the Tenn-Tom waterway.  

If all goes well, we will post again after we start the trip.  

Thanks for following!