November 20, 2013 – Day One: The Rode Out West

With Big Mom tended to and Alabama in our rear-view, Phillip and I set to planning our Thanksgiving voyage.  Due to the rush trip to North Alabama for the funeral and the lost time from work, we both needed to put in a few days at the office to make up for it before we took off again, so we settled on a departure date of Wednesday, November 20th, which would still leave us 10 whole days at sea.  Now, while a trip east to Carrabelle, Apalachicola and the like was still do-able, it would be a stretch as Carrabelle, alone, is a two-day passage, assuming good weather, and I can tell you what we did not have that week was good weather.  A front was set to pass through, leaving us with 25-30 mph winds and a predicted 6-9 foot sea-state.  Not something you want to jaunt out in just for fun.  There were plenty of anchorages we had heard about on the western route, so we decided to stay protected along the ICW inshore and head west in search of (what else?) — women, whiskey and gold!

Here is an overview of our planned voyage:

West map4

We planned to head over to Fort McRae first for a couple of days on the hook, then ease in to Pirate’s Cove to dock up and hang out with the local riff raff for a day or two.  From there, we would jump over to Ingram’s Bayou (a place many of our sailing buddies kept telling us was one of the most beautiful, pristine anchorages over that way) to drop anchor for a couple of quiet nights, before we made our way over to The Wharf in Orange Beach where we had reserved a slip for Thanksgiving.   Phillip’s clan was also planning to rent a condo there for the holiday and we – as true cruisers tend to do – were planning to make full use of their facilities!  There is nothing like a hot shower and a washer and dryer after seven days at sea!

All told, our trek out west was going to be about an 8-9 day trip and we had planned one last anchorage on the way back (likely Red Fish Point – just near Fort McRae) for one last night of solitude before heading back to the real world.

So, we set off on a brisk sunny Wednesday afternoon (Nov. 20th) and headed to our first stop — Fort McRae:

West map1

Now, we’ve been to Red Fish Point many times, so the passage across Pensacola Bay and through the little inlet by Sand Island was all too familiar territory.  No sweat.  We could make that sail with our eyes closed (assuming, of course, no other boats, bouys, or a shore).  Stevie Wonder style!


Yeah baby!

But, we had never made the “uey” around the corner and into the inlet between Sand Island and Fort McRae.


And I’ll have you know I had to Google the word “uey” for the proper spelling.  Urban Dictionary says: 


To take a U-Turn 
   I guess this is a New England thing.
   Cab driver : “I’ll just bang(make a/take) a uey on the next stoplight”
Although I’m not sure that’s just a “New England” thing.  I think ‘to bang is to make’ rings true just about anywhere.  
We had a phenomenal sail over.  But, I will say, we had not been out on the boat in weeks and I think just about any conditions would have been ‘phenomenal’ to us as we were just thrilled to finally have water moving across the hull.  Although many may disagree, runny noses and chilly fingers just aren’t enough to make any sail UN-phenomenal in our book.  But, apparently we were a little rusty.  I’d love to say we executed the ‘uey’ around Sand Island perfectly and eased right on up into our anchorage by Fort McRae.  But that’s just not how it happened.  As we were making (banging I guess the New Englanders would say) the bend, the boat lurched forward and let out a slight groan.  With my hands on the bimini bar, I could feel the soft, thud of the ground we hit below.  And let me just say for the record – although I’m a little reluctant to admit it, we have done it a time or two now (run aground) – but it’s never a feeling you get comfortable with.  It’s a sickening, discomforting movement of the boat and instantly identifiable as contact with the treacherous bottom below.  Thankfully, for us, it was a soft, sandy bottom and Phillip had the sharp skipper skills to back us out, “bang out” a bigger loop and get us into Fort McRae with our keel in tact.
New path

Now, I’ve heard some people refer to this anchorage as “party alley” because it’s usually chock full of sailboats, power boats, trollers and the like.  Hence the “party.”  But, we were hoping that on Thanksgiving it would be pretty sparse so we would have plenty of room to spread out.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case.  There were three other boats in there, a marker for some sunken hazard, a bouy and a tight shoreline that we had to deal with.  Enter the infamous Swing Radius.  Now, most of you are smart enough to make a pretty good guess as to what that is, but humor me for just a moment for the newbies.

Imagine your anchor as the center of the circle.  The radius, then, is the distance from your anchor to the stern of your boat:

Swing radius

Using the radius, you can then plot out a hypothetical ‘circle’ your boat could occupy depending on which way the wind or tide pushes it.  Now, with several “obstacles” around us – three other boats, an immovable marker for the sunken hazard, a bouy, and a nearby shore with outstretched shoal, we had to be sure we dropped enough anchor chain (known as “rode”) to hold our boat secure while not creating a swing radius so large it would allow us to strike the surrounding obstacles.  We typically like a 7:1 ratio.  Meaning, if we were in 7 feet of water, with 4 foot freeboard (distance from the water line to the deck), that’s 11 feet total depth, so 77 feet of rode.

Now, while getting the anchor set right is important, making sure we had a proper cocktail at sunset easily trumps it.  So, with the tight parameters, we dropped about 55 feet of anchor chain (an approximate 5:1 ratio with our ten feet of total depth) and set to our evening ritual.  A book and cocktail at sunset.  Could there be anything better?

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But then another boat pulled up nice and tight near us and set us both on edge.  We started looking around, running and re-running our calculation of the swing radius and speculating, once again, as to the approximate distance to the shore.


With both of us being born fierce litigators and each a few drinks in and, thus, a little more ballsy to boot, Phillip and I embarked on an exhaustive debate about the swing radius.  I made a rough calculation and explained to Phillip my educated guess as to the radius, to which he naturally responded:


With no one else on the boat with us, a riveting discussion ensued, in which I had to drop some serious geometry knowledge on Phillip that, if translated to a demonstrative aid, would look something like this:


Length of Boat +  [ (Rode )– (Depth + Freeboard )2 ]1/2

Simple, right?  I thought so.  Or at least I was sure, in my eloquent, unslurred, precise and persuasive frame of mind, that it was.  And, I told Phillip as much.  To which he responded:


Fine by me!  I had made my peace with it.  I offered my best pitch – full of reason and geometry and gin – and my plight had fallen on deaf ears (or ogling eyes – although I consider them to be synonymous).  I set about to “banging out” another drink or three and resting my weary mind while Phillip got up about every hour to try and make out the markers and shoreline in the dark of night as the wind began to howl over the boat.  I kept a shoulder turned to him, pretending to be sleeping soundly (lah-tee-dah) as he was checking GPS coordinates on his phone, but I was wide awake and just as worried as he.  The sounds and motions of the boat from below were incredibly deceiving.  What could just as easily have been the wind and a smooth shift of the boat in the water sounded, in the v-berth, like the keel wedging into sand and the boat preparing to tip over.  Neither of our weary minds were resting.  Phillip made one last trek topside, and I heard him walk up toward the bow, my eyes following the sound of his footsteps in the dark.  Then I heard them pound quick on the deck above as he scurried back to the hatch and shouted down to me:

“Annie, I need you up here now.  We’re moving.”

November 13, 2013 – The Best Laid Plans

I guess that’s the thing about plans.  That’s all they are until they come to fruition.  Phillip and I had planned to travel east over the Thanksgiving holiday and make a straight four-day passage across the Gulf to Carrabelle, but, as it always does, life seemed to have something different in store for us.  We had planned to leave on November 15th and had spent the week provisioning and planning and getting the boat ready, when I got a call mid-week from my Dad that changed everything.  My grandmother, better known to all as “Big Mom,” the strongest, most stubborn southern woman I’ve ever met, passed away on November 13, 2013.


Now, while any death is sad.  It’s the end of a life, the severing, or distortion, at least, of a connection you made with someone.  It’s a loss of something irreplaceable, a person.  It’s sad.  Always.  But it’s also inspiring and stirring.  What better motivator could there be than a humbling reminder that our time here is most certainly limited.  That every moment passed is one lost forever, and that, no matter how long it may seem when looking forward, looking back, life is nothing but undeniably all too short.  My grandmother lived eighty-six full years on this earth, fuller, even, than I had imagined.  It’s funny how we forget that the people in our lives exist outside of us.  I learned, while sorting through old photos for her funeral that, long before I was even a gleam in my father’s eye, Big Mom had already experienced a lifetime of adventure.  I found pictures of her hiking in Alaska, riding a furry Clydesdale-looking horse in thigh-high snow, splashing around in the ocean at the ripe age of eighteen, skiing, skating, dancing and laughing, always laughing.  I even found a picture of her in a pretty ‘racy’ bikini for the times (1955) and have to admit I was nothing but proud.  My grandma was hot!  While I didn’t know her as this adventurous spit-fire, that was before my time, I do remember the many years she spent schooling, scolding, spanking and shaping my Dad, my aunt, my brother, my cousins, all of us, into the people we are today.

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And I do mean “all of us.”  Spanking was allowed by anyone in the “village” in those days, and kids behaved in those days.

So, instead of packing the boat for a voyage, Phillip and I packed a couple of suitcases with our black Sunday bests and headed up to north Alabama for the services.  And, holding true to my belief in the power of stories, I chose this one for the funeral, as I believe it captures the essence of the woman we lost that day:

I was quite the cowgirl when I was four.  Well, I made a good run at it least.  My Dad was the actual cowboy and I was his handkerchief-wearing, boot-and-spur sporting miniature.  If Dad was getting on a horse, so was I, in the front, right up next to the horn.  One day, I was riding with my Dad on one of his new roping horses, Rusty.  My brother had hopped on the back so we were three-deep, horseback and walking along the gravel road from the pastures down yonder up to Big Mom’s house.  

Now, I can’t tell you what happened exactly.  I barely remember the actual fall, but Dad tells me the horse was stung by something.  A hornet, probably, based on the welp he found on the horse’s hind quarter later, but Rusty reared back on his hind legs, his fronts doing that classic Black Stallion bicycle kick, and threw John right off the back.  He then came down, firmly planted the’ fronts,’ and gave a massive buck with the back, launching my Dad and I up and over his head.  Now, it was a good thing my Dad held on to me tight when the horse reared back so I wouldn’t fall, but not such a good thing when the horse bucked us over his head and we smashed into the ground, me on the bottom and all two hundred and ten pounds of my Dad on top, and slid across the gravel road and into the ditch. 

My Dad had a look of horror on his face when he rolled me over, pushed a blood-soaked swath of hair and bits of gravel from my face, and asked me if I was okay.  I tried to respond but, although I can’t explain it, I had a clot the size of Kansas in my mouth.  I do remember that.  I also remember the world jostling around me as he scooped me up and started running toward the house shouting for Big Mom.  And, Big Mom was, I guess, all of fifty-nine at the time, but she hoisted me up close to her body and hauled me up every stair in the house, saying, just as calmly as ever, “Now, let’s see what we got here.”  In the bathroom she started drawing a bath and I saw a couple bottles of hydrogen peroxide on the edge of the tub, a home health product I was all too familiar with.  That was the stuff that made a tiny little cut that didn’t hurt at all bubble and fizzle and burn like acid.  I knew what it was capable of and I saw Big Mom dumping bottles (bottles!) of it into the tub.  I started wriggling out of her grasp, protesting and wailing and begging for “Anything but that!” 

But Big Mom wasn’t having it.  Even my most fervent rebellion was not going to stop her from doing what she knew was right for me.  With strength I had never imagined her capable of and not a single word, she plopped in that vat of acid and every laceration on my body started fizzling and frothing until it looked like a bubble bath.  I was flailing and sputtering and shrieking at her in protest, when she grabbed me by my bloody, foamy chin and–this part I will never forget–said “Awww hush, you’re alive ain’t ya?  It ain’t that bad.  Hell, I swish with it.”  And, then she did the unthinkable.  Big Mom tipped the bottle of hydrogen peroxide up and took a swig.  I sat there dumbfounded, totally silent, only the soft sound of my fizzling skin floating between us, as she swished that foul stuff around in her mouth three of four times, her eyes locked tightly on mine.  She then spit a white foamy mouthful out next to me in the tub and gave me a firm “hmmpph” look that shut me up entirely.  I forgot completely that my skin was burning off, that I was in pain everywhere, or, even, that I had fallen and skid across gravel.  Clot?  What clot??  Big Mom had just swished with hydrogen peroxide!?!  Could there be anything worse?  And, just like that, I stopped complaining, I stopped crying and I agreed with her.  It really wasn’t that bad. 


And, it was a lesson that stuck.  There have been many times in my life when something that seemed tragic at the time happened to me and, for whatever reason, my mind flashed back to that foul bath, my fizzling skin and the look on Big Mom’s face as she swished and spat.  You’re alive ain’t ya?

You’re damn right I am.  And, I don’t intend to waste a minute.  Phillip and I knew we were going to have to push the trip back and, likely, plan a different route, but we didn’t mind.  We didn’t care where we went, really, as long as we went.  While we prefer sunshine and cocktails, we know rough seas and foul weather are going to be part of it, too, and will likely be just as memorable, if not more so.  Either way, as long as we’re alive, it just ain’t that bad.  We still had time left and a voyage to plan.