The trip from Panama City to Pensacola is a short offshore run. At around 2 p.m. we found ourselves sitting just inside the Panama City Ship Channel waiting for a commercial ship to enter so we could exit.
As we departed the channel and turned west our forecasted “southeast winds” were blowing out of the west, southwest — the direction we needed to go. We settled back in and grumbled about the forecast.
By about 10 p.m. it finally switched to the south and we actually began sailing. By 6 a.m. the next morning we were just off the Pensacola Ship Channel.
Our last anchorage in Florida was a picture-perfect location that one might expect anywhere along the Gulf Coast, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but it would be our last of its type. A short run up the Pensacola Ship Channel brought us back to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West (GIWW). A short-but-shallow land cut needs to be navigated to enter Big Lagoon. Statute Mile 175 at the west end of the lagoon takes a sharp left and the marked channel turns and heads southwest for about a half-mile. Instead of following the channel to the right after that, we continued in toward Perdido Key as close as our draft would allow.
Perdido Key is a protected barrier island with a beautiful white-sand beach facing the gulf. The anchor bit immediately in the soft sand and the water was as smooth as glass. After we settled in and took a short nap we launched the dinghy for what would be our last beach walk of the trip. The shelling wasn’t great since most public beaches are picked clean, but the surf and sea air more than made up for it. This almost turned out to be a perfect chamber of commerce day — almost.
We returned to the boat around 2 p.m. for a late lunch and were almost rocked out of our seats by a sonic boom. This was followed by the loudest roar we had ever heard. It was impossible to talk to each other for a moment and we realized that we had a front row seat to the Navy’s finest fighter pilots. Their maneuvers brought them almost at our masthead and this went on for most of the afternoon. We said a big prayer of thanks that they were not doing night maneuvers.
Through hazardous waters
After a good night’s sleep we pulled up anchor and moved a whole eight miles and into Alabama to a small marina right on the waterway. We had planned this as a fuel and clean-up stop to do laundry, wash the boat and enjoy some shoreside activities. It turned out to be a great spot with super-friendly folks, free WiFi and a fantastic restaurant. A fellow ham radio operator lent us his car for a trip to the grocery store (and to pick up a pizza). The marina facilities and fuel stops would be few and far between for the next several hundred miles.
Our next leg would be Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound, both large, open bodies of water that are heavily traveled by commercial traffic of varying sizes and can be extremely uncomfortable if you’re caught on the wrong side of the bay in the wrong wind conditions.
Our next anchorage would be behind Dauphin Island on the west side of Mobile Bay and at the beginning of Mississippi Sound. Dauphin Island is another barrier island and the location of Fort Gains, a former Confederate stronghold that now features a museum and civil war re-enactments. There is a Coast Guard station and ferry terminal at the east end of the island.
We were warned by several reliable sources that we should not stray out of the GIWW while crossing the Mississippi Sound. Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina devastated this area and many homes, automobiles, appliances, boats and just about anything else you can imagine were unaccounted for after the storms. They are believed to litter the bottom of the Mississippi Sound and are uncharted. (This is the best reason one has to listen to your local Broadcast Notice to Mariners issued by the Coast Guard on a daily basis.)
The main channel had been cleared for commercial traffic, but the shallow sound had many dangers lurking just beneath the surface and this situation is not likely to change any time soon. We approached each anchorage just off the waterway by moving extremely slowly and keeping a close eye on the depth sounder. An eye on the weather is a must here since there are no protected anchorages from north winds without long treks across the sound, and there are no facilities from Gulf Shores to New Orleans without leaving the waterway track. (The popular marina in Dog River in the upper reaches of Mobile Bay is open and taking transients.)
After Dauphin Island, our next stop was Cat Island on the Mississippi Sound in Mississippi. Again, these anchorages should not be used in strong north winds. We were fortunate enough to have mild southerlies for this part of our passage. From here it was on to New Orleans and the biggest shock of our entire trek across this region.
Point of impact
There are no good anchorages in or near the New Orleans area. In addition, this is very much a commercial port with a great deal of commercial vessels to contend with. As we progressed west, we began encountering more of this traffic, mostly in the form of tugs pushing long strings of barges, some hundreds of feet long. A great deal of caution and care must be exercised while traveling this waterway in the company of these behemoths. A collision would be disastrous. From the time we entered this stretch of waterway until our arrival in Texas, we monitored Ch. 13 (not 16) in order to know what was going on with the big boys. We found a fair anchorage just east of New Orleans in a commercial canal known as Michoud Canal, surrounded by factories and power plants with a small basin some 40 feet deep.
The media coverage of the devastation of this area does not really prepare you for what you see with your own eyes.
We had called ahead and reached the Orleans Marina on Lake Pontchartrain, and were originally told they were not accepting any transient boats. We explained that we would only be in the area for a day and were unable to reach any other facility. They found that one of their slip holders would be gone for a while, having their boat repaired, so agreed to rent us their slip. As we turned off the waterway onto the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, which connects the lake to the waterway, we found the Seabrook Marina within the Canal open with a few transient slips and a new fuel dock.
We continued on into the lake and as we entered the small boat harbor where Orleans Marina is located, we can only describe our reaction as shock. At the entrance is a building that resembles a lighthouse laying on its side. Another building that was a large two-story restaurant was totally decimated with the interior exposed and furniture strewn about. Boats were sunken and docks destroyed everywhere, and there were still boats sitting atop pilings and broken docks.
To someone that didn’t know better, one would think the hurricane had just come through a few days prior, not more than eight months before. There were boats piled ashore as though a child had scattered their toys, only these toys were broken.
The portion of the marina that we would stay in was tucked way back in the corner of the basin and was not as damaged at the rest of the marina. We crawled in at idle speed since the basin was full of floating debris and any face docks that had survived were full of boats tied two and three deep that were obviously being repaired.
Even in the more protected part of the harbor there were still boats that had sunk at their slips and were still underwater. Every dock had some kind of damage, even if slight, and we did not find any boat in the hundreds of slips that did not have some sort of damage. Since this was the only marina except Seabrook that was functional, they were trying to accommodate the boats that had survived but were displaced from other marinas that were destroyed. It will be many years before the boating community recovers here.
A kind couple on another boat gave us a ride for groceries and other errands and took us for some sightseeing and a visit to the French Quarter.
Downtown New Orleans is alive and well, but some of the neighborhoods near the marina were unbelievable. The break in the levee that did most of the flooding was only a half-mile from the marina and repairs were ongoing in early May 2006. Entire communities were destroyed and deserted with piles of debris everywhere. In the nearby communities, there were no people, no animals and no sounds, just destruction and devastation. It is an experience we will never forget.
We stayed for a few days since a strong front was on the way and the marina was kind enough to allow us the extra time. The marine industry is almost non-existent there and cannot cope with the tasks they currently have on hand. Repairs to docks and buildings had not even begun and were not even in the planning stage at the time. Many of the people we encountered seemed to be still living in a state of shock and were very unsure of the future.
We almost felt guilty about the fact that we could just untie the dock lines and go with our home and all of our belongings. People often ask us where we are from and we jokingly just point at the boat wherever she is anchored. Many thousands of people there still live in limbo and many more have left, never to return. We hope to return one day in better times.