12-30-09 Clearwater…yet again

[Rick] We finally got a decent day, weather-wise. A little chilly in the morning but the afternoon was very nice. We decided to untie the Rick ‘N Roll and go for a short ride to check out the gulf and look for dolphins. We went for about 15 miles up the west coast. We did see dolphins and got to see the beach from the gulf. You will recall that when we first arrived at Clearwater Beach the fog was so thick we couldn’t enjoy the coastline. Today was beautiful and clear and we had a delightful ride. We saw several parasailers and tour boats.

This weekend, Northwestern University and Auburn University will slug it out in the Outback Bowl. The teams, along with their cheerleaders and bands, had a beach day today. They played volley ball, created sand sculptures, tug-o-war, and had cheerleading contests. In general, a fun day, with the team fans on the beach to urge them on. This provided an informal way for the fans to see the team.

We returned to the marina, tied up, and walked to the beach and Pier 60. The pier and surrounding beach area is full of arts and crafts vendors and buskers. Because of the bowl game, the holidays, and the great weather today, the beach is very crowded. So are the restaurants! We’ve noticed in the last couple of days that there are long lines at most of the restaurants. Therefore, we went to dinner at 4:30 today to beat the crowd! Can you say "Earlybird"?

Walking back to the boat, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset.

Tomorrow, we go to look at another possible larger boat. Wish us luck…

12-29-09 Clearwater, FL and the Christmas Holidays

[Betsy] If you are only interested in the Loop itself, you need read no further! We’re still in Clearwater, Florida, so there’s nothing new as far as cruising or adventure is concerned! So if you read further, you’ll just be hearing about how we spent Christmas and about seldom seen family members.

We had a rental car for the week of Christmas. Wednesday night we drove over to Tampa and met our sister-in-law Tina and her daughters Trina and Tara at a restaurant. Pictured below are Trina, Tina, Tara and me.

Then on Christmas Eve we headed back to Zephyrhills to join in the Christmas Eve celebration with Tina’s family. We left Clearwater early and spent a couple of hours at the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa on the way to Zephyrhills. I started out with a nice winning run at the 3 card poker table, then had a great run at the blackjack table. Rick, who seldom gambles, watched a little 3 card poker, and when I offered to stake him a little of my winnings he played a few hands and also came away a winner. I hope I haven’t created a monster!

Arriving in Zephyrhills, we joined Tina at her mom’s house. We had celebrated Christmas Eve with them before several years ago so we’d met all of her family. Her mom already had a wonderful spread of turkey and all the trimmings ready for people to help themselves as they arrived. Their gathering is very informal, held in the back yard (you can get away with that in Florida!) The food is plentiful and delicious. We finally got to meet Billy, Trina’s husband of three years.

Part of their tradition is to have a bonfire on Christmas Eve. Those of you that receive our Christmas card each year will recall that for the past several years we have been on the RiverBarge on the Mississippi River. A Cajun tradition is to build bonfires on the levee and light them on Christmas Eve so “Papa Noel” can find his way to their homes. Those bonfires, huge pyramidal structures filled with firecrackers and fireworks that can be seen and heard for miles, are truly spectacular and a thrill to behold. The bonfire this year didn’t compare to that fabulous spectacle, but it was fun and we even enjoyed roasting marshmallows and making S’mores.

Christmas Day started out chilly and overcast. We had no real plans. We did exchange cards, and opened the one gift we had received last night “from Santa”…4 Florida Lottery tickets. Total winnings $4.00.

I had investigated going to a Christmas Day buffet, but at nearly $30 per person we decided our money could be better spent elsewhere. So we had Christmas dinner at the local IHOP, which did have some Christmas specials: Rick had Pecan Pie Pancakes, and I had Gingerbread Pancakes with Christmas sprinkles!
By early afternoon the sun had come out and it had warmed up considerably. We decided to explore some of the little beach towns to the south, so we rode down the beach road for about 20 miles. At Madeira Beach we parked the car and walked out on the beach for a few minutes. Many people were out strolling. It would have been much warmer if the wind hadn’t been blowing. The Gulf of Mexico looks just like the ocean on a windy day, with waves breaking at the shore. One thing we’ve noticed that we don’t like is that dogs are never allowed on the beach. We had seen the signs in Clearwater indicating this, but it surprised me that it seems to be that way everywhere, even in the smaller beach towns. We are thankful that at Topsail Beach where we live dogs are welcome, though they do have to be leashed during the summer months.

We returned the rental car on Saturday morning, and since Rick’s bike is still in the shop and the weather has really been too cold to do much outside, we’ve spent lots of time on the boat reading, etc. Sunday we were pleased to have Tina and her daughters Tara and Trina and Trina’s husband Billy join us for lunch at Crabby Bill’s restaurant right here at the marina. Then we all went for a short boat ride, the first time the boat’s been away from the dock since we arrived here nearly two weeks ago. Pictured below are Trina, Tina, Rick, and Trina's husband Billy. Billy is an EMT who answered 11 calls on Christmas Eve, including two fatalities. He has also delivered two babies on the job.
We are still actively looking for a larger boat with the intent of doing the loop again in a few years, so we spent Monday with a boat broker and looked at three boats, one of which is a very good possibility. We have one more we’re going to look at on Thursday. We had hoped to find something up on the Tennessee River, with the idea of buying it and leaving it there to spend several months a year on for the next several years as we cruised the river system some more, then do the loop again. We did make an offer on one boat but that fell through when the boat turned out to have a leaky gas tank. Then we looked at another boat on the Tennessee that is an excellent candidate, but since we aren’t in a rush we decided to keep looking. If we decide to get a gas powered boat, that will probably be the one. But we’d really prefer diesel, so that’s all we’re looking at now.

Today we were joined for lunch by my cousin Lloyd “Skip” Bray, his wife Jane, their delightful daughter Jennie and her friend Bryan. Skip is my daddy’s first cousin. He never lived nearby, so we had very little contact with him when I was growing up, but I’ve been in touch with him and have gotten together with him several times over the past 10 years or so. Skip and Jane live in nearby Tampa. Jennie recently moved back to Tampa after sowing her wild oats in New York City for several years. I think I’m one of only two people that still refer to my cousin as “Skip,” but “Skippy” is what I always heard when I was growing up and old habits die hard…at least I’ve upgraded him to Skip from Skippy! Pictured are Jennie's friend Bryan, Jane, Skip, Jennie and me. A little famiily note: Jennie is the third Jennie in the family, preceded by her grandmother and great grandmother. The name is actually Jennie, not Jennifer.

12-23-09 Our Christmas Card

We’re here on the boat in Clearwater Beach
Wishing great holidays to all and each!
Our Great Loop trip is over half done.
We’re enjoying our time in the Florida sun!
Hope you've liked the tales of us and the dog.
We're glad you're following along on the blog!
Happy Holidays from Betsy, Rick
& Beamer the Psycho Dog!

Betsy: 910-340-3372
Rick: 910-340-3373

12-22-09 Clearwater and Maurice McGough

[Rick] Today was a very wonderful day, with one bump. We had talked to our looper friend, Maurice McGough, and agreed to have dinner with him at his club in St Petersburg. Maurice is the person that did the loop, by himself, in the 21 ft Ranger Tug called Quotidian. We were to meet him at 1800 in St Pete. We first met Maurice at the AGLCA rendezvous in Charleston in the spring. We then met him again as we entered Canada in early July. He is one of our favorite people from the loop.

Before leaving for St Pete, we went to the bike shop to retrieve my bike. I had taken it in for a flat tire. They were to also replace a brake cable and adjust the brakes. When we go to the shop, the tech indicated that he had change the tire, but now, the rear wheel will not turn, forward or backward, when the gear is engaged. It worked when I took it in, now it does not. Weird. After looking over the situation, we ordered a new wheel. The total cost will still be about $50, but I will not have a three speed, I will have a one speed bike. Remember, we only paid $50 for the bike, so I did not want to spend too much to repair it.

We got to St Pete about 1400, with the intent to “look around” before meeting Maurice for dinner. Maurice was at this boat, Quotidian, when we arrived so he walked around with us for a tour of the municipal marina. We looked at several boats, visited the ships store, etc. This is a huge marina, over 650 slips.

When we left Maurice to walk around by ourselves, we visited the famous St Pete Pier. This very old pier, dating back to 1926 in various incarnations, houses an aquarium, several bars, several restaurants, and some specialty shops. On the way in, we passed some pelicans on the sidewalk. They are so used to humans that they do not even run off when approached. Once in the Pier, we took some skyline pictures.

At 1800, we met Maurice and walked to the St Petersburg Yacht Club for dinner. The building, huge and beautiful, was filled with at least 100 well decorated live Christmas trees. The meal was very good, and the prices were very competitive with any good restaurant. Since Maurice has just completed the loop, we reminisced about our time together in Canada and the other places we were together on the trip.

Members of the Club have burgees created for themselves and they are displayed all over the club. This one was very appropriate.

12-21-09 Clearwater and Zephyrhills

We realize we’re a few days late with the blog and apologize to those of you that depend on having it with your morning coffee. As we say on the boat…”It ain’t fatal, so get over it!”

Sunday we drove the 50 miles or so to Zephyrhills to visit close friend (and ex-sister-in-law) Tina Johnson and her family. We met Tina at her church, First United Methodist in Zephyrhills, for the 9:30 contemporary service. This was another beautiful church, and I realized as the Advent Candle was being lit that we haven’t missed church a single time during Advent. We really didn’t plan it that way, but I realized today as the candle was being lit that this is the fourth one we’ve seen. How special it is to see the different children in different churches taking part in this ceremony

This Sunday there was also a baptism, which is always special. As we’ve grown accustomed to in the past several years, the minister walked the tiny baby up and down the center aisle after the baptism. How special!

As mentioned, this was a contemporary service, similar to the one we went to last week in Apalachicola, with praise singers with microphones, words on a screen in front of the church, etc. I must admit I missed singing the traditional Christmas Carols which we would have sung at either the 8AM or 11AM traditional services. But we did enjoy the minister and his message.

After church we went with Tina to a restaurant for brunch, and were joined by her older daughter Trina. Last time we saw Trina she was a feisty teenager. Now she is happily married and we look forward to meeting her husband later in the week. Following brunch we went to Tina’s condo where we were visited by her mother Mollie.

Following a wonderful visit with these friends we drove back to Clearwater. We plan to get together with them again Wednesday night in Tampa, where Tina’s younger daughter Tara works. And we’ve been invited to join them for their big Christmas Eve celebration at Mollie’s house. We’ve been with this crowd for Christmas Eve before many years ago and remember what fun we had.

Monday was just spent lounging around the marina. I finished reading a great book, and we had dinner with friends. We really like it here, other than having to climb up off the boat when the water is low. There is a lot going on with tour boats coming and going all the time. This pirate boat goes by several times a day, and we always wave at the passengers.

12-19-09 Clearwater FL Weather and Tarpon Springs

[Rick] Today’s note is to catch you up on our last three days. The weather has been horrible. You will recall that while in the panhandle, it was cold. Here in Clearwater, it is windy and cold. Yesterday, the temperature did not get out of the fifties and the wind was 30 mph at times. This means that the waves on the Gulf are 7-10 feet high. Glad we are not out there. However, when the wind was from the East, we got the full brunt of it and the boat really rocked at our dock. The wind has moved to the West a bit, and it is not now so bad. Just to give an indication of how bad the weather has been, the huge party boat, about 150 ft long in 3 floors, has not gone out the past two nights. She is fully booked with Christmas parties, but she is tied to the dock. As I write this, the Starlight Majestic has just left for a cruise. The huge fishing boats have not gone out in 3 days. According to the weather guy, the temps should get to the 30s tomorrow night. Weather-wise, it has been a terrible year for the loop.

We can stand the weather, but the real problem for us is the tide. With the wind pushing the water into Clearwater bay, the tide is about 5 feet, normally 3 feet. This means that we have a huge difficulty getting on and off the boat with these fixed docks. An even bigger problem is getting Beamer off the boat three times a day. We have to get up in the night to adjust the lines so we can fall or rise enough and still keep the boat off the pier.

We rented a car for a week, beginning today, Saturday. Our first outing was to West Marine. Yesterday Betsy was lying down and I hopped off the boat. At the same time I hopped off, causing a little rock, one of the inflatable life jackets automatically inflated for some unknown reason…it had probably gotten damp we’ve had so much condensation in the boat. Anyway, it really made a racket when it inflated and nearly scared Betsy to death. She knew I had gotten off the boat because she felt the rock, then she heard the very loud hissing noise. It took us a minute to realize what had happened, so we went to West Marine to get a re-arming kit for the lifejacket.

Then we went to the bike shop to have some work done on my bike. Somehow, the back tire is shot and will not hold air, so I’m having it replaced.

This afternoon, we ventured 19 miles north to the town of Tarpon Springs. TS is the home of Sponge farming and gathering in the world. Back in the early 1900s, someone figured out that the Florida waters contained a gazillion sponges, and an industry was born. Today, over 200 boats go into the gulf, harvest the sponges, return to TS and sell them at the Sponge Clearinghouse in TS. One business, the Spongarama has a video that details the process of harvesting the sponges. They also have a Sponge Museum. The town is a Greek dominated society, as Greeks knew how to harvest the sponges and came here to do it. All of the restaurants and businesses have Greek names. Here are some pictures from our visit to Tarpon Springs.

Here is the sunset for today. Tomorrow, we visit some friends in Zephyrhills and go to church with them. Next Tuesday, we visit Maurice, the man who did the loop by himself in a 21 ft boat. He lives in nearby St Pete.

12-16-09 Clearwater Fl II

[Rick] On Tuesday, 12-15-09, we did very little, choosing to take it easy. We did walk down to Pier 60, the Beach area for the sunset, but the fog had other ideas.

On Wednesday, I talked to the harbormaster and found that the monthly rate for a boat here is $15 per foot, including electricity. The daily rate is $2 per foot, including electricity. So, if you stay over 7 days, it is better to have the monthly rate. Since we are sure that we are going to be here for at least 7 days, maybe more, we signed up for the monthly rate. This does not mean that we will stay here until January 14, 2010, but we can if we wish. If we do stay the entire month, the daily rate will be only $.51 per foot. The marina is in the center of a lot of things, post office, beach, etc, so we may stay at least a couple of weeks. We have called some friends that live in the area and are planning to visit with them over the next week. We will probably rent a car for the weekend and get to some of the attractions.

Last night we left a blue folding deck chair on the finger pier beside the boat. This morning, it was gone. Our bikes were untouched, so either the chair blew over, which we doubt, or the thief was tired (and stupid!).

We rode the Jolley Trolley to the Publix supermarket today. This little bus, with transfers to the city system, has a route all over Clearwater Beach and one of its stops is in front of the marina. Cost is $2. You can buy an all day pass for $4.

For supper, one of the loopers we met this summer, Fred and Sharon Clarkson on “Perfect Remedy,” came over, picked us along with Dan and Biddi Lankford (“Biddi and the Beast”), and took us on a tour of the area, including their home, before taking us to Naked Bonefish for supper. We had a perfectly delightful dinner, hashing over the loop trip. Dan and Biddi live full time on their boat, having sold their house, cars and most possessions.

So, the bottom line is we will be here for a while. Blogs will not be daily, as there will be days with nothing to tell. But, when there is something to tell, you will be the first to know.

The only disadvantage to this place is that the docks are stationary and there is quite a tidal range…at least 4 to 5 feet. I’ve had to get up both nights we’ve been here so far and adjust the lines in the middle of the night. In the morning, when the tide is low, we have a terrible time getting off the boat, especially when we’re trying to get Beamer to shore. Fortunately here in the gulf there is only one tide cycle per day instead of the two we are used to on the east coast.

Here is a picture of one of the 6 cruise boats that call the Clearwater Municipal Marina home. In this season, they are all booked with Christmas parties and seem to sail very regularly.

Betsy has been laid back and enjoying the sunshine and warmth after the cold and wet weather we had just a few days ago.

12-14-09 Clearwater FL and FOG

[Rick] When we awoke this morning we found the fog to be as bad as we expected. You will recall that we are to cross the Gulf of Mexico today, as the winds are down and the seas are to be 1-2 feet. We have made arrangements to follow “Lady Liberty”, a 40 ft Cruisers boat that has radar. Tomorrow is also a possibility before the next wave of wind and bad weather moves in.

We talk to Jim Basset of Lady Liberty via phone and he seems inclined to wait for tomorrow. He talks to some local fishermen who can lead us through the Government Cut and once on the Gulf, the seas should be smooth. The fog, with visibility of less than 100 yards is supposed to dissipate around 1000. The rest of the day is to be sunny and the waves are to become less and less. With this information and assistance, we decide to go for it.

Off we go. The fog is awful. And it gets worse. Near 1000, it does let up for about 15 minutes. Just long enough for us to see dolphins JUMPING in the water. Spectacular. Then, the fog sets in and does not abate until we arrive in Clearwater. It is just awful. Click on this picture to see our view of the front boat that we looked at for 8 hours. We continue on using the autopilot to keep the same course as the other boat. It is here that we are glad for the autopilot. At least we could concentrate on just keeping the correct speed and keeping the other boat in view. Betsy drove the vast majority of the day. At the end of the day, we were both really tired and stressed. Right after supper, at 1930, Betsy went to bed. I believe it is the earliest she has ever gone to bed since we have been married. Did I mention that it was FOGGY ALL DAY!!!!!

We were going to turn off about 40 miles earlier and go to Tarpon Springs. However the fog was so bad, we just followed the front boat to Clearwater. Once we got here, we learned that there are about 12 other loopers here. Five of them were at Port St Joe with us and made the overnight crossing, 22 hours, last night, in the fog.

The trip was 183 miles. We averaged 21.7 mph for the trip with the first hour and a half at 7 mph as we worked our way through the markers and narrow channel with shallow water on each side to and through Government Cut and into the open Gulf. Even the local fishing boat that we were following got confused at one point and had to come to a complete stop to get oriented in the fog. At one point, according to the onboard computer, we did 30.68 mph.

We will stay here for several days. We have a lot of friends here on the docks and some in town. We have 2 months to get to Cape Canaveral for the Feb 13 launch of the shuttle, so we are in no rush. The marina has wifi, many restaurants, and cable, so life is good…

BTW, here is a picture of the leader boat as we enter Clearwater and the fog lifted for about 15 minutes. This would have been a much better view for the prior 8 hours.

12-13-09 Apalachicola

[Betsy speaks] We woke up this morning to pea soup fog, and it stayed with us all day. How we hope it is not still here tomorrow when we hope to depart on the big crossing!

The Methodist Church had been recommended to us by a couple of people in town, and it was the closest church to our location, so we went there this morning. It is a very old and lovely church, built in 1901 after the original structure was burned. Rick was very impressed by the black cypress ceiling.

This was more of a “praise service” than we are used to, but it was nice, and the congregation was very welcoming. They did use a screen with words to the songs, etc., and the choir consisted of about 10 people with microphones. The keyboardist faced the congregation straight on and led the music with his hands and his voice. One girl sang a Christmas carol solo with the keyboardist playing and singing along with her on the chorus…they both had outstanding voices and it was absolutely beautiful.

We ate lunch downtown at the Magnolia CafĂ©. I had their special of the day which consisted of Spinach and Parmesan soup which was Christmas green in color and delicious, along with “Pot Pizza” which the waitress said was actually cooked in a flower pot. Well, I didn’t actually see the flower pot, but the pizza was also delicious, though a funny shape! Rick had his usual chicken fingers.

We rode our bikes back to the boat in the still thick fog, and were just killing time when we heard someone on the dock call our names. We looked up and there were Patsy and Ray from Port St. Joe, along with the folks on “Cheryl Ann.” They just decided to drive to Apalachicola, then on to Carrabelle to check on a couple of boats that had left Port St. Joe this morning in the fog. They didn’t have anything better to do, they said, and wanted to make sure the two boats made it OK.
Once they left we rode bikes to the marina next door to chat with Jim and Carol Bassett on “Lady Liberty.” We will be crossing the gulf with them tomorrow and just wanted to compare charts to make sure we were on the same straight line route from buoy here to buoy there! We hope the fog lifts and we plan to leave about 8AM. They have radar on their boat, so even in fog we can go and just stay close to them. Once we reach the sea buoy and set the autopilot the fog shouldn’t be a problem in the open water. But it is predicted to lift early in the morning anyway. Waves are forecast to be less than 2 feet, and should be lessening as the day wears on…and the sun is supposed to come out as the day wears on.
We will travel along with “Lady Liberty” until we reach a point where we will turn off to go about 30 miles in to Tarpon Springs and they will continue on about another 40 miles south to Clearwater.

Immediately after leaving the Bassetts, we headed to a 4PM performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Trinity Episcopal Church. I had seen a flyer for this on my brief downtown jaunt yesterday. The Episcopal Church is only a block from the Methodist Church that we went to this morning, and is equally old and historic, having been built from white pine cut in New York and shipped down around the Florida Keys to this location on the panhandle.

Inside the Episcopal Church are two massive organs, each with its own set of pipes. Only one was used for today’s performance, and it only on a couple of pieces. Too bad it seemed dreadfully out of tune to me! Fortunately all music that accompanied the choir was played on the Grand Piano set up center stage. And wow, how talented the pianist was! An elderly man, his little fingers really flew over the keys! We were pleased that the tenor soloist was the same person that we had seen earlier in the day playing the keyboard and singing in the Methodist Church, and the contralto soloist was the same girl that had sung the beautiful solo this morning!

Using all local talent, I was stunned at what a beautiful performance this was! All the soloists were wonderful, as was the chorus. Apparently the mezzo-soprano soloist was ill at the last minute, so the conductor turned around and actually sung that solo and did a magnificent job!

After the performance we were treated to punch and cookies in the fellowship hall. We then returned to our boat to prepare for the big day tomorrow! Who can believe that day before yesterday we were freezing nearly to death! Today, in the fog and dampness, we are about to swelter! I’m looking to sweltering in the sunshine once we get to Tampa! Wish us luck, and look for a quick blog early tomorrow evening to let you know we made it!

Rick wants to add that ten years ago today, Dec. 13 1999, his mother passed away suddenly. He regrets to this day that we didn’t get to say goodbye, and he still misses her every day. I remind him that there was never a time that they spoke either on the phone or in person that they didn't end the conversation with "I love you." What a valuable lesson that should be to those that take life for granted!