Florida Panhandle Cruise, April 2003


The Cola-to-Cola Run

Cruising the shallow waters of Florida's Emerald Coast

Story and Photographs by David Liscio

The Author at the Helm

The Author at the Helm

WE REMINDED THE KIDS THAT THIS wasn't Disney World, some papier-mache exhibit called Dunescape with a $32.50 admission ticket. It was the real deal, and while it took some doing to get here, the payoff was all around us.

We were on Shell Island, a treasure near the entrance to Panama City's St. Andrew Bay,on the Florida Panhandle. My wife, Christine, and I and our two children, Zack, 15, and Juliana, 11, had sailed here from Pensacola, 100 miles to the west, on our chartered 34-foot Gemini 105 catamaran, Destiny. The fine sand squeaked beneath our bare feet, and hordes of crabs skittered in the tide zone, avoiding sharp-eyed herons on stilt legs whose lightning reflexes delivered small silvery fish to their beaks. Little did we know then that the best was yet to come.

Four days earlier, we'd arrived by car at Pensacola's Sabine Marina, on Santa Rosa Sound, where the staff at Emerald Coast Sailing was making final preparations for our bareboat adventure aboard Destiny. It was late April, and the locals were in sweaters, but the 70-degree F air temperature seemed an inferno after New England's bitter cold. Since Christine and I were catamaran novices, Bill Crouch, owner of the school and charter business, and instructor Fred Leedy took us on a three-hour shakedown on Pensacola Bay. Leedy went over an extensive checklist, while Crouch's guitar serenaded us with Jimmy Buffett tunes. This was our second charter with the small company, so it was more like a homecoming.

Our 12-day float plan-sailing between Pensacola and Apalachicola, or Cola to Cola, as the natives say-was ambitious when gauged by the pace of the Old South, and by every measure, the Panhandle ambles to that beat: graceful and unhurried, an anachronism in these fast-paced times. Following Crouch's advice, we spent the first full day exploring the waters of Big Lagoon and Perdido Key, near the Alabama border, with its down-on-the-bayou atmosphere. We anchored at night behind cliff-high barrier dunes, where we grilled our first cheeseburgers in paradise. We were psyched just to be there, and besides, it wasn't snowing.

Destiny in Shallow Water

Destiny in shallow water

In the morning, dolphins visited us while hawks soared over the trees and schools of mullet burst through the surface shimmering silver. By this time, we had the feel of the catamaran, which reached willingly but didn't tack like our Bristol 27. We were ready to set sail.

Inside on the ICW

The Gulf of Mexico is known to be tempestuous: a smooth mirror one day, a Maytag washer the next. But cruisers needn't fear its moods, for the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) allows us to sail inside on a system of bays, sounds, rivers, and canals. Since a west wind was blowing 15 to 20 knots and the sea was choppy, we sailed briskly through Santa Rosa Sound. This body of water--two miles wide, 30 miles long, and flanked by stands of pine and oak to the north and sugar-white sand dunes to the south--is part of the Gulflslands National Seashore.

Enjoying a Red Stripe at Bayou Joe's

David and Christine at Bayou Joe's

Destiny didn't heel, and steering her was more akin to effortlessly driving a big raft. With a warm wind at our back and the stereo blasting Bob Marley tunes, we reveled in the here and now. We were morphing into escape mode, and it felt damn good. Keeping an eye out for sandy shoals, we dropped the lunch hook at Manatee Point, near Mile 213, an anchorage favored by locals near the approach to Fort Walton Beach. The ICW narrows just west of Fort Walton, so we doused the sails, fired up the 27-horsepower sail drive, and stayed clear of a massive fuel barge that was headed our way near a bend in the channel. Tugs, barges, dredges, and other work vessels are common along the Gulf ICW.

When the Brooks Bridge came into view, we knew Fort Walton Beach lay just ahead. With Destiny secured to wood pilings, Christine and I celebrated our arrival by downing cold Red Stripe beers and taking in the sights from the cockpit, glad to be in a new place for a day or two. The kids fished from the dock and played with a bold heron that stole the bait they'd snared and put in a plastic bucket. Though it was a weekday afternoon, the regulars had already gathered at the marina's open-air Dock o' the Bay Bar, where, for $12, you can select a thick, marinated steak from the refrigerator and grill it yourself out back while the bartender rustles up a baked potato and a chunk of bread.

At dark, the rustic watering hole's neonlight trim reflected off the water, and blues drifted from the dance floor. Our boat creaked contentedly as we played cards and talked about how lucky we were to be there. We were getting into the rhythm of life aboard: waking to the sun and fresh-perked coffee, staying outdoors and wearing bathing suits most of the day, having sand between the toes of our bare feet, and sleeping under the moon, lulled by the water lapping against the hull.

Note from ECY: David and his family stopped at Deck Hand's Marina, which unfortunately has been gone for several years -- lost to "progress".

In the morning, I paid our dockage fee while Christine sunbathed beside the pool of the Leeside Motel, which is part of the marina operation. Later, we crossed the road to the white-sand beaches of Fort Walton, where the water was lukewarm and the greenish surf chest high as we took our first saltwater plunges.

Under way once again, the sun was intense as we broad-reached toward Choctawhatchee Bay. Depths in the bay average about 16 feet, the bottom is forgiving, and many sailboats plied its waters on all tacks. Bluewater Bay Marina, a few miles north, had every amenity, including a courtesy car to lug provisions from markets in nearby Niceville, in a picturesque setting, with Spanish moss framing its docks and the waterfront restaurant. It was a calm refuge at which cruisers could get a good night's sleep.

Outside in the Gulf

Knowing we'd need a full day to sail to Panama City, outside in the gulf, we departed early the next morning for Destin, a resort and sportfishing community at the southeastern end of Choctawhatchee Bay. Passing beneath the 50-foot Destin Bridge, we briefly struggled with the stiff current rushing through East Pass, an artificial cut providing access to the gulf. Guided by local knowledge, we tucked into a deep, protected anchorage behind the barrier dunes, just beyond the bridge. A dozen other cruising boats were already there, but there was plenty of swinging room for all. Every inch of the shore is packed with townhouses, condos, marinas, stores, restaurants, nightclubs, and docks. Destin is clearly a partying town.

Our alarm clock was set for 0530. Dawn fog shrouded the catamaran's cockpit, but we could hear big boat engines idling as the sportfishing and head boats took on passengers. We rocked in their wakes, choosing not to depart until it was clear enough to navigate the inlet safely.

The wind was northwest, so the catamaran leaped into motion. We spent 10 hours sailing toward the entrance to St. Andrew Bay, and it was all pure joy. The swells were three to four feet, and the boat shuddered whenever a wave smacked between the hulls. We stayed about four miles offshore, and eventually we could see the strip of high-rise hotels and condos at Panama City Beach.

Zack throwing a cast net

Zack Throws a Cast Net

Pushing on, the tall buildings faded into the distance, and soon we'd passed the outer entrance buoy to St. Andrew Inlet. Just east of us lay the magnificent beaches of Shell Island, a wildlife preserve and state park accessible only by boat. Three shrimp boats moved steadily off our bow toward the commercial docks. I called up the waypoints for the bay's range markers and primary buoys, culled from Maptech's Marine Navigator software and plugged into my handheld GPS before leaving home.

Once inside the bay, we followed the channel until the water was deep enough to veer off, but we watched vigilantly for shoals in the clear, green water while sailing toward Spanish Shanty Point, identified by a clump of trees on Shell Island. Stern-anchored a few feet off the beach, we packed a picnic supper, hiked across the 10-foot-high dunes to the gulf, and there, with miles of sand entirely to ourselves, swam and collected shells until the sun set in shades of red, orange, pink, and purple. Two days blissfully elapsed as we explored the beaches and generally did nothing--a key item on our to-do list.

Leaving Shell Island was hard, but locals had told us that a four-hour sail east would bring us to Crooked Island, an even more idyllic setting. Although the island's entrance wasn't marked, the opening in the sand bar was among my GPS waypoints. Still , the way in was hard to spot, but here my binoculars with integrated compass proved their worth.

With the entrance depth just under five feet, we proceeded carefully, following the advice we received from another cruiser to round a sandy spit that juts out to port. But I was paralyzed by a nanosecond of doubt: Did this guy really know what he was talking about? Was I nuts to trust a stranger? Was I putting my family in jeopardy? After all, we faced another six hours at sea, late in the day, heading for an unfamiliar destination if the quest to anchor behind Crooked Island didn't pan out.

However, the lee side of the beach was straight ahead, and the topography matched our advisor's description. We anchored where the sand dunes met the first stand of trees, just as we were told. Since it was }ow tide, we could bring Destiny in close without fear of stranding later. A stem anchor on the beach and a bow hook in deeper water kept her from shifting around.

Crooked Island was exotic and remote--no buildings, no people, no other boats. It was hard to believe that it still existed in 21st-century coastal Florida, and I greedily contemplated not telling anyone about it. But clear thinking won out, and in the belief that such places should be seen and appreciated by those who love them, before shortsighted developers transform them, I decided to tell you about Crooked Island.

On the gulf side, the surf crashed into standing groves of dead trees, the wash foaming in the sand beneath their roots. Sea turtles come here to nest, and their holes pocked the dunes. Pelicans slammed the water 10 feet from our boat and emerged with small fish. Loons cried. A mother osprey angrily dive-bombed my head as I walked the beach with my camera. The bird's motive became clear as I literally stumbled upon her new offspring in the underbrush.

Crooked Island Surf

Crooked Island Surf

The kids were thrilled by Crooked Island, comparing it to the island in Castaway, the movie about a plane-crash survivor who lived alone on it for five years. "Can we stay here for a long time?" they implored. "Maybe build a tree house, like they did in Swiss Family Robinson?" Ever the naturalist, Zack picked up a sea cucumber, which immediately squirted purplish ink on his forearm; then he netted a toadfish to examine its spiny hide. Julie poked at a winged skate that was burrowing near her toes.

Christine lost herself among the shells-razor clams, a ugers, oysters, whelks, scallops, sand dollars, and conch. She surfaced briefly to remind the kids to be careful, that our location was isolated, and that despite their father's emergency medical training, this was not the place to get hurt. The kids nodded knowingly, then ran toward the silhouettes of dorsal fins in a trough in the sand bar. But there was no reason to panic; the fins belonged to friendly dolphins, who repeatedly leaped out of the water. By day, the roar of the F- 15 fighter planes from Eglin Air Force Base jolted us back to the present; at night, it was eerily quiet except for the surf, and with no light pollution, the galaxy went on forever.

Again, the weather dictated that we shove off to make the outside leg to Port St. Joe and the northern tip of Cape San Blas. An early-morning departure put us at the mouth of St. Joseph Bay by noon, and we relished the sight of well-spaced, low-profile buildings along Mexico Beach and untamed miles of sand along the hooked arm of St. Joseph Peninsula, which extended to the horizon. The peninsula beaches were a wonderland of hermit, fiddler, and horseshoe crabs, the tidal zone a racecourse for mullet and dolphins. Fishermen in small powerboats trolled back and forth where the shallow, green sea met the dark-blue depths.

Protected from wind and waves by the dunes, we walked the beach and swam until we were exhausted and hungry. We baked potatoes, concocted a salad, and grilled steaks as the red sun slipped into the sea. After the kids went to bed, Christine and I finished off a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and giddily shone the flashlight into the water to study the biolumincscence. The moon seemed close enough to touch. It was a great night to be lying at anchor.

Woes of Port St. Joe

Port St. Joe's industrial economy is in flux as the community struggles to find a new identity. Excavators and other heavy equipment are tearing down the old pulp mills, and though the quantity of oysters harvested annually here is remarkable, the beds can't support every fisherman. For better or worse, tourism may soon be the answer to the town's revival.

The town's main street, a row of small stores adorned with a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, was getting a face-lift, and plans were under way to build townhouse condominiums next to the new Port St. Joe Marina, where one of the mills once stood. Developers were b uying up the land, and locals were abuzz with rumors about a proposed amusement park and regional airport.

Several sportfishing charterboats operate out of the Port St. Joe Marina, where we were assigned for the night. The boats brought in snapper, red.fish, grouper, amberjack, and cobia, the mates laying the fish out for gutting and filleting. Christine and the kids sought provisions while I checked the engine-fluid levels, restocked the coolers with ice, and awaited the rich golden light before dusk when photographs assume a magical air.

We'd planned to return to the peninsula beaches, then run the final few miles to Apalachicola, but the weather turned snotty, the seas in the gulf rose to six to eight feet, and the wind topped out over 25. Insofar as time was growing short, we entered the Gulf County Canal, a wide ditch that connects St. Joseph Bay to the ICW, and the diesel pushed us deftly north, then west, along the flat, brown water toward Panama City and points east.

For the first mile, along both banks, shrimpboats were lashed to dilapidated wooden piers. House trailers surrounded by rusted equipment nestled in the foliage. Barges and tugs lay tied to pilings as though awaiting further orders. We passed beneath a power cable slung across the canal, praying our mast would clear it. Sprawling chemical plants and other industrial facilities dominated the landscape, all in sharp contrast to the peninsula's refreshing natural beauty.

The Redneck Riviera

Soon the greenery returned: oak, palmetto trees, and cord grass. We chugged along at seven knots for about an hour, seeing only one other vessel before rejoining the ICW. It's wild along this low-lying stretch known as Harrison Swamp, where lush cypress trees stand on tall roots that perch above the surface like table legs. This is Apalach, an area of the South free of the moneyed New Yorker and New Englander so prevalent in other parts of the state. It's pure Cracker, which is why the Florida Panhandle is referred to as the Redneck Riviera, or simply LA, for Lower Alabama.

Flying Kites on the Beach

Flying Kites on the Beach

As the ICW widened, camplike structures appeared among the trees, but as we continued toward East Bay, they were replaced by elegant homes with fine docks. This seven-hour journey would eventually take us back to Panama City via creeks and bayous. A fast-moving storm caught up with us in East Bay, and it didn't take long for the skinny water to be whipped into a frenzied state. Waves splashed across the dodger, rain hammered the cockpit, and clouds darkened the sky. We became disoriented; it was hard to spot the ICW marks and then tell them apart from buoys set for other bayous.

We backtracked quickly when the depth sounder showed three feet. Barges and tugs cropped up in all directions, making matters worse. After an adrenaline rush, we were back on course to St. Andrew Bay. A Coast Guard patrol boat zoomed past, leaving us floundering in its powerful wake. We reached the Panama City Marina by radio, and the friendly manager welcomed Destiny and her crew.

When the rain let up, we walked to Bayou Joe's, a funky waterfront restaurant on Massalina Bayou, for fried grouper sandwiches. Bayou Joe's is a colorful, one-of-a-kind establishment that allows boats entering the bayou under the bascule bridge to tie up at its dock, a few steps from the dining-room patio doors.

Downtown Panama City was old and charming, with squares and fountains and shopkeepers who like to talk. There was no sense of rush. Mostly they wanted to know what sort of boat we'd come on and where we were headed next. The walls of the local sporting-goods store were lined with big-game trophy heads. The usedbook shop, which was a gem, a sidewalk cafe, a place that sold kites, and another that specialized in hand-painted furniture and eclectic wind chimes were all within a 10-minute walk of the marina.

After more than 24 hours, the wind settled down, allowing us to sail in St. Andrew Bay before heading to Bay Point Yacht Club and Marina, where we'd leave the boat. Bay Point is a wealthy, gated community on Grand Lagoon, and its marina is meticulously maintained. Many of the sailboats and trawlers there harbored liveaboards. The docks were lined with expensive sportfishing boats, their tuna towers reflecting under the sun, decks swabbed antiseptically clean, the owners' luxury cars parked steps away. The harbormaster's office was surrounded by condos, a deli with bakery and wine shop, a gourmet restaurant, swimming pool overlooking the bay, and a rental outlet for pontoon boats and other water toys. People in pressed white shorts and tops gathered at the dock to discuss golf and boating.

Instinctively, we resisted the oh-so-civilized veneer. Down to our last rumpled T-shirts, colorful beach towels drying on the lifelines, we cast aside the free newspaper delivered to our boat. We were out of touch with the world and the foibles of humankind, and we want to keep it that way for as long as we could. But our conversations already had turned from tides and currents, wind speed and course headings, to homework assignments and upcoming social obligations, unpaid bills, missed soccer games, taxi services, and flight reservations. However, no matter how quickly and mercilessly the mundane overtook us, we'd savor the memories of our 12-day Cola-(almost)-to-Cola cruise until the charts were again sprawled across the kitchen table to plan our next great family adventure.

About the Author

Based in the coastal community of Nahant, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, David Liscio is a volunteer firefighter and member of the town’s Ocean Rescue Team, as well as an adjunct professor of environmental science at Endicott College. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in integrative education and ecological literacy.