Florida Panhandle Cruise, April 2001


Cruising the Other LA

Cruising the shallow, clear waters of Florida's Panhandle

Story by David Liscio; Photographs by Peter McGowan

Sail Magazine Article

Sail Magazine Article

We are bound for northern Florida's Riviera, some 250 miles of bayous and barrier dunes that protect the Panhandle, stretching west roughly from the coastal town of Carrabelle to the bustling pon of Mobile, Alabama. This is the land of Forrest Gump, where pickup trucks, shrimp boats, and Baptist churches predominate, a place where people practice Southern hospitality, fly the Confederate flag, fish obsessively. and sail some of the countrys least-celebrated yet spectacularly beautiful cruising waters.

Florida locals call the region LA, for Lower Alabama, because the seamless boundaries are more political than cultural. This is the Old South, graceful and unhurried, enlivened by a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack and mellowed by a lack of pretension. Boiled peanuts, key lime pie, barbecued chicken, cold beer, and tie-dyed sunsets are part of everyday life, as is condominium development along the sugar-white sand beaches.

For cruisers, LA offers countless opportunities to explore uninhabited islands surrounded by transparent emerald water, both teeming with wildlife--dolphins, rays, blue crabs, pelicans, herons, hawks, and eagles. Marinas are plentiful along the Intracoastal Waterway GICW), and civilization is never far out of reach, but in most bayous its possible to anchor overnight in settings of such natural splendor that docking seems absurd.

Enjoying the Good Life Sailing

Enjoying the Good Life

Most of the Panhandle's northern shore is framed by stands of yellow pine and woodlands on land that is U.S. military property. while grasses, palmettos, and low-lying vegetation cap the barrier islands. The latter are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, an 11-segment, three-state archipelago that includes Perdido Key, Santa Rosa Island, and Shell and Crooked islands with their unspoiled beaches. Between the mainland and these sandy barriers, the ICW wends east-west, affording an alternative to sailing in the open Gulf of Mexico.

Christine Relaxing in Hammock

Christine Relaxing in a Hammock

0UR JOURNEY ALONG THE PANHANDLE spans 12 days in late April and early May, when the air temperature averages 80 degrees and the water slightly less than that. We are aboard Déjà Vu, C&C 30 provided by Emerald Coast Yachts in Pensacola Beach. The boat draws 5 feet and is roomy enough for my wife, Christine, our 13-year-old son, Zack, daughter Juliana, 9, and me. More important, its 43-foot mast will fit under the regions 50-foot fixed highway bridges, giving us access to Choctawhatchee Bay, among the highlights of our float plan.

Déjà Vu is well-outfitted for subtropical cruising, with a rail-mounted grill and a refrigerator, but Bill Crouch, who runs Emerald Coast Yachts and its sailing school, says a vital provision must be brought aboard before our departure. Smiling, he hands us a Jimmy Buffett CD. "You can't go sailing around here without this, he says, and it turns out hes right; every time we get near a port, strains of "Margaritaville" and "Changes in Latitude" waft across the water.

The prevailing south wind is blowing 15 knots when we leave Pensacola Bay, sailing west toward Fort Pickens, a restored brick fortress that predates the Civil War. Near the fort the water depth drops abruptly, so its possible to nose the bow a few feet from shore and lower an anchor. We're amazed at how closely boats hug the beach, but, as we remind ourselves, it's all sand. If you run aground, you reverse the engine and back off. The kids are thrilled to climb the massive cannon and investigate the forts labyrinth of passageways and subterranean rooms.

Enjoying Ft. Pickens

Enjoying Historic Ft. Pickens

From atop the ramparts we can see the choppy waters of Pensacola lnlet and the narrow cut to Big Lagoon, separated from the sea by Perdido Key. We sail through the cut, careful to avoid oncoming traffic, and marvel at the white-sand cliffs. The chart shows depths in the protected cove at Spanish Point run 2 to 3 feet, but locals say there's at least 10, so we head there for the night. The glow of Pensacola Light, a dark-painted 191-foot lighthouse, and the occasional roar of a jet fighter landing at the Pensacola Naval Air Station are the only intrusions on nature's stage set. Dinner is, of course, cheeseburgers in paradise. After dark, a fisherman poles a skiff in the shallows, the hull fitted with flashing lights to attract the flounder he hopes to spear. It is an eerie sight.

The next day we sail Big Lagoon into Alabama territory and reach back to Pensacola Beach. The waterfront is lively with music, tourists, kayaks, parasails, jet skis, and beach catamarans. A band plays in a scallop-shell amphitheater. Shops and restaurants line the wooden boardwalk. We sleep at Sabine Marina, where we lash Déjà Vu to wooden dolphin poles. Since the tide averages only 1.5 feet, dock lines are tied and sprung accordingly. Tying up takes practice because, unlike the floating docks in regions of significant tidal change, there are no cleats; you lasso the poles and adjust the line length.

An uncooperative wind interferes with our plan to sail outside from Pensacola Beach to the resort town of Destin, so we tack across Santa Rosa Sound and motor when necessary. I circle three possible anchorages on the chan and then recall ECY's suggestion that we spend the night just west of Navarre Bridge near Juana's Pagoda, a thatched-roof tiki-hut restaurant and bakery on the beach. The chart shows water depths of 2 feet at the bridge outside the ION buoys. It's dusk when we arrive, but we find and follow the private navigation markers of Rudzki Channel to anchor in 12 feet of water.

Juana's Pagoda is a sailor's hangout offering cold beer, frozen drinks, shrimp, grouper, and ribs and steak on the grill. Owners Steve and Juana Rudzki are cruisers, as are Steve's brother, Ken, and his wife, Cheryl, who bakes the pastries and breads. Ken claims hurricanes rip apart buildings with comers, but tend LO swirl around pagodas. "These pagodas are a Seminole Indian design," he says, noting that Valjawan Deer, a Choctaw Indian, erected them with a Seminole crew. "It's a lot of work to repair the thatch, so we're ex-perimenting with some different materials, but keeping the design." The Rudzkis want to maintain the low-key atmosphere, but like residents of Pensacola Beach and other enclaves along Florida's Panhandle, they fear encroaching highrises will forever change their world.

After a night in a marina on Okaloosa Island and hot showers all around, we cross the beach road to the ocean and a hoped-for swim. Disappointment--the undertow is strong and red warning flags are flying. We return to Déjà Vu and within minutes of casting off enter the expansive waters of Choctawhatchee Bay, a special cruising ground. Sailboats are visible in every direction. We hoist our sails and spend hours enjoying the rush of wind and water. The bays depths of 20 feet or more are deep for the region, and since the bay extends east for nearly 30 miles there's seldom need to change course.

Bluewater Bay Marina in Niceville is about as serene and idyllic as it gets, with understated architecture, lush landscaping, and a creative layout of docks and boardwalks. At the marina restaurant chef Gail Cannon prepares wonderful pasta dishes. The view of magnolia trees in bloom, draped in Spanish moss, with sailboats in the background nourishes the soul. Gail offers some advice on our plan to sail in the Gulf the 50 miles from Destin to St. Andrew Bay; we11 need to leave Destin at dawn to make St. Andrew Bay by dusk. The marina's pub is alive with Jimmy Buffett songs as we snuggle into our berths. We are in no hurry to leave. It's simply too nice, as any place in Niceville presumably would be. We sleep like babes in the tranquil harbor.

Christine finds solitude on Shell Island's snow-white beach, St. Andrew Bay

Christine finds solitude on Shell Island's snow-white beach

Next morning, Bea Hinely, who owns the marina with her husband, Ray, lends us a courtesy jeep so that we can provision at the supermarket in Niceville. Zack and I shop while Chrisline and Juliana hit the pool. Then we head south to Destin and, three delightful hours later, follow Beas advice to go under the 50-foot Destin Bridge at East Pass and tuck into a small bay behind the sand dunes for an abbreviated night.

Under way before sunrise, we tack repeatedly for two hours but eventually surrender to the diesel because of a persistent easterly. By late morning, the wind shifts southeast. We are soon clipping along at 6 knots, topping out at 6.9 with a reef in the main. 1 have to pry the wheel from Christine's hands.

In five hours, and with only two tacks, we come upon the high-rise condos and hotels along Panama City Beach. We can't help wondering if we've made a mistake by leaving Choctawhatchee. The buildings spread along the coast for several miles, but the development ends at the outskirts of St. Andrew Bay and the landscape again looks pristine and natural.

Massalina Bayou, Panama City

Bayou Joe's on Massalina Bayou, Panama City

We reach the outer approach buoy in 11 hours. lt's 1630 and there's still plenty of daylight, so we head for Shell Island, a wildlife preserve and uninhabited barrier dune, where we will spend three days. Avoiding the shoals, we sail toward Spanish Shanty Point, a clump of trees on the dunescape. We monitor the depthsounder and watch for color changes in the emerald water, the sand bottom visible in shoal areas. Anchoring in shoal water takes some thought. lf you're too close to the shoal and wind and tide tum the boat, the stern will run aground-as we learn.

The kids are psyched to row to the island. The beach is obviously deserted and they're eager to hunt for shells. Within an hour they are clutching fistfuls of sand dollars, whelks, augers, and scallops. Zack chases crabs in the tide zone while Juliana builds sandcastles. Christine and I hold hands and walk the beach, elated by our find.

We hike across the dunes to the emerald sea. Zack says the sand has acoustical properties because it squeaks beneath our bare feet. "Its singing sand," he says. The water is warm and embracing. We are the only people on the beach, which extends for miles. We race into the gentle surf. Christine waves her bathing suit over her head and Juliana does likewise. Father and son join the fun of being four knuckleheads having a blast on a desolate beach after a full day of sailing. If heaven exists, this is it.

A magnificent sunset of red, orange, and purple is the backdrop for our dinner of grilled steak, salad, French bread, and cold Red Stripe beer. A full moon rises over the dunes. We play cards in the spacious cabin and talk about our day. We are flying home from Tallahassee, so at some point we must sail to Panama City and make arrangements for a car rental, but not today or tomorrow.

It is difficult to leave a place after dancing with crabs and swimming with dolphins. We go daysailing and comb the beach, knowing our time here is growing shorter. Luckily, we meet George and Carolyn Butchikas of Panama City, who have come to Shell Island by runabout to share the sunset. Carolyn offers her cell phone so that I can make car-rental and marina reservations without leaving the island. Her unhesitating helpfulness is common here and precisely what makes sailing along this coast so special.

BUILT AFTER HURRICANE OPAL, PANAMA City Marina is big by Panhandle standards. Manager Chris Moser welcomes transients and provides water to cruisers who would rather anchor in picturesque Massalina Bayou behind the drawbridge. Massalina Bayou is quaint, filled with sailboats, and home to two funky, open-air restaurants--Bayou joes on the water, where you can tie up at the dock, and Hawk's Nest, on higher ground with sweeping vistas. We linger and soak up the atmosphere. Locals say the shopping mall wiped out most of the businesses, but the old downtown (within walking distance) is rebounding with an galleries, antique shops. cafes, and restaurants.

If we had more cruising time, we'd check out desolate Crooked Island and charts and dream of a day when we can continue our sail to Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, Apalachicola, St. Marks, and Carrabelle, places where, as one native put it, the clothes are a little tighter and the people a little looser. The Panhandle may be Florida's forgotten coast, but once you've been there, it isn't easy to forget.

About the Author

David Liscio is a writer, photographer, environmental educator and frequent contributor to SAIL. He lives in Nahant, Massachusetts, where coastal cruising is a family pastime.

Map of the Panhandle
Map of the Panhandle