The One With Light & Salty’s Third Gulf Crossing

Admittedly, this post started out as a quick social media post about our Gulf crossing. When I ran out of characters, I realized it probably deserved it’s own blog update. I’m cringing because I haven’t posted about our trip down the rivers yet, which means this post comes chronologically out of order. But I’m going to just try to let that go.

Gulf Crossing History

Incase you’re new here, let me give you a little background and explanation for our multiple crossings.

Light & Salty first crossed the Gulf from Carrabelle to Clearwater, Florida in December 2020. We did the 150ish mile run as part of our Great Loop. I won’t rehash it because you can go back and read all about it (2020 Crossing.) To summarize, though, we learned a lot and I said I’d never do it again.

Then the summer of 2022 rolled around and we decided to take our boat up to the Tennessee River for the Vol Navy. FOMO (Fear of missing out) is real for me and I just can’t handle sitting things out. After much debate and maybe a tiny bit of dramatic anxiety, I made the trip.

The only blog post I shared was about how well Starlink worked 70 miles offshore (read it here.) It was the dreamiest day on the water- completely calm and gorgeous. I knew there’d never be another Gulf crossing like it.

Fast forward to last week. The Gulf of Mexico stood between us and our “home” in Southwest Florida. We were up against the holidays, school schedules, and work travel. But most importantly, weather.

Thread the schedule/weather needle

2 months ago, Kim (my buddy boat bestie) and I planned our ideal travel schedule for moving from Huntsville to Punta Gorda. We decided to get our boats to Gulf Shores before Thanksgiving. Then we hoped to travel the Panhandle, hit a perfect weather window and be in SW Florida by December 1st. It was unreasonable even when we planned it, but we were optimistic.

As if to prove how terrible our plan was, on December 1st we were still sitting in Gulf Shores.

Undeterred, we saw a weather window coming up the next week. It was small, but it gave us hope. Unfortunately, Brent, Michael and Mary Grace all had unavoidable travel away from the boats. After several meetings, we decided to move the boats from Gulf Shores to Panama City Beach. We boated 121 miles that day, and Brent caught an Uber to the airport about 30 minutes after docking.

The weather window continued to fluctuate throughout the week. At one point, we were definitely not going to cross. But then the window shifted and opened, ever so slightly.

We had one major problem though, Brent and Mary Grace were still not back from their travel. With some creative thinking and a couple of standby flights, we came up with a plan that was maybe doable.

The Day That Kept Going

The “doable” plan I mentioned was far from ideal. Brent flew in from a survey in Chattanooga. Mary Grace flew in from taking her finals in Fort Myers. And after about 6 hours of sleep, we set out on a 229 mile adventure.

There were 3 things about this plan that allowed us to feel safe:

  • This Gulf crossing wasn’t our first rodeo. As I mentioned at the start, we’d done it twice before. This is important because we understood the capabilities of our boat.
  • Light & Salty had 3 extremely capable Captain’s onboard. Plus me. (Just kidding…sort of!) In all seriousness, Mary Grace could probably have been trusted to do the trip solo. She was born for this adventure.
  • We were traveling with 2 buddy boats, The Perch and Sound Waves. Additionally, we knew there were at least 30 other Loop boats planning to do some version of the crossing at the same time.

We pulled off of the dock in Panama City Beach with full fuel tanks and the goal of traveling 75 miles, conserving as much of that fuel as possible. It was likely our slowest day ever, we traveled at just over 7 knots for 9 hours. But when we arrived at our crossing staging point, our fuel was still almost full.

Our Unconventional Crossing Plan

Most Loopers do an overnight crossing. Traditionally they leave around 4PM and arrive sometime the next morning. That’s never been our cup of tea. We prefer the day crossing at a much faster speed. Thankfully our buddy boat, The Perch, was on the same page. However, the weather window didn’t support a day crossing this time.

We looked at the options 15 different ways, and tried to will the results to be different. But there was only one way for us to do the crossing- overnight.

Based on trying to hit the most optimal weather, we decided to leave at 9PM running 9 knots until first safe light. At first light our plan was double our speed to 18 knots and arrive in Clearwater around 11AM.

In the hopes of avoiding some predicted wind and waves, we also took a route angle to the north to tuck in closer to land before heading south.

If everything had gone exactly as planned, we would have enjoyed a very comfortable crossing. Of course, then we wouldn’t really have a story for this post.

Real Life Gulf Crossing

We dropped our anchor behind Dog Island in the dark around 7PM. Our two buddy boats quickly rafted to either side of us. Kim jumped on a webinar. Mary Grace took a math test. Jake grilled steaks. I calculated how far the swim would be back to land and if I was capable of doing it. (I decided yes, but the possibility of a shark attack held me back!)

At 9PM I went to the bow of our boat as Brent started our engines. I untied The Perch and then Sound Waves before beginning to lift our anchor. Having supported the weight of 3 boats in a current, it was set extremely well. Admittedly, I rushed and didn’t let the boat engines do the lion share of the work. This resulted in a blown fuse on the windlass and frantic calls from our buddy boats wondering why we hadn’t moved.

Brent had to raise the anchor by hand from the waterline and we secured it. In hindsight this was probably a huge blessing in disguise. Our anchor was tied off better than ever, though hours later we would question our work.

The first 7 hours of our crossing went flawlessly. The Perch led the way with Sound Waves and Light & Salty forming an obtuse triangle with us in the back. Although we supported Miller staying up all night, he put himself to bed within an hour. Brent encouraged me to lay down with him and try to get some sleep.

Mary Grace and Brent were in their element at the helm. We didn’t have a moon, but we could see a few stars between the clouds. Our group agreed to do hourly radio checks and Mary Grace prepared a few trivia questions for each check in. I liken my experience to being on a red eye flight. I was aware of time passing slowly. And heard all the radio checks. I went up to the helm several times, but ultimately assessed that I wasn’t really needed so I tried to sleep.

Around 3AM I could tell they were both getting tired so I made myself coffee and joined them. Brent pointed out the wind. He said it would only be a matter of time before the waves kicked up. He was right.

Sporty Conditions

Just after the 4AM check-in, the water started getting choppy. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but we didn’t know how much worse it might get. And that was an uncomfortable thought.

At 6AM we still had zero light and conditions were quickly deteriorating. Michael noted that he was going to continue heading towards land rather than making the planned adjustment south. We all agreed that it was the right decision.

First light revealed that the waves were coming in confusing patterns of 3 and 4 footers with an occasional 5 footer tossed in for fun. At the 7AM radio check Michael suggested that we slow our speed to 8 knots to see if it offered any relief. After about 10 minutes, Brent decided to increase our speed to 16 knots to see what happened. Our family felt more comfortable, but we would only continue at that speed with a unanimous group decision. Brent asked Michael and Jake to give the faster speed a try.

Kim came on the radio and summed it up well. “It’s not any better, but it’s not any worse either. At least at the faster speed we’ll get it over with twice as fast.”

Brent volunteered Light & Salty to lead and we switched our formation to a straight line. Sound Waves tucked in right behind us and The Perch right behind them. In theory, we should have been smoothing the water a little for them. But ultimately, conditions were pretty sporty for all of us.

Crab pots, Land Sighting and Other Boats

One of the reason many Loopers plan to leave around 4PM for overnight crossings is because of crab pots. Navigating the West Coast of Florida is like navigating a landmine. Thankfully Miller truly has eagle eyes and enjoyed spotting all the pots. We called them out on the radio for our buddy boats.

Eventually the waves calmed back down to choppy and we spotted another boat on the horizon. We started receiving texts from friends who’d been waiting to hear from us. And finally we saw land.

It’s always surreal arriving in Clearwater Beach. You feel like you’ve just fought a giant and won. Everything and everyone should stop and be in awe of your accomplishment. However, the city, the beachgoers, and the little day boats are all blissfully unaware.

Brent was more nervous about docking at Clearwater Beach Marina than doing the crossing. His worry was all for naught as we ended up with a great spot! Unfortunately our buddy boats didn’t fare as well and each had to dock twice.

We did a quick group champagne toast before all heading back to our respective boats to take a well-deserved nap. 6 hours later, Brent was on his way to the airport. And Mary Grace was taking 2 National Latin Exams. Never a dull moment for our crew!

Final Gulf Crossing Thoughts This Time

Was our crossing safe? Absolutely.
Was it comfortable? No.
Did we have fun? In hindsight, yes.
Will I ever do it again? TBD. I say no, emphatically. But let’s be honest, I’ve said that before!

Unlike our first crossing, we were actually well prepared this time and it made all the difference. As you might have noticed, the worst weather came during breakfast hours. Having snacks right up at the helm was lifesaving (ok, maybe not lifesaving…but it was really helpful!)

We’ve heard from a lot of boaters who also did some version of the crossing during the same 24-hour period. Everyone seems to have run into much bigger waves than predicted. I’m very thankful we strategized for the ideal weather window and not our ideal timing. It’s good to be on the other side!

As always, thanks for keeping up with our ever crazy adventures! You might also enjoy reading:

3 Years As A Nomadic Family

The Shortest Winter Ever

Celebrating Holidays on a Boat

This post may contain affiliate links. By making a purchase after clicking through a link, Mom With a Map may receive a commission.

Posted in

Leave a Comment