Cruising the Florida Panhandle

Charter sailing the Beneteau 393 monohull Splendid Adventure with Lanier Sailing School out of Pensacola Florida shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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Walking down the dock to the Beneteau 393 Splendid Adventure I felt like I was arriving at the scene of a crime. It was late October, and the overcast night sky was pitch black. The air was sweltering hot, absolutely still. To the right I could see the lights of the port of Pensacola, Florida, to the left the lights of the city’s historic Seville Square district. What I was really looking for, though, was oil.

Six months earlier—almost to the day—the Deepwater Horizon oil well, under contract with British Petroleum, had caught fire and sunk following an explosion on April 20 that killed 11 men. The resulting spill spewed tens of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was finally capped on July 15.

Although Pensacola and the barrier islands protecting the series of bays and sounds constituting the Intracoastal Waterway in this part of the country were not quite “ground zero”—that grim distinction fell to coastal Louisiana—they were still damn close. Much of the television footage showing tar balls washing ashore was shot along Florida’s panhandle. The region also fell well within the area that the federal government declared closed to commercial fishing. The economic consequences were devastating. By last fall, 2010 was already being referred to locally as the “lost” summer.

Walking the docks that sticky October evening, though, all I smelled was the surrounding foliage. The only thing I saw of any note was a green heron perched on the muddy shore. My host, John Struchen, who along with his wife, Kathy, owns and operates Pensacola Yacht Charters & Lanier Sailing Academy, of which Splendid Adventure is the flagship, apologized for the heavy dew—the decks were so wet you would have thought there had just been a cloudburst. I told him not to be ridiculous. I would hardly classify excessive dew as an environmental catastrophe.

On the Lookout

The next morning dawned cool and clear. A cold front was due to pass through the area in a couple of days, bringing with it showers and—horror of horrors!—temperatures in the low 50s, so John and Kathy wanted to get underway as soon as possible. We motored out onto the clear blue waters of Pensacola Bay, where there were plenty of pelicans but, again, a distinct lack of oil.

Making our way south, tacking back and forth across the commercial ship channel, John told me it was not unusual to see dolphins in this area. He added that the large bay makes an ideal venue for daysailing, buoy racing and their sail-training business. It’s more than two miles across, with plenty of breeze coming in off the open Gulf, so you get the benefits of sailing on a large body of water without the big seas.

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Soon we were coming about to stay clear of buoy #2, which marks the end of the shoal off Fair Point on the western end of Gulf Breeze. Another tack brought us around Deer Point, which guards the entrance to Santa Rosa Sound. From there we sailed east on an easy broad reach with 10-12 knots of wind out of the south-southwest. John and Kathy were both bundled up in fleece jackets, but to this northern sailor, it was like heaven—clear, blue waters, plenty of sun and not a single other boat. It was amazing to think we had the entire place to ourselves.

Passing under the Pensacola Beach Bridge, we dodged the shallows to starboard—no excuse for running aground here, the shoals were easily visible in the clear, blue water—and dropped the hook off the backside of Pensacola Beach. As we did so John again extolled the virtues of the area as a nautical classroom. “You’ve got everything you need here. Plenty of wide-open protected waters, but the Gulf is just on the other side of these barrier islands if you want to go offshore. There are also plenty of places to go cruising, and it’s a great place to work on anchoring skills, with shallow water and good holding ground.”

Then there are the beaches: after lunch ashore at The Grand Marlin restaurant we wandered over to check out Pensacola Beach, part of a seemingly endless stretch of white sand on the far side of Santa Rosa Island. Once again, I was on high alert for oil. Once again, there was nothing—only the roar of breakers and blindingly, clean white sand as far as the eye could see. Mother Nature and the various cleanup crews scouring the area the previous summer had done their job well.

Back aboard Splendid Adventure, we retraced our steps, sailing west across Pensacola Bay and then across Pensacola Pass toward the anchorage in Big Lagoon in the lee of Perdido Key. Pensacola Pass, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico, has its share of currents and shoal water. But it would be hard to find a better anchorage than Big Lagoon. Good holding ground, a tidal range of only about a foot, and plenty of spots to choose from in water just 15 feet deep makes dropping the hook simplicity itself.

Years earlier, I’d been anchored in almost the exact same spot and was hit by a brief, vicious squall with gusts of 50-knots-plus, but the hook held like it was set in cement. On this occasion there was nothing to do but enjoy the sunset and Kathy’s wonderful cooking as John graciously poured the drinks. We had a grand total of three neighbors—including a 50-footer with its mast on deck, clearly transiting the ICW—in a beautiful, secure anchorage with room for a fleet of a hundred. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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