Cruising the Panhandle Page 2

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,
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A Sense of Relief

The following morning John and Kathy’s fears came true as the temperature plunged—plunged, I say!—into the upper forties. (You’d never guess John is originally from the upper Midwest and once helped run a ski resort in Northern Michigan.) There was also a low overcast sky, with what appeared to be rainsqualls dancing by on the horizon. Never ones to be daunted, though, even by a disappointing headwind and temperatures more commonly found north of the Arctic Circle, John and Kathy added another layer of foul weather gear and declared it perfect weather for motorsailing.For my part, I suited up for the extreme conditions in shorts, a light fleece pullover and a baseball hat.

Making our way west, we soon stumbled upon our first pod of dolphins, looking for breakfast in the shallows off Trout Point, midway down Big Lagoon. After that, dolphins continued to appear regularly, not only the rest of that day, but during the remainder of our cruise.

Picking our way into Ingram Bayou for a quick lunch, for example, a solitary dolphin swam by as we searched for the best place to drop anchor. A few minutes later, after we’d tucked in along the edge of the swamp and were making sandwiches, the same dolphin swam by back into open water.

It was the same sailing over to the Barber Marina—a shiny, new boating complex complete with dozens of well-protected slips, a well-stocked chandlery, haul-out facilities and an incredible collection of vintage outboards lining the walls—dolphins seemingly everywhere.

There was plenty of other wildlife as well—ospreys, pelicans, terns and fish in abundance. You’d never have guessed we were right around the corner from arguably the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States. The long-term impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf of Mexico remains an open question. Given the news reports coming from the region, I suspect that in parts of the Gulf the effects will linger for years. But as far as sailing and cruising the Florida panhandle goes, it’s as if the spill never happened.

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One Tough Mother

That night we grabbed a slip in the Bear Point Marina and had dinner at Cosmos Restaurant and Bar just down the road in Orange Beach, Alabama. The next morning we cast off lines early and began heading east again, beating into a chill, stiff northeast breeze. The sun was shining, I’d spotted another dolphin gamboling about just off the marina breakwall after breakfast, and a sparrow kept us company, enjoying a brief rest on our painter as we smoked across the mouth of Perdido Bay.

Time was running short, forcing us to fire up the auxiliary, but there was still time for a brief excursion ashore back on Perdido Key. I’d visited the same spot years earlier, and it had been much in my mind during the oil spill. Located well beyond the reach of any road, it includes a remote stretch of beach of breathtaking beauty. On the Gulf side of the narrow island, the only sign of civilization is a couple of high rises way off in the distance. Otherwise, it’s just you and the beach. As I’d followed the news on the oil spill it had broken my heart to think of what might have been happening to this tiny slice of paradise. It seemed such a terrible waste that such a place might be destroyed, not by any “act of God,” but plain-old human greed and stupidity.

Fortunately, for all that we’ve knocked her around, Mother Nature remains surprisingly resilient, not to mention forgiving of our shortcomings. Motoring ashore in the dinghy, John and I were once again distracted by a pod of dolphins hunting among the shallows. Tramping across the sand dunes, the only signs of the previous summer’s catastrophe were a few leftover stakes and marker flags. Standing ankle deep in the shallows John spotted a school of cownose rays, appearing as a cluster of shadows darting across a distant shoal. The beach hadn’t changed a bit. Both the sand and water itself were spotless.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help thinking what this stretch of beach had been through. Nor could I forget how much oil was still out there—coating wetlands in Louisiana, deep beneath the surface miles offshore, out of sight, but still very much a part of the ecosystem.

A few minutes later, after I’d finished snapping some pictures, I noticed John, still standing in the same spot, looking out over glittering waters of the Gulf. The deep love he and Kathy feel for these waters was evident in his every gesture: so was the sense of relief at the fact that they seemed to have weathered the latest disaster to strike the region. Starting back toward the dinghy, I found myself experiencing much the same feelings. Let’s all do our best to make sure John, Kathy and the thousands of other people who make their livings from the Gulf of Mexico never have to experience this kind of a disaster again.

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