Dovekie #43 “Mulsae” silhouetted by the sunset near Pensacola FL (photo credit: Pat Johnson).
An Idea is Born
So a couple weeks ago Travis R posts to the Mobile Bay Area Recreational Boating (MBARB) Facebook page the desire to sail from Mobile to Pensacola for the Pensacola naval base’s Veterans Day airshow featuring the Blue Angels. He asked if anyone else would like to join him at Fort McRee (aka Sand Island cove) for an overnight raft up. It sounded like fun though at that time my plans for Veterans Day weekend were fluid.
Monday, November 7th
Today, a few days before the holiday, I decide that the weekend is free and a final sail for the year may be fun. But … I dislike cold even though I am from Michigan. That is the reason I always tried to get the Air Force to station me in the Southeast whenever possible. Frankly, sailing and camping in cold weather is as much fun as shivering in a hunter’s tree stand waiting for a random deer to walk by. The one and only time I tried deer hunting lasted less than two hours before I went home and handed the hunting license to my brother. Anyway, before committing to sail it’s off to the computer for a weather report …
Hmm … looks pretty good. Somewhat cool in low 70s but sunny all weekend with mild 7 – 10’ish mph winds. Evenings are projected to be cool but that is what sleeping bags are for. Especially, if you have two of them to stay warm. Heh.
So I post a commitment on Facebook and outline a plan to launch from Mahogany Mills boat ramp on Friday, sail to Fort McRee to meet up with the others, and spend the weekend doing whatever everyone else is doing. Sounds like a good plan.
Thursday, November 10th
Travis R posts that he is on his way from Mobile Bay in his MacGregor 26. He plans on stopping in Pirates Cove for the evening and continuing on to Fort McRee tomorrow. There is one small problem though; hardly any wind blowing! Travis is forced to continue under motor power.
Meanwhile, Pat J launches his Micro-Trawler’ish boat “Half Fast” from Pensacola Bay area and meets up with Travis in the ICW. “Half Fast” is a great little boat that can displacement cruise all day but still get up and fast plane if need be. Nice boat, even if it doesn’t have a sail. 😉
Travis R’s MacGregor 26 in the ICW (Photo by Pat Johnson)
In the evening, I lazily pack up for the weekend trip and get “Mulsae” hooked up to the truck. Food wise, I decide to take Ramen for dinners, pound cakes for breakfast, and snacks for everything else. Drinks are the usual mix of Gatorade, water, and sodas on ice. 45 minutes later, I’m asleep for the night.
Veterans Day, November 11th
No “O-my-lord-it-is-early!” wakeups for this trip! Up around 6 am, on the road sometime around 7 am, and an easy 4.5 hour drive to Pensacola. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (the traditional time of observance born from Veterans Day’s roots in WW1’s Armistice Day) finds me passing the WW2 battleship USS Alabama moored in Mobile AL. The big ship is easily visible while passing by on highway 10 towards Pensacola FL. As a retired veteran, the moment is not lost upon me.
I arrive at Mahogany Mills ramp around noon’ish and unhurriedly rig “Mulsae”. Mahogany Mills is a new public ramp funded by the BP oil spill funds. With lots of trailer sized parking, two well-built concrete ramps bordered by solidly built docks, bathrooms, and a rinse area with hose, Mahogany Mills is my favorite place to launch from in the Pensacola area. Oh, did I mention it was absolutely free?
On the water by 12:30 pm in light 7’ish mph winds, the temperature is still around 70 degrees with mostly cloudy skies. It is cool though the times when the sun peeks out for a little warmth is welcome. It takes 20 minutes to drift sail out of the cove before picking up the northeasterly breeze and setting course for the naval station’s corner point a few miles distant. Not much later I notice contrails in the overcast sky. Hey! It’s the Blue Angels! They must be doing the 1 pm show. East of the airfield, they overfly Mulsae a few times during precision formation maneuvers. Talk about a great view!
The Blue Angels’ show ends and onward I sail. The bay is relatively calm and even though the skies are overcast there is a bunch of boat traffic. From the west side of the bay approaching the naval point, I spy no less than seven sailboats sailing in and around Pensacola Bay. There is four more motoring with sails down. A group of three larger boats around 25’ – 30’ race by in what looks like an impromptu regatta. Coming from the east in the ICW is a friendship sloop looking pretty under sail.
Rounding the point and turning west-southwest, Mulsae and the sloop parallel each other. It’s a race! Though a short-lived one as the sloop with its much greater sail area quickly pulls ahead and away. Ah well. A Dovekie is not a racing machine by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily, that is not the reason why I bought one.
From the west comes the twin sails of a schooner. Now that is a pretty sight! Although the mainsail is doused, the mizzen, jib, and staysail full with wind lends to the sailing mystique of these boats. The deck is packed with people, making me think this is one of the handful of charter schooners plying the coast from Pensacola to New Orleans. Indeed, a couple years ago while in a group sail among the Mississippi Barrier islands we saw three of these charter schooners. Unlike those, this one today has sails up and seems to be sailing instead of motoring.
The day moves into late afternoon and I start to get concerned about reaching Fort McRee before nightfall. This late in the year sees the sun setting around 5 pm. With the heavy overcast the day’s light will fade even sooner. Even more concerning is the wind clocking from the northeast and getting lighter forcing me to sail close hauled and lose even more boat speed. Mulsae does not have nav lights (it’s on the list of Things To Do™) and crossing the only bay-to-gulf ship channel within dozens of miles at night seems a bit suicidal.
Taking stock, I figure an alternative plan of anchoring for the night along the Fort Pickens shoreline east of the gulf channel. It would be an easy and short sail in the morning to the Fort McRee cove where everyone else is.
Speaking of everyone else … I bring up the Life360 app on the phone and send a position ping to the MBARB group letting everyone know where I’m at. That Life360 app is amazing and I recommend it to any boating (or other) group. Combining a mapper tracking for participants as well as a group messaging feature, it is great for letting everyone know where everyone is as well as a group communicator as needed. Even better, the Life360 app uses cellphone towers to determine position in lieu of GPS thus drawing a fraction of power that a true gps map tracker would. Ok, ok … I’ll stop the advertisement. Try it anyway. 😉
20 minutes after pinging the group and about two miles from Sand Island/Fort McRee, I see a familiar tug-like looking power boat heading towards me. Yup! It is Pat J in “Half Fast”. He loops around the stern and we chat back and forth. He agrees that I should easily make it to McRee before dark and explains where he and Travis are anchored. It turns out not to be our usual spot along Sand Island but south across the cove on the intercoastal island. He mentions there is a lot of boats in the cove but there is a clear channel to sail in. Before heading back, Pat snaps a picture of Mulsae.
And sail in I must. The low cost Chinese made outboard motor purchased 4 years ago has an issue. In spite of flushing out and storing it carefully after the June sailing trip, I found the lower half seized up just before launching earlier. With no time to spare, I just left it on the boat and hoped to get around to freeing it up this weekend. Ah well. Another item for the To-Do list.
The channel is calm for an easy crossing though I lose the upwind battle and have to tack twice to make the cove’s shallow channel. Pat wasn’t kidding about the number of boats anchored here. Everything from small power boats to 40’ sailboats. Luckily the path is clear and I sail in through the boating hordes here to watch the airshow. Mulsae and I draw a few odd looks, most likely for sailing through instead of motoring like everyone else. With the light wind we stay in control all the way around and to the left to find and beach next to Pat and Travis.
Everyone makes introductions while I get Mulsae settled in and the porch canvas put up. The delightful conversations drift into the evening. Firing up the propane burner, I make a couple bowls of cheese Ramen which goes down well. Unlike normal during sail camp trips my appetite stays big. Yummm! After cleanup I settle on the rowing seat, lean back against the hatch combing with arms resting on the deck, a soda in hand, and watch the start of the nighttime airshow over the naval base.
The night time show is amazing! We watch an acrobatic aircraft team fly formation acrobatics while trailing long streams of sparks in the dark sky. The sounds of big piston engines cross over the bay’s waters as the planes loop, roll, even do a bursting star maneuver that looks a lot like the Air Force Thunderbird’s bomb burst maneuver … all while flying at night in overcast skies! I cannot imagine the sheer skill needed to fly acrobatic formations in the dark. It was VERY impressive.
Capping the evening show is perhaps the longest fireworks show I have ever seen. It had to have lasted 45 minutes with non-stop fireworks rivalling the Fourth of July displays seen over the Potomac River in D.C. Bomb bursts in air reflecting on the water, colorful sparks shooting across the sky, and booms of mortars launching streaks of light into the night. Awe-inspiring to say the least!
Afterwards, we settle in for sleep. Knowing it will be around 50 degrees in the morning hours, I pull out the warmer sleeping bag, pull close the canvas hatch covers, and drop the porch windows. Buttoned up and cozy in the bag, it doesn’t take long until sleep finds me.