Gulf Of Mexico Crossing

Ambler Isle
V and S
Fri 10 Jun 2011 13:33
June 7-8, 2011
Today we make the longest passage of the trip.  30-32 hours nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico 160 miles.  
We lifted anchor at 5:30am and by 6am were steaming out the Johns Pass Inlet to the Gulf of Mexico.  The first thing we noticed was that the wind was stronger than predicted.  Last night we'd checked the weather and the forecast was light and variable winds 5-10k with 2' seas.  The morning wind was already 16k.  There was also a 2-3' swell out of the SE that was not part of the forecast.  So it was rougher than we expected.  We decided to continue on.  We had several options:  Apalachicola 160nm away,  Panama City 216nm, or Destin 253nm.  Although the farther destinations added hours to our non-stop passage, it cut many miles off the trip.  If the seas had been as predicted, we might have gone all the way.  But as it stood, we would aim for Apalachicola, and if weather permitted, we'd go a bit farther to Crooked Island, just 16 nm east of Panama City. 
We'd prepared sandwiches, cole slaw, and a pot of chili for the crossing.  We would nap during the day and the night as well.  The night shifts are about 5 hours long.  We would plan a hot supper at 6:00pm, then Valt piloted the boat while I nap.  Then I would be on watch from 12am-5am.  The daylight trip was less structured.  In previous crossings, we saw little traffic, occasionally a few shrimp boats.  The radar alerted us to anything on the water.  Our new Standard Horizon was equipped with AIS, a collision avoidance tool that showed all commercial vessels within 15 miles range. 
The wind settled down as we went along to 7k out of the NE.  The swell pushed us from behind creating a "following sea."  While it was a comfortable direction for us, it did make the autopilot work harder.  Valt started the second engine to help.  The swell seemed to calm a bit, also.  As forecast, the wind waves were minimal.  Valt set out 3 fishing lines and soon caught 10 fish.  Mostly skipjack tuna and mackerel, he did land one small mahi.
The seas continued to calm, and about halfway, we changed course to head for Crooked Island, a point between Apalachicola and Panama City.  Uninhabited, it was a nice anchorage and we could go ashore and beachcomb for shells.  A narrow island, we could cross it easily and swim in the Gulf side.  We fished, enjoyed the day.  After supper, we picked up a NOAA weather channel.  Bad news, the 3-4' waves due in Wednesday afternoon would come after midnight and be 3-5'.  Along with the 3' swell this would make a rolly ride.  We decided to switch our course back to Apalachicola and to speed up, hoping to be nearer our destination before the winds picked up.  We ran 4 hours at higher speed.  When we finally reached the Government Cut at the entry to Apalachicola Bay, the winds were over 20k.  A thunderstorm had formed directly over the cut.  Tide was rushing in at full tilt.  The narrow channel was lined with rock walls.  But, when the rains subsided, at just the right moment, Valt sailed Amber Isle through to the Bay.  It was protected there, and tiptoeing around the numerous shoals we found our anchorage just off the channel in 12' of water.  A couple of shrimp boats were anchored a mile or so from us.  We'd completed the last of the long passages for this trip.