Backwater Environmental Escape Rendezvous - 2007

by Ron Hoddinott

"Are y'all ready for some Jumbalaya?" Cajun John Roddy called out to the assembled captains and crew of sixty-some trailerable sailboats on the front porch of the Pensacola Shipyard Marina Complex. Boy, were we ready! The line formed quickly and heaping helpings of beans and pork jumbalaya was spooned out by Cajun John and his eager GRITS helpers. GRITS stands for Greater Regional Interstate Trailer Sailors, and they've been doing this for several years now. I was lucky enough to attend in 2005 and again this year. The BEER cruise this year started as usual in Pensacola. On the first day the entire fleet sails to Juana's Pagoda in Navarre Beach. Then on Sunday the fleet sails back west to Quietwater lagoon, and on Monday to Mosquito Lagoon or Sand Island near the swiftly running Pensacola inlet.

On the docks this were every kind of small trailerable sailing craft you could imagine. The smallest was the diminutive Guppy 13, Moxie, sailed by Mich Henshaw, while the largest were several MacGregor 26 X boats featuring all the comforts of home. Seven members of our West Coast Trailer Sailing Squadron made the trip from their homes to Pensacola this year. Bill Fite and myself with our SeaPearl 21's, Paul Waggoner with his SeaPearl Tri, Dave Barnicoat and Ed and Becky Combs with their West Wight Potter 19's, and Ted Jean with his Hunter 19 Milk and Honey. Friends of the Squadron were also cruising with us on the BEER this year. Alan Russell with his Potter 19, Joy, Mark and Pam Gutschalk with Belle, their Sanibel 17, and Travis Votaw with his B & B Princess 22, Pilgrim. Along the way we made many new friends this year, including Bob Horan with his Morgan 24 Linda Jean, Mike Miller with 1/2 Pint, his Potter 15, Jim Stumpf with Primrose a new No Frills 15 that he'd just completed, Steve Haines with his cute Seaward Fox, and many others.

"Welcome to the BEER Cruise folks! It ain't a race, so y'all can leave when you feel like it tomorrow. Just be careful and enjoy yourselves. We'll party at Navarre tomorrow night," Cajun John reminded us during the impromptu skippers meeting while we all enjoyed his Jumbalaya. After a long day of driving, it didn't take much for the squadron members to fall off to sleep Friday night. A couple of obligatory beers was all it took for me before I crawled into the tiny cabin of Whisper and fell into my bunk for the night.

Saturday morning the WCTSS group woke up early, and after grabbing some morning coffee from Paul Waggoner aboard his SeaPearl Tri, Wing-It, we noticed that Ted Jean, Dave Barnicoat and Ed and Becky had already cast off for Navarre! The three SeaPearls soon followed suit. Outside of the Marina Complex we found excellent conditions for sailing to the east and southeast. A northwest wind of 10 knots was blowing! With all sail set the SeaPearls soon caught and passed the Potters and Hunter 19. Bill and I sailed around and off in different directions to keep from getting too far ahead. Up ahead was the bridge from Gulf Breeze to Santa Rosa Island. This year we had the current and the wind with us, and after waiting for a large barge to come through, we were able to sail right on through to the bridge.

Now we were in beautiful Santa Rosa Sound, with high sand dunes on the mainland side to the north, and white sugar sand beaches to the south. For several miles there were houses and condos to the south along the beaches, but before long we spotted Range Point where the condos ended and a long stretch of empty beach began. This is what we'd come to see. Bill and I headed over to the beach for a swim, and we radioed the other WCTSS boats so they could come join us. The water was warm and inviting and it was a good place to rest and wait for the rest of the fleet to sail under the bridge so we could get some good photos of the event.

Before long we spotted the majority of the BEER fleet starting to come under the bridge, and we made ready to sail out to greet them. The winds were beginning to pick up after getting lighter, and now the wind was coming from the southwest, which is a sea breeze in these parts. I placed Whisper where the largest number of boats would sail by and put her in a hove to position sailing backwards at about 1.5 knots. This gave me a good vantage point to capture photos of all the trailer sailors passing by. As soon as the majority of the boats went by, I jibed her around and started the stern chase. It is said that the stern chase is a long chase, but it didn't take Whisper long to catch up to the fleet and before long the three SeaPearls were leading the pack once again. Travis Votaw's Princess 22, also a cat ketch was doing quite well at the head of the other boats. Ed Combs called on the radio, "Hey look at that! The first four boats are all cat ketchs!"

In all honesty, the conditions were just about perfect for the SeaPearls. They love a broad reach or a run, and we were getting one! Near the head of the fleet was SaraLee, Craig Gleason's Stephenson Vacationer 19, flying 4 sails including a gaff topsail. Suddenly the topmast came tumbling down and she started to drop back. Fortunately Craig considers this mast an expendable spar and will have no trouble replacing it when they get home.

The 26 miles to Navarre were suddenly disappearing rapidly as our speed increased along with the sea breeze. A towering thunderstorm to the east was also increasing the westerly component of the wind. Whisper's speed increased steadily until we were making over 7 knots. To add a bit of excitement a fleet of beach cats were racing in the sound, as if to put us in our place. They zipped by with crews on their trapezes at what looked like 20 knots! The storm up ahead started to light up the black sky with long horizontal strands of lightning. The timing of the thunder coming closer to the strikes. Bill was right behind me in MoonShadow, and we were both wondering if we were going to make it to the anchorage before the storm hit. It was definitely coming our way! Stopping to reef or even put on a rain jacket was out of the question so we just surged into the anchorage at 8 knots, and zipped around a corner into the shallows just as the first rain drops started to fall. We got our Bruce anchors set and zipped up our convertible cabins.

Further west the scene was chaotic . Tom Potter's Catalina 250, "Knotty Cat" was reported to have been knocked mast down in the water by a micro-burst during the storm, but most just anchored in place and limped into the anchorage under power after the storm passed us by to the south. When the WCTSS group finally straggled in and anchored nearby we all took off down the beach to Sailor's restaurant for a few hearty beers and something warm to eat. The county rock music that night emanating from Juana's beach bar wasn't that bad, but we mostly enjoyed it from a half mile away in our shallow cove.

On Sunday the plan was to sail back west to a beach area near the big bridge called Quietwater Beach. I have no idea why it has that name, because there always seems to be loud music playing there. But they do have a large enough beach for us all to find a place to anchor, and that's where the BEER headed on Sunday.

For the Squadron that meant a long 16 mile beat to the west. The wind was mostly southwest, so we would make long port tacks along the shore, and then short starboard tacks back to the south. The wind started out light, but increased as it had the previous day. We were taking a well deserved swim break during the morning, when we spotted another SeaPearl tacking toward us! The owner's name was Dave and he's only had his SeaPearl for a few months. He was retiring from the Air Force in a few months, and was trying to learn as much as he could about his boat. When we left the beach he sailed with us for quite a while before heading home. Ted Jean in "Milk and Honey" was ranging out in front this day, having left earlier and used his motor when the winds went light. He was looking for Big Sabine Point for another rendezvous point for us, but didn't have any official charts, and couldn't find it. Ed and Becky in Minnow were trying to help Ted, but before he knew it, he's sailed five miles past Big Sabine Point and was at Quietwater Beach!

Paul and Bill and I stopped at Big Sabine Point on the eastern side and went ashore. It provided a quiet cove for shallow boats, and would have been a great stop, but the restaurants of Quietwater were calling and we decided to push on the last five miles. As I sailed carefully into the anchorage, Shane Wallace, one of the original GRITS members, put his hand on Whisper's gunnel and said appreciatively, "These darned SeaPearls are really amazing!"

Quietwater wasn't quiet. The bands were loud and got worse as the afternoon and evening went on. The gang found a seat at Flounder's restaurant and managed to get fed pretty well. The beer flowed freely in the anchorage. Ed and Becky moved out to a quieter spot, but the sun and wind had taken its toll on Bill, Paul and I and we elected to stay right where we were for the night. It wasn't a good move. The grunge bands gave way to a rap band which groaned and thumped until 2:00 AM.

Monday was another day of heading east toward Mosquito Cove near Pensacola Pass. Once again the WCTSS gang ignored the marked channel and skirted the beautiful sugar white sands of the barrier islands. Fort Pickens, a civil war fort, sits out on the end of the island overlooking Pensacola Pass. We gradually made our way to the fort picking up speed after a swim break when we began to feel the effects of a strong outgoing tide. We all stopped for about an hour at the fort of take a walk, and get a good look at one of the largest brick forts in the United States. Sadly I read that it was built by slave labor in 1834 and many of the black slaves died in the process of heat exhaustion and malaria. But standing on the ramparts gave a good view of the last few miles of our trip for the day over to one of the biggest dunes I'd ever seen. I'm not sure if Sand Island is a natural dune, or the result of dredging the channel, but it makes a great backdrop for an anchorage. And that's where all the BEER boats anchored, stern to the beach on Monday night.

Monday afternoon and evening was the finale of the BEER cruise, and a lot of friendly socializing took place. Paul cooked his famous chicken casserole for us, and Ed and Becky, Dave and Ted cooked steaks on beach grills. We climbed to the top of the dune and took in the view. Sixty six Beer cruisers (by their count), and dozens of other large and small cruising boats crowded the anchorage, but there was no band to intrude this night. Only the soft sounds of small travel guitars and singing around a campfire. Pam and Mark brought out their weedwacker powered blender, several bags of ice, bottles of tequila and mixer and made margaritas for whoever wanted them! What a party! John Roddy had reminded us that the BEER was inspired by the founder of the Trailer Sailor Website, Doc Hansen, who died a few years ago. And many a glass was raised in his honor this night at Mosquito Cove.

Tuesday morning everyone was up early to see the Navy's Blue Angles practice. It took place right on schedule from 8:30 to 10:00 with many of their flights screaming right over our heads on the island. Although difficult to catch with our cameras, the sights and sounds will never be forgotten.

Afterward, everyone began to raise anchors for the sail back to Pensacola and a hot shower! Ed and Becky had to go back, and Ted decided at the last minute to beat the fleet and took off as well. That left Bill, Paul, Dave and myself to ponder our next move. We'd talked about taking a few more days to explore to the west, and we did sail to the end of Big Lagoon about four miles away. We stopped at a state park and inquired about getting some more ice. But they didn't have any, and the wind was really strong out of the west. We climbed an observation tower and looked toward Alabama. We could see the towering condos in that direction. The sand dunes to the east beckoned and we decided to go with the flow and head east. Our first thought was that we'd stay another night at Mosquito Cove, but surfing downwind at 8 knots was too much fun and we continued on toward the Pensacola Shipyard docks. Once past Sand Island however, we found ourselves bucking a very strong outgoing tide. The following seas built up until Whisper was surfing. The bow was rooting around in the next wave while the stern teetered on the brink of a broach. We were running wing-on-wing with main and mizzen on either side. As we rounded the Naval Air Station, I had to jibe the mizzen over to starboard and keep her on her feet in the treacherous conditions. I was dragging both leeboards to slow her down, and was still making 8+ knots over the bottom against a 2 knot tide. It was one of the scariest moments I've had aboard Whisper, but she came through unscathed.

We found the entrance to the Pensacola Shipyard Marina Complex using the GPS and swooped on in. Rounding up to the inside of C dock and lowering the sails was a great relief after an absolutely fantastic sail topping off a fabulous weekend cruise. We celebrated that night before heading home the next morning.