Cruiser's Notebook: Snowbird Special
By Cyndi Perkins
The hounds of winter are howling up north.
Back home on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, where 150-200 inches of snowfall
is the norm, northern sailors can only dream of next season—and pray that
the ice breaks up sometime in April.
We feel blessed to be warmly welcomed here in Tarpon Springs, Florida. This
west coast town a few miles up Anclote River off the Gulf of Mexico is a
favorite. As is the case with other snowbird boaters and cruisers traveling
America’s Great Circle Loop, reaching Tarpon Springs required an
approximately 160-mile passage from the northern panhandle of Florida down
the Gulf of Mexico. There is no inside Intracoastal Waterway passage so
“going outside” is a must. Boats with a shallow draft may choose to make
several dayhops around Florida’s Big Bend, stopping in places such as
Steinhatchee and Crystal River. Chip Ahoy’s 5-foot draft doesn’t allow for
that. Our passage would take 25-27 hours, with arrival timed for daylight so
that we could see all the crab pots lining the approach to Anclote River.
|Shelling with Bonnie and Jerry at Anclote Key. The
power plant building that serves as a long-range landmark of sorts for
the Anclote River channel and adjacent anchorage, may be seen in the
After waiting six days for an appropriate weather window—and stuffing
ourselves with fresh oysters—in Apalachicola, Florida, we departed out of
Government Cut without incident. In certain tidal and wave conditions this
Gulf inlet can be a real bugger, so we made it a point to check conditions
beforehand with the friendly staff at Scipio Creek Marina. The forecast
called for northeast winds of 10-15 knots switching to northwest and
diminishing late in the evening. Three-to-four foot waves were expected to
flatten to 1-2 foot seas in late evening, with a slight chance of occasional
Many boaters wisely gang up for overnight passages. Our traveling companions
were Canadians Doug and Helen Hill on the sailboat Misty Blue II and
downstate Michigan sailors Del, Kim and daughter Amy Launsburry on Sea Wolf.
This overnight would be a first for all of them and they were understandably
a bit nervous. After reassuring Doug and Helen that “it doesn’t get any
better than this,” we phoned the Coast Guard in Clearwater to double-check
the forecast for where we were headed. Conditions were expected to be even
warmer and calmer in that sector of the Gulf.
Dolphins followed us out to the sparkling turquoise waters, a nice change
from the muddy brown ICW. Waves were two feet at most throughout the day and
well past the gorgeous sunset into evening. We were able to sail under full
main and headsail for a couple of hours, then the wind pooped out. Through
the night the headsail occasionally came in handy. Splats of rain came
through as predicted, but temps never dropped below 50, so we were quite
comfortable. Scott and I both overindulged in strong coffee after supper,
and it messed up our watch schedule. We both were hopped up and unable to
sleep soundly. Throughout the night the three boats hailed each other on
marine radio channel 17. We had company—eight trawlers that had left
Carabelle—about 10 miles down the way from Apalach—were also monitoring 17
during their crossing. The lively radio jabber entertained us throughout the
night, especially when Scott and the powerboats started teasing each other
about the respective merits of blow-boats versus stink-potters. The wave
motion built somewhat and turned snarky in the wee hours before dawn. We
were able to alleviate some of the uncomfortable motion by using the
headsail as a stabilizer. The trawlers arrived at the Anclote Key entrance
too early for essential visibility and were forced to turn into the 3-5 foot
waves and run back the way they had come while waiting for daylight. We were
all glad for the dawn. The crab pots weren’t as profuse as the last time we
visited. We would later discover that the industry has taken a big hit due
to high fuel prices, a storm-altered sea bottom and a localized red tide
that has dissipated but left a virtual dead zone in its aftermath. There
were still hundreds of the obstacles to avoid. The long lines from the
markers to the traps can easily foul a prop. Pouring rain made spotting a
challenge. The brief deluge eased as we entered Anclote River Channel and
motored into the reliable power plant anchorage adjacent to a nice municipal
park with a boat launch, swimming beach and other recreational amenities.
Dolphins, flipping mullet, osprey, pelicans and egrets served as a welcoming
committee. After securing the hook and donning dry clothing we slept, rose
for dinner, then slept again, waking refreshed on a sunny, dry morning.
|Preparing to ride back to town in ’Lil Bear. The whaler
’Lil Bear has a special pedigree, as it was willed to Bonnie by her dad,
who owned and operated the well-known Brennan Marine in Bay City,
While underway the day before, we called Tarpon Springs City Marina to find
out if there was room for Chip Ahoy. Phoning ahead is a must, as there are
only seven transient slips. There are a number of marinas along the river,
but as far as we’re concerned the city marina, right on the Sponge Docks of
this charming Greek town, are the place to be. We adore Harbormaster Roy,
whom we came to know well during our last stay in 2003-2004. Commander of
the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, he is a knowledgeable and gallant gent who
made us feel at home right away. Misty Blue followed us up the river past
the bustling waterfront restaurants, shops, fish markets, fashion boutiques,
sponge boats and shrimpers, with piped-in Greek music providing a cheerful
background sound for all the action. We’d alerted Doug and Helen to the
“joys” of docking here. The first order of business is lassoing lines to the
pelican poles. Once that is accomplished—sometimes easily, sometimes not,
often with an audience—it’s time to throw lines to shore. For many vessels,
docking stern-to-shore makes it easier to get on and off the skinny finger
|Drying out (and gloating over) our shell collection
back at the marina.
Roy’s cohort and new harbormaster Ted proved to be a delight. He often is
asked if he is Greek, as one often hears Greek spoken here, but the
accomplished mariner’s Old World accent is actually Polish. We were also
impressed and amused by Alicia, who handles weekend marina duties
beautifully and professionally. On the days she’s not working at the marina,
you may see her bartending at Marker 25 tavern on the river or crewing on
one of the charter fishing boats that operates out of the city marina.
Be prepared to eat very well in Tarpon Springs. The bakery is to die for.
The young man at our favorite National Bakery always brings us a warm loaf
from the ovens. Scott has to ration his baklava, one of the many traditional
super-rich desserts enticingly displayed along with wool, finger and yellow
sponges, chamois, seashells, loofahs, traditional clothing, jeweled sandals,
linens, fragrant olive oil soaps and all manner of both upscale and
fantastic-plastic tourist trap fare. Yes, this is a shopper’s paradise. And
once you’ve had your fill of Greek food at Santorini’s, Hellas, Costas, Mama
Greeks, Mykonos or Opa! there are other dining options. Bally Hoo’s does an
excellent job with Key West style cuisine. Our dining favorites also include
the Cuban or Grouper sandwich with yummy garlic fries at the funky, artsy
Lime & Coconut, which also features live music on select nights.
|Christmas dinner with boating friends, including the
Boschard Albert family.
You can ride off the calories on the city’s excellent biking trail (bike
rental shop nearby) or take a walk through the historic downtown area, where
there are antique shops, an Irish pub, the friendly Tarpon Diner serving
excellent breakfast and many lovely period homes. Follow the signs to Spring
Bayou, where several manatees like to hang out and munch seaweed at high
tide. The bayou is also home to one of the most moving religious ceremonies
we have ever seen. Epiphany is celebrated on Jan. 6 each year. The 2006
ceremony was particularly special, as it was the centennial of the Tarpon
Springs event, believed to be the largest Epiphany observance in America.
For the centennial, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, His All
Holiness Bartholomew, traveled to Tarpon Springs from Istanbul, Turkey. His
duties included blessing the sponge fleet and presiding over services at St.
Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. His most important job, at least in the
eyes of the crowd of 50,000 gathered at the bayou, was the tossing of a
hand-carved cross into the water, where 53 local teen-age boys awaited on
small, tippy rowboats. They would dive into the chilly water in hopes of
capturing the cross, said to bestow a lifetime of good luck. The tradition
is a commemoration of the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the
Jordan River. For some of the boys it’s also a family tradition and rite of
passage dating back many generations. Because of the many dignitaries in
town, security was extremely tight, with water, helicopter and land patrols,
including police spotters atop tall buildings. But nothing marred the
majestic proceedings or the massive Epiphany Glendi, Greek for “happy
party,” that followed. Visitors from around the world flocked to the food
tents and stage area where traditional music and dancing carried on into the
late hours of the evening and resumed on Saturday. Other special guests
included the massive, high-stepping Budweiser Clydesdales parading down
Dodecanese Avenue along the Sponge Docks.
|The trolley is a fun and inexpensive way to see the
sights in Tarpon Springs.
During our stay we also took a friend’s Boston Whaler out to Anclote Key,
where incredible seashells await picking at low tide on the Gulf side. Our
new Tarpon Springs buddy Sunshine, who fishes off her boat Sundancer with
partner Ed, suggested the side trip and promised we wouldn’t be
disappointed. What an idyllic morning! The sun was warm on our backs as we
crouched low to hunt delicate Sand Dollars, Florida Fighting Conch,
pink-plaid Sunray Venus, Lightning Whelks, sea-polished Lettered Olive
shells and a plethora of cockleshells abundantly sprinkled on the sugar-sand
beach. With care to collect only unoccupied shells, we gathered a bucketful
of beauties to send back to our snowbound friends in upper Michigan.
|Notoriously unstable boats await Epiphany cross divers.
The two-week limit on stays at the marina ended all too quickly. Our only
consolation is the knowledge that we’ll return … and that further adventures
await as we make our way south to the Keys.
|The procession back to St. Nicholas Cathedral marked the
start of two days of family togetherness, fun and feasting.
Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with
husband Scott aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. Cyndi will
be sharing top boating destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s
Notebook” feature. Comments, suggestions and questions may be directed to
her at email@example.com
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