The afternoon we got back to the boat from Captiva, Ben’s parents arrived. Gulfport was still chilly and didn’t feel much like FL but there was a huge polar vortex happening in Chicago so we all put on our thin packable down coats and dealt with the stiff FL breeze and on and off rain. They arrived on a Monday afternoon just in time for the Tuesday farmer’s market in downtown Gulfport.
As soon as the girls finished up school work we headed over to the market. Stocked up on some goodies, ate lunch at the crepe cart and then headed to the playground to burn off some energy since it was too chilly for any swimming or dinghy rides.
The girls had just finished up their Cuba unit for school and we were interested in taking a day trip to Ybor City. Ybor City is a neighborhood in Tampa where many Cubans settled years ago. During the Cuban Revolution many Cubans fled first to Key West and then to Tampa when they realized Key West still didn’t have basic necessities. Ybor City turned into a melting pot and built an amazing community. The Cubans brought cigar making to Ybor City.
Ben’s parents and the girls and I headed that way to check it out. We parked in the historic town square. The girls loved all the roosters running around. They commented it felt like Key West. Fitting since many of the Cuban settlers first started in Key West before moving here.
We toured the Ybor City Museum and learned all about the history and culture and what each set of immigrants brought to the table. The museum is set in a 1932-era bakery. We started with an informational video about the settling of Ybor City. We learned that the Ybor City flags represent the first settlers to the area – American, Spanish, Cuban and Italian.
After touring the museum including the bakery exhibits and the cigar making exhibits, we walked around town a bit. We loved the old streetcars that are still running. And we spotted a number of the old buildings we learned about at the museum. We found the Stein building! The Jewish immigrants were merchants – providing clothing more upscale goods to Ybor City citizens.
Ben was able to meet us after finishing work for the day. We decided on Cuban food for dinner. We hesitated on going to the typical touristy place, The Columbia Restaurant, but Nikki’s second cousin was with us and assured us it was the right choice. We had a fantastic meal! The restaurant is huge, but we were lucky to be seated in the original dining room. We had incredibly good mojitos and really great Cuban sandwiches. Topped it all off with perfect flan. We loved our little side trip exploring Ybor City!
Next up with the grandparents was heading into downtown St. Petersburg and going to the Dali Museum. We went two years ago and the girls still remember the self guided tour that is led by Dali’s mustache! So we did it again and enjoyed a new exhibit with Magritte and Dali.
And then….it was finally WARM! The girls and I hopped in the dinghy with Fred and headed to the island. Molly and Madelyn were excited to show him the tree houses and play in the sand with him. It stayed warm and we were able to inflate the paddle boards. We hadn’t used them in months and the girls had so much fun getting back out on them.
I caught a gorgeous sunrise the next morning and then anxiously awaited my college roommate Denise and her husband John to arrive. They have a condo in Tampa and it’s often simpler to get together in Florida than Chicago! We wanted to take them out in the sunshine for a bit so we went to none other then the island yet again. They brought their adorable dog Champ with them so the girls played with Champ and we had a chance to visit for a bit.
Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. My mom joined us and we had a mini watch party with my mom, Fred and Nikki and the four of us. We made lots of goodies and Molly, Nikki and my mom baked a Key Lime Pie for dessert.
Monday morning brought another round of good byes. Fred and Nikki began their drive north. Tuesday Maddy and I flew to Chicago and actually arrived by air just before Fred and Nikki arrived by car. We had a quick 28 hours on the ground – ice storm, cold, and a mini set of braces put on and we high tailed it back to Florida!
We took a quick detour from Gulfport by car to Cape Coral. We were heading to Looperpalooza in Ft. Myers and my mom and Jim rent a condo each year in Cape Coral. So we packed up the car and drove down to stay with them and run back and forth to the conference. It is absurd how full our car was for 5 quick days (school work, swim bag, snorkel gear had to come, luggage, etc). We’ve been coming here for as long as they’ve been renting and the girls know their way around. They were in the pool as quickly as they could get changed!
The next morning we all headed to the conference in Ft. Myers. Ben was speaking on marine electronics and the four of us did a quick presentation on the story of our Loop. As usual, people had quite a few questions for the girls! We love having them involved and getting comfortable with speaking to adults (and a room full of them at that!). After the presentations it was great to walk around the marina and catch up with so many people we hadn’t seen in awhile. We ran the girls back to stay with my mom and drove back to enjoy dinner and the evening with fellow Loopers.
After the conference wrapped up my mom and Jim kept the girls and Ben and I headed to Captiva Island for the weekend. It was great to get away and have a little adult time as we are used to being with the kids 24/7. The weather didn’t cooperate too well however! It was cold, damp and blustery! But in between rain we were able to dart in and out of the car and walk around a bit. We even managed to get a couple of quick walks from our hotel in.
What we couldn’t do outside we made up for with meals. We had a number of good meals, some more interesting than others! We went to this place called The Bubble Room. Unique was one way to describe it. But it had great food, fun drinks and amazing desserts!
On a rainy Sunday we checked out the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. What a great find. We ducked into the visitor’s center and learned so much. Immediately I knew I wanted to bring the girls there when we moved the boat down to Ft. Myers. We sat through a talk with one of the volunteers and learned about the animals living in the estuary. We took the driving tour around the grounds and again decided we wanted to come back….when it was sunny! We darted through a quick path down to the water to look at the mangroves. And we climbed up to one of the lookouts. I can imagine how pretty it must be when not raining. So we look forward to taking the girls and learning new things all over again.
A big thank you to my mom and Jim for keeping the girls so we could have a couple of days away. We picked the girls up Monday around lunchtime and headed north to Gulfport. Ben’s parents were our next guests arriving that afternoon!
The next couple of weeks brought more visitors. First up was a visit from Ben’s uncle Geff. Geff plays oboe in a traveling band that performs twice a year. The group he was performing with played in conjunction with the Sailor Circus in Sarasota.
We learned all about the Sailor Circus history and the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota. In 1927 the Ringling Brothers moved their winter headquarters to Sarasota. The Circus Arts Conservatory pays homage to the circus history. It provides a number of classes and outreach programs to students in the area. The concert was all circus themed music and we all greatly enjoyed it. A different member of the band comes up and directs each song. There were a number of styles of circus music including many well recognized upbeat marches.
Once the concert was finished Geff joined us in the stands while the center ring was reset for the circus performers. We had so much fun watching the gymnasts. Bikes, unicycles, tightropes, gymnastics, hoops, giant swings, etc. I had to hold my breath and close my eyes quite a few times. The girls absolutely loved it. They would beg to take classes there if we lived here!
After the performance we headed back to the boat and cooked dinner for Geff and Barbara. They rented an Airbnb in Gulfport so we got to spend more time with them the next day. We took them to the Cuban restaurant in Gulfport for lunch. The girls had just finished their unit on Cuba and made travel brochures for a final project. They brought them along to show Geff and Barbara as they went to Cuba with Ben’s parents a couple of years ago.
Random picture of a homeschool project. The girls had to design a water filter. They chose to use a double layer of coffee filters, twine and some rubber bands. They gathered up sand, dirt, rocks and some grass to test it out. It was VERY slow but worked really well! The water it filtered through was quite clear. And yet none of us was brave enough to try drinking it. The girls have learned plenty about water filtration over the last couple of years. When we went to the Bahamas they took an active role in testing all of our water when we used the water maker. That water was the cleanest water we’ve ever had. We like to grab the tester here and there and test the water in various cities we are in. Our friends the Zeeffs have our tester right now so we weren’t able to test out the girls’ water!
Next visitors….the Wilsons! They moved from Clearwater to Gulfport for a few days. We were all too happy to meet them at the Gulfport farmer’s market and then take them to….the island! They’d certainly heard us talk about it long enough.
We all gathered at our boat and took two dinghy trips out to the island to drop everyone off. Nina and the first load of girls found a dead pig on the other side of the beach! What?! After my shock wore off I realized likely someone had a pig roast and then left all the remains. Nina gave the girls a science lesson while the other half of us were on our way out. Head. Spine. Pelvis. It was pretty gross and yet cool.
Next up was showing them the tree houses. The girls went from tree house climbing to spending a long time chopping coconuts open. Someone left an axe by one of the tree houses. We were a tad nervous letting them use it but no one lost any fingers. Nina, Wendy and I hung on the beach with Mia while the girls worked away. They were so excited when they broke it open. We all nibbled a tad but none of us actually like coconut that much!
We watched a beautiful sunset on the two dinghy trips back to the marina. While we were at the island Bobby and Ben were working on replacing Bobby and Wendy’s fresh water pump. We got the better end of the deal. Nina kept all of the girls that evening and Bobby, Wendy, Ben and I got to have a date night out for dinner! It was then time for another goodbye. Ben and the girls and I were heading to Cape Coral/Ft. Myers for Looperpalooza and to visit my mom and Jim and the Wilsons planned to leave Gulfport before our return. I was skeptical because of the wind forecast! Turns out I was right…they were still there when we returned and we got one more dinner together before they did indeed have to head south while we were staying put for a couple of months. But we’ll see them again in April when they head north!
We just spent 2.5 months in Gulfport, FL on Boca Ciega Bay. It was our second time there by boat and fourth time visiting. We’ve been lucky enough to stay at Mike and Leann Rowe’s house in St. Pete Beach on Boca Ciega Bay the two times we were not on our boat. And at their marina the two times we had the boat. We settled into boat life there. We love downtown Gulfport. It’s funky feel, it’s fantastic farmer’s market and great restaurants. It’s a less than 10 minute bike ride with the girls to the library where all three of us were able to get library cards. We opened a PO Box so we could easily get shipments of products for Ben for work and some mail. It really felt like home. And since we were stationary we had a lot of visitors! In an effort to keep my blogging from carrying on and on I think I’ll group blogs from the last couple of months by visitors.
The first thing we did after we arrived (and school work was done) was head to the island! Anyone who has come through Guflport has either been told about the island by us or taken there by us. My girls first played there in 2016. They discovered an awesome tree house and had such fun exploring. This year they discovered three tree houses! They were excited to sign their name like so many others. Not a clue why my image is upside down.
Molly is part monkey with her climbing skills and she clambered right to the top. Maddy is a little more cautious and not as agile so I encourage her to just hang with me and only climb as high as she is comfortable. Thankfully she doesn’t try to keep up if she doesn’t think she can. I even let Molly scramble up with my phone and take a selfie. She didn’t drop it…
After some playtime in the sand we called it a day. The pool at the marina was closed the first 5 weeks we were there so having the island to zip out to was wonderful. It was also cold most days the first 5 weeks we were there so it was again great to have somewhere to run and climb and play in the sand when it wasn’t warm enough to swim.
Our first visitors were the Zeeffs! We managed to jam our water maker in our car when we drove back to the boat in December. They borrowed it to take to the Bahamas (we’re glad the water maker could make the trip…we’re sorry we didn’t get to go too this year!). The Zeeffs were docked in Ft. Myers so they drove up to see us the Saturday after we arrived. They brought some warmth from further south with them and we had a great time trekking out to the island with them, hanging out on the boat and taking them into town to O’Maddy’s for lunch.
We were super sad to say goodbye to them as we knew they were heading across Lake Okeechobee as soon as they got decent weather (and the water maker) to make their way south for a Bahamas crossing. So, on a whim a couple of days later the girls and I hopped in the car when we were done with school work and drove down to Ft. Myers to spend the day with them. They were docked on Ft. Myers Beach so we went across to the beach and played in the powdery sand and flew kites.
After some hang out time on their boat we checked out their pool and then headed to dinner before we really did have to say goodbye. Our plan is make our way across Lake Okeechobee and meet up with them on the east coast of FL after they are back from the Bahamas!
When we weren’t driving to Ft. Myers to see the Zeeffs or Clearwater to see the Wilsons we got to see Gabi and John right there in Madeira Beach. We kept super busy our first week in town. Gabi and John have a lovely heated pool so when the sun was shining on Sunday we headed over. Gabi took the girls for a swim and then we took a walk on the beach.
The girls and I also got the bikes out and zipped around the neighborhood and Molly was welcomed into the Grades 6-12 craft night at the library. I was proud of her that she wanted to go. Our girls are the best of friends but they are both often nervous to do anything alone. Molly was excited and didn’t let herself get worked up over it. We had to leave our visit with the Wilsons to make it in time and she was determined. In she went and she had a blast. They made adorable key chains out of clay. They even used a toaster oven at the library to bake them and applied glaze.
We spent two nights in Clearwater so that we could have a day to check out Clearwater Beach. The girls and I headed that way right after school work was done the next day. It was windy but we wanted to give it a try. We settled on one side of the boardwalk and the kids got busy playing in the powdered sugar sand.
Pretty soon a family showed up, walking back from lunch. One of their boys was holding a bag of chips. Immediately the seagulls descended. It was awful. Maddy was terrified. They went away for a few minutes and Maddy went back to playing. We brought a cooler of food as well but made sure not to open it on the beach after that craziness. Maddy had one more close call with one chasing her. She threw her sand toys and dove into the sand hysterical. I felt so badly for her. Molly and I got to her as quickly as we could. We then packed up our stuff and moved up to the playground area away from the beach. The girls had their lunch there and then we tried the beach again on the other side. The beach is supposed to be fun! They went back to playing until more seagulls appeared on that side too. One lady was under attack. She was on a beach chair. She had an umbrella up blocking the front of her and towels wrapped all around her. It is a beautiful beach but we had had enough. We packed up and headed back to the boat.
That was it for us and Clearwater, but we promised we’d come back when the Wilsons arrived. Molly and I took a long walk early the next morning and spotted the boat from the causeway.
Beautiful morning (except again windy!) to move the boat to Gulfport. Mike met us at the slip to help us get settled. Gabi came by next and drove me back to Clearwater to pick up the car. We had a great reunion dinner that night with Tim, Mike and Leann and Gabi and John. All friends from our first Loop. It was great to catch up with everyone! And since we planned to spend at least a month at Mike and Leann’s marina in Gulfport we knew we’d get to spend plenty of time together.
As promised, when the Wilsons got to Clearwater we came back to visit! Twice! The first time the girls and I drove up for the afternoon for a playdate. We took the girls to the beach and spent a lot of time at the playground. We finished off the afternoon with ice cream before we had to head back to the boat.
We were able to make one more trip over that weekend so Ben and Bobby could hang out as well. We headed to the beach for an hour or so and then took a long walk around and ended up at a great restaurant further down on the beach. After walking back to their boat it was time for goodbyes again. But….we knew they’d be coming to Gulfport and we’d get to show them our island and hang out a bit more before too long!
After we left Niceville, FL we had hopes to stop at Shell Island but the wind had other plans for us so we ducked into a protected anchorage called Pearl Bayou for a quiet night. We headed into Apalachicola the next morning. It was a favorite stop of mine on our first loop and I was excited to stop again. The girls still remember how much they loved finding oyster shells and walking around the cute town.
Along the way we passed through the hurricane damaged areas of the Panhandle. Most of the damage was on the Gulf side, not the ICW side, but we still saw quite a bit of devastation. Trees snapped in half. Docks and boats under water. It’s sad how much work it will take to fully recover from the damage.
When we arrived in Apalachicola we were greeted with one of the famous fishing boats there. I find them so charming.
We hopped off the boat and headed into town to explore. We found a neat Christmas tree hung with buoys and other nautical decorations. We explored some of the cute shops we remembered from a couple of years ago. And after looking at a few restaurants, we decided to head back to the new restaurant right above the marina. A sailboat we met in Niceville happened to be docked there. He had already eaten but agreed to come up and join us for a drink while we ate. We started with us and Wilsons so already a big group of 11 (Tim was with us as well). As we were eating, Brian came to join making us 12. And then two other boats arrived who we had been waiting on. Marshall and Judy on Let’s Go and Bob and Sandy on Plumb Fun. We added 4 more to our table and took over that part of the restaurant! We had a fun time and all hashed out our gulf crossing plans for the next couple of days.
The next day we were not in a rush at all. Our plan was for a daylight gulf crossing so all we planned to do was get to Carabelle in time to have dinner and go to bed the next day. So, that meant I had time for a long walk around Apalachicola that morning. I explored parts of town I hadn’t seen before. I found an amazing old cemetery and beautiful old churches.
After my walk I went back and got the girls. We were headed to the old time soda fountain we went to two years ago. Tim joined us as well as Wendy and her girls. We loaded up on ice cream and milkshakes!
Eventually it was time to head back and make our way to Carabelle. Getting out of Apalachicola was no easy task. It was extremely shallow (right around 5 ft) and there were huge work barges in the channel. I could all but touch the barge it was so close as we went past. We also passed another barge carrying sunken or destroyed boats. So sad to see.
We got all settled in Carabelle and caught a beautiful sunset as I walked to the store to grab a few ingredients for Tim. He cooked us his amazing chicken fettuccine alfredo for dinner. YUM! Wilsons joined us and then headed to bed as they were scheduled to leave at 2:30 AM and run through the night and next day, arriving in Tarpon Springs before sunset. We touched base with our buddy boat who we would be doing a daylight crossing with and all headed to bed full of nervous energy.
The next morning brought the usual excitement. Our buddy boat’s engine wouldn’t start. It’s always something! He said he’d check some fuses. Nothing. Ben was anxiously watching the tide and worried about getting out of our slip. The channel was plenty deep, but our slip wasn’t. He also didn’t want to cross without another boat. He and Tim eventually just jumped on the other boat. Ben was in the engine room and Tim suggested finding a mallet and hitting the starter (I may have that all wrong) to get it going. Sure enough that worked and was a relief to everyone involved.
The girls and I gave hugs and said our goodbyes for the day. It was very bittersweet and hard to watch Have Another Day pull away from the dock without us on it. Our plan was to drive our car around the bend and meet Ben and Tim in Clearwater in a few hours. The forecast was amazing. Sunrise was downright magical. I’m so thrilled Ben and Tim had such an incredible ride and a little bit jealous I didn’t get to be there for it.
The girls and I had a wonderful drive. I don’t often say that, as we spend way too much time in the car. But this time we hung to the back windy roads following the water. No interstate. No traffic. Small towns. It was downright charming. We didn’t have to do any of the big roads until the very end of the trip. We pulled into Clearwater and got all set up at the marina and waited for Ben and Tim to arrive. We got our boat tied up and helped get our buddy boat settled and headed to the beach!
They made it!
Backing in to the slip
We’d finally made it to mainland Florida!!! It was warmer. And sunny. And the beach felt AMAZING!!! We watched the street performers and sunset and headed to get some dinner and then all collapsed from exhaustion of the long day.
We finally left Orange Beach! This meant we were on our way across the Panhandle of FL. Next stop was Niceville, FL and Bluewater Bay marina. Ben’s Aunt Janet teaches in Niceville and told me to check out the marina there. It was the most accessible and affordable marina closest to their house in Santa Rosa Beach. So, we checked ourselves in for 17 days! Our plan was to spend Christmas and NYE with family and have some much needed playtime with Judah and Frankie, Ben’s cousin Sarah’s little kids. We tied our lines and bolted for shore. Janet picked us up and drove us to their house. Ben and I dumped the kids in the door and grabbed his uncle Tom’s car and drove all the way back to Orange Beach to get our car. We were exhausted but spent 5 hours in the car getting our car and driving back. Janet fed the kids and then Sarah took them to hear house to play with the kids. Sarah kept the girls until late when we finally got back.
We spent a lot of days relaxing and playing with the little kids. Janet also invited us to her school and gave the girls free reign to go through all her classroom books that she was was getting ready to give away. We cleaned up. We took so many books we won’t need a bookstore for ages!! The weather still wasn’t super warm but Janet keeps her pool nice and heated for the kids so when the sun finally came out the kids were in the water faster than you could say jump. They hadn’t swam in months and were so excited to be in a pool!
We spent Christmas Eve at Sarah and Adrian’s house. Tom and Ben’s cousin Isaac did a huge shrimp boil for dinner. It was delicious!!! Uncle Tom and Aunt Janet took over the reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas this year. Although my kids are hard and fast with traditions so we read it again in jammies back at the boat before bed.
Christmas morning arrived and Santa found the boat! The girls opened gifts and then we went to Tom and Janet’s house again. Tom made us all breakfast and then another round of gift giving began. Ben’s extended family thoroughly spoiled the girls. They (we) are so lucky to have family and surrogate family everywhere we go. We feel truly blessed.
Christmas day was the first warmish sunny day! It felt so good to sit out in the sun and watch the girls play in the pool. Isaac and Adrian took turns throwing my kids in the pool and they had a blast. The kids took turns between playing in the pool all wild and crazy with Judah and the boys, and then quiet time with Frankie.
After Christmas we gave everyone a day or two to recover and hung around the marina. The girls and I rollerbladed and scootered and swam at the marina. The girls found a resident kitty to play with. And we had multiple docktails with Jack and Patty, the local harbor hosts.
We enjoyed a rainy day glow in the dark bowling with the family followed by dinner at an awesome local fish place who catches fish fresh daily. They also used a lot of their new Christmas presents. They made charm bracelets and string bracelets and crystals!
NYE rolled around and we said goodbye to Tom, Janet, Isaac and Judah as they headed to California to visit their other son Tommy and family. We spent NYE at the marina with Jack and Patty and had a delightful time. They invited us to their boat and are the perfect hosts. We stuck around until 10 or so and wanted to get the girls back to bed.
New Year’s Day the Wilsons left Orange Beach and traveled all day in fog to get to Niceville. I kept texting Wendy warning her about how bad the fog was. It wasn’t bad when they left but kept getting progressively worse. We could hear them coming in but it was hard to see much of anything until they were close. It was a happy reunion!!! It had been since Green Turtle Bay since we had seen them.
We had a couple of play days. The middle girls worked on selling rocks and making bookmarks to sell. They played in the sand with the rope swing. And we took a trip to the marina pool again. We had a few great dinners and docktails with the marina crew. And then finally it looked like we had a window to move across the Gulf. At this point our friend Tim (who we met on day 2 of our first loop) came down to join us. The plan was he’d boat with Ben for the crossing and the girls and I would drive our car. Our last day in Bluewater Bay was spent with Ben, Jack and Patty moving our car all the way to Carabelle. And Tim arriving to the boat. We then had a big dinner with everyone as a send off. The marina had become our home for a few weeks and it’s always a little hard to get moving again!
Before leaving Orange Beach we wanted to head to the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum. We planned to stop there for a night by boat but then realized since we now had a car with us it would be a lot simpler to just drive the 45 minutes.
Right when we arrived a trolley tour of the grounds was leaving. We hopped aboard just in time. The trolley took us around parts of the restricted naval base grounds we were not permitted to walk around by ourselves. It was a very cool giant parking lot with tons of old planes. We thought the planes with folding wings were pretty cool. Check it out in the pictures. Our guide was retired navy and flew on I believe 7 different types of the planes and helicopters we saw. It was a slow day for planes in the air but we did get to watch a few fighter jets take off while we were in the trolley.
This plane’s wings are folded up
Once back inside the museum we started with the Main Street USA exhibit from World War II. They learned how gas was pumped and talked about ration books. It’s always a good reminder that we are all very fortunate today.
Planes, planes everywhere. We could have spent an entire day studying the history this museum held. But we had to pick and choose. The Blue Angels are a favorite of ours. We watch them perform most summers in Chicago and two years ago on our first loop we were lucky enough to anchor in Pensacola for their fall air show. During their performance season, visitors to the museum are allowed to watch their practice sessions outside daily. Unfortunately in January they are not practicing. So we had to settle with playing on and climbing in their retired planes in the museum.
After looking around the main building a little more the girls practiced driving a few more planes and then we headed to Hangar Bay One.
I loved this building. We started with the Coast Guard exhibit. A group near and dear to our hearts. The Coast Guard risks their lives every day to keep boaters like us safe. We took a look at the safety and rescue exhibit and Ben showed the girls how the basket is lowered from a hovering helicopter down to a boat or person in the water. Maddy climbed into the basket for rescue. We watched a video of actual rescue footage. And discussed how terrifying it would be to be hoisted up in one of those wire metal baskets swinging through the air attached to a moving helicopter. Yikes!
The girls climbed in a few more cockpits and drove a few more simulators. We moved onto the sobering Vietnam exhibit. And ended with this cute plane painted like a shark.
This is a fabulous, educational, FREE museum if you are in the area!
Our stay in Orange Beach was very short as we had to get back to Chicago. Our plans were to be in Chicago for a month to catch up on work for Ben, orthodontist appointments for Madelyn, Thanksgiving and visits with family. So, we did the dreaded boat packing up, emptied and shut off one of our fridges, and loaded up a dock cart in between downpours. One of the Pensacola Harbor Hosts was generous enough to drive to Orange Beach and pick us up. Unfortunately for a one way rental we had to go to Pensacola for a car. The rental car office in Orange Beach was very short on cars post hurricane. So, she picked us and our embarrassing amount of stuff up and drove us to Pensacola.
That pillow expressed how I felt with all this stuff!
After a 14 hour drive home (11 hours the first day with a quick 3ish the second day) we made it home in time for the girls to make it to their cooking class. We unloaded the car and the fun continued. On top of the unpacking we had the great task of going through 6 weeks of mail and packages. The boxes emptied and piled up were incredible. But just as we were going to take them all out to the recycling the girls asked if they could keep them. With a basement to play in instead of just the boat, they had room to spread out and be creative. They took all those boxes and constructed a box fort! Somehow I don’t have any pictures of it, but they went on to outfit it with blankets and camping lights and toys. Eventually, as a wrap up to an electricity unit in Science, they wired it with lights and a doorbell! We left it as is when we came back to the boat so they’ll have it when next we are home.
After the humdrum of all of the unpacking and mail tasks we took some time to see friends and family. Lunch at the Walnut Room with Grandma Cathy has become a tradition for the girls. While there they mailed letters to Santa. We went to Danville for Thanksgiving and spent it with my (Laura’s) family along with a local wedding celebration for Emily and Josh.
We did some wintery things. We faced some of the white stuff….UGH! Baked Christmas cookies.
Spent some time at the Pixar exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. Ben spent a lot of time on home repairs (sinks and furnaces, plus some trips to the Michigan houses). We had a great Hanukkah/early Christmas celebration with Ben’s family. Maddy started her orthodontist work and had a palate expander installed. We waited two more weeks while Ben turned the device twice a day. After two weeks they told us she needed more turns but it was time we headed back to the boat. We arranged to send pictures of her mouth in a couple of weeks and go from there.
So, we loaded the car once again. We decided to take a car back to the boat with us since we will spend most of the winter sitting still in one place or another. A car is not necessary but quite helpful and with Ben needing to mail things for Yacht Devices most days a car was important. It also would allow us to visit friends and family throughout FL while we are there. Our packing this time was insane. We’d been on the fence for so long about when we would head back that I finally had to start Christmas shopping. We also brought our water maker back to loan to our friends the Zeeffs for their Bahamas trip. Ben had all of his Yacht Devices inventory. We had all of our bags we came home with. Three backpacks with work and school stuff. And three huge bags of Christmas gifts. We had to order a soft sided car top carrier to fit it all. An even more embarrassing amount of stuff than we left with! But we needed it all and off we went. Our Elf even joined us for the drive. And no, Maddy did not get glasses, they are fake.
This trip we stopped at my mom and Jim’s (Laura’s) to celebrate an early Christmas with them. This knocked two hours off of the drive. We were in the car at 6 AM the next morning to knock out all 12 hours remaining. Orange Beach was a welcome sight. So tired of the car we jumped out and soaked up the warmish air. Fresh air, some running around, unloading the entire car, and seeing those beautiful palm trees felt great!
While we were in Chicago a similar amount of packages for Panbo arrived back at the boat waiting for Ben. He was feeling pressure to get back there and started on a lot of Panbo work. I took over the front bedroom as Christmas storage as well as Yacht Devices. It was off limits for dolls and playing until after the holidays! Somehow I managed to unpack and organize bags while Ben tackled the impressive amount of boxes that had indeed arrived.
Amidst all of this craziness the girls and I managed to get out in the fresh air and try out their new rollerblades! They also got to try their hand at ice skating in FL. There was a rink in Orange Beach and they were desperate to try it out. They had a blast but we told them it was a once and done activity as being in FL meant we didn’t have to sit around in the cold!
Before leaving Orange Beach we had a visit to the Pensacola Naval Museum planned. Stay tuned….
Ben was back from his travels to the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show and it was time to get moving and finish this river run! We were all ready to head out with the Zeeffs and Herbons and tackle the Tenn-Tom, but of course woke up to fog. Foiled already and we hadn’t even started. Thankfully we were only going to Midway marina, an easy 3 locks away. We waited for most of the fog to lift and dropped lines.
Before reaching our first lock we had to traverse a 25 mile narrow section called Divide Cut. After the cut we headed through all three locks with no issues. It was fun to have friends in the locks with us. We were in a group of about 9 boats that all pulled into Midway marina together.
After checking in the boys (adult) drank beer in the parking lot. The other boys (kids) played in the wooded area looking for snakes. And the girls (kids) ran around on the huge grassy hill and eventually burned off some energy and about broke the porch swing. We checked out the “pool and hot tub” the marina offered and decided against it. After some playtime we all headed back to our boats for dinner and an early bedtime. Sunrise the next morning would be here before we knew it, followed by another day of locks. We planned to make it through four locks the next day.
We woke up the next morning and headed out despite some slightly concerning wind. We were pretty far back in our line of boats. I think we had 2-3 ahead of us and 1 behind us. We got through out of the narrow channel for the marina and into the main channel. We made it through our first lock and the wind kept picking up. We knew there were storms coming later in the day but we had plenty of time to get to Columbus, MS before those started. Just before the second lock of the day we encountered a barge on the side of the bank just waiting out the wind. We then came into radio contact with another barge coming around the bend. He was calling to Mike on INNTW telling him he was coming around and Mike better move over. But where? There was nowhere to go. The tow driver had an empty barge, making it very hard to control in the wind. Mike inched out of the channel and the barge made it past. But what about the rest of us? George on Livin’ the Dream inched over a bit but it got too shallow for comfort. Ben and the boat behind us held back in what looked like a wider area but the wind and current were making it very hard to stay in the channel. The barge made it past and decided he was done for the day. He pulled over towards the other barge on the bank and ended up kind of crashing into it. The two of them just hung together on the side of the river waiting out the wind. Meanwhile Ben, George and the boat behind us decided they were done for the day. It was about 8:30 AM! Mike and the other boats decided to continue ahead through the lock while the three of us pulled into glamorous Smithville! It was unlike any marina I’d seen before. But they had one long wall with enough room for the three of us boats to tie up. And they were super helpful in getting us through their channel and tied up safely in the crazy wind. We got the kids off the boat, ran around the property and had quite the full day. All by 9:30 AM. By about 10 AM all the wind had died and Mike and Kelly reported the other side of the lock the wind was no more and it was totally fine. They continued on to Columbus and we hung out for the day. When the rain moved in briefly we were happy to have friends. We tackled a huge puzzle, baked scones, played lots of games and had dinner with the Zeeffs. We made the most of Smithville and were ready to go the next morning.
Next up, Columbus, MS. Once the wind was gone it was an easy trip the rest of the way to Columbus. We got to the marina and into our slip just before a “captains’ meeting” to organize the lock schedule for the next morning. We skipped Columbus during our first loop so we wanted to check out town. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a car until after dark. But we and the Zeeffs all managed to pile into the minivan and head to dinner in town. It was a mild night so we took a quick walk around town before heading back to bed. Because once again we were getting up before sunrise. Yawn.
Another day on the water. This time headed for an anchorage. We had a HUGE group heading into the first lock with a full schedule another boater put together of who should go in what order. We stuck together for the first couple of locks and then we were able to split off from the big group a bit. We, the Zeeffs, and two other boats pulled into one anchorage while others moved onto an anchorage closer to the next lock where we would all meet up again the next morning. We stopped in a beautiful spot and hung out on Livin the Dream while the kids hung out on Have Another Day. A good night!
Our sunrise wake ups continued. We were heading to Demopolis. We were all pretty exhausted with the early mornings, chilly temps, and long days. We pulled anchor and headed to meet the others at the first lock of the day. We traveled past the beautiful white Cliffs of Epes. We remember these beauties from two years ago. We also passed the random phone booth that all Loopers spot on the side of the river bank.
Cliffs of Epes
Storms were moving in and we had all been discussing them over the radio. We three “go fast” boats decided to use our speed for a bit and hopefully reach the marina before the storm. The others weren’t able to outrun it and were just planning where they may be to let it pass over. Best laid plans….we got caught right in it AS we were pulling into the marina. It was horrible! We’d been on the phone and radio with the marina and Ben had requested an uncovered slip so we wouldn’t have to lower antennas. I looked at him like he was green. I asked him to call back! It was me who was going to have to get absolutely soaked in the rain we couldn’t even see through to try to safely tie lines. Turns out the marina in Demopolis had another section of covered docks with taller clearance and we fit in those. Phew! We safely got tied up, quickly followed by Zeeffs and Texas Two Step. And wouldn’t you know it…as soon as we were all breathing a sigh of relief the storm was done. All of the boats stuck out in it pulled into the marina to blue skies and sunshine.
We hung in Demopolis and extra day. Ben and George were exhausted and we all needed a break. Since we couldn’t get fuel in that ridiculous rain we took turns the next day untying lines and heading to the fuel dock so we’d be ready to go the following morning. We also took time to walk into town. I took a walk early in the day and found the playground and the library. Those are two top items on our lists for towns! After my walk I went and grabbed everyone else. All 8 of us headed out. While at the playground it started raining of course. Sigh. We took cover under a shelter and waited it out. Then took a lovely stroll through a charming little town.
We found a cool abandoned grocery store and had fun looking around at the building. We all agreed it would make an awesome farmer’s market!
Then we headed to the library. We always love a good library. The kids grabbed books and were all happy to sit and chill for a few minutes. On our way back we stopped by the old fashioned merry go round in the town square area. Back at the marina the kids all painted rocks in the boater’s lounge and then played Scrabble. All in all a good relaxing day.
We were all weary and ready to be done with the rivers. Only three more days! We set out bright and early after our day of rest and headed south to Bobby’s Fish Camp. We stopped two years ago and were not impressed. But the anchorages in the area were not deep enough or wide enough for our comfort so Bobby’s it was. We ended up rafted three deep on the tiny dock but managed to use the full length of our power cords and still have power. Ben and George went to check in but the rest of us never left the boat. It rained the entire time and we all just huddled on our boat with the kids playing and the grown ups playing cards. I think we feasted on frozen pizzas instead of catfish!
Our favorite anchorage from two years ago was up the next day. On our way we passed the remains of the old Rooster Bridge where a tugboat capsized years ago.
We made it back to the Tensas River and it did not disappoint. Tough night though. This was potentially our last travel day and night with the Zeeffs. We’d really enjoyed buddy boating. But the next day we were heading across Mobile Bay and into Orange Beach and they were heading into Mobile Bay to have some service done. So once again with our boating families we had to say “see you later.”
Sunrise was gorgeous. We gave hugs and said our “see you laters” and pulled anchor.
A few hours later we entered Mobile Bay and you could feel the excitement. Two years ago this is when we first started seeing dolphins and we were ready. Ben loves the hustle and bustle of the busy bay. Huge ships. Tons going on. Fishing boats everywhere. So much activity after the very long days on the river. Herbons on INNTW had been docked at the convention center in Mobile Bay and were heading to the Wharf in Orange Beach just ahead of us. We got reports from them on the conditions of the bay. It had been awhile since we’d been on any open water.
The bay was great, and we headed across and saw our first dolphins! We made a beeline for the ICW and made our way to the Wharf in Orange Beach, AL. We were officially DONE with the RIVERS!!!! We made some vows to never ever do that trip again. Although maybe we just need some time for the memory to fade.
In the meantime we squealed and enjoyed the dolphin show off the bow and stern of our boat. We got all tied up in our slip and immediately hopped in a Lyft and headed to Lulu’s to meet up with the Herbons. We were all overjoyed to be in the ICW and off the rivers. The kids played for hours in the sand. We enjoyed hanging out and chatting. It was a great night.
We were thankful to have safely made it down the rivers. It felt like ages since we left Chicago and we were tired. We knew we only had a couple of days before we had to pack up and head to Chicago. But it was so good to know we wouldn’t have to get up at sunrise and move the next morning! Time to relax a bit. This was a long one. Thanks for reading!