PART 3 - THE GULF
January 16th - Day 27
The Gulf of Mexico at last! It could not have been a better day to start this new phase of the journey. Gentle west winds made the 19 mile crossing to Cedar Key seem easy, the sun was obscured by clouds and temperatures were mild all day.
As I paddled past the last island on the river mouth, however, I got a taste of what’s to come as I head down the west coast of Florida. My rudder began to scrape the sea floor, which continued even after I was over a mile from shore. The tide was receding, and I was concerned I might get stuck. I put my hand under the hull and estimated that the depth was about a palm deep but filled with rocks. I pointed the boat out to the horizon towards the deeper water, and for about 10 minutes I repeated a mantra out loud, “Please no oyster beds, please no oyster beds, please no oyster beds.” I escaped without issues but there will be a lot more of these shallows from now until St. Petersburg.
I was approached by a pod of dolphins. They followed me for about 15 minutes, breaching the water almost close enough to touch. They must have been curious about this elongated fish with black a belly, huge golden dorsal fin and tiny flippers. I paddled hard to try and outrun them, but they easily kept pace with me, and eventually left me in the dust.
Cedar key is a more touristy version of Suwannee. The waterfront reminded me of St Marys; there are shops, restaurants and lots of people out on the street.
I’ve been a bit spoiled lately. Of the past 3 nights, I have slept in a bed on 2. Today is the third time in 4 days. A front is moving through and soon it will get cold and rainy. I may have to take a rest day to wait it out.
January 17th, 18th, and 19th - Days 28, 29, and 30
January 17 - Day 28
The weather has decided where I’ll be tonight. It’s Cedar key. This morning I intended to get a very early start. I left most things packed the night before and got up well before dawn. A little after sunrise I was ready to go with everything packed in the kayak on the beach. There was just one problem; the wind shifted to the East of Northeast and was blowing with strength. The forecast called for 10 to 20mph winds; but to me it seemed to be closer to 25 to 30mph, or more. I felt hesitant to get going. Could I make 20 miles with this head wind? I was aiming for a boat ramp on an East of Southeast bearing, however, with the drift I would have to aim at least due East to get there. I felt uneasy. While I pondered what to do, a couple on their morning stroll walked past me. “You’re going out in that?” said the man with amazement, I didn’t know if he meant the kayak or the weather.
“I’m deciding if I should.” I replied not sounding at all confident I knew what to do.
“It looks rough out there, but with a pro kayak like that, you must be an expert. You know what to do.” He said as he walked away. Being called an expert did not fill me with any confidence; If there was one thing I wanted now, it was expert advice, even if it was to tell me what I already knew.
I decided to give it a go. "I can turn around at any time and ride back with the wind," I thought. I cleared a path on the sand from the shells and rocks, got a smooth push off into the water and set off.
The start was easy. I headed East and paddled nonstop. I could see I was making some progress against the land, but eventually as the land dropped back it became very difficult to gauge how far I’d gone. The waves got bigger, the headwind got stronger, and everything looked the same whichever direction I looked. Head waves are even worse than head winds. They are not consistent, sometimes conditions were smooth, but every so often a big set would hit me and completely kill the forward momentum. The worst, however, was that it eventually became impossible to know if any forward progress was being made; I would look at the horizon time and again, and it would look just the same. Did I move, or did I not? The uncertainty really wears down on the mind.
After about 3 hours the inevitable came to pass. I had to pee. I kept one of my wide mouth water bottles under the bungee cord inside the cockpit for this exact reason as there would be no place to stop in the crossing. However, with the waves rolling in and crashing over the deck, pulling open the spray skirt was not a wise thing to do. I pointed the boat downwind, to try and be more stable, but that immediately began to give away all the distance I had fought so hard for. Relaxing enough to do it in the bottle in these conditions was impossible. I peed in the kayak. When I looked back towards Cedar Key, the futility of my efforts became apparent. I could still read the letters on the town's water tower plain and clear. I checked the GPS, and in 3 hours I managed to cover just 4 miles. The decision was not if I should keep going, but when I will want to cut my losses. Better not be a gambler who tries to win it all back as he plows deeper into the hole, I thought. I started to paddle back, and in less than 40 minutes I arrived at the boat ramp I landed yesterday.
Perhaps if I didn’t have all the gear to carry, or if the winds were Northeast rather than East of Northeast, I might have had a better reach and made it. But turning back was the better choice. In the afternoon the head winds increased even more, and it was even hard to walk on the street, let alone paddle. From the look of the forecast the winds will only change to the North on Monday, so I’ll spend the weekend here.
January 18 - Day 29.
Winds were light, there was bright sunshine and it would have been a great paddling day; however, the north wind is pushing a huge cold front ahead of it, forecast to hit tomorrow. I am not keen to sit a whole day inside my tent in some remote boat ramp with the rain pounding hard and the temperature dropping to near freezing.
I had some housekeeping to take care of. First, I washed my kayak at the hotel swimming pool early in the morning when no one was around; it’s always a good idea to take the salt off the boat whenever possible, especially off the hinges that keep the sections together.
Second, since Amazon couldn’t deliver the air mattress, I’ve decided to try and fix the one I have. I filled it with air and dipped it into the bathtub to see if there were any punctures; there were 5 pinpricks which were almost invisible. This really angered me. I’ve only used the mattress inside the tent, and the tent has a footprint to protect the floor from sharp rocks and twigs, but it seems that even the slightest edge is enough to puncture this mattress. I bought a stick of superglue and cut a few clips from the foot of the shower curtain to use as a cover for the holes. I’m waiting for the glue to harden now. Fingers crossed it will work.
Third, I concluded after looking at my shirtless self in the mirror, that I have lost a significant amount of weight. The Michelin tires around my waist are all gone, and when I lay down, I feel as though a chunk of my stomach has disappeared. I think I lost 15 to 20 pounds and there are still some 400 plus miles to go. These two land days I plan to eat like a bear stocking up for hibernation. I had breakfast at a place that served fried pepperoni rolls with mozzarella cheese and pancakes and honey, enough saturated fat to give a normal man a heart attack on the spot. Then for lunch I ate a double cheeseburger and a fish burger with a side of fries. And for dinner I treated myself to a generous portion of steamed gulf shrimp with a blacked grouper and mashed potatoes. I think I’m past the 6000-calorie mark for today.
I’ve walked through almost every street in town. There were a few things that are of notable interest. I found a small museum that had a huge cast iron crucible from the Civil War used for boiling sea water to make salt for meat preservation. The bowl was 5 feet wide and 4 feet deep and would have sat on a huge fire pit burning some two dozen tree trunks. It would have been a witch’s favorite Christmas present.
The museum was built in part with donations from individuals and organizations. It had a pathway through the grounds where the bricks were inscribed with names of countless donors. Some bricks just had names, others said they were in memory of someone, and some had well wishes to dead relatives. However, a certain David Puzzo was disliked by another individual called Fran Augello who wrote on his brick “I’m with Stupid,” and put an arrow pointing to David Puzzo’s brick. Perhaps they were business rivals, or had a falling out over a woman, or maybe Fran Augello was someone who even in death couldn’t help but pull a random prank for all eternity. We will never know.
The local cemetery has been around for well over a century. Some of the folks buried here were born in the 1800s. There isn’t anything particularly striking about the individual plots; most are just simple plates, but the odd thing is the cemetery shares the space with a frisbee golf course. Every so often there’s a sign that reads, “watch out for flying disks.” I suppose space is tight when you live on an island, but it would still be awkward to hit someone on the head with a frisbee mourning over their dead relatives.
I’ve resupplied my food provisions at the local supermarket. Lately while paddling, my dinners have been canned sardines marinated in Louisiana hot sauce, canned Vienna chicken sausages, and canned pasta from Chef Boyardee. Here, however, the supermarket was stocked with something I had missed since day 4; canned tuna in tomato sauce. Every time I saw it for sale it has been the type that requires a can opener, which I did not bring with me, but here they had the easy peel can type. I’ve bought as many as I can carry. The boat might be a little heavier than usual to wheel it back to the ramp.
Tomorrow I have another full day in town. With the rain I might be confined a bit, but perhaps there are other places to explore.
January 19 - Day 30
I think could have gone today. The front moved through early morning, and by early afternoon the sky was clear with a gentle breeze from the west. It would have made the 20-mile crossing easy, but I felt inertial to change plans a second time. Tonight, I will leave most things in the kayak to save time and be on the water by first light, even if it’s near freezing as the forecast indicates. I’m about 50 miles behind where I should have been by the end of today, but there are enough days to make up, if the weather helps.
I’ve been to enough restaurants in Cedar key to conclude that all the establishments on the waterfront are tourist traps. The views of the water and the pelicans are enjoyable, but the food is subpar. However, a few streets in I found a place called Tony’s that although it has no outward attributes made a fantastic fried fish sandwich, and great shrimp cocktails. It was full both at the lunch and dinner hour, which is a great calling card for a restaurant. I’ll pay them a visit a third time for dinner.
I think my patch work on the air mattress has worked. This morning I pumped it full of air and it seems to be holding firm. Hopefully it lasts until the end now.
I feel like I have been here for ages; last Thursday and my days on the Suwannee River seem like a long-ago memory. I think time passes by more slowly when you’re confined. I am hoping for excellent conditions tomorrow. If things are good, I will try to go 50 miles to a marina on the Weekiwachee River, or if three is enough daylight up the same river to a place called Mary’s Fish Camp. I called in and let them know I might be there late in the evening. If that doesn’t work, not then then I’ll stop at the mouth of the Crystal River near Homosassa, that would still be a respectable 34 miles so either way a full day. I'm concerned with how low the tides can get and with having to be several miles off from shore to avoid the shallows. Hopefully the boat channels will be well marked.