In the spring and early summer of 1999, Sally and Vaughan Mitchell made the round trip from their homeport of Aransas Pass, Texas, to Destin, Florida, and back on Kate, their 42′ LRC. This is the second of four installment in the series of this account of their cruise.
In 2002 Cindy and Mike Neumann purchased “Kate” from the Vaughans and she is now cruising the east coast as “Double Adventure”.
After lazing about New Orleans for over a week I began to wonder how long one might live on French bread alone. Maybe it was guilt that drove us the 24 miles across Lake Pontchartrain to Slidell on a morning so calm it was like skating across a sheet of glass, the auto pilot holding the straight course as we assumed an almost spectator-like role. A light fog traced the shoreline, and with no other boats in sight it was beyond surreal.
We stayed in Slidell catching up on chores for a couple of days before continuing east. Marinas are like cities and towns. In New Orleans the people encountered on the dock, while not unfriendly, seemed intent on preserving their anonymity, while at Slidell it was impossible to avoid conversations with your neighbors.
Mississippi Sound lies about 85 miles along the southeastern coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and southwestern Alabama. We left Lake Pontchartrain through The Rigolets (narrows) and entered the Sound on a breezy day. It was not wonderful. Choppy seas are easy to take if we’re headed into them, but beam seas or following seas can keep the helmsman hard at work and mostly they were on our starboard quarter. We were happy to reach Pass Christian, MS, and go off watch.
Our three ports of call in Mississippi — Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi — were pleasant to delightful. Long established as resort communities each had an abundance of lovely homes from antebellum to Victorian to traditional Southern to contemporary. Biloxi lays claim to being the nation’s second oldest (to St. Augustine) city, and we had dinner at Mary Mahoneys in an eighteenth century building shaded by a 2000 year old live oak. Their veal smothered with lump crabmeat was fantastic. The sauteed shrimp and crabmeat was merely excellent.
The world’s greatest Harbormaster is in charge of the municipal facility at Gulfport. As we entered his harbor and made radio contact we knew instantly we had reliable hands awaiting. He gave clear directions on how to find our slip, asked if we wanted to dock bow first or stern first, how we wanted our lines arranged, and told us which side the wind would be on. He and an assistant took our lines and connected our shore power cord. D. J. Ziegler, a native son, received an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee, loves classical music, old buildings, boating, and had previously been Director of the Parks Department. With so many common interests we were bound to click.
After lunch, D. J. drove us through Gulfport, Biloxi, and Ocean Springs checking out points of interest including other marinas before leaving us at a grocery store, returning later to take us and our provisions back to our boat. The following morning he appeared with newspaper and treats from the local third generation bakery. We weren’t even surprised to find they were our favorite pastries: cream cheese and blueberry. This is a guy who just instinctively gets things right. We left wondering how long we might live on pastries alone.
The weather during our last three days cruising the Sound was just what you would order up if you could. Dolphins entertained us at regular intervals, and one group in particular
had an act they must have perfected for the “All Sea World” competition. Perhaps they had read the homeport on our transom, and wanted to show off their pink bellies, feeling superior to
their Texas cousins. The Sound ends as you reach Mobile Bay and the eastern end of Dauphin Island, where we spent the night at an unremarkable but secure marina.
Mobile Bay is roughly the same size as Galveston Bay, but unlike it and all of the other Texas bays, has no barrier island protecting its mouth. Fortunately it was a calm day and we had an easy crossing. We spent the night at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Orange Beach, and at the marina grill enjoyed the great hamburgers supposedly made famous by a Jimmy Buffet song. It was a funky kind of place. First built in 1932, it had been modernized in some ways, but damage from the past storms had not all been repaired. It would have fit right in at Port Aransas about thirty years ago, and we felt a sort of nostalgic fondness for the place. The water is noticeably clearer.
We reached Palafox Pier Marina in Pensacola the next morning, several hours ahead of predicted thunderstorms. We were happy to be secured in a slip, but rocked and rolled all night in the 32 – 47 mph wind. The next morning I noticed that a 43 ft. Bertram sportsfisherman on the opposite side of our fairway was crosswise in its slip because one of its bowlines had chaffed
through during the night. Fortunately it sustained only minor damage and even luckier there was no boat next to it. This is a new marina, opened only a few weeks before our visit, and has all the latest amenities, but several deficiencies. The electric service is a scant 215 volts, the cable TV does not include the Weather Channel (!?!), and the seawall design permitted a substantial sea surge to penetrate from a rough Pensacola Bay. After four days of inclement weather we made the easy 44 mile cruise to Ft. Walton Beach.
We reached apogee in the crystal clear blue water just offshore from Destin at 0915 on May 9, two months to the day (and almost to the minute) from when we left Aransas Pass. The curvy North Channel leading past Destin into Choctawatchee Bay really does have the whitest sand imaginable, and the beautiful emerald green inshore water dazzles the senses. But. The Florida panhandle is known locally as the “Redneck Riviera”. Fitting. The “no wake” concept really hasn’t caught on here, and our slip in a marina at Ft. Walton Beach, unprotected from the waters of Santa Rosa Sound, was as rolly as Matagorda Bay on a bad day. Well, on a sorta bad day. The beaches have become so packed with condos that they are spilling over into Alabama and those trees that have survived the intense Florida development appeared to have suffered a lot of damage from recent hurricanes. Of course, if you really need a T-shirt this is surely the place to come.
We turn back to the west, retracing our course. The Alabama shoreline, where it hasn’t been Floridaized, is so much prettier with its mix of pine, oak and blooming magnolia, although the water isn’t quite as nice.
At Biloxi we found ourselves at Pt. Cadet Marina during the annual fishing tournament. No fewer than one hundred boats began leaving at 0530 and we heard later that an 54 pound kingfish won the $65k first prize. We had supper at Beau Rivage, the newest and most lavish of the casinos lining the Mississippi shore. Glitz as art. The attractiveness theory, which holds that the more attractive a locale is the more rapidly its beauty is degraded by further development, is hard at work here.
Back in Gulfport, though not immune to casino contagion, we felt more at home. Perhaps it was the couple from Morgan City walking past our slip who paused to ask about our boat and cruising plans. Before they left we had their phone number and a promise of assistance if needed when we pass through there again in a few weeks. Or the couple on the 40′ Hatteras motoryacht a few slips away who stopped to offer us a ride to the grocery store and stayed to tell of the virtues of their homeport, Madisonville, Louisianna. The world of cruising boaters is a small one, and we had not talked long before discovering mutual acquaintances. I believe that the center of Southern hospitality is located somewhere between Lake Charles and Gulfport.
We were not strongly motivated to leave Gulfport. D. J., whom we’ve confirmed with several others since our earlier stop here as deserving our designation as the world’s greatest harbormaster, continues to leave the morning paper and a fresh-out-of-the-oven sampling from the local bakery early each morning. We had a great time poking about the area in our rented car and continued to meet engaging people. The young Rector at the Episcopal Church in Pass Christian did his best to help us find my great great great grandmother’s grave, though to no avail. She was still a young woman when she was killed in the 1819 hurricane — fortunately for me and my progeny her 10 year old son survived.
We really had to force ourselves to move on. We wanted to see Madisonville.