Post #37 -INCREDIBLY AWESOME – Day 189, November 9, 2014. On board: Jake Mycofsky, Paul Coates, Jim K.
Panama City, where we arrived on Tuesday after a 50 mile run, was a complete surprise – I expected a significant-sized city, but in reality it is no bigger than a medium-sized town. Buildings along the main downtown street are virtually all only two and three stories high, and the downtown area is not very large. The city also felt a bit like a time-warp, like it was still the 50’s or 60’s. On the other hand, there were only scattered vacant storefronts on the main drag, so the downtown area seems to be surviving. Here are some images from our visit to Panama City:
Our next stop was Port St. Joe, Florida – and we re-entered the Eastern time zone! Port St. Joe is a tourist town that seemed to have an unusually large number of antique shops, along with some other tourist shops. A couple of pictures:
In the first section of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway heading east from Mobile – between Mobile Bay and Panama City – the Intracoastal runs directly behind barrier islands and the scenery is dominated by dunes, sand, and beaches. After Panama City, the waterway turns inland a bit and large sections follow rivers and dug canals – the scenery in these sections is dominated by lowland forest along the banks of the Waterway. Here are some images along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway:
Our next stop was Apalachicola – what an interesting town! My first reaction biking around town was that it looked like it was built 15o years ago and then time stood still – nothing changed. A closer exploration, however, reveals a town with a storied waterfront/port town history which has managed to evolve with changing times but also holds on steadfastly to its roots and its authenticity. While it accommodates tourists, the fabric of the town and its people is fishing, seafood, the river, and the Gulf.
The town is located where the Apalachicola River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, which is one of only three navigable southern rivers that flow to the Gulf. The town grew quickly based on the shipment of cotton from Alabama and Georgia – in fact, the town was first named Cottonton before it was renamed West Point, and then Apalachicola. The cotton was loaded onto shallow-draft boats to be taken to ocean vessels anchored offshore, then onto ports in the North and in Europe. The first cotton shipment left town in 1822, and by 1840, up to 160,000 bales each year were being shipped and Apalachicola was the third largest cotton port in the US. As a result, Apalachicola was the first Gulf port that the Union Navy blockaded at the outbreak of the Civil War. While some shipments made it out by blockade runners, the shipment of cotton diminished drastically and never really recovered after the war, partly because alternate routes had been established and partly because of inefficiencies due to the shallow water in the river and the nearby Gulf which prohibited the use of larger ships. The railroads then ended the cotton-shipping business in Apalachicola, since they provided a faster and cheaper method of shipment. The town then reinvented itself by turning to the lumber industry. With an ample supply of cypress and pine trees from Georgia and Alabama, lumber mills were constructed in Apalachicola and prosperity returned. In addition, the sponge industry grew to be a lucrative business in town. Sponge harvesting boats would set out from town for a month at a time, carrying 12-15 foot dinghies, each of which were manned by two people – one slowly moved the boat forward with a paddle while the other scouted the sea floor for sponges using a wooden box or bucket with a glass bottom to peer into the water. Sponges were brought to the surface with a long-handle, 3-pronged iron hook. By 1895, there were 16 sponge-harvesting boats operating from Apalachicola along with processing plants on shore. Early in the 20th century, Greek businessmen came into town and introduced the harvesting of sponges by divers attached to umbilical cords for air. This method was more efficient. and was adopted over time by the local people as well.
However, as the 20th century unfolded, the sponge industry declined due to foreign competition and the growing use of artificial sponges, which were much cheaper. Worse for the town, by around 1930, the lumber supply had been depleted, so the lumber industry declined rapidly as well. Once again, however, Apalachicola reinvented itself again via the seafood and fishing industry. Apalachicola oysters are renowned as some of the best-tasting oysters in the world, and are featured in restaurants and fish markets throughout the south – in fact, Apalachicola supplies 90% of the oysters consumed in Florida and 10% of those consumed in the entire US. The harvesting of Gulf shrimp is also a thriving industry in town.
Today, Apalachicola has many great restaurants featuring fresh fish, shrimp, and oysters offloaded from the boats daily, as well as an assortment of antique shops, galleries and gift shops. However, the shops do not dominate the town as they often do in other places, and the town retains some of its grittiness and authenticity. It appears that an artists community is starting to take hold as well, which adds diversity to the town.
Here are some images from our stay in Apalachicola:
By the way, we have really become ice cream snobs. One of us (the guilty shall remain unnamed…) was looking in town for an ice cream parlor, but instead came upon a place that only served gelato. This person bought some gelato, and started to enjoy it as he walked down the street. Three stores later, he came upon a real ice cream parlor. What would you do? This unnamed person discarded the gelato and bought an ice cream. A true ice cream snob…
So – our trip has been incredibly awesome for us so far, but that’s not what the title of this post refers to. When we visited the National Navy Museum last weekend, we learned that the 2014 Homecoming Show in which the Blue Angels officially return to their home base in Pensacola would be this weekend. We were only 4 hours away by car, so I rented a car Friday evening and set the alarm for 5:00 AM on Saturday morning. As luck would have it, Jake needed to get the airport in Panama City on Saturday morning, which was on the way to Pensacola. I therefore dropped him off and arrived at the air show by 9:30. If you’ve never been to a Blue Angels show, I suggest you put it on your bucket list. They tour the country, so will likely perform somewhere within driving distance of wherever you are within the next year or two. In any case, I found the show to be Incredibly Awesome:
The next leg of the trip will be one of the more challenging segments. The Gulf Intracoastal, call the Big Bend, is interrupted by about 175 miles of open water where the coastline of Florida bends in a southeasterly direction as it transitions from the panhandle to peninsular Florida. There are two possible approaches to this section – one is to “cut the corner” and go straight across, usually from Carabelle to Tarpon Springs. Fast boats can complete this crossing in daylight and do it in one day. Slower boats must undertake an overnight passage of up to 20 hours, leaving in the morning or early afternoon and arriving in daylight the next day. The alternative is to hopscotch along the coast, going into various harbors along the way. However, there are challenges with this route: First, the harbors along the way are located up rivers, some as much as 22 miles off course or up a river. Therefore, the hopscotch route adds over 100 miles to the Big Bend crossing. Second, the water is very shallow throughout the area – channels are narrow, and some have only 3 1/2 feet at mean low tide – and that’s IN the channel, with shallower depths if you wander outside the narrow channels. Therefore, trips have to be planned to enter harbors on a rising tide, after mid-tide has been reached. This is problematic, since the runs tend to be fairly long and there is only one rising tide cycle during daylight hours per day.
So – all that being said, there are some interesting places to see along the Big Bend route and we really don’t want to stay up all night and do an overnight passage, so we are opting for the “hopscotch” route. Depending on weather and tides, it will likely take 5-10 days, but it should be quite interesting. We’re on our way to Carabelle this morning.