The Dry Tortugas

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The Dry Tortugas are a small set of islands and sandbars at the end of the Florida Keys. They are roughly 70 miles East of Key West, and about 30 miles from Cuba, so we really needed to not miss them navigating. I did not want to go to Cuba, and Belize was a long way on the other side.

Almost an atoll,  the islands are a US National Park. The park consists of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, a lighthouse on Laggerhead Key, Bird island, which was connected to Garden Key while we were there, and some sand islands.

You can not leave anything there. No trash, nothing, it must leave with you.

The park has a couple Porta potties, and that is it. No water, electricity, internet, cell coverage, radio, or food of any kind.

We have always said our final goal was the Tortugas, it sounded exotic, and most people don’t have a clue where it is.

The weather lined up for us, wind out of the East at 10 mph Friday, dying to 7 Saturday, 3 Sunday, then 8 out of the West Monday. So it would blow us down there then back, saving us an hour travel time.

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We provisioned and pulled the trigger. Tanks full of 200 gallons of water, 60 lbs. of ice, soft drinks, steaks, bacon, bread, etc. Ice is like gold there, we could trade it for many things.

During the trip the water went from kind of clear ten foot visibility to gin clear 40 foot. Not the Bahamas, Belize, or Bonaire, but close.

As we motored down we passed Key West again, then at 45 miles the last key, Marquesas.

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Rain squalls surrounded us, but it only sprinkled as we out ran them.

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Marquesas seems like a place explore on another trip. I can only imagine how bad the “no-see-ums” are there at night. The island has a lagoon in the center that just might be deep enough for us.

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After that, there are several places it gets shallow, around 10′, which is kind of unnerving when you are out of sight of land. Most have a mark on them to warn navigation, and are maybe a mile wide under the water. Notice the change in water color.

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As you approach you see the light house, then the fort. You must enter the channels and work your way back into the basin. All anchoring must be within one mile of the fort. The numbers are depth at low tide in feet. We need five feet or we run aground.

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Choices is anchored on the far right. The slightly brown area to the right of Choices is one foot deep. Choices was in 15 foot depth there. The little brown beach in the middle of the picture is the dinghy beach, ours is the one to the left.

The tents are for Eagle Scouts that come out here for a couple of weeks at a time. They do volunteer work around the fort, cleaning up, replacing brick, etc. Slightly out of the picture to the right is the public campgrounds, a little more private. Contract workers for the docks and major repairs also camp here or on the workboats.

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It is common to go from 30-40′ to 1-2′ deep in less than half a boat length. The bottom could be sand, coral, or rock.

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We finally launched our new dinghy. It is white Hypalon, with a soft bottom, and rolls up into a package small enough to fit into the lazarette under the back deck. We used our gin pole to lift it onto the bridge. It is comforting having it there on open passages, would be much more comfortable than floating around in a life jacket.

The dinghy has a 5 Hp, 4 stroke outboard that has a small integral tank and a large exterior tank. It is perfect for exploring.

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The wind had blown the sargassum weed into the harbor. It stinks like hell when rotting. When floating, all kinds of critters swim and hide in it. It was pretty thick until the wind blew it away.

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Fort Entrance Video

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This picture is from the top of one of the armory buildings. These are small buildings scattered along the top that housed the gunpowder and cannon shot.

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Panoramic View of Fort Video

It has three levels, a moat around it, and one small entrance.

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It was never finished, and has never fired a shot. Claire doing a readiness inspection…

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You must register to stay at the park. Here is Claire dropping off the form and our money in the box. The big ball is actually one of the bumpers for when the ferry arrives to keep it from damaging the dock, or vice-versa.

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You can ride a high speed ferry, seaplane, or private boat to the island. We have taken the plane before.

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We chose private boat. It had air conditioning, two bedrooms, bathroom, shower, full kitchen, bar, and ice.

Many come by private boat to fish, stay for a night or two and tough it. They just sleep on their boat decks, in the open, no air conditioning, and feed the local bug population. Basically they drink themselves unconscious. The really stupid ones turn all their lights on so the bugs can find them, like ringing a dinner bell….

Harbor at Night Video

Others come just to relax and get away.

Panoramic Beach Video

Claire whipped up some fine dining. We had steaks on the grill, etouffee, crawfish pot pies and everything.

The first night there we celebrated out arrival, and finished the Zafra rum bottle. Zafra is very hard to find, but hands down the best rum I have ever had.

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Sunsets were pretty spectacular, there was no pollution. At night there were only boat lights, no moon, and the stars were thick.

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We snorkeled the old docks and Claire did the moat. It was very clear and covered in coral with big tarpon patrolling it.

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The lighthouse took a beating during hurricane Harvey. Notice the boat barn building broken in half.

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Supposedly this island is owned by the Rockefellers, who lease it back to the government.

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On the way down and back we saw many sea turtles. From the bridge their brown shells are easy to spot, but they spook quickly and dive. Hard to photograph, but here is one Claire took.

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Here is a shark she got from the bridge

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Returning from Tortugas Video

Once back in Key West we refueled and cleaned the boat.

We have decided to put Choices up for sale. Our travel goals have been reached, and currently we have no new ones, that could change though.

Maybe the next posting will be the listing.

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Key West

Claire and I made reservations at Stock Island Marina for the month of May.  It costs $1700 a month, not counting electricity at about $10/day.

The marina is part of the Perry Hotel, a pretty Euro – swank place, more Miami than Key West. But it has a pool, shuttle to Duval, workout facility, and fuel pumps.

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They will also let you ride a hurricane out here.

There is a lot of marina life here. The mullet schools are huge, as I show in these videos.

Mullet Video 1

Mullet Video 2

The mullet are being fed on by Tarpon. This resident is about 5′ long and 100lbs of pure fighting fish. I could almost touch him from the boat.

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There is also a very large manatee that swims near the boat.

Here is a Sea Here Claire spotted from the galley while cleaning.

Sea Hare Video

Combined with a $100 tab every time we go walking, it can get expensive, especially after three rounds……

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This weekend they had a kinetic art parade. Pretty tame by Key West standards. Each entrant’s sculpture must be human powered.

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Claire and I have not picked a time to go to the Tortugas yet. Weather is controlling that time frame.

But for now we have our car, all fluids changed on the boat, and the only thing left is to finish waxing it. Our intermittent AC problem looks to be fixed, and we are currently testing at Artic conditions. So we are chilling, waiting on Jim and Margie, for some serious 8-9pm partying…..

We Made It!

After our slog from Apalachicola to Ruskin, an easy 48 hour day, we needed to decompress in a big way.

We got to Ruskin in time to visit with Nadia and Dean, have dinner, and give them a boat tour. We think Dean enjoyed the engine room the most.

Billy arrived in a couple days from Brussels and we did a few repairs, got our car, and did some maintenance items while relaxing. Before long ten days had gone by.

To keep him company we stayed at his house in a real bed, with a real shower. Cooked steaks and ate spaghetti. It does make a difference.

Before we left we took Billy on a short boat ride and tied up behind his new house. With a few more pilings and some power, I would be comfortable leaving it here.

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After Ruskin we turned South. The boat traffic increased dramatically, the crazies were out in full force.

In the afternoon we were going through Venice and saw fuel for $3.05 a gallon. We turned around and hit the dock at 4:40, and took on 200 gallons. That was how much we had used since we ran from hurricane Nate, LAST year. They cut us a discount down to about $ 2.70 a gallon, and let us spend the night on their fuel dock.  So we had a quick dinner at the Dog Bar and crashed.

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Along the way we passed where Choices was purchased, Englewood, and where the haulout survey was done. We had finally come full circle from the place Stan and I started from.

Going down the Intercoastal we passed Cabbage Key. Seems a kind of neat place, we will spend the night there on the return.

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A little further along an angler was fighting a big Tarpon right in the middle of the channel. All the boats stopped to watch and video it. It shook the hook right at the boat.

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Ft Myers was having a BBQ cook off downtown, unknown to us. It was basically where we were. We walked the town, mailed a package to Amanda, had pizza at Capone’s then got cleaned up for dinner.

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We ended up at the Sky Bar overlooking the yacht basin. See if you can find Choices down there

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We were quickly surrounded by boats passing through going across Florida in the Okeechobee River.

Claire had a hard time looking at abandoned boats. This one had a tree growing out of the side of the rub rail.

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After two days we we’re ready to head South again.

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My crew has a habit of napping, a lot. On the other side of all this water is Texas.

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We had to go into the Gulf, the Intercoastal canal ended, and ran offshore to Marco Island, then pulled into a nice calm harbor surrounded by other boats and multimillion dollar homes.

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The next morning early we departed back offshore and ran to Snake River in the Everglades National Park. We were at the tip of southern Florida, no cell phones, no TV, not even radio chatter. Being the last to arrive we got a crappy anchor set, and had to reset it three times.

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Later that night we had a full moon and dolphin feeding all around the boat. In the morning we pulled out first, and we’re eaten alive by noseeums. They are flying nats that bite like fleas. They covered Claire and I in no time. It took about five miles before the wind carried them away.

All kinds of creatures come to the boat at night. It is white, warm, solid, lighted, and has a ready blood bank available, just what every blood sucking insect wants.

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The only real threat to the boat is crab traps.  These are routinely placed in the path of boaters. The small styrofoam balls are painted different colors, or are covered in marine growth. A rope or wire line attached the ball to the trap on the bottom. These are not small personal crab traps, but commercial units usually made from rebar. You wind one up in the prop and it will take hours to remove.

See that small white dot, it is a trap. Now imagine seeing it at night or in 5′ seas when it is usually under water. There will be twenty of these at a time.

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Or, how about a black one at night….

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During the last day the marine life activity started to pick up the last day. We saw turtles galore, porpoises, bait fish, rays free jumping, Tarpon, you name it.

The further south we went the water changed. Hard to tell but it went from a murky green to a blue at this color change.

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The waves built to 4-5 rollers with 20 knot winds, due south. After I adjusted course we had them on our stern and made and extra 2 mph while surfing downwind.

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That was the perfect speed for the dolphins to play with the boat. I hope Amanda can post the link here so you can watch them. Claire, the dolphin whisperer, is whistling in the background.

Dolphin Video 1

Dolphin Video 2

Dolphin Video 3

After all this we made Key West from the Gulf side. We passed all the boats anchored out, passed Mallory Square, then went upwind in 4-5 foot seas to Stock Island marina. Maybe Amanda can post some video here.
Four Foot Seas Video

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It is very nice here, but very expensive. Next post will give you an idea.

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The Second Crossing

The first time Stan and I came across the gulf, when bringing the boat back, it must have been a fluke. We just decided it looked good and turned West, and had perfect weather.

Claire and I had been holed up at Sun Harbor in Panama City for a week, waiting for a weather window. The people are great, and we love it there, but it was time to explore.

The trip to Apalachicola down the Intercoastal canal is the prettiest stretch of ditch I have seen. It just goes on forever. This time we saw alligators, sturgeon, Tarpon , and eagles.

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We spent two days in Appalachicola and Troy and Debbie stopped by to have dinner with us then breakfast and a send off.

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After the cold front passed we jumped.

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Our entry into the gulf was through Governor Cut. Current was running two knots through it.

It was a great time to go, very calm until the last 8 hours then it turned to crap. Video of this would have been incredible. But it was night with no moon.

About 80 miles out a little bird kept flying around us on the bridge. It got really close then disappeared, so I assumed it landed on the back deck.

Imagine our surprise, when it flew out of the cabin as we went in. Then it flew back in and landed on top of the bookcase.

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I videoed Claire,  videoing it. It stayed the entire night and left the next morning at land. Must have been worn out. Notice through the window how calm it was.

Claire cooked a great leftover dinner; fried shrimp, potatoes, and beans, with Tony Chachere’s on it.

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During the night we were attacked by flying fish. It sounded like baseballs we’re bouncing off the boat. I noticed a smell and some sounds, and flying fish were laying on the floor flopping around.  Three died on deck, four got tossed back while alive. One hit so high up it hit the front windshield and left an imprint. Look right under the horizon, above the railing, and you can see the fish slime.

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The weather and waves were rough enough we ran the boat from inside. I lost count of how many times we submerged the bow. Waves were five feet plus and thirty foot between peaks. The boat would go up one, slam down the back, and then stick the bow in the bottom of the next one. They came in sets of three. These broke lose the toaster, microwave, and rearranged the utensils and pots and pans.

While the Admiral did not blow grits, she did get prone and pretty much stayed in the position.

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After all this we arrived in Tarpon Springs worn out. There was no dockage, so we kept going another ten hours to reach Billy in Ruskin Florida.

Had dinner with Nadia and Dean, then crashed.

Last night had dinner and drinks with Terry and Laura.

Today it rains all day so we will hang around the boat.

We leave here next Thursday.

 

RAIN DAY 4/7/18

Today the boat is getting washed by rain, alot of it.

We will run errands and go have a nice lunch since we picked up the Tahoe two days ago.

Yesterday Columbia backed out of her slip, turned, and headed to St Lucia. We got a group together and followed her to the jetties.

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Last night we ate at Boon-Docks, which we have passed 5 times on the boat.

Shooting to go across the Gulf Tuesday to Tarpon Springs.

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We might consider something like this soon….

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That must have hurt.

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Met two guys; Mark and Hugh, in a 18′ Bayliner inboard yesterday that only have to go from Panama City to Tampa to finish the Great Loop. They can hug the coast where we can not, too shallow.

Trip has taken them 24 years. They are in their late 70s.

CAST-OFF

Finally the day arrived. We had some personal delays that pushed us to a March 21st departure, versus a March 1st departure. At least it was warmer…

The last problem I had, a dripping fuel leak on the genset, may finally been solved by cranking down on the worm clamp, time will tell.

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What a beautiful day it was, about 45 degrees at 6:30 in the morning, building to 15-20 knot winds and 60 sunny degrees. Lake Pontchartrain was 3-4ft, wind was out of the north, right on our butt.  So it was standable with warm clothes on, and the wind gave us a nice push.

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Our goal was Gulfport, MS., about 11 hours for the first day. We met friends there, Cathy Lee and Terry, in their 55 Hatteras.

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We spent two days there in great weather, glad to finally be moving.

From Gulfport we made the next long track to Gulfshores, AL.

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We hit LuLu’s and stayed there two days, and made the boat show at “The Wharf’, where we had stayed before. Boat show was good, lots of eye candy, hard and soft. LuLu’s is dangerous. It is very easy for the bar tab to exceed the slip fees, did for us…

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Our group split up after that, another boat was having some problems, and Terry went to offer guidance. Bob and his wife, from Wyoming, had bought a 35 Mainship trawler, their first boat, and gone through it while in Lake Charles, where they met Terry and Cathy Lee. They are doing the Great Loop, and Bob is on a mission. So they had blasted off to try and make up some time and bent a prop, and couple other things.

Claire and I chose to spend the night on the hook, and found a spot 100 yards off the beach on the bayside, 5 miles East on Pensacola Beach.

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It was a beautiful spot, but we woke to a cold front hitting, 20mph winds out of the East, on our nose, and 3-4 in the intracoastal canal. We slogged it out and tried a different marina in Niceville, Blue Water Bay. We meet one of the owners at the show, and took him up on his offer. Killer spot for the boat, which we left there for a week to run home, wash the house and windows, clean the pool, etc. I could live around here, we will be back.

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From Niceville we hit the the narrows of the ditch, and tied up the evening at Sun Harbor Marina to meet Terry and Cathy Lee, and the staff’ Greg, Chris, Monica, and Race.

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Going down the ditch we got into a heated race with an airboat. He just barely beat us.

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Sun Harbor has super people, a marina that everyone enjoys being at.

Next door is a site of the company Amanda works for, Oceaneering. Those cable reels are at least 40′ high. They manufacture submarine cables for fuel, power, communication, etc. for the drilling industry, navy, and almost everything else.

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This marina is also the home port for Columbia. Google it, just beautiful. I think it cost $49M to build.

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Last night we cooked and Terry and Cathy joined us.

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We are here for our third day, scheduled to leave today but raining as I am typing this.  So looks like a day of catching up on BS projects inside. Most of mine chores are done.

Claire has house keeping duty.

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Getting ready

Last year we parked Choices for the winter.

At that time we picked March as our departure date to the Dry Tortugas. Our plans are to be in Key West in April, and spend two to three months down there exploring the Keys before moving on.

I want to park the boat somewhere very safe by the first of August for hurricane season. Maybe back in Madisonville, maybe at Lu Lu’s, maybe Commanche Marina in St. Augustine.

In case your unaware, castoff is two weeks away.

We have had the boat buffed out and it really looks good. The engines have new oil, filters, and impellers. The impellers are the rubber-plastic blades of the seawater pump that cools the coolant in the engines. As a note the main engine ate about half the blades off it’s impeller, so I checked all the coolers, and it passed all of it. So seawater cools the coolant, oil, and transmission fluid.

We added a freshwater hose bib on the back deck so we can wash the boat and dinghy while at anchor or motoring. So far, water consumption has never been an issue, that may not be the case with a boat wash though.

A problem with the genset has been curred, so we will spend much more time in small romantic anchorages we have marked on the charts. This will save on marina fees and let us work on our tanlines. Several of these look to be very cool, on secluded beaches and protected water.

Looks like when Rich upgraded the battery charger, it allowed the system to overload if the frig compressor kicks on at the same time. So now we just run one at a time. He may have explained this to me and I missed it.

Last on the list is to update the GPS software, load the boat, change the transmission cooler, fix the mast navigation light, and fix the stern light. We will be taking a lot less clothes and using the Tahoe as a portable storage unit. I like Claire in a lot less clothes…

Last year, once we got into Lake Ponchatrain, we burned almost exactly 200 gallons of fuel, ALL SUMMER LONG!

It took about 150 gallons to get from Beaumont to Lake Ponchatrain. While you should not keep your fuel tanks less than full, for many reasons, we pick up speed if we are light on fuel and water. We hold 400 gallons of fuel at 3200lbs. We hold 200 gallons of water at 1600lbs. So we can easily shed some weight.

At an average of $3/gallon for diesel, 1600-1650 rpm, 1.5 gallons/hr., and 8 mph cruising speed, we are very economical. Our personal alcohol consumption expenditure is far more than diesel.

Our plans are:

Bay St. Louis Municipal docks for a night to check it out, it is new and has an interesting night life area.

Hollywood Casino docks for a night for the adult pool and misbehaving

Gulfport Municipal Marina for night, Half Shell Oyster Bar!

Biloxi Small Craft Harbor for night, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Hard Rock Casino

Lu Lu’s Gulfshores for week, maybe two. Too much too list, lots to do here.

Then Florida!

Looks like we have two boats running with us, maybe three. That should make it a lot more interesting, and safer.