This column is the first of a three-part series of a boating trip that Elliot and Joan Free took in and around Florida on their boat, the St. Joan.

By Elliot Free

Special to The Cullman Times

Joan and I have boated from the mouth of Mobile Bay east to Yankeetown, Fla., which is on the Withlacoochee River. We had dreamed of boating south from Yankeetown to Ft. Meyers and crossing Florida through the Okeechobee Waterway, but as many dreams are — you wonder if they will come true.

Last fall Joan started talking seriously about not getting any younger, and that she did not plan to ride in a truck with me pulling 9,000 pounds of boat when I am old and feeble. Was I going to plan the boat trip around Florida or not, because she had marked out the last half of February on her calendar? I like an ultimatum when it is planning a boat trip.

Yankeetown is located about 60 miles north of Tarpon Springs on the west coast of Florida. It was going to be an more than 500-mile boat trip around to St. Augustine. We selected St. Augustine as our destination because it is the shortest drive across Florida back to Yankeetown where we would leave the truck and trailer. I made a two-week itinerary and a 10-day float plan for the boating part with a page for each day.

The weather was checked for temperature to decide what clothing would be needed. By the time we had our clothes, gear and bedding, the cuddy cabin was about full. With truck and boat loaded, we pulled out of Cullman in a cold mist heading for Yankeetown 510 road miles away. We found out later that Saturday afternoon, Cullman received snow.

After an overnight stop in Perry, Fla., we arrived at Yankeetown with wind in the forecast and a freeze warning as far south as Okeechobee. The temperature does not bother me as much as the wind. Checking with the Coast Guard station, we were told that the wind was forecast to be 20-25 knots and seas north of Tarpon Springs were to be up to 10 feet for the next day. This is too much for a 26-foot boat, so we just hunkered down for another night at Izaak Walton Lodge on the banks of the Withlacoochee River.

Two days later the wind calmed somewhat and the seas were forecast to be 2 to 4 feet, we were anxious to go. Around 10 a.m. we pulled away from the dock on the river. With idle speed and manatee zone signs, it took an hour to get to the last marker before turning south towards Tarpon Springs and Anclote Key, which is the northern end of the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway.

Our planned stop for the night was Tierra Verde Marina at St. Petersburg. The many manatee slow wake zones began to worry me as to whether we could make our destination by sundown. I called the marina and they told us where to dock and see them in the morning. We did arrive after sundown but before dark, tied up to the floating dock and hooked up to shore power. A ceramic heater was purchased in Yankeetown for the predicted freezing temperature as we were sleeping aboard. However, with three comforters, a blanket, sleeping in sweats, we were snug as the proverbial bug in a rug. This marina has a nighttime restaurant and a morning coffee shop on premises — we took advantage of both.

Our next stop was Cabbage Key, 80 miles south. Cabbage Key is a barrier island on the west side of the marked channel between the mainland and the Gulf of Mexico. Cabbage Key is about 100 acres with a historic inn and cottages. The front porch of the inn is atop an Indian shell mound. There are no roads or cars so arrival is only by boat or seaplane.

It is reported that this is the place Jimmy Buffet wrote, “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” and cheeseburgers are on the menu. The only items for sale are food and drink so bring whatever else you need, including a flashlight. The Dollar Bill Bar and Restaurant has a reported 70,000 one-dollar bills attached to the walls and ceilings. During the year every dollar bill that falls to the floor is donated to charity $10,000 donated last year.

We stayed at the inn. When I was told we had room No. 6, I asked for the room key. They have no room keys with everything being safe, but if one is concerned, the inside of the door has a lock when you are in the room. After watching from atop of the water tower, Ole Sol had set on the Gulf and we had a truly delightful dinner. There are no phones, Internet connections or newspapers. Cabbage Key was delightful and we wished we had planned several days to really disconnect from the world.

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