June 2017

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On Tuesday, we were to receive the paddleboards we had attempted to rent the previous day and return to St. Andrew's State Park. Bobby had found a highly rated Mexican restaurant in the area that opened at 10 for lunch, so we planned to grab a bite to eat there and then head over to the park. We had a catamaran cruise scheduled that evening and had to be at the marina at 5, so we actually were working on a schedule for once. (Usually, our schedule more or less matches the sun: When the sun starts to set, we come off the beach and get supper.)

Of course, we showed up at the restaurant, and they were closed. Allow me a brief grouse about places that make changes and don't update their websites. Seriously, folks, as someone who has managed a website for eight years now? It's not that hard. Bobby found another lunch place that was supposed to open at 10. We drove out, found it ... and they were also closed because this was the day they were having a new stove installed. We were both grouchy at this point. I made a snarky remark about just going to someplace I invented in my grouchiness called Happy Jack's Happy Flappy Flapjack House. I just ... don't like breakfast. Well, I like Bobby's breakfast, which has been carefully honed over many years to my tastes. I don't like dessert, so why would I want to eat what amounts to dessert at the beginning of the day too? We ended up at a Waffle House because it is one of the few places that has breakfast that I like: a peanut butter waffle (with no syrup for the love of all things holy!) and a double hashbrown with cheese, onions, and jalapeños. When this is the biggest blip in your vacation, you're doing alright.

We headed over to the park, and Bobby called the stand-up paddleboard (SUP) rental guy. Within ten minutes, he was pulling into the park with the boards strapped to the top of his truck. So the day was looking better already.

Bobby mentioned wanting to try SUPing about two years ago, when we saw people doing it in Ocean City. At the time, the joints in my feet were so swollen and painful that I wanted to weep for the thought of standing on a board and trying to float across water on it and them by extension. I made up my mind that I would miserably have to endure it for Bobby's sake. Well, thank goodness that chapter of life is behind me. I was actually able to enjoy it--it was quite a lot of fun!

St. Andrew's State Park is located at one end of Panama City Beach. In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Gulf-Bay Pass to allow for shipping traffic to pass between the Grand Lagoon and the Gulf of Mexico. On the west side of the channel is St. Andrew's State Park; the east became Shell Island, which I'll say more about when we go there. Several rock jetties were built, which on the St. Andrew's side, block most of the effect of the surf and create a very calm area for swimming ... or learning to SUP, in our case!

Looking from the beach on St. Andrew's at the jetty. Beyond the jetty is the shipping channel, as will be seen in one of the pictures to follow. The calm, flat water was perfect for trying SUP for the first time.

St. Andrew's Jetty photo IMG_2258_zpszi5q5lhh.jpg



Here are Bobby and me at the start of our day, before getting soaked.

Dawn at St. Andrew's photo IMG_2253_zps4ll4tn6f.jpg



Bobby at St. Andrew's State Park photo IMG_2255_zpsravinwwb.jpg



We took our boards out into the water and sat on them until the water was somewhat deep. (In the area we were in, you can stand in the water except right around the furthest jetty.) Then we cautiously stood up. And both of us fell off dramatically within the first few minutes! Bobby fell off a couple of times; as he noted, all three board sports he does (snowboarding, surfing, and longboarding) require standing sideways, so facing forward felt very weird! I fell off once more after that; there is a point where the jetty is mostly underwater, so some small waves make it over from the boat traffic in the channel, and one of them threw me backward onto the board and into the water back-first. I had the presence of mind, thankfully, to blow hard through my nose as I fell to keep from getting a head full of water.

Me on my SUP, looking very intense in my The Universe swimsuit and John Lennon glasses.

Dawn Paddleboarding photo IMG_2266_zps3m9cbfo8.jpg



And Bobby, with a huge ship going by in the channel just behind him. So, yeah, the channel is right there. (The SUP guy told us to stay out of it, and this is probably why! I have visions of myself trying to paddle away from the enormous ship bearing down on me!)

Bobby Paddleboarding with Ship photo IMG_2262_zpsxmrbyq3j.jpg



At first, the SUP was understandably awkward. You're standing on a board, bigger than a surfboard, but still floating atop the water and subject to all its capriciousness. After a while, I relaxed into it. I even mastered going over the small waves where the jetty failed. The water was so clear that I could see schools of fish swimming beneath me. At one point, I sat down on my board and paddled from a lower center of gravity, because there were a lot of people and not everyone is smart about yielding to the person tottering awkwardly on the SUP, and the SUP was easier to control when sitting on it. All of the sudden, about twenty silver fish leaped in unison, sparkling in the sunlight, from the water around me.

After our first turn on the SUPs, we got our snorkel gear and swam out to explore the jetties. I haven't had my gear on since scuba training many a year ago. Bobby and I have been at the verge of being open-water certified for years now. We initially decided, after a disastrous attempt in a freezing-cold quarry in the area that we couldn't complete because a small headcold gave Bobby excruciating pain in his ears when he went more than 10 feet (3.3 m) under, that we would hold out for a warm-water location. And then we became poor. Miraculously, Bobby managed in those years to not sell on eBay any of our [hella expensive] equipment that we purchased while training, so we still have it. When I put on my mask, the smell of it? Ho boy. That brought back a stew of powerful memories and emotions. Scuba training was exhilarating most of the time, but it was also the only time in my life that I've had a bona fide panic attack, 9 feet (3 m) underwater, watching Bobby half-drown himself trying to scuba without a mask on, and then it was my turn. I was usually--we were both usually--so calm during training that the other students commented on it. We practiced in the pool at our apartment with each other. I still remember practicing the deliberately calm and graceful action of swooping my arm along my side to recover a lost regulator, holding my breath, with 9 feet of water over my head. I refused to panic at being weighted underwater, having lost my air source. I was proud of my practiced calm, and my pride took a hit: Swimming without the mask unmanned me. Water shot straight up my nose; I hadn't realized how much air I took in through my nose, even when breathing through my mouth. I thought I was going to drown and shot for the surface with no notion of grace. I eventually did it, in the pool stage of certification, after standing in the shower, night after night, running water over my nose while I breathed through my mouth; swimming with just the snorkel--no mask--in the pool. I dreaded doing it in the open water, and that's still ahead of me, since now that we're not poor anymore, we can again pursue finishing our certifications. All of this came back with the smell of that mask.

The snorkeling at St. Andrew's was supposed to be good. I had my doubts: It's a rock jetty, and the fish I'd seen in the water so far, while numerous, weren't particularly impressive. I am pleased to say that I was wrong. I ducked under the water at the jetty and immediately spotted a silver-and-black-striped fish about the size of a salad plate. The fish were beautiful and many-colored; giant urchins gripped the jetty rocks far underwater--here, the water was very deep--and a school of silver fish about a foot long each darted from out of the rocks and let me swim with them a ways before scattering. I'd forgotten how wonderful it was to swim and breathe underwater.

Eventually, I started seeing a lot of jellies and decided to head in. I wish I hadn't; I think they are the same harmless kind that wash up on the beach in Ocean City. Bobby stayed out, and there were multiple scuba groups doing open water certifications, and no one had any issues. But once I started seeing them, I couldn't see anything else, and not being familiar with the wildlife here the way I am at home, I took the safe route and regret it.

We went out on the SUPs one more time before the guy came to pick them up. Now I was really feeling it and made several circuits of the area without having to sit down to navigate turns or over small waves. It became a very meditative experience, feeling the motion of the sea beneath my feet, and I fell asleep that night still feeling as though I was being rocked by the water.

Our initial plan was to return to the hotel to freshen up before the catamaran cruise. But neither of us wanted to leave the beach. I looked a wreck; my braids had come undone while snorkeling, and my hair had dried in all sorts of wild curls. Bobby went out snorkeling one more time, and then we went up to the bathrooms, and I attempted to, as I put it, make myself not look like something that washed in with the tide. Because I did look rather crazy. I washed my face to get the salt and sand off and finger-combed my hair with some fresh water to tame the worst of the springy curls. I always wear a bandana to the beach, so thank goodness, that covered the worst of it, and I twisted the rest into a braid over my shoulder.

While waiting for Bobby to come back in, little shorebirds came down to forage for leftover food from the day's beachgoers.

Shorebirds photo IMG_2362_zpssggap8aw.jpg



The marina where we'd get the catamaran was a short drive from St. Andrew's. While we were boarding, most people were cramming themselves onto the bench seats on either side of the boat, but the captain announced that it was comfortable to sit at the front edge of the boat and dangle your feet into the nets. Bobby and I didn't have to be asked twice! We also got a free drink. Bobby had a Land Shark, and I had a sangria. Appropriately enough, Jimmy Buffett's "Boat Drinks" was playing as we drank them and watched the water zip past under our feet.

Paradise Adventures Catamaran photo IMG_2268_zpsx58cbwdl.jpg



Sailing Out photo IMG_2267_zpskeck3shl.jpg



Sailboat from Sailboat photo IMG_2289_zps00ab3mgr.jpg



The cruise arced around St. Andrew's and into the Gulf of Mexico in time for the sunset. There was a nice--and I think more than a little drunk--woman on board who kept offering to take pictures of Bobby and me, so we let her, and she took about a hundred, most of which are almost identical except for slight variations in expression, so I'll post the two best.

Dawn and Bobby photo IMG_2292_zpspd6jknhs.jpg



Dawn and Bobby at Sea photo IMG_2327_zpsy1chinnn.jpg



This thing buzzed over us at one point: a motorized hang glider! Very cool! I'd totally ride around in one of these.

Power Glider photo IMG_2308_zpskc8zmcyv.jpg



There was also a guy on a SUP so far out in the Gulf of Mexico that we could barely see him on the horizon. He made my pride over managing the tiny waves at St. Andrew's very misplaced, riding over the chop like it was nothing and paddling like the ocean had done him wrong.

Ride around the fishing pier of St. Andrew's, a dorsal fin rose out of the water ...

Dolphin Dorsals photo IMG_2279_zpsnplqmgjm.jpg



... and we found ourselves in the midst of a big pod of dolphins. Bobby and I see dolphins all the time at Ocean City--and it never gets old--but this was the closest we've ever been to them, and one leaped clear of the water, like they were showing off.

Dolphin Surfacing photo IMG_2283_zps6jguoorx.jpg



The past two nights of unimpressive sunsets was made up for that night, and the sunset was gorgeous. At the rim of the sun dropped below the horizon, the captain let out a blast on the boat's horn and people applauded.

Sunset over the Gulf photo IMG_2309_zps4oquge4a.jpg



Sunset over the Gulf photo IMG_2317_zpsypngxh8j.jpg



Sunset over the Gulf photo IMG_2320_zpszjey4pph.jpg



It was dark and getting chilly by the time we returned to the marina. Bobby had wanted to try the Jimmy Buffett restaurant Margaritaville, which was in the Pier Park, so we decided to go there after returning briefly to the hotel to do the clean-up that was supposed to precede the cruise. The food was good but, oh, our poor server! He was one of those servers who seems to have no notion of how people behave or how the normal flow of restaurant goes. He was well-meaning but so clueless. We sat for ten minutes, menus closed, watching other servers whisk around us before he appeared in a miasma of tobacco reek and whispered something that I could only assume was a request for a drink order. Bobby and I told him what we wanted to drink--a spicy margarita for Bobby and a banana-chocolate concoction for me--and he picked up the menus, and Bobby was like, "Um ... we want to order food too."

"Okay," he said, and stood there with the menus tucked under his arm.

"For the appetizer, we'd like ..." Bobby started, but he couldn't remember what it was called, and his menu had been taken from him. He looked imploringly at me. "I don't know! The shrimp thing!" I said not-very-helpfully, which cued our server to rattle off everything on the menu with shrimp on it as he kept our menus firmly in place under his arm. Bobby and I looked at each other, and finally, Bobby said, "Can I please see the menu again?" Bobby's was returned to him; mine was not, so thankfully I remembered what I wanted (seafood mac and cheese, a vacation indulgence if ever there was one).

The guy whisked off again only to return a few minutes later to ask if we wanted our appetizer before the meal.

The appetizer did arrive before the meal ... barely. (One of my restaurant pet peeves is when apps and mains arrive simultaneously or nearly so.) The app was small and expensive but very good, and when the expediter brought our entrees, he tried to take it away even though it was only half-finished. We put a stop to that. So maybe their service problems were more than just our server.

Of course, he never checked in during the meal; Bobby was almost finished by the time he reappeared long enough to ask for some ketchup. He was apologetic about that. When he asked if we wanted the check, he asked if we wanted just one or split in two. Bobby and I gave each other a long, meaningful look after that one. Marta, our server at Waffle House that morning, could have taught this guy a lot, and she probably makes in an hour what this guy makes on one table. We got a good laugh out of it though.

We went back to the hotel with intentions of getting into the hot tub to soak out the day's paddling. There were only three people in it when we peeked over the balcony but, by the time we put on our swimsuits and walked down, it was packed. Bobby got in the pool and I kept an eye on when some people would leave. Others were there before us--fair enough--but I did get irritated when a group of young women got out to sit on the edge and dangle their feet in while staring, rapt, at their phones. I do wonder at people who spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars to travel to a location to stare at their Facespace or IG feeds. Or people who go out with other people and then spend the entire time texting with a third group of people. I have a smartphone and love it especially when Bobby's first-Monday-of-the-month faculty meetings are running long--as they almost always do--but the things I've seen just in my short time traveling on this earth? I wouldn't trade for any stupid Facespace update. Rant out.

Eventually, they left entirely (staring into their phones as they went!), and there was finally room enough for us to get in. It was a good group of people that night, including some people from our first night there, and we had a good time catching up and trading notes on what we'd done over the past few days.

Before I finish this post--and I was planning on including Shell Island as well, but I had a lot more to say than I thought I would! so I'll save that for the next post--I will note that the Crazy-Fundy Beach Chair Guy the day prior had told us that, when we went to St. Andrew's, the pavilion would have information on how Panama City got it's name. He didn't want to spoil the surprise and tell us. Then, later, he obviously forgot that he'd said that because he did tell us: that Panama City was named for the panama guns used when St. Andrew's was a military fort. In the midst of his ramblings about how Richard Nixon was a pagan and how fluoride in deodorant makes people into zombies and how a peace sign is a sign of the Antichrist used by Hitler, I thought that maybe this was the one single thing that he said that was actually true. Nope. There were panama guns at St. Andrew's ... during WWII, long after Panama City was founded in 1909. It was actually named for the Panama Canal, which was being built at the time and receiving a lot of media attention, in an attempt to capitalize on that attention. So, yeah, the name had nothing to do with heroic military defense of the Gulf but was a marketing gimmick. And there still isn't fluoride in deodorant either.
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