Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jacksonville, FL

It's Thursday, June 4, and we've left Ft. Worth, FL at noon for the 210nm trip to Jacksonville. We expect it to take 40+ hours, and hope to get to the Jacksonville entrance channel near sunrise on Saturday. We haven't done an overnight trip since our Marco Island to Key West leg, but we have our caffeine and chocolate at the ready! We've also learned that there's a space shuttle launch scheduled for Saturday morning, so we may even get to see the space shuttle on its launch pad as we pass Cape Canaveral. NASA has already set up a restricted area within 3 miles of the Cape; 4 hours before the launch, the restricted area will expand to 9 miles north and south of the Cape, and 60+ miles east of the Cape. We definitely don't want to make that diversion, so we need to make sure we're well beyond the Cape by Friday night. Off we go!

We started the trip heading to the three-mile line. We enjoyed a push of 2-3kts from the Gulfstream (or maybe just a good current) a couple of miles offshore when we were in Ft. Lauderdale, so we're hoping to get it again. No luck...the Gulfstream is closest to shore near Ft. Lauderdale, where the Florida coastline juts out to the east; the stream then heads north, rather than following the coast. Since Florida's coastline turns inward as you go north, we're getting farther and farther from the stream. Bottom line - no extra push for us. Guess those 9+ knots of boat speed we saw a few days ago won't be happening again.

Thursday evening, Rene saw a large pod of dolphins including a mom and her calf; Stacy was making dinner and missed it. Not to worry - we have no doubt that there'll be more wildlife before the trip is finished. By now the winds have shifted behind us, so we're running "wing and wing" and making better speeds. We begin to see the lights at Cape Canaveral around 1a.m. Friday. Within an hour or two, we can see the space shuttle on its launch pad lit up like a Christmas tree, with the huge Vehicle Assembly Building nearby. We're still 8-9 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, but using the binoculars we can distinctly see the the orange main fuel tank and the two white solid rocket boosters on either side (the shuttle is on the opposite side, so we can't actually see it). Unfortunately we've had to turn in towards the northwest (no more wing and wing), and the winds have died; we're 110nm from the Jacksonville entrance, and are running 3kts. Unless the winds kick up again, we'll have to motor at some point to make up some time. It's 19 miles up the St. John's river from the entrance to the dock in downtown Jacksonville, so we're really trying to arrive at the channel entrance within a few hours of sunrise.

It's Friday morning, and we're 12 miles from Ponce Inlet. we see a disturbance in the water, and realize that it's a 6' shark swimming on the surface. There's a dorsal fin and a tail whipping back and forth on the surface - this is definitely not a dolphin! Apparently this is the morning for wildlife... Earlier in the morning, Tawny had caught the attention of a seagull that landed on our dinghy davits, and she was about to go after it. Just as Rene turned to keep Tawny from jumping overboard, he saw a 5' turtle coming up for air. If only we'd had the camera ready! Oh, well. Maybe we'll get a few good shots of Daytona Beach, Stacy's old college town, as we sail by...or not. The day is so hazy that we can't even see land, even though we're just 5 miles from the coast. The rest of the trip to Jacksonville is uneventful. The winds come back up for a few hours, and then they die again. We're able to sail for part of it, but motor or motor-sail for the most part.

We arrive at the entrance to the St. John's River at sunrise (about 6:30am), and are met by dozens of fishing boats coming out of the jetties. It's Saturday morning, and people want to get out on the water for some fun. We just want to get upriver and sleep! Unfortunately, the one thing we didn't check before leaving was the tide and current tables. Water depth isn't a problem in the St. John's, but currents are. We've managed to arrive an hour or two after low tide, and haven't yet hit slack tide. That means we're fighting a 3kt current as we head upriver, and our boat speed is 1.3kts. At this rate, we should make it to Jacksonville around midnight tonight! We keep trudging ahead, and finally begin to see 4+ knot boat speeds. It's slow going, but we finally get to our first bridge 5 miles upriver. One great thing about Jacksonville is her bridges; they're all really high - perfect for us sailboats! The first bridge is the Dames Point B ridge, which has 169' vertical clearance. Our mast height is 62.5', so it's a big deal not to have to call/wait for an opening. 12 miles later, we reach the rest of the downtown Jax bridges: the red Matthews Bridge (152'), the green Hart Bridge (135'), and the blue Main Street Lift Bridge (40' clearance; fortunately it opens on request with little waiting). We arrive at the city-owned free docks at Jacksonville Landing around 1pm, and are met by a couple of guys eager to help us with our lines (for a tip and a beer, of course!). We're soon tied up and ready for a quick lunch and a long nap. We want to be lively enough tonight to check out the Landing.

Jacksonville Landing is in the heart of downtown Jacksonville. It's a U-shaped structure on the north shore of the St. John's River, and houses over 70 shops, restaurants, and bars/clubs. There's a stage in the courtyard with live music on the weekends, plus 1000 feet of city-owned dock space in front of the Landing that boaters can tie up to at no charge for up to 72 hours. It's a great deal, and we're thrilled to be so close to everything. Saturday night we make our first venture into the Landing, where we have dinner at "Cinco de Mayo". It's our first Mexican food since Key West, and we're craving fajitas and margaritas. From there, we check out the live music in the courtyard. It's really lively, and the people-watching is fantastic.

Monday morning we rent a car and drive down to historic St. Augustine, one of the oldest cities in the continental US (founded in 1565). First we shop, then we go for the history. We start off at the outlet mall (woo hoo!), followed by a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. The Spanish began construction of the star-shaped fort in 1672, making it one of the oldest standing structures in North America. Although the fort served under 6 different flags, it was never actually taken during a battle. (All transfers were diplomatic, e.g. peace agreements, between Spanish, French, British, & America.) The top level was called the "Gun Deck", and housed up to 74 cannons with firing ranges of up to 3.5 miles. Many cannons & mortars still sit on the gun deck; they're massive! Some of the mortars are big enough to put your head in (and some of the kids did). If you're ever in Florida, St. Augustine is definitely worth a visit. You can read more about it and the fort at

After our visit to the fort, we decided to explore a little more of the area. We walked around the historic area, filled with shops and dining options, as well as a bar that served something like 150 different beers. Our kind of place! Then we drove across to the beach side, toured the very small St. Augustine Beach area, and found the St. Augustine lighthouse. Back on the mainland side, we made a quick stop at Target (our first one since leaving TX), and then went back to the old city to find someplace to have dinner. As luck would have it, we parked in a public lot right in front of The Tasting Room ( It's a great little spot that specializes in tapas and wine tasting (did the name give it away?). The food was amazing: we had chicken & chorizo paella w/artichokes & peas, Moroccan pork skewers, and garlic sauteed shrimp w/peppers & artichokes. We also tried two different wine flights, each of which allows you to sample three wines. One was a combination of Spanish whites, the other had Australian, French, and New Zealand crisp whites. We really had a magnificent meal and hostess, and would highly recommend the restaurant if you're ever in the area.

Tuesday morning we made a much needed grocery run. Having given up our car, we hoofed it the mile each way to a local Winn Dixie. Now two miles may not sound like much, but it's a bear in 96 degree (plus 90+ percent humidity) weather! That called for a cold beverage, so we took the water taxi across the river to the River City Brewing Company. The food was great, as were their homemade microbrews, but we couldn't stay long. We were going to the planetarium! Forgive us if you don't have the astronomy bug, but this was a big event for us. We both loved planetariums as kids, and neither of us has been to one in decades. The Jacksonville Museum of Science & History has daily planetarium shows plus exhibits which involve Florida history, dinosaurs, marine life, and the human body. Wednesday we stay fairly close to home, venturing out in the afternoon to enjoy a Frappucino at Starbucks, along with their air conditioning, electricity (laptop recharging), and wi-fi.

Have we mentioned that we're really enjoying Jacksonville? There's just one problem: our 72 hours of free dockside tie-up expired at 1pm Tuesday. We tried to reach the dockmaster to ask permission for an extension; the dockmaster's voice mailbox was full, so we left a message on the general waterways number. We also stopped by the marina office at Metro Park Marina, but the office was locked and no one answered our knocking. Oh well, we've tried...let's see if they call us back. We'd like to stay until Saturday since there's a Craft & Microbrew Beerfest in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Friday night - over 200 beers represented plus food for $25. We originally thought of tying up at Metro Park Marina (free, first-come-first served to the public), but the park closes at dusk and the festival is from 7-10pm. We're later notified that the 72 hours is inclusive of all city-owned dock space. In other words, we can't legally stay 72 hours at Jax Landing AND another 72 hours at Metro Park.

The Waterway Police pay us a visit THU morning. Someone told them that we've overstayed our 72 hr limit, and the police will ticket ("or tow your boat" - good luck with that) us if we don't leave. There are some black thunderclouds heading our way, and we ask to stay until after the storm. 20 minutes later the storm still hasn't hit us, so we decide to leave. As we start the engine, we hear a loud noise and Rene goes to check the alternator belt, which has been giving us fits all along. Crap, crap, crap! The belt has finally broken on us. First question: do we have a spare? Yes. Second question: can we repair it and get out of here before we get ticketed? We'll see. Rene has to pull the fold-up bikes and other miscellaneous stuff out of the lazarette to get to the spare parts box, but he's soon lying on his stomach over the engine compartment. It takes about 30 minutes, but we're back in order and neither the storm nor the police has paid us a visit yet. We execute a perfect departure from the dock (go cap'n Rene!), request the next available opening at the Main Street Vertical Lift Bridge, and we're soon on our way to the anchorage behind Exchange Island. It only takes 20 minutes to get there, and it turns out to be a lovely, quiet anchorage. There's only one other boat, and it doesn't look like anyone is even aboard. We're surrounded by dolphins, and some get pretty close to the boat.

Friday we still plan to attend the Beerfest. We'll dinghy to either the marina or the Jones College pier, and will take a taxi to the stadium. Oops...dinghy is in the water, but the outboard isn't working again. It gave us fits in Ft. Pierce, but turned out that we were out of fuel (although now we wonder if that the only problem). Now Rene can get it running at high RPMs but not at low RPMs. We're stuck...we don't feel safe using the outboard, and the currents are too strong to row to the dock and back. much for the Beerfest. :-(

It's finally time to leave Jacksonville. Saturday morning we leave our anchorage at 9:30 at slack tide and head down the St. Johns to the ICW. At one point the currents have us running at 8.4kts. We request an opening at Sister's Creek Bridge at the St. Johns/ICW interchange, and we're officially in the ICW. We'll take it all the way to Fernandina Beach - our first official ICW crossing! The ICW is fairly narrow and twisting, so it looks like it'll be mostly hand-steering rather than auto pilot. We're surrounded by seagulls and pink spoonbills, and it's a gorgeous day. Things are going great for the first couple of miles up the ICW until...GROUNDED! Yes, we were in 9' of water in the channel, and suddenly we stop moving. The depth gauge now says 5', and we're stuck. Better yet, it's Saturday and people in speedboats and jet skis are flying by us, creating waves that are pushing us closer to shore. Rene tries to gun the engine to get us out of the mud, but we're stuck fast. We call Tow Boat US, tell them where we are and that we have $150 coverage with which they tell us that it'll be $12/ft (over $500) for them to get us out. We look at each other for a minute, but what can we do? We're still being pushed towards the shore, and have no way to get out of the muck. Tow Boat US arrives within 20 minutes, and the guy tries to pull us free. Even his two 250HP engines couldn't do the trick - both our rudder and wing keel were stuck, and he couldn't free us without potentially damaging the boat. The only thing left to do was to toss a stern anchor and wait for the water to rise. We anxiously watched our depth gauge for the next two hours, knowing we needed close to 5' to break free. At about 4.8' according to the depth gauge, we seemed to pop up like a champagne cork...and suddenly had 8' of water under the boat. Finally! The current had pulled us back into the channel, and all that was left to do was for Rene to get the anchor back on board. That was no easy feat, as the anchor rode had been fixed to a stern cleat and we were using the jib winch as a makeshift windlass. After fighting the anchor for another 20-30 minutes, we finally had it back aboard and we were underway again. From there on out, we followed the ICW line on our chartplotter religiously. There were a couple of nervous moments, especially when the depth gauge read 6' at high tide a few miles from our destination. Fortunately we finally made it to Fernandina Harbor Marina, where we had a reservation for mooring ball #3.

In hindsight, we've decided that the Jacksonville Waterways patrol must've put a curse on us. :-) Not that we have anything (much) against these guys, but it's curious how many things have managed to get "mucked up" since their visit to boot us off the pier...

1. 20 minutes after they left us, our alternator belt broke
2. 24 hours after they left us, our dinghy engine stopped working, preventing us from attending our much-anticipated Craft & Microbrew Beerfest at Jax Stadium
3. 48 hours after they left us, we grounded in the middle of the channel of the ICW and couldn't get free for 3 hours
4. We lost the boat hook on our first attempt at the mooring ball in Fernandina Harbor
5. We also ended up with the mooring ball underneath the boat on attempt #1, but couldn't correct it until our kind neighbors dinghied out to collect our lost boat hook (see #4)
6. Stacy was so frazzled by #4 & #5 that she ran the mooring lines through the lifelines on mooring attempt #2, requiring a 3rd attempt
7. We managed to jerry-rig our dinghy engine to get to the marina, but couldn't make the magic come alive again for the return trip; we ended up having to paddle the half-mile to the boat against the current after sunset
8. If #7 wasn't fun enough on its own, Stacy saw what she thought was an alligator swimming towards us just 2 feet from the boat as we left the marina; the alligator ended up being a manatee, and we actually saw its back and tail come up out of the water...still only 2 feet from us!

On a positive note, we had our first taste of Fernandina Beach...the marina folks have recommended a few restaurants around town, and we grabbed pizzas after our showers. The town looks like a cute spot, and hopefully we'll get to explore it in more depth once we get our dinghy motor fixed...AGAIN. Wish us luck!

Pictures associated with this blog chapter are at:

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