To those of you on land, today is election day. For Stacey and me, we filled out our ballots a few weeks ago and mailed them from Southport, NC with the USPS's official "Maine Stamp" providing the fare. That truly feels like a lifetime ago.
Today, and for most of the last week or so, we have been, more or less, in Jacksonville, FL. We crossed into Florida on November 2nd, and since we've been "in town" so much has happened that it almost deserves its own blog entry. Instead of doing that, I'm just going to rewind to the point at which our last blog ended, and hit "play." To find out about all that has transpired, read on—I'll get to it. I promise.
The last time I did the old "jazz hands on the computer keyboard" thing here was when we had just entered South Carolina. Having figured out and fixed, at thankfully minor expense, what was wrong with our starboard engine, the boat was running great, and we were so pleased to be back underway. Anchored on the Waccamaw River is truly our "happy place." Quiet and calm, it was a truly relaxing place to unwind after the uncertainty of the previous week or so. We were suddenly energized and decided we wanted to press on and get to Sanford, Florida where I could get some gigs and start rebuilding the cruising kitty after months of expensive boat repairs and even more expensive diesel fuel. We had no idea what we were getting into when we left on April 1st, and had we known then, we may not have even left Sanford.
Sanford was our comfortable, home base where I had work and our storage unit, where we moved all our stuff after we sold the Maine house, is located. Living on the boat in an urban marina with a car in the parking lot (which we also keep in Florida) is like living in a house that floats. It's a simple existence to be sure—far simpler than bouncing around from port to port. Want a pizza? They'll even deliver it to the boat!
So we pointed the boat south after only one night on our beloved Waccamaw River and ran beyond Georgetown to an anchorage in McClellanville, SC—a long haul. And the next day we carved another huge chunk out of our itinerary by running past Charleston and anchoring on the Stono River.
It was about this time that I finally got through to our marina in Sanford to ask if they still had a slip waiting for us after Hurricane Ian's unprecedented flooding. The answer was a simple, "No." The dockmaster, Luke, elaborated that the marina had lost about 40 slips to the recent flooding, and it would be a while before they had slips for anyone who wasn't already there. This dispiriting news was not what we wanted to hear as we were literally powering south to comfort and "home." All the same, we soldiered on, having posted about our misfortune on Facebook and asking for advice, we left the outcome up to serendipity.
The next days would have me making countless, fruitless phone calls to marinas looking for a spot while we were cruising and after we were tied up or anchored. We had a couple positive interactions with marinas, but nothing came together.
We weighed anchor on the Stono River and made a long day's passage that we were hopeful would end on a yacht club dock in Beaufort, SC, but the club did not return our emails or phone calls until we had motored past Beaufort with a stiff following current. We thanked them for getting back to us, but anchored for the evening in the Pinckney Island anchorage not far from Hilton Head where we had a reservation for the following evening on a dock in the Wexford Yacht Club. At some point in our cruise that day, we received a Facebook message from some folks we did not know, but with whom we have a few mutual friends, offering us a boat slip in Astor, FL on the St. Johns River, about an hour by car from Sanford. As soon as we were settled in for the night, I called them, and thus began a process that ended with us having a plan again.
The next morning, we weighed anchor and made our way along the 11-or-so nautical mile journey to the yacht club where we had made plans to have dinner with our dear friend, Mike, who lives in northern Georgia. While we were getting comfortable and settled on the dock, he was making the nearly two-hour trip from his home to Hilton Head. He joined us aboard for conversation and liquid refreshment after which we all adjourned to the clubhouse for dinner—despite the white tablecloths and exceedingly attentive service, it was "pub night" and I enjoyed a perfect (and perfectly huge) cheeseburger and fries, while Stacey ordered a lovely chicken piccata, and Mike enjoyed a crab soup and a salad.
After dinner, we parted company with Mike and took an idyllic walk through the neighborhoods of the club—it's a yacht club AND an HOA, so members can pull their boat up behind their multi-million-dollar manse with all the amenities of one of the finest resorts just outside their front door. The next morning, we pumped out Stinkpot's blackwater tank, filled her freshwater tank, and exited the harbor via the lock. We fueled at the nearby marina which had a stunningly good price, and continued toward Georgia, fully transiting Savannah and proceeding on a favoring current at high tide through Hell Gate before having the anchor down in Redbird Creek.
A beautiful sunset and sunrise later, we were underway again. We had decided to run back to Darien, GA where we stopped on our way north in 2020 after completing the Great Loop. It was early in COVID-19 and the town was virtually closed down. We vowed to return to really enjoy it, and thought that was what we were about to do. That's, of course, when our friend, James, contacted us and said he was going to his boat at St. Simons Island, GA, in case we wanted to get together. By the time we got his message, we had already left the ICW for the side trip to Darien with a solid two-knot following current. At first, we thought we might get together with James the next day, but after looking at tides, currents, and routing from Darien to St. Simons Island, I decided that it made far more sense (and would save a bunch of fuel and time underway) to run to meet James that very day and bypass Darien yet again. As Darien came into view, we turned to port and transited the very narrow and foreboding Generals Cut at a high, falling tide and ran the extra 20 miles or so, anchoring in a familiar spot between Lanier Island and St. Simons Island. In 2020, while on our way north to Maine, I performed an online concert from that very same anchorage.
No concert this time, we prepped the boat for our being away, launched and readied the dinghy, and ran about a mile to the dinghy dock at Morningstar Marinas Golden Isles where our new friend, James met us with a smile. James runs a website we use frequently (and occasionally contribute content to) as we look for great spots to tie up Stinkpot along the ICW. First thing being first, James invited us aboard his sailboat for a beverage or two, after which we adjourned to his Ford pickup truck for a trip to a grocery store, after which he treated us to a fajita feast at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Before he returned us to our dinghy and a starlit transit back to Stinkpot, he drove us around St. Simons Island to see, as best we could in the dark, what makes it such a special place. Soon enough though, we were loading our groceries into the dinghy, A.K.A. "Lil' Stinker," turning on our battery-operated navigation lights, and heading back to Stinkpot. The all-around white light quit due to its disused battery at the very moment we pulled up to the mothership. Perfect timing! We stowed the groceries (and the dinghy) and went to bed.
Morning saw us weighing anchor for another long day. We wanted to make it to Jacksonville, there was no reason why we shouldn't, and that's exactly what we did, arriving at one of our favorite free docks at Jim King Park in Sisters Creek right behind two sailing catamarans, and about an hour before a Carver 440. Now, this, dear reader, is where the story starts to get interesting, and it's also where your humble scribe is going to take a break to gather his strength for the recounting that is to come.
Cup of coffee in hand and a piece of the banana bread our boat neighbors brought us yesterday to sustain me, and I'm back to writing strength.
Jacksonville has been good to us. We arrived at the Sisters Creek dock on Wednesday, November 2nd to minor fanfare. I spun Stinkpot onto the dock in such a fashion that one of the gathered sailors told me that using my thrusters like that is cheating. I corrected him that I have no thrusters, to which he then congratulated me on my mad skills. I used the wind and current to come along side and onto the dock. Stacey handed out lines like free meal tickets and we were made fast to the dock before I even left the captain's chair. We found out a couple of days later that the gent who greeted us is named Jack, but to my face-blind firstmate, he is the spitting image of George W. Bush, so for two days we were calling him George. About two hours after we docked, a Carver 440 docked right behind us, and we all (all six boats—three sailboats and three motor yachts) had a very quiet evening.
We awoke early the next morning with intentions of leaving mid-afternoon on the slack current. I had been watching the current markers on the St. Johns River, not 1/2 mile away, and knew when we wanted to get on the river. I was expecting slack would be at a similar time on the dock, so we stayed on the dock, instead of casting off at first light, which would be our norm, expecting to cast off in the afternoon. By contrast, the owners of the Carver 440 were inclined to press on at first light. The current was coming by the dock very swiftly, probably around 3 knots, so I helped them spring off. The captain seemed very sure of his skills, instructed me correctly on how to deal with his line, and they left the dock from the stern after successfully using an aft spring from a mid-cleat to get skillfully off the dock. That was the point at which his competence ran out. He had a following current which requires power to overcome and give the boat direction. This captain did not throttle up to give himself steerage in the current and his boat came inches from sideswiping Stinkpot on his way by, and then he sideswiped BOTH of the sailing cats tied up off our bow, doing significant structural damaged to the one closest to us, and crushing important parts of the standing rigging on the next boat. Nearly a week later, and the sound of cracking fiberglass is still in our ears. The errant skipper attempted to come to a stop, likely thinking he should communicate his contact and insurance information to the skippers whose boats he crunched, but all of us on the dock could see yet another slow-motion catastrophe unfolding in the stiff current and told him to "GO!" at which point he radioed his information back to the damaged crafts so that insurance claims could be begun. He was the last one to leave the dock that day. The wind came up and all the rest of us decided to wait until we were sure we could get off the dock without incident. Another boat did come in later in the afternoon—a good-sized Back Cove with bow and stern thrusters stopped for lunch, and he had to power out, heavily waking the entire dock, for which we all celebrated—better that than hearing the tell-tale sound of crunching fiberglass again. Truthfully, if I needed to get Stinkpot away, we could've sprung off just like the inept Carver captain and then left, but I decided we were in no hurry, and it became clear that the slack current at the dock differed from the slack current on the river by about 2 hours or more, so there was no point in trying that day.
The following afternoon, Friday, November 4th, after having plenty of bonding time with Jack, who it turns out is Canadian, and the other crews, we finally sprung off and powered out against the significant wind while the current was slack at the dock right after the cats ahead of us made their departures by nudging off the end of the dock into the swift cross current. This meant we had an easy mile to the St. Johns River, but when we arrived there, we were fighting a 3 (or so) knot current up river. We went about 3 miles and anchored to wait for the river's slack current, which took a couple of hours. At 4pm, we weighed anchor and rode the flood tide into downtown Jacksonville tying up at the Metropolitan Park Marina where we intended to ride out the impending weather that we are now calling Tropical Storm Nicole. The marina is hard against the northern bank of the river in this spot, so the expected northeast winds should have vastly less impact on us here than in other places we could've chosen.
Of course, this being 2022, there had to be a hitch. Stacey called the office that oversees the park and asked if there would be any issues. The marina is free to use except when the Jacksonville Jaguars have a home game or there is some other nearby event for which the city can charge for dockage. The Jaguars had a home game Sunday afternoon, so we were told we'd have to be gone for the day of the game. Early Sunday morning we cast off and docked about a mile up river at the brand new Jacksonville Landings—also a great free dock. It's a wonderful place to spend a night, and we took advantage of the proximity to the downtown area by walking to a nice, if overpriced, fresh market, and enjoyed the big-city vibe there. We actually walked back to Metro Park after the game was over to see if the marina had space or if football revelry was going into the night. We were pleased at the sight of a once-again, nearly-empty marina. At first light, we returned to the marina, tying up facing east and well sheltered by the concrete piers. That was yesterday. Since then we have helped two other sailboats get docked in the marina (one of which is the source of the excellent banana bread that nourished this opus). We will remain here, abusing the 72-hour time limit for these free slips with mad abandon, until Nicole moves away—probably on Saturday. We have it on good authority that they waive such arbitrary time limits during extreme weather, and we intend to take advantage of their good sense. As I am writing this, it's beautiful out, nearly 80°F, and gusting over 30 mph. Nicole is coming, and she's going to stay a while. We're settled in. We have all we need here, and we're feeling quite safe.
At least that was what we were feeling as I wrote that last sentence, which was supposed to be the final words of this missive. The story does not end there, however. As the sun was racing across the sky and we were comfortable in the idea that we were in our safe place for this named storm, a very official-looking white pickup pulled up at the end of the pier and a guy got out. He stopped at the sailboat which had tied up not three hours before and said something to its skipper, then he knocked on the banana bread sailboat to speak with them, and so we jumped out of Stinkpot to chat with the man. He said that the City of Jacksonville could not have us on these docks during a named storm. Insurance would not allow it, and we all had until noon tomorrow (Wednesday, November 9) to vacate. I consulted with the USCG and also a good friend who has an encyclopedic knowledge of maritime vagaries to make sure they could do that at such a late point with incoming weather, and was told that the coast guard has no jurisdiction in such situations, so, yes, we had to move. As he was telling us we had to leave, winds were already gusting over 30 mph.
Stacey and I wasted no time. There is a railroad bridge in downtown Jacksonville that needs to be open for us to continue up the St. Johns River, and we didn't want to risk it being closed for weather before we had a chance to venture through. We called the bridge and were told that it was still operating, so we quickly made ready and cast off for points up river. I had a couple anchorages in mind, one of which is a known hurricane hole, and so I pointed the boat south. We arrived at the accursed railroad bridge to find a train STOPPED on it. I called the bridge and was assured that, while they were having an issue with the train, a resolution was close at hand and to stand by. We hovered for a half hour or so before the train started moving, and within minutes, the bridge was open and we continued south.
As we made our way into the widest part of the river the northeast wind found its fetch, and in no time at all we were in what I estimate to be a three to four foot following sea. I kept the waves on our stern, avoided the inevitable crab pots, and kept the bow pointed toward my preferred anchorage, Pirates Cove, a hurricane hole that one of our friends also suggested to us when we began the mad scramble to find an alternate location to weather Nicole. I didn't have a lot of hope that we'd find space in a hurricane hole when a hurricane was bearing down on us, and I had three other options in my back pocket should we find the anchorage full—Mill Cove in Doctors Lake, or Black Creek even further south on the western shore of the St. Johns.
As we arrived at Pirates Cove, the conditions were just about at our limit of comfort with a following sea—it was taking a lot of play on the rudders to keep us going in a straight line, and I really didn't want to add more power to things. We were getting a good ride, albeit we were surfing. Adding power and speed to the equation likely would've also given a much rougher ride. To press on to one of my backups would've been sheer madness. I was resigned to the idea that we would make this anchorage work no matter what. To our sheer pleasure and astonishment, when we turned the corner into the cove, the seas flattened out entirely, the wind abated significantly thanks to the trees, and there was not one single boat at anchor. We had the anchor set hard in no time flat and were eating our belated dinner as the sun set over the cove.
It was then that we also got the good news that our friend, Kip, figured out what was wrong with our Toyota Prius, and we'll have a working car when we do arrive in Astor after the storm. As I write this now, we are safely at anchor. It's blowing a gale outside, but there is very little wave action in this enclosed cove—I'll repeat what I said earlier and mean it this time. We're settled in. We have all we need here, and we're feeling quite safe.