Captain's Log: Et tu, Nicole?
I have been avoiding writing this post, not really on purpose, but because time is a finite resource. Admittedly, I have had other things going on that required my attention, and I did write a post for my other blog.
Notice the crazy wave action by the mouth of Pirates Cove in the above video! Hear our beloved generator running?!
When last you heard from our intrepid explorers about three weeks ago, we were lying at anchor in Jacksonville, waiting for Hurricane Nicole to do her worst. She did, and we survived. Pirates Cove turned out to be the perfect place to weather such a storm, and we probably were far better off swinging on our anchor than we would've been tied up in a boat slip with a web of dock lines. Being at anchor means that the bow of the boat is always pointed into the wind and whatever waves there might be, which meant we could stand outside in the cockpit of the boat behind the salon and watch the storm without getting blown around. As three days pinned to the boat goes, it was uneventful, never once scary, often quite relaxing, and almost even fun.
The rain during Nicole was intense! Notice how high the water was getting with the tidal surge! It got a bit higher….
The storm happened during a king tide, so the storm surge which came up the St. Johns River proved entertaining for us, but devastating for some of the very expensive homes that were around us in the cove. Clearly some of the homes were built at a time when no one could've conceived of the river level rising much above a certain level. Newer houses were built upon piles of fill, but the older homes were decidedly not, and we watched with morbid fascination as the water rose over retaining walls and docks, up manicured lawns, around patio furniture, and through locked doors into some very posh dwellings. The wind did howl, but there was almost no wave action in our enclosed cove, and Stinkpot came through with nary a scratch.
After spending three days in the cove with no place to go ashore, your humble captain was starting to go a little stir crazy, so against the better judgement of the crew, we weighed anchor on Veterans Day and pointed the boat out of the cove onto the river to continue up river (south). Our goal was to fuel up at our usual fuel stop at Mandarin Holiday Marina and continue as far as Green Cove Springs where we could dock with power on the municipal docks. Mind you, those docks would've been a terrible choice during the storm because a powerful northeast wind there would rock those docks mercilessly, but post-storm, the winds clocked around to the southwest, and that would be very pleasant there, indeed. I was looking forward to going ashore, perhaps grabbing a pizza or some other culinary perk of civilization while there. It wasn't meant to be.
When we exited the cove onto the river, the river seemed relatively calm, but as we continued south, the wind and wave action on the river became lumpier and lumpier, the overcast increased, and by the time we got to the area around Mandarin Point and Doctors Lake, the seas were uncomfortable and the numerous, black crab pot floats were increasingly hard to spot under darkening skies. I decided at that point that we should divert into Doctors Lake and run down to Whitey's Fish Camp (a restaurant with a dock) to dock for dinner, go ashore for a walk, and perhaps spend the night if allowed.
Stacey called ahead of our arrival, and the person she spoke to was talking as though the docks were bound to be wall-to-wall boats, and we'd scarcely find a place to tie up. I was dubious because, despite it being a weekend evening, the weather was far from prime boating conditions. Stacey persisted with her questioning and asked if we could spend the night. She was told that captains who drink a bit too much are often encouraged to spend the night on the dock. Challenge accepted!
We made the four miles down the lake against the chop to Whitey's and the only boat that was tied up there was one that clearly stays tied up there—presumably belonging to one of Whitey's owners. The restaurant is tucked into a creek and the water was flat calm, despite the relentless southwest breeze. I slid Stinkpot alongside the dock just ahead of that vessel, and the water was already so high still from the storm that we could tell the still-rising tide would take it over the fixed dock. With another two or three hours until high tide, we went inside and told the staff of our presence on their dock and said we'd be in for dinner after the tide recedes enough to let us back off the boat. A plan that we were all too pleased to follow—and we did—and it was delicious—and the captain got a little tipsy as t'was required and foretold. While we were inside, the overcast began to break up leaving us with a beautiful sky under which we took a lovely post-dinner stroll ashore and retired for the evening, and while we were admiring the very nice houses ashore we received a private message from one of our fan/followers on Facebook saying, I see you're at my family's restaurant. I hope you enjoy staying the night on the dock. We told them that we had already accomplished the listed quid pro quo, and were told in no uncertain terms that such drastic measures were unnecessary, and that Stinkpot was invited to dock at Whitey's for the night any time. Fortunately, I did not wake up with a headache the following morning.
The sun rose on that Saturday with nary a breath of wind and gorgeous warming sunshine. We cast off from Whitey's and made our way back up the lake and across the river to Mandarin Holiday Marina for our requisite refueling at the least expensive fuel stop for hundreds of miles in either direction, after which we continued up river (south) in idyllic conditions with a knot or so current against us toward our target for the day of the free docks in Palatka. That current we were running against never waned at all at flood, even though we were still on the tidal portion of the river. I attribute that to the high water and indeed flooding conditions still up river following hurricanes Ian and, to a far lesser extent, Nicole.
Upon arrival in Palatka, I docked Stinkpot on the t-head dock, as I had the last time we spent the evening there a year earlier. There was only one other boat docked there—a sailboat that looked as though it hadn't moved in some time. We settled in, had dinner aboard, and then decided we should go ashore to see if we could grab a few missing items at the nearby Dollar General. We stepped off, and made our way toward land, and when we made the right turn onto the main pier, we spotted it. A chainlink fence was blocking the end of the pier and ostensibly preventing our egress. We walked up to this impediment, and decided that we could carefully swing out over the water and around the fence with one hand on the fence post, which we both accomplished with the ease of geriatric gymnasts.
We walked toward the store only to find the shelves mostly bereft of anything resembling items on our list, but we did find a couple items that were on the list which together totaled about $2, so we picked them up and made our way toward the register. There was such a crush of humanity also trying to check out with the one cashier who obviously was not up to the task, we ultimately returned our bottle of lime juice and wire whisk to the shelves and left empty handed. We returned to Stinkpot, reversing our previous running of the chainlink fence gauntlet, and retired for the evening.
Sunday morning arrived with what would end up being fleeting sunny warmth. Our goal for the day was to make it to our new home berth in Astor, Florida at Astor Bridge Marina & Motel where we would meet our new friends, Chris and Cherie (pronounced share-y), not to be confused with our Technomadia friends, Chris and Cherie (pronounced shuh-ree). These new friends had pulled one of their boats out of the water, parked it nearby on a trailer, and ultimately ended up selling it to one of the other dock neighbors here at the marina so that Stinkpot could have a boat slip to pull into. There are almost no long-term boat slips available anywhere in Florida right now following the COVID Boat Buying Boom and two hurricanes which damaged so many marinas across the state, so we are very grateful and indebted to the new Chris and Cherie for their kindness to a couple itinerant strangers whom they started following on Facebook.
We carefully picked our way up river, avoiding crab pots the entire way, as clouds began to gather overhead into yet another overcast. By the time we made it to the Buffalo Bluff Railway Bridge (AKA Satsuma Bridge), the sky was fully cloudy. The bridge was in the closed position—I radioed the tender and was told that we were "waiting for a train." I held the boat in position against the oncoming current for about a half hour until the Amtrak Auto Train bound for Sanford plunged southard across the trestle. As soon as the train was clear, the bridge opened, and we continued up river. The water was still quite high and to avoid damage ashore from our boat wake, we would throttle down through any developed area of the river, making for pretty slow going. The overcast gave way to occasional showers and chilly temperatures, so we decided to move the party from our flybridge to the lower helm in the warmth of Stinkpot's salon. We arrived at Lake George fairly early in the afternoon, crossed the eleven-or-so-mile lake at which point we ducked back into the river with about four miles left until "home."
The water level on the southern end of Lake George was really very high to the point that we didn't dare operate even at our normal "no wake" speed for fear of causing further damage ashore. We were on the receiving end of a lot of concerned glances from the local landed gentry as we picked our way up river through the Astor area*. We were running with only one engine in gear (our port engine) which I kept throttled down so as to maintain our SOG (speed over ground) at less than 2 knots against the 1.5 knots of current we were seeing, while I kept our starboard engine in neutral and throttled up enough to maintain the alternator that was powering all the boat's electronics above its cut-in rotational speed—somewhat necessary when the solar panels are doing effectively nothing due to the overcast.
It took about 90 minutes for Stinkpot to finish the last four miles or so from Lake George to the marina. We called ahead to the marina and spoke to the manager, Julie, and told her, based on our present momentum, we'd be coming in about fifteen minutes (we could already see the eponymous bridge that is immediately north of the marina), and would start at the pumpout in front of the marina before then coming in and docking in our slip. She talked us through what we'd be seeing, and within an hour, Stinkpot was tied up in her slip, paperwork was done, and we were meeting our new neighbors, Chris and Cherie. They invited us to join them for a walk to the restaurant/bar across the bridge for dinner and beverages, an opportunity we were only too glad to seize upon after a long day underway. We had a lovely evening, returned to Stinkpot, and slept like the dead.
Ordinarily, an arrival such as that would be the end of one of these blog posts, and so it shall be. Oh, but there's more to the story since then, and it absolutely deserves to be recounted here, so stay tuned for the next thrilling episode, coming soon to a computer terminal near you.
Watch this space for a thrilling, upcoming land-based post.
*Technically, Astor, Florida is only on the west side of the St. Johns River, which means that our location on the east side of the river is technically Volusia, Florida. Because the entire area is serviced by the Astor-based post office, the USPS has the final word on the address, so while we are technically not in Astor, the marina's address says differently.
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Stacey and Dave are nomadic explorers who travel the waters of the eastern United States aboard their Bayliner 3870, m/v Stinkpot.