29 November 2007 | Fort Matanzas, Florida Mile 792
We crossed from Georgia into Florida, our final state on the Intracoastal Waterway on November 20, 2007. It has been a long trek to get here, but the Georgia portion of the ICW has been a highlight with great scenery and lots of bird and dolphin watching. The city of Fernandina lies just within the Florida border. What a stark contrast to pastoral Georgia. The harbour is busy and industrial, creating a first impression that I later had to revise. We took a mooring can at Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina at the cost of $15 a night. It is comfortable enough but there is a very strong current in the harbour. Beth is going to leave from nearby Jacksonville airport on Wednesday for a week to visit her mother who is in the hospital in Moncton, New Brunswick. That means I will be batchin'it for one week. I have decided, with some trepidation, that I will make my first stab at solo sailing when it comes time to leave Fernandina Beach in a couple of days. Our friends on Stratshpey have promised to keep an eye on me while underway and that provides me with reassurance - one of the great advantages of a buddy boat.
I decided to rent a car for while in Fernandina Beach so I can run Beth to the airport and get around the city. We have been anticipating this stop for some time now, since we met Steve Swanson and Sandi Eberle on Hillary, and Oyster 41 much earlier in the trip. We first encountered them on July 9th, back in Mont Louis on the Saint Lawrence but got to know them better while Madcap and Strathspey were anchored near Hillary in Baddeck Harbour at the end of July. They have a home near Fernandina Beach and invited us to meet up with them when our two boats made it to Florida. Lucky for us we have arrived during the American Thanksgiving holiday and Steve and Sandi have opened up their home to Blair and Mary of Strathspey, Jim and Jeannie of Estelle and me for Thanksgiving dinner. Not only that, but they have set aside two whole days to entertain us and show us the area. We have been amazed by the generosity of fellow cruisers throughout this trip, but Sandi and Steve's warmth, charm and hospitality has been truly incredible. As a result of touring Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island with them I revised my initial impression of the town. It has the feeling of community and permanence. It is more than just a summertime beach front town. There are several blocks of interesting boutiques and shops and wonderful homes on quiet residential streets. We also visited Tiger Point Marina where our hosts keep their other boat, a Hinckley Bermuda 40 named Princess. For those looking to keep their vessel on the hard in Florida after wintering in the south, Tiger Point Marina impressed me with its modern, well-maintained facilities and equipment. Moreover, Fernandina Beach is situated far to the west of the Gulf Stream and has been spared from the ravages of hurricanes and tropical storms that have so damaged other parts of the south. After passing much of Thursday touring the area, we spent the late afternoon and early evening at Steve and Sandi's home at Amelia Island Plantation. Sandi prepared a superb Thanksgiving meal with all of the traditional trimmings. As is my habit on such occasions, I enjoyed seconds of everything and retired from the table as stuffed as the turkey I had just eaten.
Friday - known as Black Friday - in the United States got off to an early start - 0800 hours. Many of the local residents were out and about in their pyjamas. The town celebrates Black Friday and the start of the Christmas shopping frenzy by having a pyjama party. Those so attired earn a discount at the local shops. After meeting Steve and Sandi at the marina dressed in our street clothes, we went for breakfast at a popular local restaurant called T Ray's in a nearby Exxon service station. It reminded me a bit of the Irving Big Stops back in the Maritimes, except much more compact and definitely not part of a big chain of eateries. I highly recommend this place for breakfast. It is where the locals go and for good reason. Heaping platefuls of good food, especially the biscuits, which I devoured though still full from the Thanksgiving feast the previous evening. After breakfast, we helped Strathspey and Estelle provision their boats for the crossing to the Bahamas - anticipated in the next couple of weeks whenever a weather window presents itself. I decided to wait until Beth returns before doing the same for Madcap, though I did make an exception to take advantage of the incredibly low Florida wine prices. At the end of the afternoon, Steve and Sandi picked me up after I returned the rental to Enterprise and took me back to the beautifully landscaped Amelia Island Plantation for the annual Christmas lighting party. It seemed strange to be dressed in shorts, standing under palm trees drinking hot apple cider and listening to Christmas carols - but I could get used to this. The place was alive with children and young families spending quality time together. From there we returned to Fernandina Beach and a local restaurant to help Mary (Strathspey) celebrate her birthday. Nine of us gathered for this special occasion - Blair, Mary, Steve and Sandi, Jim and Jeannie Lea (Estelle), Bruce and Nancy Montgomery (Seabird) and me. It was another wonderful time of conversation, celebration and good food. Blair played the pipes and toasted his bride and we all wished Mary the best of health and happiness in the year to come. How lucky was I to be in Fernandina Beach while playing the bachelor!!
All good things must come to an end and Saturday was the designated day for me to take Madcap out solo for the first time. After speaking with Strathspey on the VHF we agreed to leave around 9 am and start down the ICW toward an anchorage at Pine Island, some fifty statute miles distant. Most of the trip took us through marshland areas, but there were tricky spots near the St. John's River and again under the Wonderwood, Atlantic Boulevard and McCormick bridges where currents ran very strong, especially because of the full moon. Those areas required lots of attention and a powerful engine. Apart from that, the greatest challenge was staying alert on the wheel for nine hours without relief. You don't have the time to enjoy the countryside and the wildlife as you do when cruising with a partner. I was glad when we arrived at mile 765 of the ICW and the Pine Island anchorage. I anticipated how to drop and hook the anchor by studying other solo sailors I had observed and I am happy to report all went well. There were a number of boats in the anchorage at that late hour but fortunately I was able to find a spot without difficulty. It was late in the day and I was very tired so there was no opportunity to tour around the anchorage.
St. Augustine, Florida was the next stop. It is a popular spot for cruisers and there are a number of us here now, so we decided to leave Pine Island early the next morning (0700 hours) for the short trip (13 miles) to St. Augustine in time to find space to anchor. The biggest challenge I faced today as a solo sailor was to raise the anchor, secure it and get back to the cockpit before Madcap drifted into a neighbouring boat or to shallow water. Luckily the anchor came up quickly and clean so I did not have to take time hosing the chain and anchor before storing them. As they did the previous day, Strathspey led the way out of the anchorage and along the ICW followed by Madcap and Seabird. Having another boat take the lead makes the solo navigator's challenge much easier. Before we knew it, we were at Vilano Beach and approaching St. Augustine. Our plan had been to explore San Sebastien River for a place to drop the hook; however, as we were waiting to catch the next opening of the Bridge of Lions, we received a call from Seabird to say that they were going to anchor in the area next to us just north of the Bridge. There were a number of spots available at this early hour and the view of historic St. Augustine and the walls of the Spanish Castillo de San Marcos was appealing. Taking Seabird's lead, we quickly revised our plans and dropped anchor in this attractive anchorage. There is another area just below the Bridge of Lions that is more popular, but in my opinion the northern anchorage is preferable. Either way, you have to be prepared for the construction noise from the Bridge of Lions. There is a dinghy dock available at St. Augustine Municipal Marina just south of the bridge. They charge $10 daily for dinghy space but that gives you access to showers and laundry facilities.
Shortly after anchoring, Mary came by in her dinghy to pick me up to go into town for lunch and sightseeing. Blair stayed on Strathspey to repair its windlass which had broken earlier in the day. St. Augustine dates back to September 1565 when Spanish colonists landed making it the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America. Sir Francis Drake attacked and burned this town in 1586. On November 25, 2007 however, the sun was shining, it was 80 degrees and the historic area of St. Augustine was a great place to wander - definitely having the feel of a Spanish settlement. We ate lunch at Columbia Restaurant, a popular eatery serving Cuban food. Its reputation is well deserved and I enjoyed a sampling of popular Cuban dishes - beans and rice, plantain, chicken, pork and beef. Following lunch, Mary and I wandered over to the Castillo de San Marcos. This fort dates its origins back to 1672. Over the years Spanish, British, American, Confederate and Union forces have occupied the fort. The walls of this stone fort were built of coquina, a shell-rock formation, quarried in the area. The National Park Service hires animators dressed in Spanish military uniforms dating back to 1702 when the fort was under siege from English forces. Spain successfully resisted the attack on the fort, but the English burned St. Augustine as they withdrew. The fort is well worth a visit. After touring it, we wandered over to an annual juried craft fair that was in its last day. The fair reminded me of the craft fair Beth and I visit every Christmas season at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa, except it is held outdoors and I was dressed in shorts and a T shirt. The afternoon quickly passed and it was time to head back to Madcap for the evening. After going into town Monday morning for breakfast with Blair, the rest of our second day in St. Augustine was spent doing chores on Madcap - including cleaning the waterline to remove the "waterway moustache". The internet connection is good from the anchorage so I was able to touch base with Beth via Skype to find out how things were at home. Fortunately our daughter, Mary Beth, lives in Moncton so Beth has also had some quality time with her while visiting her mother and father.
I plan to meet up with Beth again in Daytona Beach so I started the trek there today. Madcap left St. Augustine and caught the 9:30 opening of the Bridge of Lions. Since it is about fifty miles to Daytona Beach, I decided to break the trip into two days. Stratshpey and Madcap pulled into this pretty little anchorage some thirteen miles down the ICW from St. Augustine. We are anchored under the ruins of Fort Matanza, another fort dating back to the days of the Spanish occupation of Florida. It is a little cooler today, but it is fun to watch the dolphins breaking the surface of the water and the eagles soaring in the sky above. It has been an experience to be solely responsible for managing this sailboat for the first time. I feel good for having done that but look forward to the return of my sailing partner. I am thankful for having had the company and friendship of other cruisers while batchin' it.