January 10, 2015
It’s now Saturday morning and the front has finally passed through. After hunkering down on Friday, meeting Rich again for lunch and then picking tangerines and grapefruits at his house, we’re ready to move on down the ICW. The morning is sunny but still cold, so we stay bundled up in fleece and Hot Chili’s. We top off the water tanks, fire up the engines (checking for cooling seawater flow!!) and cast off the lines at 9:00 am. A trawler decides to push off at the same time, first cutting in front of us and then trailing alongside us. We wait for them to pass us and then realize they’re wanting to follow us. The ICW has some tricky shallow spots through this section and I guess they’re wanting someone to show them the way. Clearly they don’t realize this is our first trip down The Ditch!
Cindy Picking Tangerines and Bundled Up Against the Cold
We follow the waterway markers south, keeping green markers to port and red to starboard. We note that the scenery has indeed changed as the waterway guides had stated. South of the Florida line, there is much more development on the banks than back in Georgia. About 40 minutes out of Fernandina we hit our first crab pot. Damn!! We’ve been keeping a sharp eye out for these floats which mark where local crabbers have dropped their crab pots. Unfortunately they are everywhere and hitting them is fairly inevitable. They are supposed to be dropped outside of the channel but liberties are often taken. Fortunately we don’t foul our prop with the line so we dodged a bullet. A few minutes later, a crab boat passes us as the occupants wave. They then proceed to drop pots off their boat every few hundred yards. It’s like trailing behind a minelayer.
Continuing down the waterway, we come to our first bridge transit. The first bridge we pass is the Kingsley Creek Railroad Swing Bridge, a 5 foot high train bridge which stays open unless there is a train coming. Unfortunately there is no regular train schedule and no warning that the bridge is about to close. The waterway guide simply suggests you listen for train whistles. I step outside the cockpit as we near and strain to hear any oncoming train, but the only sound is the hum of our engines. We pass safely through the bridge and almost immediately come to our next challenge, the Kingsley Creek Twin Bridges.
These two side-by-side fixed bridges carry automobile traffic over the Amelia River. Fixed bridges on the ICW have a height of 65 feet and our boat is supposed to be “ICW-friendly”, but clearances vary with the tide and all heights are approximate, so it’s still nerve wracking to pass under them. We approach slowly and I stay outside the cockpit enclosure to see how we’re looking. About 3 feet before we reach the bridge, I’m sure our mast is going to hit but we pass through without even touching our VHF antenna. At the angle that I’m viewing, it’s almost impossible to tell how close we really come.
Cindy Driving Just One Dance
We pass a pod of dolphins that arch lazily beside us as they head north. It’s amazed us how many dolphin we’ve seen in the past few days, the ICW seems to be teaming with them. In a narrow channel we pass two tugboats in a pull-push configuration moving a large dredge in the opposite direction but we pass them safely on our port side. Somewhere around this point the boat that has been following us decided to pass. Honestly these guys could be doing 10-15 knots easily, why they have been trolling along behind us at our max motoring speed of about 7 knots is a mystery to us.
Reaching the approach where Sisters Creek flows into the St John’s River we come up on our first drawbridge. Officially known as bascule bridges, these bridges either open on demand or in busier areas at fixed times (if you show up early or late, you get to motor around in circles until opening time). We get on the VHF radio and hail the bridge. They respond quickly. A couple of minutes later we see the guard gates come down and then the bridge halves rise at a stately pace until they are nearly vertical. We proceed through and wave to the bridge keeper.
Sisters Creek Drawbridge
We enter the St John’s River, a major shipping channel that we need to cross to reach Jacksonville Beach, our destination for today. The signs advise minimizing the channel crossing time and with good reason. Major merchant vessels ply the St John’s, on their way into and out of the Atlantic shipping channels. Our little Lagoon would hardly feel like a bump in the road if they hit us. We clear the St John’s River quickly and re-enter the ICW at Pablo Creek. Two miles further down the waterway we pass the Wonderwood Drive Twin Bridges, our next fixed bridge challenge. Again I visually check our clearance as we approach, again I’m sure we’ll hit and again we pass underneath safely. I tell Cindy from here on out, I’m not looking. It’s just too stressful.
Another two miles and we reach our final fixed bridge of the day, the Atlantic Beach Bridge just outside the city of Jacksonville Beach. I refuse to look up and check our clearance this time. We pass safely. Following the waterway guide’s advice, we pass Red Marker 32 before turning to starboard and heading into the entrance to Palm Cove Marina, our stopping point for the day. We rapidly find ourselves in less than 5 feet of water and start feeling the panic again. However the bottom starts dropping away and we maneuver through the tight serpentine channel leading into the marina. We later learn that the guide instructions were written under the assumption that another channel was going to be used to enter the marina and even though the marina has made the guidebook folks aware of the mistake it’s never been changed.
Per their instructions we’ve been hailing the marina on VHF channel 16 for docking instructions ever since we entered their channel but get no response. Calling the marina office on the cell phone elicits no response either. There is little room in the marina to circle around until we can reach someone so we decide to dock at the fuel dock, the only wide open space we can see that would hold our catamaran. Cindy walks our boat sideways right up to the dock and I jump out onto the dock and make fast our lines. I’m constantly amazed by how well Cindy handles that boat. We do eventually find the dockmaster and they decide we can just remain at the fuel dock and move if someone comes in to fuel.
It’s about 1:30 when we arrive and both Cindy and I are hungry. We head up to Marker 32, the restaurant at Palm Cove Marina, one that comes highly recommended in all of the online marina reviews (indeed some folks recommend stopping just to eat there). The door is open but unfortunately they are not open for lunch. The gentleman we talk to gives us several recommendations for lunch places and we decide that Mambo’s Cuban Grill and Pizzeria sounds tempting. It’s almost a mile and a half away but the weather is nice and Cindy and I decide we can use the walk, so we hoof off to find the place.
In short order we are at Mambo’s, a modern looking Cuban café located at the end of a strip mall (this is after all, Florida). We start with a Beef Empanada as an appetizer. I order Chicken D’Oro, which features tender strips of chicken breast sautéed in a sweet cayenne hot sauce served over yellow rice with black beans and fried plantains. Cindy decides on the personal seafood paella and plantains. The food is massive and magnificent. We wolf down as much as we can, mindful that we still have to waddle a mile and a half back to the marina when we’re finished. Cindy packs half her paella in a to-go box and I resolve that this meal will serve as both lunch and dinner.
It turns cold again as the sun goes down, and we decide to use the marina showers so we don’t have to conserve hot water. Standing under the hot streams of water not having to worry about the dent I’m making in our boat’s water supply feels decadent. When we’re done I ask Cindy if she is up for getting a drink at Marker 32 since I really want to sample this restaurant. We walk up, get a couple of seats at the bar and look over their signature cocktails menu. Cindy opts for a Cucumber Basil Collins while I select the Porch Swing.
As we wait for our drinks, we eye the appetizers on the menu the bartender left conspicuously in front of us, both of us homing in on the Steak Tartare. I grew up in a German family eating steak tartare and introduced Cindy to it at Bistro CV in downtown Steamboat Springs a few years back, a meal we still talk about. My earlier resolve crumbles by the wayside as we order the tartare and their signature bruschetta. Our drinks arrive and we toast to a second successful day on the ICW.
The restaurant is warm and the Saturday night crowd is lively, a mix of locals and dock dwellers. We’re feeling good, talking about our day and people-watching at the bar. The apps arrive and both are delectable. The caper vinaigrette adds an acidic note to the tartare and the grilled toast adds a crunchy component that offsets the tenderness of the raw steak. The goat cheese on the bruschetta is creamy and tart, the olive tapenade earthy and the marinated tomatoes add a hint of sweetness. We polish them off and decide to go all in and order dessert.
Cindy orders the Carmel Apple Cheesecake while I opt for the Bourbon and Raisin Bread Pudding. Best.Thing.Ever. The whiskey-soaked bread is warm and gooey, with crusty caramelized edges that add a chewiness to the dish. The cold praline ice cream melts and mixes with the buttery bourbon sauce, caressing our mouths with sensations alternately cold and warm. The salted pecans pieces sprinkled over the top add a sharp counterpoint to the sweetness of the rest of the dish. Cindy and I devour it, allowing each bite to play over our tongues and seduce our taste buds. It’s an orgasm on a plate. The cheesecake suffers by comparison.
Bourbon and Raisin Bread Pudding
Total Distance Travel: 64 nautical miles