November 6, 2016

After spending the summer at the dock at St Simons Island, dodging not one, not two but three major storms, including a full-blown hurricane (see Cindy’s story for the details on THAT little adventure!) and getting work done on our boat (electric flush toilet! new inside and outside stereo speakers!  remote mike at the helm!), we are ready to push off and head to the warmer southern latitudes once again. Cindy sits at the salon table plotting our course for the next few days, including looking at updates on ActiveCaptain to see how Hurricane Matthew has “remodeled” the ICW, while I lay in supplies and service our twin diesels. After sitting still for so long, we’re both excited and nervous about getting underway again.

Tuesday morning, our planned departure day, greets us with an unexpected (and unpleasant) surprise, as a thick blanket of fog envelops our marina. This is not what we want; even with a chartplotter and radar, no one wants to try to navigate without visual information. Fortunately, the fog burns off by 9:30, leaving us plenty of daylight to get to our first anchorage of the trip south. With out dockmaster Chick’s able help, we back JOD away from the dock, spin her around in the fairway and begin our journey.

As is usually the case, once the fog burns away we are blessed with blue sky and sunshine the rest of the day. We pass through Jekyll Creek at high tide, always a requirement since at one particular spot the water depth drops to just a few feet at low tide. We approach St Andrews Sound with our usual trepidation since passage across this body of water, wide open to the often feral ocean, can be challenging or even dangerous if wind and current are in opposition. But God is with us and the sound is about as smooth as we’ve ever seen it.


Back Under Way Again

Once we are safely tucked into the lee of Cumberland Island, we settle back into the easy rhythm of daily sailing. JOD’s diesels hum serenely as we glide along Cumberland’s undeveloped shores, at one point spotting several of the island’s famous wild horses grazing near the water’s edge. Ahead of us, dolphins breach the water, a sight we’ve both missed seeing. We reach our first anchorage at the southern end of Cumberland Island by 3:00 (our usual first day stopping point, Fernandina Harbor Marina, having been so badly damaged by Matthew that it will be unable to accept transient cruisers for much of the year).

Again, I worry that we might have gotten rusty on our anchoring skills during the past few months at the dock, but we drop and set our anchor and bridle without a hitch. With the engines cut off, JOD bobs peacefully at anchor and our senses re-attune to the rhythms of life on the open water. That night, the waves rock us to sleep for the first in five months.

The next morning, I make breakfast before checking our engines; our first instructor, Shell, impressed upon us the importance of doing daily checks and even though I just serviced the engines, I still heed the lesson. We haul up our anchor by 9:30 and do the fairly short 22 nautical mile hop to our next stop at the municipal dock at Sisters Creek outside Jacksonville. This free dock has become a favorite stopping place of ours. Given the short distance and subsequent early arrival, we are confidant we will be able to secure a spot at this first-come-first-serve dock. We normally are one of only one or two boats at this dock.


Intra-Coastal Selfie

We pass by Fernandina and see the severity of the damage to the docks. We hope that they will be able to repair them quickly since this quaint little beachside town is one of our favorite stops along the ICW. As we approach Sisters Creek (dodging a floating tree in the waterway that our fellow cruisers have warned about), I’m dismayed to see the dock is almost full. We are in the thick of the southward migration of cruisers and I fear this will be a recurrent issue as we work our way south.

It looks like there might be a space at the very end of the dock but we are wary as to whether there is enough room to accommodate JOD. As we turn the squirrelly currents where Sisters Creek flows into the ICW spin JOD around and we start to despair of being able to dock. However, the owner of the next boat up from the end of the dock calls us on the VHF radio and tells us a 42-foot catamaran just left so our 38-footer should fit just fine. He advises Cindy on how to approach the dock and with several folks helping us with our lines we are soon tied up securely to the dock.


ICW Wilderness

Missy wastes little time making friends on the dock as we meet our fellow cruisers. Towards evening, another boat comes in looking for a spot to dock; we get on the radio and offer to left them raft up to our boat since no open space is left on the facedock. However, another cruiser advises them that there is enough depth for a boat to tie up opposite side of the dock across from us. As tight as the dock lies to the shore, we had not thought another boat could fit in there, but with several of us helping with their lines, they too are soon tied in safely.

A while later we see yet another small sailboat approach the dock, this one being towed by one of the TowboatUS boats. The duo heads to the spot in front of the last boat and with even more helping hands on the dock pulling the sailboat in by its lines, it too is soon safely tied up. Turns out they lost their engine earlier in the day and would be working on their engine much of the night.

The next morning we’re making ready to get underway (engine checks!) and I chat with John, one of the two guys on the disabled boat. He tells me of their travails of the previous day, their engine failing out in the middle of the busy St Johns Inlet. He’s a young guy, ready for adventure and views any such issues as interesting challenges to overcome; I tend to view them more with abject fear. He also explains that he lives on a $0 budget, relying on serendipity and karma to get by. I’m a long way from his level of Zen.

Casting off from the dock, we work our way through the marshlands of the north Florida ICW. White egrets and large gray herons high step along the riverbank, dolphins swim alongside and folks wave at us from the shore. The few houses in this part of the waterway range from the quaint to the beautiful. Once we hit Palm Beach, they will vary from the ostentatious to the obscene, but for now we enjoy them as we sail by.

Pine Island Sunset

That afternoon we anchor south of Pine Island, one of our favorite anchorages as it lies in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest, marshland and quiet. By the time night falls, there are 8 other boats anchored with us (the southward migration!) but all is at peace. We sit in the cockpit and drink in the quiet, listening to the squawking of marsh birds and the lapping of waves against our hull. I am unpleasantly surprised to hear how often planes fly overhead though, intruding on our solitude. Even this far from the grid, true quiet is hard to come by.