It’s Wednesday, January 7th and the sun rises on a beautiful day at Fenandina Beach. We were planning to sail on to Jacksonville Beach today but in going over our route last night, Cindy realized that we would hit the St John’s River with about a 5 ½ knot current on our nose. Given that under both engines we can only get about 6-7 knots, we’d be struggling to make it.
This is something new for us. All of our previous sailing has been in the Caribbean where you’re close enough to the equator that the tides are inconsequential, there aren’t any real currents to speak of and all of the sailing is in fairly open waters. The Intercoastal Waterway, lovingly referred to by boaters as The Ditch, is much narrower and at these northerly latitudes runs fairly significant tides and currents and these need to be figured in to our sailing plans.
Given that the weather report is also calling for gale force winds of 30 knots gusting to 40 knots on Thursday (something we do NOT want to be sailing in), we decide to spend the next couple of days at Fernandina and sail to Jacksonville Beach on Friday, timing our run so that we hit St John’s on a favorable tide (taking into account that high and low tides shift about 55 minutes each day).
We go to the marina office and pay for two more days. The manager mentions the upcoming gale on Thursday and suggests we put out extra fenders (bumpers you hang over the side of the boat that keep the boat from banging into the dock). We already have all six of ours out and he tells us he has a couple extra that he will give us. We don’t think too much about this (foreshadowing!) and wander off to get breakfast at T Ray’s, a place that the manager and some of our boat friends at Jekyll had raved about.
T Rays is located in an old gas station and their reviews online are pretty much five star all the way. I have a love/hate relationship with places that folks rave about as they seldom end up living up to expectations. But they claim to have good biscuits and gravy and in my mind, few things beat biscuits, gravy and a fried egg for breakfast.
We arrive to find the place doing a brisk breakfast business. We queue up and place our order and are quickly informed that they are out of gravy. Really? I walked 9 blocks and passed a half a dozen other breakfast places and they don’t have what I’ve been jones-ing for all morning? Disappointed I order grits, sausage, fried eggs and a biscuit with coffee while Cindy orders an omelet.
My next disappointment is to be handed a Styrofoam cup for my coffee. Styrofoam? A diner should have real ceramic coffee cups. Likewise the butter for our biscuits is a small plastic tub of whipped breakfast spread and my food comes served on one of those cheap brown salad plates you get at the dollar store. The food is good but not better than any other breakfast place I’ve been to. When I go to bathroom, I find its outside, as you might expect in a gas station, and in good gas station fashion the john is filled with paper towels. We leave unimpressed.
We head back to the boat and get Missy so we can take her on a walk while we tour the historic district of Fernandina Beach. The sun is shining and its warm and Missy clearly enjoys being out somewhere new, with lots of new smells and new people and dogs to love on (Fernandina is quite dog-friendly). We stop off at the marina restaurant for a drink and a snack and then head back to the boat. As we walk down the dock, we realize that we are the only boat still on the facedock.
This is somewhat concerning to us and we get even more concerned when we see the boats from the sailing school heading away from the inside dock across from us and heading over to the more protected interior south end of the marina. Then Cindy reads a comment to her Facebook post from Rich, one of our friends from Jekyll Island who lives at Fernandina telling us we need to get off the facedock now and real panic starts to set in.
It turns out that the coming northwest winds will howl straight across the open sound, generating waves and slamming us into the dock. Everyone else has moved to the inside docks and slips where the facedock will break the swells and protect their boats. The marina office is closed, so we call the after hours number to see if we can get moved into the inside dock and are informed by the answering service that they will not contact anyone from the marina unless directed to do so by the Coast Guard. WTF?!!
Rich, a fourth generation mariner and owner of the local TowBoat US service for the Fernandina area, graciously comes down to the marina and assesses how well we are set up to ride out the coming gale on the facedock. Its getting dark and the wind is already starting to pick up when he arrives. He quickly determines that our small fenders aren’t designed to give us reliable protection under these kinds of conditions. He then even more graciously offers to lend us his four orange “big boy” fenders from his towboat, so we pile into his truck and run over to his house to pick them up.
Heading back to the boat we shove the boat out away from the dock under the quickening wind so that we can get his fenders between the boat and the dock and then secure them to the stanchions. We then get out all of the extra lines on the boat and run them to the dock to tie us in securely. By the time we’re done, we have a veritable spider’s web connecting us to the dock. Rich looks it over and declares he’d be comfortable spending the night on the boat (oddly, Rich likes sailing in bad weather, the sign of a true sailor). With that blessing and his reassurance that we can call him anytime during the night if we get in trouble and our promise of lunch the next day at the place of his choosing to repay him for his kindness, we bid each other good night.
Fenders and Line (the orange ones are Rich’s)
Feeling much better than we did a couple of hours earlier, we head off to dinner at the Salty Pelican, since the boat is pitching and bobbing too much for me to cook dinner onboard. A couple of drinks and some good food in the convivial atmosphere of a beach bar did a lot to relax us after the stress of the last couple of hours. After paying our tab, we headed out into wind, now steadily blowing at 20 knots, and down to our boat.
We sat up for about 45 minutes keeping an eye on the boat before deciding that it really was safe from the dock and heading off to bed. The boat did pitch and heave throughout the night and waves regularly slapped the hull but it never felt like we were about to lose control. Both of us slept fairly soundly, though we also both got up several times during the night to check the lines and fenders. We made sure to get up at 2:00am. Seas will be the most confused when the current and the wind are in opposite directions and at 2:00 the outgoing tide at Fernandina would slam into the wind at maximum speed. None of the lines let go and the fenders stayed put.
By morning the winds had died down considerably, though they still continued to howl most of the day. We bundled up against the cold that blew in with the front and met with Rich at Shucker’s, a place favored by the Fernandina locals and treated him to lunch to repay him for his help. We later talked to the marina manager and found at that they did want to move us to the inside dock but the width of our catamaran prevented that. He did promise to look into the response we got from the answering service.
All in all, Cindy and I considered this a good experience, though of course it did not feel like it at the time. We learned some lessons (get big boy fenders!) and us and the boat came through unharmed. These are undoubtedly not the last lessons we will learn on this trip.
Total Distance Traveled: 36 miles