Bonnie James and Jim Miller sailed their Newfoundland-registered Victoire yacht ‘Vagrant Sea’ from the Queen City Yacht Club in Toronto via the ICW to the Bahamas and now Jim covers the return journey
Intracoastal Waterway – Florida to Georgia – ICW North part 3
As we reach northern Florida, it makes sense to take a side trip off the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW). Peter, who has crewed for the trip from Abaco, Bahamas, needs airport access to catch a flight to return to his winter home in Sarasota. The boat’s usual crew, Bonnie, also needs a major centre for her arrival, which means moving inland from the small tourist towns along the coast.
We travel fifteen miles up the St. John’s River to Jacksonville. The incoming tide gives us a boost, and we marvel at the sight of ocean-going freighters so far from salt water. Jacksonville Landing is a free dock space in a shopping area of downtown Jacksonville.
A mini boat is scheduled for the weekend, so we drop in. There are two go-fast 40 footers on display, with price tags of $635,000 US. They are powered by twin 465 hp Cummings diesels. Peter, coming from the trucking industry, comments that each engine could pull 60,000 pounds of freight!
Over the next couple of days we enjoy strolling the downtown area. The architecture is a mix of historic Spanish and modern American. The refurbishing of the core area is progressing well. Being tied up to the shopping center provides interesting entertainment, as we watch the passers-by and they try to figure out what we are doing. When you are this far from home, all fellow Canadians regard you as family and make a point of stopping to exchange greetings and find out what part of the country you call home. For years we had only the vessel name and Holyrood, as home port, on our transom. Since we rarely encountered anyone who had ever heard of Holyrood, last year we added Newfoundland. For some reason, this has turned boat and crew into objects of great curiosity. Many people open their conversations with references to one of the Newfoundland movies showing in the winter of 2002 – The Shipping News, Rare Birds or Random Passage. (As an aside, it’s a good thing we’ll be home soon – there’s no more space on the transom to amend to the province’s new name by adding ‘and Labrador’).
Bonnie arrives at 2:00 a.m. on a Greyhound bus. The past two weeks are the only time the boat has sailed without her since it left Canada in 1997 and it is good to have her back on board. The next morning we catch the outbound tide down river and back into the waterway. In this section of the ICW there are several narrow land cuts. Today we meet a southbound tug pushing several barges though one of the narrowest sections. I radio ahead and pull off to the side, gently grounding us. The tug skipper edges as close as possible to the other side and slows to avoid sucking us towards him. We pass with about 20 feet of clearance.
Fernandina Beach is our final stop in Florida, just south of the Georgia state line. We have often used this location as a laundry and shrimp stop. There is a seafood store right on the waterfront and we always treat ourselves. One time when we arrived here, the Palace Saloon, a 100-year-old facility, had burned the night before. There were many tearful comments, along the lines of “I had my first beer there”. It was good to see that it has been restored and reopened.
Fernandina Beach is an old town that was chosen by the Spanish for its excellent deep water port. The British were next to occupy and retain control until the early 1800’s when the new United States took control. The indigenous native tribes made peace eventually with the new country, allowing the development of Florida to what it has become today.
Fernandina has two large pulp mills, one on either side of the anchorage. This envelopes us with the characteristic sulfurous odour in almost any wind condition. In the night, the pollution and bright lights combine to look like a scene from Dante’s inferno. The anchorage is wide, shallow and the holding is atrocious. One night a huge black wooden schooner swinging on hundreds of feet of rope chased us all over the anchorage, trying its best to spear us with its long bowsprit. We hauled anchor at 2:00 a.m. and retreated out of reach in the far regions of the harbour. The city marina is not much of an alternative. It constantly silts in at the docks, and many of the resident boats are aground for most of each 24-hour cycle.
As we cross the Georgia border, Cumberland Island lies ahead. Once a vacation retreat of the rich and famous, the island was turned into a national park to protect the sensitive sand dunes of the coastline ecosystem. It is good to see that foresight prevails against indiscriminate land development of such a pristine area. We go ashore for the afternoon and explore the island. We walk to the ocean side and stroll the beach, just enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.
Next morning we leave the island park and proceed in through Cumberland Sound. This is a wide, deep channel, well-buoyed with the International System up to the large nuclear submarine base. We are escorted past the restricted area by a small patrol boat. The resumption of the ICW is marked by a change to the inland buoy system. The red-right-returning sea buoys now become green and the number sequence changes. In spite of several transits, this is one place where we refer to our own handwritten notations in the guide book to avoid making wrong turns. Concern about intrusion of recreational vessels into base territory has heightened after September 11, and we hear the patrol boats giving radio warnings to several confused skippers.
The trip north through Georgia is uneventful. It is a meandering waterway with a lot of ‘S’ curves. Tidal range can get up to 12 feet and the land is quite low. We can see why they have so many problems with storm surges; the water gets pushed up all these bays by the winds and has no place to go. The result is massive flooding as the houses are only a few feet above high tide. Both commercial and recreational fishing are big here, with shrimp being the main species caught commercially. The average size boat is in the fifty foot range. You see them heading out through the narrow inlets to the sea, to return in the evening with their fresh catches.
We spend the Presidents’ Weekend holiday in Isle of Hope, just outside Savannah. My sister lives nearby and she and her husband join us for a visit to the city. Readers will remember a number of movies set in Savannah, notably Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The city has some beautiful older sections. It is laid out in an unusual grid pattern, with small neighbourhoods clustered around central squares. Thinking about Midnight in the Garden leads us to touring some of the city’s famous cemeteries – an interesting way to pass an afternoon. On the way back to the boat, we take advantage of the car to pick up a new battery.
Fair winds and snug harbours,
Jim Miller – Vagrant Sea
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