Sunday, March 30, 2003

Leisurely Florida Trip - January 2003

 For the astute observer a gap in trailerable trips from 2000 to 2003 will be noticed. My wife and I had the chance to buy back my old Macgregor 65 demo boat and sailed it on a Bermuda/ NYC trip, a Caribbean cruise to Guatemala, and an Atlantic loop adventure during this time. Upon our return in March of 2002 the 65 was sold and we began to think about our next 26X trip.

            For some time I had wanted to sail the St. Johns River in Fla., so without much planning we grabbed some charts, hitched up the current demo boat, and beat an imminent cold, rainy front by heading south to Jacksonville, Fla. The St. Johns is a unique river, the only north flowing river in North America, and flows about 190 miles from mid-central Fla. near Kissimmee to Mayport on the Atlantic Ocean. January 4th we launched at knight’s bridge public ramp on Black creek, near Green Cove Springs. The ice on the deck made rigging the mast a bit more challenging , but in northern Florida below freezing nighttime temperatures are not unusual in January. Black Creek is so named because tannic acid from falling leaves imparts a rich Coca Cola color to the water. Eager to head “upriver” ( and not reading the guidebook until underway the next day)  we missed touring the long, narrow, deep creek touted as one of the most scenic on the river. Knight’s bridge would preclude the mast, but we could have cruised the creek and raised the mast later, one of the advantages of the Macgregor mast raising system.

 Armed with the St.John’s River guide  book (on line at purchased at a local West Marine, we set out for our first port of call, the Green Cove Springs city dock, which has electricity available for overnighters. In the 1800’s it was White Sulfur Springs, renowned for it’s mineral waters, and rivaled Sarasota as a tourist destination. The extension of the railroad to Key West lured vacationers further South, and Green Cove Springs’ heydey was at an end. The closing of a large Naval Base after WWII caused a further setback, but allowed the formation of a large Marina which is popular with long term storage and livaboard customers. Near the city dock is a lovely park with spring fed swimming pool. Several local restaurants, an old fashioned movie theater, ancient hotel and remodeled bed and breakfasts completed the homey feel.

            The River is wide here with good sailing so we took advantage of the favorable winds and rising temperatures and pushed on upstream  towards Palatka, about 30 miles. Some friends bought a waterfront home near Palatka where they keep their 55’ ocean going ketch. Unfortunately the bridge height at Green Cove Springs is 45’, plenty for the Macgregor but their ketch had to leave its main mast behind at the GCS Marina. The four of us enjoyed a short sail across the river and back  and , as is often the case, our friends were amazed at the versatility and spaciousness of the 26X. Reprovisioned with Grandmas fresh chocolate chip cookies we departed for the city dock of Palatka, with its welcome 110v electricity for our cabin heater.

We supped at Florida’s oldest railroad car diner , which has been serving customers for 70 years  ( and may not have changed their prices since then either ). Outdoor murals are scattered all over town and made a nice walking tour in the morning. Ravine State Park is within walking distance and has trails and gardens, swinging bridges over the ravine, and more. The guide book had mentioned a Burger King with dock across the river on the east side (east Palatka) where we headed for a brunch, before continuing on upstream.

Here the river narrows and becomes more winding, with less sailing possible. In the summer the river shelters Alligators, but we saw mostly birds, with manatees supposedly lurking under the waterlillys. Murphys Creek forms a meandering loop back to the main river at mile 90 and has a real wilderness feel. We skipped the side trip to Crescent lake and Crescent city, saved for another time. The cross Florida canal was started by the Army corp. of engineers but cancelled during the Nixon administration, leaving a sometimes operational lock to weed-choked lake Rodman, the local fisherman’s favorite bass spot. Further south the narrow, barely navigable Oklawaha river enters the St. Johns. We dragged rudders entering but found deep water and a beautiful and scenic trip part way up towards the dam that created Lake Rodman,  but a canoe would be needed for the last bit.

Just south Lake George, 5x12 miles and practically an inland sea, gave us a chance for a brisk hour sail, under reefed main and genoa to accommodate the puffs. It required the use of out GPS to locate our overnight anchorage at Silver Glen Springs. With an Island at its mouth, and squinting into the setting sun, it was difficult to spot. Depths are minimal with snags  ( sunken tree branches) to catch the rudders, Once inside, the spring fed water is warm and crystal clear. Spanish moss laden cypress trees line the banks with thick mats of hyacinths along the edge. Our plans for a skinny dip were foiled by several other cruisers enjoying the mild winter ambiance. Anhingas, cormorants, ducks, herons, and fish are all attracted by the warmth, and protected by the adjacent state park. Although there are no docks for landing, several dinghies were pulled up on the shore. Our rustic anchorage saw the revival of beef stew made from our Atlantic crossing ship’s stores, and tasty and filling it was, to see us through the first night without the electric heater.

Morning temps were about 40. Hot coffee and cinnamon buns helped , and we were soon back under sail on Lake George. The brisk winds had diminished so the reef was shaken out and by 11am we were in Astor, an area of fishing camps and houseboat rentals at mile 110. Much of the river shoreline is natural with the occasional cluster of retirement trailers and towns that are little more than bait stores and gas docks. We spotted Bald Eagles in the treetops of trees that actually have leaves and redbud blossoms. Manatees are attracted to the springs at blur River state park, and we saw tourists staring at the gentle creatures from boardwalks over the creek. Beaching is possible but rental houseboats had usurped all the space, and we could stop at the park by car while fetching the camper and trailer. By late afternoon we reached Lake Monroe about 3x5 miles and motored in the calm  winds  to the Monroe Harbor Marina at the town of Sanford. The hot showers and warm cabin were much appreciated, as was the lively waterfront bar/restaurant overlooking the sunset.

 Sanford has car rentals so we drove a rented car back to Green Cove Springs and picked up the motorhome and trailer, which had been left in a storage yard 1 mile from the launch ramp. We enjoyed retracing our river trip by car and stopped at several of the little towns we had passed through while on  the river. Leaving the camper and empty trailer in the marina ramp parking lot, we settled in for the last night aboard before pulling the boat out, dropping the mast , and moving back aboard the camper. The trip had been a pleasant experience, but a little warmer temperature would have been welcome. November, December or March and April would be better for northern Florida, but may have more mosquitos. We had almost none. We spent a relaxing day in Sanford doing the walking tour of historic buildings and perusing the many antique shops and intimate restaurants.

Our plans called for visiting some friends near Tampa. The west  coast of Florida has numerous bays and rivers, beaches, historic areas etc. to be explored at leisure with a trailerable boat. We visited Tampa Bay and Anna Maria island in 1992 in a Macgregor 26C, and explored from Marco Island to Punto Gorda on Charlotte Harbor in ’96 aboard a 26X. The visit went well but temperatures weren’t cooperating so it was down to the Florida keys a week or so later for hopefully warmer weather and some more great sailing!

As we drove past the Everglades we fondly remembered the 1991 trip with a Macgregor 19 powersailor with our two children. We sailed to the Bahamas and later launched at Flamingo and learned there was a lot more water in the Everglades than we had supposed, miles of it, before trailering down to Bahia Honda and Key West. On key Largo there are several places hospitable to trailered boats, but we had made arrangements to meet some relatives at Bahia Honda State park, so that is where we launched. That evening our night’s sleep was interrupted by bright lights and engine noise. The local salvage company had retrieved a 22'’powerboat which had flooded and sank, the hapless skipper being rescued by helicopter. Hauled and inspected no apparent cause could be found, until they realized that the stream of water coming out the back was NOT from the drain plug, but from the baitwell intake hose, which had obviously cracked or come off, flooding the boat. Sad that the owner could have saved his boat simply by stuffing a rag in the hole and pumping the boat dry with the bilge pump.

Next day was cloudy, breezy and cool ( cold is what Joyce would say) but according to Norwegian sailors, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes”, so by 9:30am we were under reefed main and genny again blasting towards Key West, 35 miles away. What a great sail! We covered 30 miles in 4 ½ hours and were tied up at Oceanside Marina on Stock Island next to Key West by 3pm. Most of the distance was fairly close to shore so waves were minimum, you could feel the difference when the fetch reached a mile or more. Even though the temps were a bit disappointing, at least we were sailing and not shoveling snow back home.

The marina was nearly full of race boats prepping for Key West race week, some 300 entries in all. They were in various stages of readiness and provided hours of entertainment. Sunday sunny skies and moderate winds made for a great downwind ride to Key West, wing and wing with the pole out. Needless to say, all the usual marinas in Key West bight were full of race boats, so I tooled the two miles (1/2 mile if you are willing to drop the mast for a bridge) over to the city marina at Garrison Bight. After the $20 slip on Lake Monroe, the $53 at Oceanside and $45 at the city marina per night were a bit bracing, but I remembered how much it was with the 65’ and felt better. With the scooter rental across the street and Key West beckoning it was off for some fun downtown. The sunset scene at Key West’s Mallory dock is legendary, with acrobats, musicians, and other street performers and food and drinks as the sun sets over the fleet of tall sailing ships packed with tourists.

While cruising around town on the scooter we stumbled into the deal of the trip. Casa Ramos, located a couple blocks from the southernmost point in the U.S., a beautiful, restored multi-million dollar waterfront home, had just opened as a small hotel. For $500-800/night you could stay there, or for $8/person take a tour and spend the day relaxing on their waterfront deck, use the heated pool with quality changing rooms with baths, and generally pretend to be a millionaire. Drinks were served at the poolside cash bar, and a snack bar was nearby for munchies. The house boasts a $3 million dollar presidential signature collection and more Hemingway mementos that his local museum.  This was our viewpoint for Monday’s racing activities. Returning to the 26X, we pulled out the cockpit cushions, popped open the bimini and enjoyed afternoon wine and smoked salmon,  the envy of the streetside perambulators.

In the morning we set out again to view the racers from a closer perspective, about 100’ from the start. The excitement is palpable as boats jockey for position and crews shout at each other. We watched the Melges 24s, J-80’s, J-105’s and other race boats in nearly ideal conditions for several hours. We cruised slowly around under reefed main only for best visibility, keeping the engine in reserve. We headed back towards Bahia Honda, stopping to watch the afternoon start of the PHRF handicap classes. The winds abated in time for a motorboat ride back to Marathon in time for a spectacular sunset at our overnight anchorage in Boot Key Harbor.

Next morning we exited Boot key harbor via Angelfish creek, a winding, narrow waterway and leisurely sailed wing and wing to Sombrero reef for a morning snorkle. Plenty barracuda, and other colorful tropical fish as well. Visibility was good in the calm conditions. Arriving back at Bahia Honda we found a note on the camper from my nephew, David, who was camping there with his wife and 3 small children. Only David had sailed (with me on an adventures gulf stream crossing in ’88 on a Macgregor26D. 7 – 10’ waves, 25kt NE winds, FUN!) So the next day, with better winds, we took the family for a nice daysail. The kids had a big time and David said it  helped make up for 1988. The next cold front was scheduled to blow in and it did, right as I was retrieving the boat onto the trailer, but the mast raising system worked flawlessly in the stiff wind and soon we were ready to meander our way north again.

The trip back to Maryland was pleasant and uneventful. We did stop in 2 state parks (actually had an Armadillo check out one campsite) and drove along much of A1A, which is slower but more scenic than interstate 95. In Coconut Grove, a ritzy neighborhood south of Miami, we paid our $8 boat ramp fee and parked overnight with our camper and boat the only vehicles in the marina parking lot. Many restaurants, art displays, bars and movies within easy walking distance.  We would have been asked to leave with the camper alone, but having the boat made us ‘boaters” and therefore acceptable. We were tempted to stay a few days, and should have. The nearby historic home “ The Barnacle” is one of Florida’s smallest and lesser known state parks. Well worth a visit. All in all we were gone 28 days, 3250 miles, 12 days on the boat, expenses averaged about $100/day ( with a motorhome getting 7 mpg). It was another great Macgregor trailerable adventure. I hope you will enjoy many of your own. So long ‘til next time from First Mate Joyce and Capt. Jim