In the Home Stretch

From New Smyrna Beach, we were looking at three days to get home to St. Marys. The first day would cover 49 miles from NSB to the Marineland marina, where we were fortunate to get reservations for the last two available slips for Dubhe and Madge. The second day would cover 58 miles from Marineland to Jacksonville’s free public dock at Sisters Creek, where we would have to take our chances on getting a spot. The third day would cover the final 33 miles for us to get to our mooring in the St. Marys River, and mark the end of our travels with Dubhe, which would continue north toward Beaufort, SC.

Our biggest concern was the weather. It was turning nasty, with winds predicted at 15-20 kts, gusts to just under 30, and elevated chances for rain. Under these conditions, cruisers up and down the ICW would be heading for safe anchorages or filling up all available spots in marinas and mooring fields. We felt confident we could handle the predicted winds, but worried about the gusts and the possibility that they might be stronger than forecast. We also worried about the free dock at Sisters Creek. We would be arriving at the very end of the day, and our chances of finding two spaces would be seriously reduced if everybody else was looking for a hidey-hole to wait out the bad weather. Not only that, but the winds had shifted around to the north-northeast, and the tides were against us, which meant we’d be pushing against the current practically all the time. We would be lucky to average a speed between 4.5 and 5.0 kts, or between 5.0 and 5.5 miles per hour, making for some very long days.

We left the NSB City Marina at about 7:30 on Wednesday morning, A few minutes later, we reached the draw bridge just north of the marina planning to go through at the 7:40 opening, but the bridge tender told us we hadn’t called in time, and we’d have to wait for the 8:00 opening. We lost 20 minutes — not much, but sometimes even little delays can make a big difference. The current was with us for the short ride to the Ponce Inlet, but as soon as we got north of it we hit the strong tidal current head on, and our speed dropped. The next obstacle was the notorious curve at the Matanzas inlet, which we’d be hitting about an hour before low tide. Since this is where we grounded Madge on our trip south, Dubhe took the lead and gave us depth soundings as we slowly crept through the tricky stretch. The shoals in the area are constantly changing, but the Coast Guard keeps up with the buoys, moving them to indicate the shifting channel. We mostly had good depth, but I saw six feet at one point, which got my heart rate up a bit. Once we cleared Matanzas, we had a fairly straight shot to Marineland through protected waterways, which helped block the wind, but we were still straight into the current. The Marineland marina honored our reservations, and we pulled into the last two spots in the late afternoon. The wind was still blowing close to 20 kts, but the expectation was that it would die down a bit during the night.

The respite from the wind that we hoped for never materialized. Thursday morning was just as blustery as Wednesday had been. In addition, the clouds were lower and more threatening, almost guaranteeing that we’d see rain. The wind was still expected to be in the neighborhood of 20 kts, which we had managed to push through the day before, so we decided to continue north. We couldn’t stay in Marineland. There was no room. As we headed out at first light, I started to look for alternatives that would allow us to sit out the bad weather. There was no urgent need for us to get home by Friday. The Dubhes had a need to push ahead, but we didn’t — plus, their trip home was about three days longer than ours. We were about three hours south of St. Augustine when I called the municipal marina to see if we could get a mooring ball there. We’d ridden out some bad weather there in January on our way south, and knew that it was secure. Unfortunately, the mooring field south of the Bridge of Lions was full, and I didn’t want to be in the north mooring field with the strong winds coming out of the north. We continued on behind Dubhe past St. Augustine, still looking for protected anchorages along the way. A bit farther north, we checked out Pine Island, which is about halfway between Vilano Beach and Ponte Vedra Beach. There were already boats there, and not enough room left for us. As we continued along the ICW behind Palm Valley and Ponte Vedra, the narrow canal — with the Cabbage Swamp on the west side and large houses to the east — gave us some protection from the wind, but as we broke into the open marshes around Jacksonville Beach we were feeling the full affects of the wind again. We would have to get at least as far as Sisters Creek, north of the St. Johns River, to find a protected anchorage. We had a brief delay while waiting out a large container ship before crossing the St. Johns River, arriving at the Sisters Creek free dock around four o’clock. The dock was full, and the anchorage in the creek was too exposed. We continued on. About an hour later, we passed the Fort George Island anchorage. It was deserted — for good reason, it seemed, since it offered little protection from the wind. Finally, a little after six o’clock and with the rain starting to blow in, we pulled into the Sawpit Creek cut-off to Nassau Sound. I was determined to stop there, come Hell or high water. (Actually, Hell and high water had already arrived.) Two boats were already in the anchorage, but they were spaced far apart. There was open water between them. The shallowest water we could find was about 15 ft (it was just past high tide), which was too deep for Dubhe. They headed out to find a spot along the northern edge of Nassau Sound. There was no protection from the wind in the creek, which was howling at 20-25 kts, and there were frequent gusts around 30 kts. But the creek was narrow and perpendicular to the wind, so the chop was manageable — at least, it was not as bad as Dinner Key had been. With strong north winds and a strong east-west tidal current, there would not be much swinging on the anchor. Even with the depth, we were able to let out enough chain to give us some assurance of good holding, and the anchor bit hard into the muddy bottom. We buttoned up for the night, contacted Dubhe to let them know we were safely on the hook, and to make sure they had found a safe anchorage. It was about seven o’clock. We had covered 67 miles in about 12 hours, at an average of just under 5 kts. I didn’t get much sleep. The tide turned at about 10:30 that night, and I wanted to make sure the anchor held when the current shifted. It did. I didn’t sleep well, waking to check our holding at midnight and 1:00 am. I set my alarm for 4 am so I could check the next tide change, and drifted into a few hours of fitful sleep — which ended up being all that I would get that night. After the alarm went off, I couldn’t get back to sleep. Though Madge was rock solid on the anchor, every sound or shift was magnified in my mind, and I’d have to get up and check it out. By seven thirty Friday morning, there was enough light for us to leave, so we weighed anchor and set off.

The wind was blowing steady around 25 kts, but the chop wasn’t too bad. Fortunately, the direction of the ICW didn’t allow enough fetch to produce stronger waves. We crossed Nassau Sound and headed up behind Amelia Island. We were only 24 miles from home. Dubhe was still at anchor as we passed them. They looked like they were out in the middle of the sound (which they weren’t, really), but they said the night had gone well. I know Perry got a lot more sleep than I did. We waved at them as we passed. We won’t see their faces again before we get to Beaufort later this summer, unless it’s in a picture online. Over the previous five weeks, we had traveled almost 500 miles with the little trawler and her crew, and had shared our best times of this cruise. We wished them a safe voyage, and trudged on into the wind, rain and current. Conditions were not too bad as we went up the Amelia River, but my anxiety started to rise as we got back into familiar water around Fernandina.

Cruise shipAlready that morning, we had been passed by three separate northbound Navy patrol boats. As we traversed the Amelia River, I began hearing radio messages hinting that a submarine might be coming in soon at Cumberland Sound. I also heard conversations between the Navy and a cruise ship that was heading for Fernandina Harbor Marina. That meant that between Madge and home we were likely to encounter: an outgoing tide in Cumberland Sound; sustained 25 kt northeast winds; 2-3 ft seas in Cumberland Sound; a cruise ship heading in our direction; and possibly a submarine that might cause us to stop and hold station in all that mess while it passed on its way to the submarine base at Kings Bay. When we turned north into the wide-open Fernandina Beach harbor area behind Amelia Island, we lost our protection from the wind. Even without the sails, Madge was heeled over about 10 degrees to port. Our tired old Perkins engine kept hammering away as we crept north. The tide was supposed to be going out, but the wind in our face seemed to be counteracting any benefit we might have gotten from it. As we entered the south end of Quarantine Reach, I caught sight of a triple-decker cruise ship heading east in Cumberland Sound. It would have to make a right turn to enter the Amelia River. Madge would have to make a left turn toward St. Marys. I didn’t want to have to cross the bow of the cruise ship, so I contacted it by radio, we exchanged our relative intentions, and I hugged the west side of the river hoping I could make my turn west before the bigger ship could turn towards me. Fortunately, Madge was able to cut some corners near the St. Marys Entrance and we were able to avoid getting anywhere near the ship.

Sub croppedAs we turned toward home in Cumberland Sound, I kept Madge as far out of the shipping channel as I could and still have enough depth for our draft, while trying to get as far west as possible as quickly as possible in order to get behind Cumberland Island enough to block some wind and reduce the height of the waves. Then, looking back over my shoulder, I saw the submarine coming in the Entrance. Our previous experience with subs was that the Navy would shut down all boat movements in the vicinity of the warship. The legal safety zone around the ship is 500 yards (0.25 nautical miles). Madge could not get that far away from the shipping channel without running aground. But the sub was behind us and we were pointing away from it. I could not outrun it. It would overtake us before we could duck into the St. Marys River, and we’d be too close to it. We kept waiting for the patrol boats to warn us off, but they never came. I don’t know what I would’ve done if they’d wanted me to stop the boat under those conditions, but they left us alone and we ducked into our river. As we did, we were finally able to feel that the current was now with us, and with the current and wind going basically in the same direction, the chop settled down. As we spotted the rooftops of St. Marys, we even got a break from the rain and a little patch of blue sky and sunshine. I thought it might be an omen. It was not.

As we neared the town of St. Marys, we were almost swamped by the Cumberland Island ferry, which passed too close to us despite our obvious and futile attempts to stay as far away from it as possible. It was like it was aiming for us. Later, we discovered the pennant on our mooring ball was fouled by one of the many crab trap floats that seemed to proliferate in the anchorage. Unable to free the pennant, despite the help of one of our yacht club friends who was out in his dinghy checking his boat, we decided to tie up at the nearby dock. In the high winds, we had difficulty tying up, and without the help of our friend we could not have done so. We finally got Madge settled in and doubled our dock lines, but by this time the storm clouds had opened up and we were all completely soaked to the skin. Our friend gave us a ride home, where we retrieved our truck and headed back to the boat to unload what we could. As soon as it was safe to do so, we dinghied out to our mooring ball to free the pennant. In the process, I lost my new glasses overboard, but we got Madge away from the dock and out in the river where she belonged.

We were finally back home. We had been out for 98 days and covered over 1,100 miles on the water. We had left in a dense fog, and returned in a storm. In spite of that, we had experienced a wonderful adventure. We had learned much, and knew we’d be much better suited for the next portion of our cruise this summer, during which we’ll head north to the Chesapeake Bay.