Monday, December 7, 2015


We are anchored on the St. Johns river in downtown Jacksonville, Florida (map), immediately in front of the Baptist Medical Center complex. It had not been our intent to come this far yesterday, but circumstances forced our hand. We anchored in the dark, after a long day, and tendered ashore to the Jacksonville Landing complex for well-deserved drafts and a casual dinner.

The view of Jacksonville from our deck at anchor. The railroad drawbridge is in the foreground.

Yesterday morning we remained anchored off Cumberland Island until the very end of the ebb, weighing anchor around 11:15. That gave us a bit of a push for the run back to the St. Marys, arriving at slack, and an easy cruise south past Fernandina Beach, while still allowing time for the tide to come up a bit before we reached the first shoaling section.

As we passed St. Marys Inlet I could see a sailboat high and dry on the beach north of Fort Clinch. I had monitored radio traffic late Saturday night from a catamaran taking on water just outside the inlet; remember that the seas out there have been seven to nine feet for the last few days and are still that bad at this writing. A sheriff's boat managed to pluck the hapless sailor from his boat in the heavy surf, and a USCG helicopter and small boat were dispatched to the scene. I can only surmise that this was the boat in question, though we did not pass close enough to see how bad it was (or to get a photo). A pair of pickup trucks were on the beach with it (normally closed to vehicles) and several people were clearly mulling over the situation.

Once abeam of Fernandina Beach we were in new territory for us, and I admit it's been a while since I had to navigate any seriously shoaled-in sections of the ICW without our own well-laid tracks. The first shoals start just past the last of Fernandina's docks. Fortunately, I had good guidance from long-time cruiser Bob Sherer, who publishes a cruising guide to the ICW and also maintains a blog. Bob has published precise waypoints for the best water through this stretch on his blog (here), and I took the the time to enter them all into our plotter and set our route accordingly.

That got us through the first trouble section, at a tide of +1.5', with over four feet under keel at all times. We had listened to a couple of much shallower-draft boats picking their way through here ahead of us on the radio and I'm glad I took the time to plot it all out. The other trouble spots, further south, are worse, but we were well into the rising tide by then, and we ultimately went across a section that would have grounded us at low tide but we had nearly three feet under the keel.

Our plan was to get through this section of the ICW, pop out into the St. Johns, and anchor in a familiar spot just upriver of the junction. That would have us dropping the hook around 3:30pm, in time to change the oil on the main engine and have a relaxing afternoon. As is not uncommon, we monitored a number of Sécurité announcements from the Coast Guard throughout the cruise.

Two of these made us doubly glad we were not on an offshore passage south. One concerned a pair of shipping containers adrift off the coast, which apparently fell off a sea barge. The other informed us that a security zone was in effect off Cape Canaveral for an Atlas V launch, a resupply mission to the International Space Station. There was also some issue at Canaveral Shoals that we did not bother listening to, and the incessant warnings about the right whale migration.

All of those announcements were repeated multiple times during our cruise, but we very nearly missed the one announcement that we really needed to hear, which happened just once throughout the whole day, to wit, that the Florida East Coast railroad bridge in Jacksonville would be closed to navigation from 7am this morning until 5pm on the 11th. Aaack! Our whole plan for the next couple of weeks has been to cruise the St. Johns, starting with Jacksonville and continuing upriver to at least Palatka or maybe all the way to Sanford, at river mile 161.

We had to shift gears, and quickly. With the bridge closed for at least a week (and, let's face it, with a major maintenance project, there's always the chance they won't finish on time), we had three choices: change plans entirely and skip cruising the St. Johns, spend a full week in Jacksonville before continuing upriver, or hustle through the bridge before the closure.

Other than open-water passages, we try not to move the boat at night, and with a 3:30 arrival at the river, we'd just make it the 14 nautical miles to downtown in the twilight. Tight, but doable, and after consulting the charts, the tide table, and the clock, we decided to press on ahead and get through the bridge before 7am this morning. We picked up the pace just a hair, and called the Sisters Creek bascule bridge well ahead so we could zip right through when we arrived. The tender there thought the railroad bridge might already be closed, which was not what we wanted to hear.

We tried multiple times to reach the bridge by phone, but there was no answer. Outside of an outright failure, though, it would be unusual for a bridge to close before the published time; commercial interests have already planned on it. The closure was well-published in the Local Notices to Mariners (LNMs). For the record, I always download the latest LNMs and go through them before we travel, but these are lengthy and dense documents (the current one for Florida is 73 pages), so you don't read them so much as search them electronically for relevant information using keywords unique to your plans. Somehow I missed the closure, buried on page 21 in the Drawbridge Status section.

With no answer on the phone we realized we'd need to proceed upriver at least far enough to hail them on the radio, but we were relatively confident we could get through. As it turned out, they were not yet closed and the operator on duty confirmed the 7am time and that we could get through up until then.

Approaching Jacksonville just before sunset.

We haven't been able to rinse the boat or do laundry since coming in from our three-day outside passage, and with possible guests coming aboard this week, our original plan had us arriving in Jacksonville at the free city docks at Metropolitan Park. This is actually a fairly modern marina, with concrete floating docks, water, and even power pedestals. There is a limit of three days in any 30-day period, but dockage is free. Power is $9 and is activated by a machine which accepts credit cards. The docks are on the downriver side of the railroad bridge.

Sunset over Jacksonville as we pass beneath the Bonaparte bridge at Dames Point.

With the bridge scheduled to remain open to 7am, and daylight already fading, we decided to tie up at these docks for the night, with a plan to shove off at 6:15 and make the bridge before it closed. That would give us the evening to do laundry, rinse the boat, and go to dinner. The outside face dock was available, for a quick getaway in the morning, and we nosed up and tied off, noting quite a racket coming from the park itself, which we figured to be a music-in-the-park type event that would end shortly.

Ha. A quick check of the Internet revealed that it was a major concert event, the "Big Ticket Festival," with $45 tickets and $100 VIP passes, that would run all the way to 10pm. The amplification was so high that it was literally making the hull and cabin sides vibrate; we couldn't hear each other on headsets while on deck for docking, and had to pow-wow in the fully closed-up cabin.

While walking the mile or so to dinner downtown and back would mitigate some of this, there was just no way we could tolerate this volume level while we rinsed the boat, and likely we'd not be able to get to bed early enough for our 6am start-up. Reluctantly, we started the engine back up and cast off our lines.

By this time it was fully dark, but we only had a couple of miles to go to get through the railroad bridge, and then we stopped here, at the first available anchorage just the other side. On our way we passed yet another free city dock, in front of the aforementioned Jacksonville Landing complex, which had at least four cruising boats tied up for the night. We'd heard some horror stories about this dock, and with no water or power available and still on the wrong side of the bridge, we passed it by. We did, however, return to this very same dock in the tender after we anchored, and had a casual dinner at the American Grill, with a nice selection of beer on tap.

The view to our south, of the enormous Baptist Hospital complex.

The bridge is, indeed, now closed, and so we are trapped on this side of it until at least Saturday morning, or whenever thereafter they get it reopened. There is a "small boat span" with a height of five feet above high water that we can get through in the tender, so we can still get ashore at the three docks in the city. With the river here otherwise closed to navigation, we have a very quiet, private anchorage right now, with decent city vistas.

We'll remain here until Thursday morning, so we can have dinner at the University Club Wednesday evening. Tomorrow we've made arrangements to tie the tender up at a dock on the Ortega River with easy access to a grocery store, a few restaurants, and a massage school where we've had very good, inexpensive massages in the past. I made appointments for both of us in the afternoon.

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