Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Space Coast

As I type, we are southbound in the ICW, just south of Cocoa, Florida. That's a long way from my last post in Jacksonville; a lot has transpired and I've been pressed for time to post. I'll try to catch up here, including our whirlwind trip to Disney, which, ironically, is only some 50 miles due west of here.

The castle in its holiday finery.

When last I posted, we were just about to drop lines at Metropolitan Park. We had a very pleasant and short cruise upriver, on the flood, to the Ortega River, arriving very close to high tide of about a foot. This was by design, as there is a shallow bar across the mouth, and we had just a foot under our keel as we cleared over it.

We steamed upriver through two drawbridges and tied up at Lambs Yacht Center (map), where we had reserved a week to make our pilgrimage. When we arrived we discovered we'd been assigned to a dock with a covered walkway, so we first stopped at the fuel dock to offload one scooter.

The spectacular tree in the Grand Floridian.

I expected to pay a daily rate, plus the day rate for a 30-amp power outlet, but they gave us a prorated monthly rate instead, plus power. We normally require a 50-amp connection, but since we were not going to be there, all we needed was a little power to run the battery charger. Ironically, they only had 50-amp outlets on this dock, and I had to rummage around and find our single-50-to-dual-30 adapter in order to use our 30-amp inlet.

Monday morning we gathered up all the things we'd need for a four-day stay in an unfurnished RV (linens, cups, plates, utensils, food, and the all-important coffee pot, as well as various DC power adapters), and in the afternoon we rode the three miles to the Cruise America franchise, which happened to be a Goodyear auto service shop.

The door of our RV. We thought the graphic of a dog on the window was a humorous touch...

Pick-up hours are 1-3pm and, silly me, I thought it would be ready at 1. They had no shortage of rigs, with maybe ten or so on the lot. "We just need to clean one and then send it out for propane." We ended up sitting around in the customer lounge at the dealer until nearly 2pm, when we finally rolled out. A quick stop back at the marina to drop off the scooter and load up all the previously staged items -- two dock carts full -- and we were on our way to Orlando.

...but even the window itself was a graphic. The door has none.

I had hoped for a daylight arrival, but the delay at the dealer had us arriving just after dusk, and we backed into our camp site in the dark. Much simpler in a 25' class-C than it was in Odyssey, although I miss my backup camera. We were in the same section we'd stayed in on all our previous visits, so it was all very familiar. We had to back to an exact spot in the space to allow both the power cord and the water hose included with the rig to reach, stretched, as they were, in opposite directions.

Pretty base-case, but livable for a few days.

Even with the delay, we got settled in to the space in plenty of time to catch the boat across the lake to the Contemporary Resort, where I had made dinner reservations at the upscale California Grill. This is, perhaps, the best place to start one's Disney dining experience, because it immediately sets the tone for how much everything else will cost, and the other restaurants will seem reasonable by comparison.

One of the perks of dining at the California Grill is being able to watch the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom from their rooftop deck. I had expected we'd already missed them, but it turns out Disney has added a spectacular 9pm show, and we had a great view on a perfect evening. The show happened between our entree and dessert courses; perfect timing.

The fireworks show, as seen from the roof of the Contemporary. The photo does not do it justice.

What we had remembered from our very first visit to Fort Wilderness, Disney's own campground, is that the wait for a bus to get from your campsite to the transportation terminals at either end of the property can seem interminable, and returning from dinner Monday night confirmed that. Fortunately, I was able to cram our two folding bicycles into the luggage bay of the RV, and I set those up Tuesday morning and we used them for the rest of the visit. Sunday evening I had spent a bit of time airing up the tires and getting all the brakes and shifters working, with the help of some WD-40.

Posing in front of our favorite ride.

Tuesday afternoon we went over to Hollywood Studios and spent the afternoon and evening there, dining at Mama Melrose's in the park. I was very disappointed to learn that the over-the-top Osborne Family Lights for the holiday season were discontinued a couple of years ago. Many of the facades along the "New York Street" that hosted them are also gone this year, making room for the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge attraction. I'm very glad we had the chance to see them when they were there.

"Sunset Seasons Greetings," the new holiday fanfare at Hollywood Studios.

In its stead, Disney has created a holiday-themed show along "Sunset Boulevard" that re-purposes the numerous "snow" machines, and uses the Hollywood Tower Hotel (the exterior of a great drop ride) as something of a giant, 3D projection screen for a variety of illusions, including turning the entire structure into an enormous gingerbread house.

Gingerbread tower.

Wednesday afternoon we went to the Magic Kingdom, which was open late that day. We enjoyed seeing the redeveloped FantasyLand, and Space Mountain is just as fun as ever. This is the first time we rode the campy Jungle Cruise in the holiday season, where it gets re-purposed into the even campier "Jingle Cruise." We more or less skipped the fireworks show, since we had a great view of it Monday night. The park was more crowded than I expected; I think some families kept their kids from school beyond the Thanksgiving break.

Main Street on a holiday evening.

We did leave the park at dinner time to have dinner at Citrico's in the Grand Floridian. There's no alcohol in the Magic Kingdom, so we customarily leave to have a glass of wine with dinner. Before heading back to the Magic Kingdom to finish the evening, we took in some of the holiday decorations in this grand dame of Disney hotels.

The enormous gingerbread (really) house in the Grand Floridian. Inside it is a counter selling treats.

Thursday we ruminated about going to another park, perhaps Epcot. We had three-day tickets; as Florida residents a three-day (the smallest resident ticket) is less expensive than even a two-day regular ticket. We ultimately decided to save the extra day for another time (it's good for six months, and we can add an extra day for twenty bucks) and, instead, have a more relaxing day at Fort Wilderness followed by an afternoon on The Boardwalk and evening at Disney Springs.

One of our favorite parts of the hotel, the balcony orchestra playing tasteful holiday music as background.

Disney Springs is a good deal larger than its predecessor, Downtown Disney, but still very similar. We enjoyed a nice dinner at the Mexican restaurant, strolled around a bit, and even took a boat ride over to the Old Key West Resort, which turns out to be entirely encompassed within Disney's own timeshare system. There is now an enormous balloon ride that goes up some 400', but it was not operating when we wanted to take it (we saw it up later in the evening, when we were ready to leave).

Balloon ride and Disney Springs, as seen from the boat to the Key West resort.

Friday morning we had to check out. We might easily have moved the RV to the day lot, as we've done in the past, and spent the day in a park, but that would have made cleaning and returning the RV by its 11am deadline Saturday a challenge. Instead we opted for a relaxing morning at our campsite, followed by the tank-dumping ritual. Cruise America wants the rigs returned with empty tanks and the valves open, or you get hit with an exorbitant dump fee.

More gingerbread in the lobby of the Boardwalk resort.

It's not legal, of course, to drive around with your dump valves open, and I won't do it. But we did take advantage of our full-hookup site to empty the tanks and rinse them out. I let them drain as much as possible and then closed the valves before we disconnected everything. When I fueled the rig at the gas station next to the rental place, I used a plastic jar to empty out the last few ounces before returning the rig with the valves open, as mandated.

One of the things we love about Fort Wilderness is the over-the-top decorations people set up in their sites. This is less than a third of what was in this single camp site alone.

We spent Friday afternoon driving back to Jacksonville, with a stop at an outlet mall en route to pick up some more shorts and polos for yours truly, who goes through them at an alarming rate (boating, it turns out, is hard on your clothes). We were home in time to ride the scooter to dinner in the trendy Avondale neighborhood, just a few miles from the marina.

While we were in Avondale for dinner Friday, we learned that they were having the neighborhood holiday street fair there on Saturday. We spent Saturday morning emptying, cleaning, and returning the RV, and the afternoon putting everything away and getting the boat back in seagoing shape. In the evening we returned to Avondale to check out the festivities and have dinner. What struck us was that the block party on the closed-off streets was exactly what Disney is trying to emulate on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. We prefer the real-life version. It was very much aimed at families and children, so we just wandered around taking it all in.

Holiday fair on St. Johns in the Avondale neighborhood. Everyone was having a good time.

Sunday morning marked the end of our pre-paid week, and we ruminated about just extending for another week since we had such a good deal, and the neighborhood was fun. But the weather for an outside passage south was looking perfect, and we decided to drop our lines Sunday morning and head straight out to sea, for an overnight run to Port Canaveral.

We left on the outgoing tide to have a nice push downriver. The Metropolitan Park docks, where we had stayed just before heading upriver, were packed solid for the Jaguars game, and the sheriff had two patrol boats in the river. The weather was gorgeous and we had a nice run downriver.

We did a last-minute weather check just as we approached the final anchorage, near the junction with the ICW. The National Weather Service issues marine forecasts on a schedule, and the latest had just come out. That forecast informed us that we'd be better off waiting another day, and so we dropped the hook in our usual spot, off-channel in the river. I'm sorry we did not know an hour earlier, when we could have stopped in dinghy range of downtown.

The yacht Le Grand Bleu from our anchorage. That's a 65' yacht on its aft deck as a "water toy."

Monday the weather was perfect, and we weighed anchor shortly after the tide changed from flood to ebb. We ended up racing down the river at nine knots, and we even had a dolphin escort for a short while. The price I paid was having to negotiate a "rage" at the inlet, wherein all the water racing out of the river met the opposing easterly wind and seas, forming enormous breaking waves. I had to pick my way through carefully until we were well out in open ocean, where it was the forecast two to three feet from the northeast on a seven second period.

Our dolphin escort downriver, perhaps a half dozen of them.

It turns out, though, that we left a bit too early. I did not expect it, but we had between a half knot and a full knot of push behind us on our southbound journey, and what I expected to be an 11am arrival at Canaveral inlet steadily decreased until it was reading around 8am. Nothing wrong with arriving in broad daylight at 8am, except for the fact that my watch ends at 3am, and having to be up and fully functional around 7am is challenging, and presents the risk of decision-making on insufficient rest.

Sunset over Florida. Clouds on the horizon make it look like an ocean sunset.

We ended up reducing RPM to 1400 early in the evening, pushing the arrival time back to 9:15 or so. It was a clear night with a nearly full "super moon," which made for easy nighttime driving; I hardly needed to leave the pilothouse. Moonless or cloudy nights, by contrast, have us going outside every 15-20 minutes to scan the horizon.

Super Moon rising. Best my cell phone could do.

We arrived yesterday morning at Canaveral inlet as predicted, a little after 9am. Just before 10, we were tying up at the free wall at Rodney Ketcham Park, at the very western end of the harbor (map). We docked literally 200' from where we paid over a c-note per night back in 2014, at the Ocean Club Marina right next door. End to end, this passage was the exact reverse of our very first overnight passage three and a half years ago, departing from Ocean Club and ending at the very same anchorage in the St. Johns River. We've come a long way since then.

Vector tied up at Ketcham Park. Those are storks on the grass. The dock in the background is where we stayed previously.

One of the things you have to do when you run offshore east of Cape Canaveral is check the rocket launch schedule. The launch safety zone extends far offshore, much too far to go around. Launch safety zones are often published in the Local Notices to Mariners, but schedules change frequently and it's best to check with USAF Range Safety directly; by the time you get close enough to the cape to hear announcements, it's a long way back to a different inlet.

And so it was that I learned just before departing Jacksonville that the Space Station resupply mission aboard a SpaceX Falcon-9 was scheduled to launch from SLC-40 this Friday afternoon, with the booster returning to the SpaceX Landing Zone just five miles away. I'm always up for a rocket launch, but the possibility of seeing the booster come back and land was even more inviting. We decided we'd stick around on the Space Coast until Friday's launch.

We arrived in port to find no cruise ships, a rarity. But the Norwegian Breakaway docked soon after we did, on a round trip Caribbean cruise from New York. This was the "Orlando" stop, and she stayed until 9pm.

I spent a bit of time with the charts during our passage, figuring out the best place to anchor in the Banana River to get a view of the landing, if at all possible, and studying the security zones. With no restrictions posted on the free dock, we figured to just stay there until the time came to pass through the lock and anchor in the river for the show. Last night we walked the mile and a quarter to the handful of restaurants near the port and had dinner at Fish Lips.

This morning when I checked the launch schedule again, I learned that it had been rescheduled for no earlier than the 12th, where it would be a night launch rather than the afternoon affair scheduled for Friday. While we had been willing to wait an extra two days in Canaveral for the launch, waiting a full week was not in the cards, and so this afternoon we dropped lines and proceeded west through the lock.

View back toward the Space Coast from the lock. A Carnival ship is in port, and in the distance to the left can be seen the SpaceX launch complex.

I'd much rather make my way south from Port Canaveral on the outside, coming back in at Fort Pierce or St. Lucie, but the ocean forecast is not amenable for that anytime in the coming week. In order to keep making progress, we opted to continue inside, down the ICW. Which is how we find ourselves here.

By coincidence, we heard from our Australian boating/RVing friends last night that they have arrived back in Florida and are making their way up to Green Cove Springs by car, stopping to spend tonight and tomorrow with friends in Eau Gallie. We were lamenting that we'd had to leave the Jacksonville area before they returned and were wondering how we could find a way to get a visit in, so this is perfect timing. We're hoping to connect with them tomorrow sometime as we pass through Eau Gallie.

Update: We are anchored in the Indian River, just north of the Pineda Causeway (map). We dropped the hook just before sunset. We are just an hour from Eau Gallie and we have arranged to meet our friends for brunch in the morning.

Sunset from our anchorage. Pineda causeway bridge to the left.

I had hoped to get the blog posted shortly after anchoring. But when I fired up the generator to warm up the grill for dinner, the generator quit after running just three minutes. A quick check revealed nothing catastrophic, so we made dinner with the batteries and I set to work on it after dinner when things had cooled down a bit. I had figured it to be the impeller, as this generator has a voracious appetite for them, but it turned out to be a broken fan belt. I had a spare, but it was a fight to get it on, as the alternator bolts are in a nearly inaccessible place and had been torqued by a gorilla.

All is quiet now and I can finally wrap up. I actually started putting this post together at sea, editing most of the photos, and uploading them while I still had connectivity in the first half of the passage. I had hopes of writing some of the text, too, but seas became progressively rougher throughout the night, and I ended up spending my watch on more mindless pursuits, which is sometimes what it takes.

There is no escaping Mickey at Disney.

In the morning we'll weigh anchor and make the short run to Eau Gallie for brunch. I expect we'll end the day somewhere in the neighborhood of Vero Beach, and by Saturday night we should be in Stuart.

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