Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Mid-Florida holidays

We are docked at the Downtown Sanford Marina in the lovely community of Sanford, Florida (map).  We've been here over two weeks already, and have been quite busy seeing the sights, catching up with friends (and meeting some new ones), and knocking things off the project list. How we came to be here is something of a story in itself.

Thanksgiving dinner aboard Stinkpot with Stacey and Dave.

One of the problems with landing in an interesting place, and particularly if I also have a long project list, is that finding a chunk of time to update the blog does not readily bubble to the top of the to-do list. It's been more than three weeks since I posted here, and if I don't get something posted I'll be even more hopelessly behind.

Vector at Corky Bells. CAUTION! Floating Dock. Uh, OK.

When last I posted here we were in Green Cove Springs, our nominal home town. Things had dried up enough to go ashore for dinner, and we walked over to the local Italian standby, D'Fontana, which happens to have decent pizza along with some other dishes. We looped back through the library on the way so that Louise could also pick up a card.

As seen from the restaurant, which has a very nice deck and tiki bar.

Friday morning as we were weighing anchor, the local police boat came by to see if we were moving. It turns out the American Cruise Line ships are nowadays actually coming alongside the end of the city dock, and one was inbound that afternoon. We would have made it a tight fit for them, and the PD left us to ask a few other boats to move as well. There is just barely enough depth in this part of the harbor for us, and ACL draws another foot or so.

A calm morning on the river.

After maneuvering back out into the deeper part of the river, we turned upriver for the first time in eight years. Back in 2015 we had done most of the navigable length of the St. Johns river, and while it was beautiful and we had a lovely cruise, we've not been called very loudly to repeat it. But a magical confluence changed that for us on this trip.

"The real Florida." A shack, with a giant slide, and a seaplane.

For starters, the water level is higher. Long-time readers may recall we turned around at the Sanford Railroad Bridge last time, because we did not feel the depth of the lake supported a safe transit for Vector. That was partly the water level, much lower than right now, and also partly the lack of good soundings, and our chart tools are also much better now.

Sunset over Lake George.

The other, more compelling, reason is that we had [summons Marlon Brando voice] an offer we couldn't refuse. To wit, our friends Dave and Stacey, aboard Stinkpot, invited us to a home-made Thanksgiving dinner. Long-time readers will know that, every year at this time, I have something of a mad scramble to find a place for the holiday meal, and they may also remember that Dave has cooked us a wonderful Thanksgiving repast once before, when we were stuck in the shipyard in Bayou la Batre.

Vector anchored in the River Forest oxbow.

The confluence of the Thanksgiving invitation, a higher water level, our fondness for the St. Johns, and nothing else on the schedule, along with several exhortations from both the Stinkpot crew and our friends Cherie and Chris aboard Y-Not (also docked in Sanford, but absent her crew at the moment) that we were really missing out by not having stopped here, persuaded us to make the journey this time.

More real Florida. This houseboat has been here a while.

We had a short and easy cruise to Palatka, where we hoped to tie up at the free downtown dock. Unfortunately there is but one spot on that dock which fits us, and it was occupied. The dock we used on our last visit, while not explicitly signed to this effect, is now shown in our guide as permitted only for vessels up to 17'. So we fell back to plan B, which was to continue a half mile upriver to the sturdy deepwater dock at Corky Bells Seafood Restaurant (map) in East Palatka, where we remembered a decent meal from our last trip.

As has this former tugboat, taking up the only anchor spot deep enough for Vector on this stretch of river.

As we backed away from the free docks and made our about face, the nearby marina hailed us, hoping to make a sale. We could not escape without a lecture on the deficiencies of free docks. The restaurant did not disappoint, and neither did the dock, which we had to ourselves, even on a busy Friday evening. It was better than we remembered, inexpensive, with draft beer and great homemade hush puppies. A few patrons strolled the docks in the evening and we overheard one fellow explaining to his companion that Vector was a "million dollar boat." I'll keep that in mind when we are ready to sell.

Captain/chef Dave, serving the Thanksgiving meal, all prepared in his minuscule galley.

Saturday morning we enjoyed a nice walk around the area, which sports a gas station/c-store, a grocery store, and a hardware store, before dropping lines and continuing upriver to Lake George. Expecting northerlies, we made a hard right and dropped the hook in the lee of the north shore (map). It would have been a short ride back to a restaurant, but we wanted to enjoy the quiet of the lake from our deck for dinner. River traffic was light for a pleasant Saturday.

Postprandial Thanksgiving sunset.

Sunday was much busier as we passed through the bustling metropolis of Astor. The same high water that is enabling our lake visit had lots of riverside property there partially flooded, which meant idle speed and no wake all the way through the area. The Whitehair drawbridge, in Deland, on the cusp of being replaced permanently by a high bridge, is now operating on a once-hourly schedule, so rather than try to time the opening we stopped just short, dropping the hook in an old oxbow known as River Forest (map).

These signs pop up all over downtown on a regular basis.

This turned out to be a very picturesque anchorage and we enjoyed it very much. We did splash the tender and make the mile and a half trip up to the bridge for dinner at the St. Johns River Grill, which has its own courtesy dock and inexpensive drafts. The food was decent, if a bit odd that Louise's BLT was fried.

The closure was for this street fair, which we passed on the way to dinner.

Monday morning we awoke to thick fog, and we ruminated about delaying our departure. That would mean a full hour, due to the bridge schedule, and seeing that it was thinning out we decided to weigh anchor at the appointed time and proceed slowly using radar. The fog was gone by the time we cleared the bridge. We could easily have made it all the way to Sanford by the afternoon, but we wanted to have plenty of buffer to pick our way through the lake and into the marina, so we instead dropped the hook at Butchers Bend, just shy of the bridges.

Glass calm in Butchers Bend (before anyone else showed up). I love these kinds of reflections.

We had anchored here last time through, but lacking charts with accurate soundings, we only stuck our nose in. On this visit we we able to get all the way to the back of the oxbow and dropped in the perfect spot (map). We had the bend to ourselves for a while, but by nightfall a motorsailer and a pocket trawler had joined us. Oddly they set in completely different directions due to some weird eddies in the bend. Unlike the previous day, the river was quite busy, particularly as we made our way past Hontoon Island State Park.

Approaching the Sanford bridges, where we turned around last time.

Tuesday morning after a very leisurely coffee we weighed anchor for the final leg, breaking new ground for us and crossing Lake Monroe. We did go over one 7.3' spot in the lake, which means if the level drops more than 1.3' while we're here, we will have to pick our way through when we leave. We're half way there, down about 0.6' since arriving.

Dinner at Busters, one of a dozen or so restaurants just a short walk from the marina.

Dave had facilitated our communication with the marina when we booked, and he was able to wave them off from coming down the dock to help. That did not stop a handful of dock neighbors who wanted to be helpful, but I think Dave and Stacey managed to convince them we preferred to just do it ourselves, so instead we just had an audience. Dave captured our arrival on video, and set it to music to hilarious effect. Well, we cracked up when we saw it, anyway.

Vector arrives to Sanford Marina. Credit: Dave Rowe.

In addition to enjoying a fantastic spread with them for Thanksgiving, we've connected with Stacey and Dave over dinner or other activities quite a few times since arriving. That would including taking in Dave's weekly performances over at The Sullivan pub, which has excellent draft beer and a small selection of Irish fare. We also just seem to bump into them fairly regularly.

Thanksgiving dinner, just before we decimated it. We also had leftovers for days.

As Chris and Cherie had forewarned us, Sanford hosts numerous events and fairs in the historic downtown, and thus far it's been more than one a week. Many involve street closures of one kind or another. Thus far we've seen a street market, the holiday tree lighting, and the lighted holiday parade, and we've passed up two or three other events. Sanford is evidently a weekend destination for residents of the greater Orlando metropolitan area.

Dave on stage at The Sullivan. The food is good and the drafts a generous 20 ounce pour.

One of the many things to do in Sanford is to take a lake and river cruise on the classic sternwheeler Barbara Lee, which berths right here in the marina. We noticed they did two back-to-back Thanksgiving dinner cruises, for example. Last week we had a little excitement in the marina, as she got cattywampus in the fairway coming back from a cruise, and took out a charter sailboat with her starboard wheel (the twin stern wheels are her only propulsion). Stacey caught it all on video, and her clip ended up on the local news. We rushed over from our distant slip but missed the key moment.

Barbara Lee takes out a sailboat (at about 6:40). Video: Stacey Guth.

We had a little lake cruise of our own, as new friends Gary and Liz dropped by in their express cruiser to take us for a spin further south, into parts of the river that will not carry Vector's draft. Lake Monroe is really the end of the line for us. We stopped for lunch at the restaurant near their home marina at the south end of the lake.

A boatman's holiday. On the lake with captain Gary at the helm.

It's not all been fun and games, as I had a number of items delivered to the marina on the day we arrived, looking forward to a bit of downtime to get a few things done. Right out of the gate was a new laptop for myself. Disappointingly, the one I bought just a couple of years ago, which suited me quite well at the start, has reached the end of the road, with a swelling battery pushing the case apart under the keyboard. The earliest I could get a replacement battery would have been January.

Vector at the dock, seen as we depart on our cruise.

Between the battery problem and the case starting to break down, I decided to just bite the bullet and buy something "new" to replace it, by which I mean a lightly used one from eBay. I bought a name brand this time (Acer) since, clearly, the direct-from-China brands do not have parts availability here.

We've had three SpaceX Falcon 9 launches since we arrived. This one is about to head through the clouds, as see from our deck. We are 42 nautical miles from the launch pad.

The new laptop has a different type of SSD slot than the old one, so it was not a simple matter of just moving the drive. So I also took the opportunity to change to a slightly different Linux flavor, upgrade to a larger drive, and just generally clean things up. That turned the project into more or less a three-day marathon.

It's only slightly less nerve-wracking to pry the back off a used computer than a brand new one. The SSD is at lower right.

Not content to just tackle the easy Linux stuff, I also chose this stop to do battle with my nemesis, the Windows system that serves as our main chart plotter. The computer came with Windows 8.1, and I was content to just run that forever, passing up the many offers to update to Windows 10 over the years. But lately I am getting more and more end-of-support messages from various other pieces, including Chrome and Google Drive, and I finally relented. Or at least I tried to.

My life for the better part of two weeks. The most frustrating aspect was that it took hours to get to this error screen each time I tried.

I'm going to guess I now have close to 50 hours into trying to get the machine to upgrade in-place to W10, but with no success. I've given up, and instead I removed Google Drive and switched the browser to the Extended Support release of Firefox, which should buy me another year or so. After which I will need to buy a new system, and that will be the final demise of the now-unobtanium chartplotting software that serves as a backup and also the repository of some of our older track and waypoint data.

The holiday tree-lighting ceremony.

I really thought I'd be doing more work with my hands over the past few weeks, and I don't mean typing. However, I've only managed a couple of projects on that front, including repairing the e-bike tire that I mentioned in the last post. I also managed to give away the 8D batteries that we removed from the thruster system, insisting that the young couple who took them actually do the heavy lifting, literally, to get them off the boat.

Freshly changed air filter, alongside the old one.

Louise and I did some rust/stain remediation and documented some bedding issues to see if the yard will just handle them as warranty.  And I've knocked out a few minor things here and there like changing out the main engine air filter, which was gray from all the yard dust still in the engine room when we departed, and replacing both the shower sump and shaft log sump pumps, which failed within a day of each other after we arrived here.

This rust staining under the anchor roller is likely from improper bedding of the fasteners. The whole roller has to come off to fix it, and I am hoping the yard will just take care of it at one of their Florida locations.

We have enough to do that we opted to take the more attractive monthly rate and stay at least a couple of weeks, so long as the water stays up. Having decided that, and securely in our slip, it was a very short leap to thinking that, with the boat well secured in a relatively inexpensive marina, and with friends in the same marina who could keep an eye on the boat for us, that we could finally break the pandemic travel moratorium, get on a plane, and go back to California for our first visit since the beginning of 2020.

I am very happy to have these two giant batteries off the boat. Each one outweighs me.

And thus it is that I am typing this at 30,000', as we wing our way to San Francisco for a week-long visit. Dave and Stacey are minding the boat, with our next-slip neighbors also keeping an eye on things. It was a last-minute decision and we had to take pot luck on flights and hotels, but we managed to pull it together so long as we did not push too close to the holidays and their concomitant chaos.

There is no recycling at the marina, and we had over a month's worth, so we borrowed Dave's car and made a pilgrimage to the county facility. They take *everything*, from fluorescent lamps to motor oil to e-waste. We'll be back with our collected accumulation of this last item.

We've lined up a number of visits with friends and family, but I am still working on the schedule even as we're en route. If you are in the Bay Area but have not yet heard from me, please reach out. It's a short trip of just a week, and I expect we will have something on the schedule every waking minute.

"Krampusnacht" spilling out of Hollerbach's German Restaurant into the plaza. A Krampus is sitting on the edge of the fountain and others are strolling.

We'll be back in Sanford in a week, and we have our fingers crossed that the lake will not drop more than a few inches in that time. That will bring us right up to the holidays, and we've again been invited to a home-cooked dinner, so barring any undue drop in the lake level, I expect we'll be in Stanford to the end of the year. That will let us add a couple to our already lengthy list of local restaurants, including The District Eatery (ok but spendy for the area), El Zocalo (classic Mexican fare), Filomena's (good pizza right at the dock), Wop's Hops (classic tap room), The Old Jailhouse (good food in an old jail), The Station (good burger joint with a nice draft selection), The Breezeway (featuring an enormous pork schnitzel sandwich that two of us could not finish in a nice outdoor venue), Zorba's (decent Greek fare), and the Colonial Room (an uninspiring breakfast).

The band in Hollerbach's bierhalle for Krampusnacht. We have yet to eat here but we had a nice draft in the bar.

From there, things get a bit murky. After heading back downriver, which means north, we will turn south along the coast to at least Palm Beach. Regular readers will know that we cut short a Bahamas cruise when the pandemic struck, and perhaps this is the year we will pick that up where we left off, assuming I have everything ship-shape on the boat.

The holiday parade. I could not get close enough for a decent pic, but we enjoyed it from our sidewalk table a half block away.

In any case, it will likely be the new year by the time you hear from me again. And so we wish you the happiest of holiday seasons, whichever holiday(s) you celebrate.


  1. Hi Sean - I feel your pain re Windows. I think you've opted for the best path, unobtanium notwithstanding.

  2. Thanks for the update Sean. We are in Fremont if you need anything.

  3. Absolutely loved Odyssey's arrival video. Really shows off your recent upgrades. Amazing that the Thanksgiving dinner was prepared onboard. Happy Holidays!

  4. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I always enjoy your blog and thank you for all the time you put into it. Vern, Boise Id.

  5. "Million dollar boat"?....If and when you ever sell, the prospective buyer could never find a similar boat under such meticulous care. Your attention to detail and quality is really second to none. The upgrades and updates you perform are always impressive.
    You folks should be proud!


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