The days are warm and sunny in Green Cove Springs once we move aboard Strathspey but it’s a race to finish all the basic ‘get-us-more-south’ tasks because the temps drop to 8 Celsius each night. These tasks are ones that let us leave dock safely but not necessarily in comfort; things like having the mast stepped, engine running, installing our outboard engine on Strathspey’s stern rail and, most importantly, adding our foresail and mainsail.
Sunday, we take a break from the constant go, go, go because it’s warm and sunny at 25 Celsius. So, we lower our new Yamaha outboard motor onto our dinghy and test out the Yamaha’s vroom vroom. We explore down the river and make a circuit of the Green Cove Springs marine area and, at one point, Blair cranks the outboard up to full-throttle. We clock our speed at 34 km/hour; vroom, vroom! That night Blair feels a culinary urge and makes spaghetti carbonara and it’s wonderfully decadent….pancetta, parmigano regiano, mushrooms and, get this, 35% cream…..woohooo!
Despite the cold nights, we sleep well under our down duvet but every morning there’s a discussion over who leaves the bed first to turn on our Espar heater. It never takes longer than 5-10 minutes for the interior of Strathspey to get to room temp but that first tentative step on the wooden floor in bare feet makes us calculate how long it will be before we can head a little further south. As part of those calculations, we rationalize that it makes sense to hire the boatyard to polish and wax Strathspey’s deck and unsurprisingly they are happy to add that job to their kitty.
On Saturday December 17th it’s warm enough that the Espar is NOT on and we are in shorts and T-shirts. I spend the weekend clearing out our storage locker and we store the last of the items aboard Strathspey. I call ahead to St Augustine and Ft Pierce to reserve a mooring ball and dock for next week. The mast is stepped Monday morning and Blair spends the day adjusting all our new rigging. As night falls we make the last adjustments to our ‘taco’ – that’s the stack pack setup that holds our mainsail above the boom when we’re not sailing. It’s been a beautiful day at 28 Celsius and feels like a warm summer evening even after the sun sets. Blair won’t stop fiddling with ‘things’ on the deck, mostly because I’ve told him that we need to make a 7 am departure tomorrow morning in order to be at the Jacksonville Main Street bridge before noon. The Main Street bridge is undergoing a $10 Million upgrade and is on a reduced opening schedule and opens only six times a day. If we miss the noon opening we’ll be twiddling our thumbs until 4:30 pm and worrying about making it to a good anchorage before nightfall.
We leave the dock just after 7 am and it’s almost like Strathspey doesn’t want to leave here after her two-year hibernation because we drag through the mud all the way out. We start out with four feet under Strathspey’s keel, then we go to two feet, then one foot, 0.9 feet, 0.5 feet. Eventually our depth meter reads -0.4. How is this possible!? It’s too much for me and I hand the wheel over to Blair and stand on Strathspey’s bow so I can measure our slow progress against the pier and, more importantly, where I can’t see the depth meter or hear the incessant low-water alarm beeping. The sludge here is deep and soft and black and squishy so we can see no depth beneath our keel yet still plow a furrow and not come to a complete stop. Finally at the end of the 200-foot pier we break free and motor out into deep water and make a quick left to head down the St Johns River toward Jacksonville.
It’s foggy this morning. We can only see 75 feet ahead and behind Strathspey and the sun that will hopefully burn off this fog is slow to rise as there are low cloud banks east of the river. Blair drives from waypoint to waypoint and he’s switched on our radar to help discern any obstacles out there. Me, I’m just nervous with this fuzzy fog in my eyes and I stand at the bow scanning ahead for the red or green buoys that Blair tells me he thinks we are approaching, according to the chart plotter at the helm. I see nothing. It’s too hazy. That’s all there is until around 9 am when the warm of the sun finally lifts the fog.
We arrive at Jacksonville’s Main Street bridge a half hour early for their noon opening so I take the wheel to hover in the channel while Blair fixes our flag halyards and hoists our USA and Florida courtesy flags. I contact the bridge tender and he tells me that I need to be close to the bridge and ready to go at by 11:45 because this must be a quick opening. At 11:55 am I’m as close as I am comfortable and we hear a call from another sailboat coming down the river about eight minutes away but, when they call the bridge tender, he says he can’t wait for them. ‘Sorry captain, I’ve got a crew of Contractors working on this bridge and we’re going into the air in two minutes – you’ll have to wait until the 4:30 opening’. Burn! Three minutes too late.
We continue through the bridge and downstream to a new anchorage for us, between Blount and Little Marsh Islands. It’s a quiet anchorage and, when we awake the next morning, all we can see are the anchor lights of two other boats shining very faintly through the heavy fog. It won’t be an early start like yesterday where we easily used our radar to ‘feel’ our way downstream in the fog on the wide-open St Johns River. Today, we have only a very short distance to travel on the river until we make a sharp right turn into the narrow ICW with its twists and turns and shallow spots. We want full visibility on the ICW and don’t haul our anchor up until 10:20 am.
Five miles into our day, moments after we turn south and enter the ICW, we are hailed by the US Coast Guard. They ask us when we were last boarded by the Coast Guard and Blair says in 1999 by the Canadian Coast Guard. Quite politely they ask permission to come aboard and could we please slow our vessel so two of their officers can step over…..of course we will! Blair sets out fenders on our port side as I slow Strathspey down to idle speed, under two knots. The 30-foot coast guard vessel (Defender Class Response Boat) motors up beside us and two youngish officers step aboard while the other three crew stay aboard their vessel. First question to us was whether we had any weapons onboard. No Sir! They check our registration, our Permission to Proceed document (we’d just picked that up in Jacksonville from the US Homeland Security office on Friday, whew) and our regulation fire extinguishers. They check our bilge to ensure that no oil is leaking into it and then ask Blair to describe our MSD (we determine later that acronym stands for Marine Sanitation Device) – they basically want to know how our marine toilet works (i.e., that we’re not discharging any yuck overboard). They comment on the fact that we are both wearing life jackets and, 20 minutes later, they shake hands with both of us and step off Strathspey and we’re on our way again. Everything is in order aboard Strathspey!
7.5 hours later we arrive in St Augustine which is all lit up for Christmas with huge crowds roving the streets, enjoying the lights and all the neat little restaurants and pubs here. We grab a mooring ball north of the Bridge of Lions and, after showers and a quick walk through town, we are back to Strathspey to enjoy a quiet dinner in the cockpit with a beautiful view of the old fort and the picturesque waterfront.
Wednesday morning we drop the mooring ball at 7 am and head downstream without incident. It’s a long day when we finally pull into Halifax Harbor Marina and we’re glad to be at dock with access to unlimited water so we can spend some time cleaning Strathspey’s exterior, a job we’d neglected in favour of getting away from Green Cove Springs. We leave Halifax Harbor Marina the next day later than usual at 8:30 am. I planned this late departure because of the skinny water an hour south of us at Ponce Inlet. Many boats ground out here on the sandbars that shift back and forth with the tidal currents running in and out of the inlet. We time it so we pass this area just before high tide without any issues.
The issues appear as we hover north of the Coronado Beach bridge in New Smyrna Beach. Blair goes down below for some reason and he smells diesel fuel. He checks Strathspey’s engine and sees fuel hissing and foaming out of the top of one the engine’s three high-pressure fuel lines. This is a serious problem and, after motoring through when the bridge opens for us, we quickly radio our problem to the New Smyrna Beach City Marina. They find a slip for us and, because Blair has misplaced the tool he needs to tighten the nut that holds the high pressure line in place, we ask a mechanic recommended by the marina to help Blair sort out this problem. Between the two of them they tighten the nut very gently and, despite running the engine at high revs, the fuel leak is no longer visible. Hopefully, this is the fix that will do the job.
We had originally planned to book a slip at Ft Pierce for a week over Christmas and use that time to finish all the boat jobs that we had lined up before we set off for some serious cruising. Not happening. So many marinas were damaged in Hurricane Irma that the surviving ones are jam packed with no openings. All I could manage to secure for us near Ft Pierce was a mooring ball at the Vero Beach Municipal marina where we’d have to share a ball with two other boats – a hard setup with all the work we had planned. So, it seems we are lucky that our fuel line issue happened on the doorstep of the New Smyrna Beach marina as they just happened to have an available slip for us. I know it sounds like we are doing an awful lot of work on Strathspey, both new work and addressing failing systems but it’s worth it to us to be able to spend the winter cruising in warmer climes. Despite all the work, we still love being on Strathspey; gotta love the one you’re with…..
I make an executive decision and book us into the marina for a week. We’ll do all our boat jobs here instead of Ft Pierce. I call Enterprise rentals and book a car for us to drive up to Green Cove Springs to retrieve our own car. It’s warm and sunny here in the mid-20’s Celsius and this is a nice little marina, close to good restaurants and a relatively easy walk to a beautiful beach with soft, soft sand. The boat interior is finally clean enough that I can set out our new winter cruising mat at the bottom of our companionway stairs. We email our friends in Vero Beach to say that we will make the drive down on the 25th for Christmas Day dinner and we look forward to using the dinghy to explore an area of the ICW that we’ve never spent time in before.
Merry Christmas to all our family and friends!