Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Running with Dolphins – 12/20/2011

It starts with the sound of a large splash next to the side of the boat.  We’ve run "the ditch" for almost a thousand miles.  Across bays, up and down rivers, but mostly it’s tracking from buoy to buoy down a narrow dredged channel through vast expanses of shallow water and marsh. Red to green,  green to red,  ICW greens to port, ICW reds to starboard.  We listen to the monotone drone of our 54 hp Yanmar diesel, typically at 2600 rpm pushing us forward at 7+ knots, jumping to 9’s or dropping to 6’s with the ebb and flow of the ever changing tides and winds.  I usually keep the Raymarine remote control for the auto pilot in my right hand.  It beeps once when  I add one degree to port then a few minutes later two beeps and two degrees to starboard constantly fine tuning our course so we don’t run abruptly out of the channel.

The trip has been truly beyond my imagination, an ever changing panorama of nature in an almost undisturbed state.  Birds, birds and more birds; focks overhead, on sand bars, at the edges of the marshes or in the trees.  Osprey have reappeared as they’ve migrated South with us, clouds of turns and gulls, herons of several colors and ibis.  Cormorants dry their wings in the sun and most every buoy has a resident.

Every day is planned in anticipation of the days tides. Can we squeeze our 64 foot mast under a 64 foot bridge?  Will we have enough water for our 5 foot draft during a stretch at low water of only three feet?

But the dolphin sightings and visits are most treasured every day. Serendipity! A most pleasant surprise just when the day may begin to drag on during the passage of another 20 or maybe even 50 miles.  At high tides we see their fins cruising at the edges of the marshes, chasing shrimp and minnows in and out of the grasses.  We’ve seen them trap schools of bait in small cuts in the banks.  Every day we see them ahead or behind, foraging in almost every inlet and creek, then slow or pause when we see them frolicking dead ahead.

The splash, followed by the sound of another splash and then a third or fourth, in a cadence, a signal it’s time to look for them.  Through the brown muddy or tea stained water, first the 6 to 9 foot shadows begin to appear beneath the surface, then a fin appears, or maybe a blow and then a magnificent form crashes up and out of the stern wave and leaps just a foot or so next to the boat, surfing as it is, into complete view.  Is it a loaner? A large male? Probably not. They usually travel in a pack as they may be called. Then two or three or more appear, we watch for a youngster in between.  Are there distinguishing marks?  Too often we see the marks of a propeller, or cuts in a dorsal fin. Taking turns for the lead, they follow along for 3, 5, sometimes 10 minutes or more. We can see them eyeing us too, looking us over just the same as we are watching them.  So much intelligence they display. Are they teaching the little one to surf for the first time? If only we could communicate with them? They seem to play like young kids on a play ground at recess in the spring: running, jumping, frolicking in the sunshine.

Then just as mysteriously as they appear, they are gone.  Have we motored through their territory, has the water become too shallow?  Am I still in the channel?  I’d better look for the next marker as I’ve been distracted. Yesterday we were even treated to a salute after the ride, a young dolphin jumped clear out of the water a few yards off to the side and then they were gone.

They don’t return, but we know we’ll see more dolphins. They’re the ones that choose if or when to hitch a ride from a passing boat.
Oh. we've just discovered Manatees in the marinas,  but I'll cover them when I get a chance to blog again. Best wishes to all for the holidays.  Retirement is great.  Never a dull moment.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Help! We're trapped in Daytona Beach and we can't get out. Dec. 16, 2011 ICW Mile Marker 878

Sometime the best plans are not to be. On Friday, Dec. 9 we happily tied up at Halifax Municipal Marina, Daytona Beach, FL., safe, out of the wind and rain headed our way. We did all the tourist things, sans the beach as it would have required another cab ride like groceries did. We passed the wet weekend doing small projects and taking in a a movie at the “Cinamatique.” There we reconnected with the couple from Timaru and saw Margin Call (highly recommend it) in a very intimate/dinner theater. On Sunday we walked to a Chart House for Susan’s birthday dinner, a great meal despite the rain. Laundry done, well rested, we made plans for a Monday departure.

Plan we did, sail we didn’t. The rains in our county were record breaking, filling the Halifax River with run off. Winds continued (it was a week of wind by now) at 25 Knots from the N, NNE and we had an astronomical high tide, though tide here has about a foot range. The Port Orange Fixed Bridge was 1.6 miles south, almost in sight from the moment we left the marina inlet. Are you ahead of me on this one? When we approached the bridge at dead low, the bridge board read 63 foot and we had to abort our transit.

Undaunted, we accepted the situation and returned to the marina, leaving the departure date open until tide and winds subsided; that, good friends, was not until this morning. Rick spent the week marking the cement pilings at different tide stages so we could track reality against the guides. We could see by the local weather reports that this was not an error on our part but truly a combination of runoff, winds and tide that pushed water into our passage and prevented us from moving south. Our new calculations were confirmed by “locals” for a Friday, Dec. 16 departure at 6:30 AM.

But wait, the adventure continues. Rick woke at 5:15 today and by 6 we were heading down the channel from the marina to the ICW channel, with me on the bow with a flood light to read the markers. When it was time to make our turn, I came on board and in that split second, we were aground. Mind you it was still dark, Tow Boat US didn’t answer until we resorted to a land line, but they did responds and a tow boat had us off our 2.8’ lump by 9:30. Boat US Membership: Priceless! We lost three hours but now it was light and we made our bridge, smooth sailing ahead. The boat is fine, I have my confidence back, but Rick has a bruised ego. We have traveled over 1,000 miles with no incidents and were feeling quite immune. Note to self- plans are only plans.

Since we had days to fill, we took a cab to the famous Daytona Beach. It is amazing to me that one can just drive out on the beach here which is what precipitated the auto and motor cycle races early in the 19th century. When air flight shared the same beach at the same time, things got really busy, especially for bathers and tourists. Later an airport and the Daytona Speedway would elevate the risks at the beach; tourists continue to flock here in season for all the combined attractions the area offers. Henry Flagler and his partner John Rockefeller developed this area as well. Like most of America devastated by malls and urban sprawl, Daytona Beach today has little focus, though the art deco restoration in a 10 block stretch is admirable and is really busy in season. We took in a second film (The Way, written and directed by Emilio Estevez. Fabulous!) The beach area has also experienced restoration and preservation, but it doesn’t compare to the Jersey Shore. On the day we walked the beach, we were shocked, then impressed, that this huge expanse of beach was covered in a foot of seaweed that will not be recovered by man. In a beach restoration effort, it is the law that you cannot clean the beach any longer, nature rules. We like that idea, even if conditions were not ideal for us that day.

You can see Cape Canaveral from the waterway, the shuttle hanger soaring in the sky. We are sad there are no launches for us to see. Today we are on our way to Titusville for the night, then off again early in the morning, trying to get to the Palm Beach or Miami area before Christmas.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

St. Augustine and Marineland, FL ICW M 803 Dec. 3-9, 2011

Bridge of Lions, St. Augustine, FL
Bridge of Lions

December finds us in the St. Augustine area. The trip here was great- everyone warned of "skinny" water but careful planning made the day a breeze, no groundings yet! Once inside the welcoming St. Augustine waters you are greeted by the recently restored Bridge of Lions, complete with a pair of lions at either end. There are hundreds of moorings and ample anchorages but we enjoyed the municipal marina right in the heart of the historic first city in America. It is classically Spanish in flavor, dense with history and tourism, and the influence of Henry Flagler. He was Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil and later developed the railroad system to the Keys, hence opening the coast to tourism and industry. He built his own hotel when he needed a place for his wife to recover from TB. The building is spectacular, filled with Tiffany windows and chandeliers, which were not Tiffany's main medium. After many years, the hotel became the private Flagler College and the main building is the women's dorm. You are left speechless by the wealth taken for granted then but shared by young students now!

The Ballroom at Flagler College,
now used as the dining room, original furnishings,
Tiffany windows and frescoes included.

Flagler College


Flagler's life was steeped in a strong work ethic, religion and tragedy. Son of a Presbyterian minister, he wove religious themes in the architecture of his hotel and he held high standards of everyone around him. When his daughter died in St. Augustine shortly after she gave birth to a daughter, he commissioned a memorial church be built with in the year to honor her. The results are a wonder when you consider the distance all materials and craftsmen had to travel, and of course, Flagler spared no expense. His first wife died soon after his daughter and all three are buried in the church. (Flagler did marry twice more, but the stories require a book!) Today the parish is thriving.

Presbyterian Memorial Church
St. Augustine, FL 
Our trolley tour fee included a ride to the beach so we took advantage of it. Clear skys, 80 degrees, surfers to entertain us. That should have been our warning the weather would change. The best part of our stay connecting with sailing friends, one set from Norfolk, another from the Chesapeake. We got caught up, shared knowledge and plans, and two great meals.

On Wednesday, we left for Marineland. That's actually the name of the town twenty miles south of St. Augustine, but it is also the name of the marina and a dolphin research/education facility. The marina is new, small and only a dollar a foot. Safe but only 7-8 feet of water, so mariners, weigh the tides carefully. We were challenged to get in here at 25 knots and low tide so, you guessed it, we cruised the river again until conditions were right, just in time for a storm to open up.

The Marineland center is across the road on the Atlantic and worth the stop. We wanted to have an "immersion experience" and get into the dolphin tanks, but temps dropped 40 degrees, yes, to 40 degrees, so we just toured the facility. Originally built in 1938 by some of the wealthy we are learning about, including Vanderbilt, Whitney and Tolstoy (Leo's grandson) as an oceanarium and underwater film studio, it was the first marine show in the country. Following a hurricane in recent years, it was completely rebuilt. There is a singular focus on dolphins now and in January the Georgia zoological system incorporated the center. It is now a nonprofit for education purposes; the dolphins do not present "shows" but they provide great research opportunities. Right next to the marina office is the Florida State auditorium and there was a free lecture each night, one on the history of Marine Land. If you have time, we suggest you take a day to stop here. If nothing else, it's a quiet rest.

Our son sent us the storage bag for our dingy and it arrived today. The deck is neater and safer now. The care package came with Christmas lights, an Advent calendar filled with chocolates (Rick won't share) and a pine tree air freshener in case we don't get a tree. Very clever!

We have a week of poor weather ahead. They call it a nor'easter, but I think it has different connotations than it does up north.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fernandina and Jacksonville Beach, FL ICW M 748 Dec. 1-4, 2011

Welcome to Fernandina Harbor Marina
Shrimp on Parade, 2009

Fernandina Beach, downtown historic district
Directly across from the marina
Fernandina Beach was charming. The municipal marina is convenient, on the ICW, in the middle of the historic district. We enjoyed the history and Spanish architecture in homage to King Ferdinand but we never made it to the beach or the resorts on the other side of the island. There is always the return trip! Two days were enough for winds to settle down and for us to walk a lot, but by Friday Dec. 2 we were anxious to move on. Temps have warmed up considerably (we had 30s overnight while here) but you can tell we aren't in Jersey anymore, it is generally warm and it's December.

Fernandina Beach

It was a joint decision to pass on visiting Jacksonville until spring and move on to Jacksonville Beach just as a lay over. The bridges were a time challenge on this trip- we cleared the first bridge of the day fine but had to sail up and back for three hours to clear a second bridge that had settled just a bit, enough that we needed a lower tide to get under it. That mast has become our pride and our curse. Note to self: there is nothing here in Jacksonville Beach but a safe spot in a storm, though I enjoyed the day sewing and Rick read all day. We actually had to stay here an extra day because we could not reserve a slip in St. Augustine for Saturday night. Tonight, several boats from this marina left decorated with Christmas lights and we realized tonight was the boat parade of lights in St. Augustine, hence no slips available. The boats looked great but we are skittish about rigging lights to the mast, etc. Call us purists or safety freaks, we can't do it. We'll be in St. Augustine Sunday Dec. 4 and we look forward to the history there.

Post Office
Fernandina Beach
From the fountain at the Post Office

Blue Heron and Great Egret across from our boat here at
Jacksonville Beach, Beach Marina.
Note the low tide in the background.
It's the 4-9 foot tides that determine our departures,
bridge travel and docking schedules.