Thursday, February 25, 2016

From Beaufort, SC to Vero Beach, FL

Morning skies overlooking New Smyrna Beach, FL.

In this second report of our southern trek, we report of travel from Beaufort, SC to Florida. When we headed out of Beaufort the weather was still cold, cold, cold.  But we are heading south, to "where the butter melts", and "every decrease in one degree of latitude warms the temperature by five degrees or so".  At least that was our guide.

Now in Florida, we shed the long underwear about a week ago, and wore shorts and short sleeve shirts for the first time here in Vero Beach.  The temperature two days ago was in the mid 80’s.  The scenery with the vegetation and beaches looks tropical. We are moored amidst the mangroves and the water at the beach is clear blue green.

Walking through a live oak canopy (in shorts) on our way to the beach in Vero Beach, FL.

Clear blue green waters at Vero Beach, FL.

The biggest challenge on this stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is the constant shoaling in certain areas.  Sometimes an area will have only 4 feet of water at mean low tide.  Layla is a big girl with 6 ½ feet of draft.  So, we had to be strategic.  We timed our day to travel through the well-known shallow areas at high tide if possible, or at least on a rising tide with at least 7 feet of water predicted in the area.  None of this would have been possible without Active Captain and tide data.  Active Captain is a community-based sailing website, and gives information on hazards to navigation, as well as bridge, marina, and anchorages.  We have the Active Captain database integrated into navigation software on our tablets, which plots the hazards on to the chart, making it very easy to see upcoming hazards while navigating the waterway.  We typically spent about an hour each evening reviewing the upcoming day’s journey.

Doing homework at anchor along the ICW using Active Captain to plan the next leg of our journey.

Our homework paid off, and we successfully navigated the notorious shallows of Georgia and North Florida without going aground.  Among these we transited “Hells Gate” (chart makers love to scare the living daylights out of mariners) with no less than 11 feet under Layla (we anchored about 2 miles from Hells Gate for about 5 hours to get our timing right), Amelia River just south of Fernandina Beach with about 6 inches under our keel, and Matanzas Inlet on a rising tide we touched bottom a couple of times.  There was much drama at this inlet before and after we made it through.  We were contacted by three vessels before entering the inlet, warning us of shoaling in the inlet.  We saw four boats aground as we snaked our way around the buoys and heard of several more boats that later went aground, including an Army Corps of Engineers survey boat!  All of the boats aground had drafts at least 2-3 feet less than ours!  We felt a little smug about that.

Not every cruiser was as fortunate going through Matanzas Inlet.  From left to right, a trawler is aground, SeaTow is pulling off a sailboat, and the Coast Guard is repositioning one of the green nuns.

Our trip down the ICW would not be complete without a boarding request by the Coast Guard for a “free” safety check just north of Brunswick, GA.  There is deep water in this stretch of the ICW (we saw 60 feet!), and there is no way to say “no” to the Coast Guard.  (The Coast Guard probably has this stretch of the ICW dredged so cruisers cannot use the concern of grounding due to shallow depths to refuse a boarding request!)  This is the exact same area we were boarded by the Coast Guard three years ago heading north.  With the experience from three years ago, the safety inspection went smoothly.  We just need to buy some new flares; the flares from our last trip had just expired.     
We waited out a winter storm in early February at Brunswick Landing Marina up the East River about a block from downtown Brunswick, GA.  There were wind gusts over 40 mph, and sustained winds over 30 mph for two days.  We were glad we were protected in a marina about 10 miles upstream from the inlet.  This marina has a lot of nice benefits.  Number one, it provides free beer all day long, every day.  No joke.  Number two, they have a happy hour for the cruisers, providing beer and wine, while the cruisers provide snacks three times a week.  They have loaner bikes available for free to get around town.  And the washers and dryers are free….no quarters needed.  We did a lot of laundry while we were there, and drank a fair amount of beer.

Flags flying stiff in Brunswick, GA during one of the many winter storms we came across on our trip down the ICW.
We participated in one of the happy hours while we were there, and met up with a cruising couple we met in the Vero Beach City Marina three years ago, James and Donna Ostby.  Back then, we were in the galley making some coffee cake, when we heard a knock on the hull.  Tracy popped up into the cockpit, and a man in the dinghy said that he knew one of the previous owners of Layla.  We invited him on board, and listened to some fantastic stories over coffee and cake.  The stories continued at Brunswick Landing at happy hour, and then again for an afternoon and evening aboard their 38 foot Catalina. 

We stopped at several towns for a couple days each.  We visited our cruising buddy, Stein, in Fernandina Beach, FL.  He and Virginia took us to the local farmers market and to a beautiful state park, Fort Clinch.  In St. Augustine, FL, we shopped at the Sailors Exchange, a marine surplus store.  We scored a tether to attach to a jack line (safety line for staying on deck).  Each of these towns has a really nice downtown area with quaint little shops and excellent restaurants.  Layla is too full for any more of the “knick knacks”, and so we avoided those, but we ate well.

Bud and Stein at Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach, FL.  Notice the pants, coats, and hats.  It was in the 50's in Florida in February.

The weekly Farmers Market in Fernandina Beach, FL.

Eating well at the 4th Street Deli and Salads in Fernandina Beach, FL.

Vero Beach is an interesting town.  For cruisers, it is the northern-most jumping off point to the Bahamas.  Almost all cruisers going up or down the ditch stop here to re-provision, and because of many amenities, it has become also known as “Velcro Beach” (i.e. once you are here it becomes hard to leave-you are stuck).  One of the reasons for the popularity is the town has a free bus system.  The bus picks you up at the marina every hour, and takes you to the grocery store, liquor store, library, West Marine, WalMart,  hardware stores, and the mall…..all for free.  All this convenience makes provisioning easy.  The marina has a nice cruisers lounge with decent WiFi, a good selection of books for swapping, two TV’s (one permanently tuned to the Weather Channel), and a jigsaw puzzle table.  With a nice bank of washers and dryers next door, and the bus stop across the road, there is always a group of cruisers in the lounge, and always interesting conversations.  The only challenge with such a great marina is finding a place at the dinghy dock, and then finding your dinghy when you want to head back to the boat.

Where is my dinghy???

This time of year, normally most cruisers are starting to head north again.  The marina here at Vero Beach is full right now, with nearly all of the 57 mooring balls occupied, and about ten mooring balls with two boats rafted together on one ball.  Evidently, this was nothing compared to this past December, where we heard that all of Vero Beach’s 57 mooring balls had three boats tied together while waiting for a weather window to cross over to the Bahamas!  This was an unusual winter for cruisers, as the weather window closed before it even opened.  Many cruisers never crossed to the Bahamas.  Some stayed in Vero Beach, and some headed for the Keys.  We heard that the major marina in the Keys, Marathon, FL, which has about 400 balls in their mooring field, had a waiting list of over 50 boats wanting a spot in Boot Key Harbor.  We expect Vero Beach’s City Marina to be really full this spring.

We need to get going…. 

Brown pelican looking for a treat in Fernandina Beach, FL.

Breakfast for the opportunist in New Smyrna Beach City Marina, FL.

As we do our "homework" at the Vero Beach library a mural of a Marine Archeologist soothes
 the stresses of doing taxes and otherwise catching up to responsibilities of the "land-based life".

If you would like to follow our progress, click on the link below:

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