Last year we waited out hurricane season at Camp Grenada, but this year we wanted to try something different. So when we renewed our insurance policy in January we declared our intention to head up the East Coast of the U.S. This turned out to be a good decision, when the pandemic made the Caribbean a dicey place to be. The only requirement the insurance company mandated was that we stay north of the Florida/Georgia border from July 1 to November 1. This opened up a lot of territory for us to explore!
Our original plan was to go as far north as New York and anchor in sight of the Statue of Liberty. After the coronavirus wreaked havoc there, however, we set our sights a little lower – or at least a little farther south. Now our plan is to sail as far as the Chesapeake Bay, through Virginia and Maryland. The more we researched this area, the more we realized that it had more than enough to keep us busy even if we stayed a whole year.
West Palm Beach to Ft. Pierce to Cape Canaveral (June 19-21)
We hit some squalls each day during this portion of our journey. Mostly we were fine through them, although a couple got a little challenging. We continue to learn as we go.
West Palm was just as cool as before, although we didn’t go ashore this time since we knew we’d leave early the next morning. We sailed about 45 miles to Fort Pierce the next day – not our favorite anchorage, honestly. Lots of party boats in and around the inlet with their stereos blaring. It was a fairly quiet at night once everyone went home, but nothing we experienced there made us want to return. Once again we had an early night and an early morning, with 65 miles to cover in daylight the next day.
In spite of waking up early, the sail to Port Canaveral was fun. For one thing, we had clearer skies, good wind, and a northbound current to boost our speed – averaged about 7 knots, which is really good! When we got close to our port in the late afternoon, we could see the NASA launchpad that we’ve watched on TV all these years. Something about being this close to it (relatively) was inspiring.
We spent the night at Ocean’s Club Marina in Canaveral. There’s no place to anchor in this port unless you go through at least one bridge and a canal with a lock, so this marina was a better choice. They were super friendly and accommodating – I made a reservation a couple of days before and they fit us in with no problems, even tracking our progress as we sailed up the coast. We arrived just before 5 p.m., spent the night, and they let us hang out all day so we could depart at 8 p.m. We had over 100 miles to cover to get to St. Augustine, which Gratitude can’t do in one day of sunlight. So that 8 p.m. departure made possible a daylight arrival in St. Augustine.
One “small world” surprise on our way out to sea: On my midnight-to-3am shift I got on my iPad to find a message from an old high school friend, Donald Williams. (He and Andy were in band together.) His message, which he had sent about 8 p.m., was, “Hey Karen, are you guys sailing in Port Cape Canaveral? We’re sitting on the patio at Gator’s Dockside and saw a catamaran that said “Gratitude” on the side. It looked like you and Andy.”
My jaw dropped! What are the chances we’d be spotted by someone we knew? I wrote Donald back and confirmed it was us – and we both lamented that we missed seeing each other. If we’d been able to stay longer in Canaveral, maybe we would have run into him and his family. We had eaten at Gator’s for lunch the day we departed – what timing!
Port-Hopping to Georgia: St. Augustine (June 23-26)
After doing 9 days straight of sailing from the USVI, a single overnight voyage wasn’t intimidating. Still, it wasn’t fun. We hit a BIG squall around 10:30 p.m., with winds gusting to 25, then 30, then all the way up to 39 knots. We had both sails fully out when all this started, so Andy had to wake me to help reef both of them (reducing the sail area to keep the boat from being overpowered by the wind). Pro tip: Reefing in the dark, with high winds and rain, is no fun. Eventually, as the wind speeds kept rising, we just ended up furling/lowering both sails. Safety first!
(Andy) But more alarming than the wind was the near-constant lightning and simultaneous thunder. At one point, I made sure I was clear of any metal because I was convinced our mast would serve as a lightning rod. I was very relieved when the storms started moving east of us and out to open water.
(Karen) I went back to bed for about an hour and returned to the helm at midnight, by which time the storm had passed and things had settled down. We carried on with the 3 hour shifts uneventfully until we arrived in St. Augustine in the early afternoon. We had one bascule bridge to navigate on the way to our mooring ball, and we just missed the 1 p.m. opening. So we hung out in the inlet and Andy got to practice his hold-the-boat-in-one-place maneuvers until the 1:30 opening.
Once we were through that we radioed the St. Augustine Municipal Marina and got our ball assignment. Taking a mooring ball in this area is definitely the way to go. It’s about a quarter of the cost of a dock, with all the marina amenities still available, including use of the dinghy dock. And that dock is SO convenient to downtown St. Augustine; it’s a short walk from the dock to Old Town, with all its shops and restaurants.
The next day we worked out and went back to town to explore a bit more. The big highlight of that day was meeting up with our friends Brenda and Aaron Robles. Brenda was a good friend of Andy’s in high school and sang at our wedding. (She also was a part of the “bachelor party,” in which all the groomsmen and Brenda took Andy bowling. Party animals!) Brenda and Aaron own and run a physical therapy practice outside of Jacksonville. It had been maybe 10 years since Andy saw them, and even longer for me, so this reunion was long overdue.
We ate at Harry’s Seafood, right on the waterfront, and it was a memorable meal. Sadly, however, we never thought to take any photos together! I guess we were just caught up in the pleasure of spending the evening with our friends. Imagine forgetting social media! 😜
The next day we again worked out, and then hung out on the boat for most of the day. Late in the afternoon we visited Ice Plant, a cool recommendation from our friends Dan and Meaghan who have a beach home in St. Augustine. I was very happy they turned us on to this place – it was about a mile walk from our dinghy dock, and we never would have discovered it on our own. It is (surprise!) an old ice manufacturing warehouse that’s been converted into a farm-to-table style restaurant and bar. Craft cocktails and a small but amazingly fresh menu made it an outstanding dining experience.
Leaving St. Augustine: The Bridge of Lions
The next morning I woke to a 6:30 alarm (something I rarely have to do, thankfully) so that we could cast off the lines and catch the 7:30 a.m. bridge opening to head back out to sea. The Bridge of Lions is a majestic structure connecting vehicles and pedestrians from old St. Augustine to St. Augustine Beach, over the Matanzas River. On the way in we didn’t get any footage of passing through, so we decided to capture the moment on our way out.
Port-Hopping to Georgia: St. Mary’s Sound (June 26-28)
From St. Augustine we had a 8-9 hour motor sail up to St. Mary’s sound, on the border of Florida and Georgia. Our escape was almost complete! But we had a little bit more to cover before leaving Florida behind for the rest of 2020.
We spent our first night in this area anchored at Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia. I had heard great things about this island, and it did not disappoint. We anchored close to 5 p.m., next to a handful of other boats. It was SO QUIET. There was a hint of a breeze, just enough to keep the bugs away. And miles of river, marshland, and coastline all around.
Cumberland Island itself is a National Park, which has saved it from development. The only way to get to it is by private boat or ferry. Most people ferry in for the day; some of those camp at one of the designated sites near the beach. There are no restaurants or hotels, so you must pack in and pack out whatever food and drink you are going to need. There are, however, bicycle rentals and restrooms, along with trails maintained by the NPS and interesting historical sites to see.
After paying our $10 per person per week visitor fees (online! So convenient!) we filled our water bottles and took our dinghy over to the Seacamp Dock. There is a 4.3 mile loop trail accessible from the dock. It is all flat and takes you through gnarled forests dripping with Spanish moss to a gloriously undeveloped beach on the Atlantic side of the island. We had the beach entirely to ourselves, which was simultaneously strange and welcome. Miles of sand, surf, and sea birds, with shrimping boats visible in the distance. We trekked south on the beach for about a mile and a half, then turned back inland and crossed a boardwalk constructed over the sand dunes.
The trail leads from there to the ruins of Dungeness, an estate built by Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew) in the mid 1880s. It was abandoned in 1924 and burned in 1959; what’s left now are the stone and brickwork, which are still impressive. The house had 37,000 square feet! It was practically a hotel. I am sure if we had been able to visit the museum in St. Mary’s we’d have learned more about this place, but it was closed due to the pandemic. So we made do with gazing over the ruins and using our imaginations on our snack break.
It was a straight shot from there back to the Seacamp dock, with more beautiful vistas through the ferns, palms, and curtains of Spanish moss. By this time there were more people on the island with us; we guessed that the ferry had been running while we hiked.
The dinghy was intact where we left it and we returned to Gratitude and grilled some burgers for lunch. Then we pulled up anchor and moved south, back to the town of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
This anchorage was not nearly as quiet and picturesque as our Cumberland Island site. We anchored right next to some sort of industrial area, quite ugly. But this brought us closer to town, where we had reservations for dinner. Four years ago I met my college roommates at Fernandina Beach for our “GoldenMoon” – like a Babymoon, but to celebrate our 50th birthdays instead of impending motherhood! During that long weekend we ate at a charming little French restaurant called Le Clos. It was divine, and romantic, and I wanted to go back with Andy. So I made reservations while we were in St. Augustine.
For the epicurious among you, Andy had the beef tenderloin steak and I had the shrimp with linguine. Mmmmmmm! And we shared an appetizer of escargot, which we both LOVE. I know some people are grossed out by the thought of eating snails, but we are not those people. We consider them a must-have in a French restaurant, and an ideal delivery method for their yummy butter-garlic-white wine sauce. What a lovely goodbye to Florida!
Escape from Florida – Complete
Our final leg of this journey we stopped at three Georgia anchorages – Brunswick (St. Simon’s Inlet), Blackbeard Island (Sapelo Inlet), and Wassaw Sound (just south of Savannah). All were picturesque, but I think my favorite was Blackbeard Island. It was deserted, wild, and beautiful, and we saw dolphins EVERYWHERE (although they wouldn’t hold still long enough for a photo!).