Waypoint to the Spanish Main
St. Augustine's history, strategic
location on the eastern coast of Florida, and diversity of marine
facilities make it an attractive stopping-off place for cruisers with
various ambitions, from the snowbirds trekking the length of the
Intracoastal Waterway to voyagers sailing from the Caribbean back north
via the Bahamas. And since 1941, access from seaward has been
more reliably available, courtesy of an inlet dug by the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers through North Point into the Tolomato River. Even
so, cruising sailors shouldn't consider this an all-weather entry
point. The channel shifts frequently, and the U.S. Coast Guard has to
monitor it and move its buoys accordingly.
In the late 19th century, Henry M. Flagler made St. Augustine a resort,
and the city hasn't forgotten who supports this role. It welcomes
cruisers and other transient boating visitors, offering a deep,
protected harbor and excellent facilities. An extensive municipal
anchorage occupies the city side of the Matanzas River both north and
south of the photogenic Bridge of Lions that spans it. Both areas are
within a short dinghy ride of the Municipal Marina, itself at the foot
of the main drag.
David Moorehead, who works on the marina's docks, says the city is
discussing plans to set moorings and restrict their use "to boats that
are capable of moving to the marina for a pumpout every three days." He
says too many junk boats limit access to transients and pose a hazard,
especially those that are sinking on their moorings. Not wanting to
deter bona fide cruising boats or functioning liveaboard boats, the
city, he says, hopes to keep mooring fees in line with the current
anchoring fee it charges those who want to use marina facilities.
"We paid $50 to anchor here for a week," Bill Warren tells me, "and
that gives us access to the dinghy dock and the showers at the marina."
Bill, who's retired from the U.S. Air Force, and his wife, Nancy, a retired nurse, were visiting aboard Bel Esprit,
their 1986 Hood 38, while picking their way back north in late January.
They'd left their home port of Rockland, Maine, last August, and after
a quick start that brought them to Annapolis, Maryland, in two weeks,
they slowed down.
One of the less-well-known places they put in to along the way was
Great Kills Harbor, on Staten Island, New York, which they report has a
well-sheltered and roomy anchorage. After leaving Bel Esprit in
Solomons, Maryland, for a month, they resumed their cruise down
Chesapeake Bay and into the ICW, choosing the Dismal Swamp Canal route
to Albemarle Sound.
"The Dismal Swamp Canal is so beautiful," says Nancy, "and we can't
speak too highly of the people in Elizabeth City. They let us stay at
the town dock for free until Hurricane Wilma went by."
One adventure they could've done without: "The transmission fell off
the engine," says Bill. "Literally, it fell off, just as we were
approaching the bridge at Wrightsville Beach. Our TowBoatU.S.
membership paid off that day, I'm telling you." Once they'd recovered
from that, they made their only foray "outside," sailing out of the
Cape Fear River and going back in at Winyah Bay to re-enter the ICW at
Georgetown, South Carolina.
Bill and Nancy plan to leave Bel Esprit
in the Chesapeake for the summer and rejoin her in the fall to do their
cruise all over again. Next time, though, they'd like a cockpit
enclosure-the Hood 38's cockpit and companionway arrangement doesn't
lend itself to a conventional dodger. Another modification they'll make
is to fit a wind generator and solar charging panels so they can stay
longer at anchor without having to run the engine.
Heading in the opposite direction were Ryan and Teresa Diehl, aboard Liberty,
their South African-built Roberts Offshore 44. "We're hoping to head
out tomorrow," says Ryan, "ahead of a cold front. We want to get across
the Gulf Stream in the southerly winds that are forecast to precede
it." Their destination was St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and
yes, they were a little behind the customary timetable for making such
a trip. They left Baltimore on December 8, 2005, and took the inside
route as far as Georgetown, South Carolina, where they jumped outside
for the passage to St. Augustine.
Making up the crew were felines Eubie and Yoda, and local sailor Robbie
Smith was joining them for the ocean passage. "We'll try to stay south
of 30 degrees and go east until we turn right at Highway 65," Ryan
says, referring to the longitude from which southbound sailors hope to
reach to the Caribbean islands in easterly trade winds.
Ryan, a jazz drummer, bought the boat seven years ago from a German
cruising family. "They lived very simply," he says, "so I've had to fit
her out with everything." Most of that time, Liberty
was in Baltimore. Teresa was an educational consultant until they quit
their jobs and sold their house to embark on their cruising dream.
"I've studied spa work," Teresa says. "Reflexology, Indian head
massage, and so on. I'm hoping to do some of that while we're down
there to help pay the bills."
Ryan's eyes rolled up in ecstasy just listening to her say the words,
so no doubt they'll live well. They have no fixed plan as to how far
they'll cruise or for how long. For now, they'll go as far south as
they can, relaxing as they go, before heading back to the Virgin
Islands and perhaps earning money doing charter work.
Tucked away on the other side of the small town, marinas and boatyards
of every stripe line the San Sebastian River. Cruisers following the
ICW or ducking in and out of the inlet might totally miss this aspect
of St. Augustine, but it's a community vibrant enough to sustain one of
the most comprehensively stocked marine consignment stores on the U.S.
East Coast. Anyone immersed in fitting out their dream boat should
swing by the Sailors Exchange.
Snuggled into this sheltered backwater is Oyster Creek Marina, a well-kept facility where cruising sailors can hang out at ease.
Doing just that were Kansas City, Missouri, natives Bill and Bobbi Combs. They holed up in St. Augustine last June aboard Gypsy Wind, their Bayfield 40, to wait out hurricane season.
Bill and Bobbi have been cruising for about a year. He took early
retirement from a materials-handling company, and she retired from her
position as CFO of a substance-abuse clinic. They trucked Gypsy Wind,
which they've owned for eight years, from St. Louis to Apalachicola,
Florida. After commissioning her, they sailed to Clearwater, down to
the Keys, and up Florida's eastern coast to St. Augustine.
While they like to be at anchor, they're enjoying the sheltered marina.
Everything they need is within walking distance, including the Sailors
Exchange. Even when Hurricane Ophelia loitered off the coast for days
last summer, its effect on the boats in the area was minimal. "The
biggest effect it had was on the tide," says Bill. "The normal range is
five or six feet, but it came up and stayed up for about a week."
Despite the reports coming from Florida about communities hostile to
liveaboards, they haven't yet run into problems anchoring out. "The
biggest problem we've had, and this is almost everywhere," Bill says,
"was trying to find a place to land the dinghy to go shopping. All the
waterfront property seems to be private, and there aren't many public
Bill notes that this season's plans were delayed because of "medical
issues," but he says they expected to begin heading south along the
Florida coast in a few weeks' time. They're still getting used to
cruising, so they have no plan set in stone, but they spoke about maybe
heading farther north in the summer, to New York or Connecticut.
A few slips down from Gypsy Wind
lay another boat bristling with telltale hardware of the serious
cruiser--solar panels, wind generator, and antennas of every kind. "I'm
a tinkerer," says Brian Bosley, her skipper. Yes, he's tinkered with Empty Pocket,
a 1984 Hunter 25.5. You might also say that Manhattan master-planner
Robert Moses tinkered with the infrastructure of New York City. Brian
bought the boat as salvage seven years ago, and she looks as though she
just popped off the production line, except for such details as the
hand-drilled aluminum toerail.
If Empty Pocket is unusually
well kitted out for such a small boat, it's because Brian has made
hard-core cruising gear his business. He and a partner own a
metal-fabrication company, Noah's Arc, across the street from the
Sailors Exchange, and they're expanding into equipment for "cruising
self-sufficiency." He has a patent for the solar-panel mount on Empty Pocket's
stern. "The patent covers the fact that you can adjust the panels on
three axes," says Brian. The solar array comes attached to a post that
fastens to the boat's stern. Atop the post is a wind generator. He's
ready to begin marketing the package as soon as solar panels become
readily available again-most of the current supply is being vacuumed up
by Europe and China.
Brian's wife, Stephanie, showed up bearing provisions. "I still can't
get over what Brian's done to this boat," she says. "Have you seen
below?" Brian had removed the inboard engine and fitted an air
conditioner in its place (and an outboard motor on the stern). Among
the gizmos tucked into every cranny was a flat-panel TV. In the
forepeak was a watermaker on a portable frame. "I set it on deck and
hang a weight on the intake so it stays under water," he says. "When we
were in the Dry Tortugas, we could take showers in the cockpit," says
Stephanie, "while other cruising boats were leaving because they'd run
out of water."
To date, their longest cruise has been a month and a half, and Brian
wants to see how they fare on a cruise to the Bahamas in early summer
before committing to any grandiose plan. Meanwhile, they're happy that
Stephanie's job-she's a physician-brought them to perpetually youthful
St. Augustine, where for two years they've enjoyed the sailing and the
special blend of old and new Florida that flourishes here.
Jeremy McGeary is a CW contributing editor.