Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Home from the Keys – Tavernier to Fort McAllister Marina – 14 Stops and 24 Days

As we ended our last post, we were still in the Keys, heading to Ed’s Beach near Mangrove Marina in Tavernier to give Midas a chance to swim.  Not only did Midas get in a great swim, he also showed his new friend Roscoe, a Goldendoodle puppy, how it’s done.  Roscoe and Midas had a great time chasing the tennis ball we threw with his Chuck-it, and both were pooped pooches by the time our dinghy, just a bit overloaded with three adults, two teens, and two dogs, reached the boat. 
Left: We didn't take the camera or our phones to Ed's beach, but we did get a good photo of the bougainvillea near the marina. 

Tavernier is near the top of the Florida Keys and a good stop for provisioning, with a Winn-Dixie a short walk from the marina. We left Tavernier with fresh provisions and clean laundry, heading to an anchorage on Key Largo. After two nights on the hook in Blackwater Sound, we turned north to anchor in No Name Harbor on the west side of Key Biscayne. The harbor, part of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, provides a small anchorage at the north end of a park that covers the south end of Key Biscayne. 

We enjoyed an early dinner and a late breakfast the next morning at Boaters’ Grill, overlooking the harbor, then pulled in the dinghy and pulled up the anchor for our cruise north past downtown Miami – high-rise building after high-rise building, high-end condo after high-end condo on the west side of the ICW and luxury cruise ships lined up on the east side.           

 Our destination was Fort Lauderdale, where we enjoyed the generous hospitality of Marian’s brother’s high school friend. Mickey lives on one of the canals that connect to the ICW and has a dock with shore power and water.  What more could we ask?  And Midas was in dog heaven when he met Walter and Gracie, rambunctious yellow labs who shared their toys and the swimming pool. We had great fun watching the dogs play.


After two restful days at Mickey’s dock – and an attack of the lazies on Saturday that kept us sitting by the pool instead of visiting the Stranahan House as planned – we violated one of our “standard operating procedures” by cruising on Sunday, dodging the crazy boaters who disregard - or don't know - the rules of navigation. It was a warm, sunny, beautiful day in late March – bathing suit weather in south Florida, and there were thousands of boats, hundreds of paddle-boarders and kayakers, and countless thrill seekers zipping around on their personal watercrafts. We were more than relieved when we reached North Palm Beach Marina, where we met a couple of fellow Loopers, washed two loads of laundry, and enjoyed a delicious Thai dinner on Sunday night. 
Another day in port for routine boat chores, and we were northbound again to an anchorage in Hobe Sound, passing through Jupiter Inlet and more spectacular homes on the way. This gave Midas another chance to enjoy a run on the small beach where we dropped the hook. Midas got an extra-special treat the next day, when we reached Vero Beach Municipal Marina and a seven acre dog park almost next door.  He enjoyed playing with the two Goldens from the boat docked next to us and making more new friends, including more Goldens, at the park.  It was a great place to play Chuck-It. 
Anchored in Hobe Sound for fun with Chuck-It.

In Vero Beach, we reconnected with Jim and Ellen on A-River-Derci, fellow Loopers we had not seen since the Spring Rendezvous in May. They had completed their Loop in Minnesota in early fall, and now they’re cruising again.    

We had planned to get to the Cocoa Beach City Dock the next day, but a fast approaching storm meant a change of plans, and we dropped anchor just north of the Eau Gallie Causeway across the Indian River. This place looked familiar, and we’re pretty sure that what is now a high-rise bridge replaced the causeway Marian’s family crossed to get from her paternal grandparents’ home on Pineapple Avenue to the beach, back when she was in elementary school.  We can’t recommend Squid Lips, the restaurant we could see from the boat, because it’s pet hostile. Most restaurants along the waterways have outdoor seating areas where dogs are welcome. When we asked if we could tie Midas up outside while we had dinner, the manager told us that dogs aren’t even allowed on the property!  The library is next door, and we took shelter under its large porch, summoned an Uber cab, and Mike soon returned with an excellent pizza.  So there, Squid Lips! 

New Smyrna Beach was next, after cruising past Cape Canaveral.  From a boat, you can see the huge vehicle assembly building for miles.  Some of our Looper friends were able to time their travels to coincide with a launch; we were several days behind and missed it.  Just north of the bridge from the mainland to the Cape, the ICW makes a sharp right turn, the land changes from the dense development of Melbourne and the Space Coast to a wilderness that reminded us of the Everglades, with more boats.  

We followed the ICW markers through a one-mile narrow cut, passing all kinds of shallow draft fishing boats and dodging manatees.  After miles of mangroves, we passed a long stretch with hundreds of travel trailers and small marinas along  the western shore. Eventually, we reached New Smyrna Beach City Marina, tucked behind a couple of small islands covered with hundreds of pelicans and gulls.  We arrived just at closing time and were welcomed by a patient dockmaster and fellow boaters. We prefer a starboard tie-up, and the only available slip required us to back in. First pass – no luck, but Mike was determined to back into the slip, and on the second try, with the boat lined up perfectly, he put Midas Touch into the slip as slick as backing Marian backs her Civic into the garage. We quickly secured our lines, the dockmaster brought us a step to make it easier to get off and on the boat, and we were set for an enjoyable two days, including the inevitable laundry. 
Next stop:  St. Augustine and a mooring ball just north of the Bridge of Lions.  We had been texting our Canadian friends Jeff and Susan as we approached St. Augustine, and we spotted Gran Vida on the south side of the bridge.  We could see Castillo de San Marco from our deck, and it was a quick dinghy ride to the dock.  As we headed over, Jeff arrived from Gran Vida. We took a few minutes to catch up, then Jeff headed back and we found the dinghy dock and set out to find dinner. Mike’s brother Phil had told us to eat at Meehan’s Irish Pub, where he had “the best oysters I have ever eaten.”  Mike says the oysters at Meehan’s were very good, but the ones he ate at Havana Café in Chokoloskee still win the “best oysters I have ever eaten” prize.  We’ve ordered a quart of the special sauce and plan an oyster cook-off.  Jeff is also an oyster fan, but they're back in Canada, where he accepted a job for several months.  They'll resume their Loop next spring.                                                                                                                                                                   Pirate ship docked on the south side of the  
                                                                           Bridge of Lions.

The St. Augustine waterfront, viewed from the Midas Touch.
 The next morning, after a delicious breakfast at Georgie’s Diner, we strolled around Old Town St. Augustine, checking out several interesting shops, then took a guided tour of the Old Spanish Quarter – blacksmith shop, armory, pub, and a tower from which we could see the fort and Midas Touch moored in the river. 

One of the many beautiful buildings in the historic waterfront area of St. Augustine.  It's a great walking town.

We enjoyed the shade and refreshing glasses of iced tea  at a pub near the Old Town historic village and admired the beer can bear.
Right, our tour guide demonstrated the workings of the blacksmith shop. 

Below, we'd had lunch here, and after our tour, we stopped again to enjoy the music.

Mooring balls make it easy to "anchor out," and we used them at Solomon's Island on the Chesapeake, Sarasota, Boot Key Harbor, and in St. Augustine. Marian got skilled at hooking the ball on the first try, and the St. Augustine mooring balls had the easiest configuration.

From the lovely town of St. Augustine, it was on to Jacksonville and the Memorial Park Marina – free dockage and shore power for just $8/night! No showers, but clean restrooms in the park, which helps minimize use of the holding tank.   
Through Patty, one of the employees at Mike’s best friend’s medical office, we have become friends with her sister Cathy who lives in Patty’s late husband’s home, and one reason for stopping in Jacksonville was to visit her. The old family home place, now in the midst of a very nice residential area on Jacksonville’s Southside, is surrounded by a beautiful citrus orchard – four or five varieties of oranges, three kinds of grapefruit, lemons and lemonquats, and two kinds of tangerines.  Midas enjoyed running through the trees, rolling in the grass and making more new friends.  We also met Ashley, friend of the photographer who lives in the garage apartment on the property and an extraordinarily talented photographer herself.  She showed us several of her amazing photos, printed on metal panels about two feet high by three feet wide.  The intensely brilliant colors and crystal clear, sharp images are spectacular. We’ve never seen anything like them – and wished our budget could stretch to buying at least one. Check them out at her web-site, which doesn’t do justice to the photos.  We saw the vivid orange leaves (second from left on the top row) and the deep blue/chartreuse leaves (third from the left) here:
Left, Ashley shows us one of her amazing photographs.  Below, the same photo, up close.

The orchard offered Midas all kinds of interesting smells and sights. He enjoyed having a place to run and explore off leash, grabbing fallen fruit--balls to Midas--and even sampled an orange.  He gobbled it down, but we think he prefers apples.
 Marian and Cathy toured the orchard in the golf cart as we gathered fruit from nearly every tree. The trees all looked pretty much alike to us, but Cathy unerringly identified every tree: blood orange, sour orange (for cooking), two kinds of navel oranges, lemonquats, three varieties of grapefruit....
 Mike used a picking stick, a long pole with a wire crook on the end, to grab fruit from the higher branches, and Marian and Cathy gathered them from the ground under the trees.
Cathy kept urging us to pick more, pick more, pick more, and we returned to the boat with enough to share with two sailboaters docked at Memorial Park and our friends, "Those Crazy Critters." 

Cathy's house could use a coat of paint, but inside it's cozy and welcoming, and it's all part of the charm of this historic orchard, hidden in the midst of commercial development. 
During our visit, Cathy’s friend Camilla arrived, and we all enjoyed an “adult beverage,” the best gin and tonic we’ve ever had because the ice cube was a frozen blend of the juice from several of the fruits that grow in the orchard.  Yummy!             

 Mike got a great shot of a perfect camellia on the shrub in Cathy's front yard.
The camellia wasn't the only beautiful flower in Cathy's orchard.  Mike's artistic side spotted several others, plus a cool shot of Meyer lemons hiding among Spanish moss.
We had arrived by Uber cab, but Camilla insisted on driving us back, after a tour of the beautiful San Marco area on Jacksonville’s Southside. We didn’t know that the Winn-Dixie chain of grocery stores is based in Florida, even after provisioning at the ones in Tavernier and Fort Lauderdale, until Camilla pointed out the side by side homes of two of the founders. Both overlook the St. John’s River.

Jacksonville Landing would have been a long walk along a busy street with no sidewalks, but it was a quick water taxi ride, and we visited it twice, enjoying dinner the first night and lunch the day after our visit to Cathy at Fionn MacCool's Irish Restaurant and Pub. The pub's version of Marian's favorite corned beef and cabbage was delicious.
The second highlight of our three-day stay in Jacksonville was meeting “Those Crazy Critters,” free spirits who began traveling down the Mississippi in a canoe. They docked at Memorial Park Marina to wait for the next bridge to open and came over to our boat to introduce themselves.  At some point along the way, they decided to learn to sail and bought a twelve-foot day-sailer. They had made their way to St. Mary’s, Georgia where they found a good deal on a 26-foot sailboat and traded up.  Johnny and Yvonne are learning to sail as they go, funding their adventures by performing at locations like Jacksonville Landing. Johnny is a fire-eater and Yvonne performs with a hula hoop that has four burning extensions around it.  We took the water taxi from Memorial Park over to Jacksonville Landing, where a very loud band was performing. As we tried to carry on a conversation with Johnny and Yvonne, Marian mentioned that she was ready to hear more melodic music, like Rachmaninoff.  Yvonne agreed, and Mike asked if she knew the composer.  Appearances can be deceiving.  We learned that Yvonne had studied classical piano and had been a concert pianist. 
On our second night at Memorial Park, we watched the lights and creative costumes worn by participants in a 5K Fun Run/Walk to benefit a local animal shelter.  More loud music, with the speakers in the park blasting one tune while those in the adjacent vacant lot played another.  Our basic camera couldn't capture the waving, multi-colored archways and waving tubes, but they were all fun to watch, as were the walkers, many of them wearing creative attire.
Our last stop in Florida was Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, another town with an excellent municipal marina.  As usual, Midas made new friends, and we explored the charming downtown area, found another ice-cream shop and a bookstore where we splurged on two hardbacks: American Sniper for Mike and Diana Gabaldon’s latest Outlander novel, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.  The highlight of Easter Sunday morning was an outstanding breakfast at Bright Mornings Bistro and Café, where we could eat outside and Midas was welcome.  

 Like many of the outdoor restaurants we found along our trip, Bright Mornings had a beautiful garden. After a yummy Easter morning breakfast, served by a friendly waitress who grew up in Germany, we wandered the streets and found more quaint gardens and colorful spring flowers. 
We're not church-goers, but as we wandered the streets of Fernandina Beach, we saw dozens of families in their Easter finery walking to downtown churches. Even houses that needed some exterior work caught our eyes with their colorful decorations

From Fernandina Beach, it was a short, easy trip to St. Mary’s – and back to Georgia! We had cruised from Shellman Bluff to St. Mary’s in our Aqua Sport They Say in 2009, and we had thought about exploring more of the St. Mary’s River by dinghy. Nat, the dockmaster at Lang’s Marina, told us that we would just see more marsh, so we decided to explore the town instead of facing no-see-ums and mosquitoes.
Shark Bites, a new restaurant since our last visit, had good wifi and a porch where Midas was welcome, so we spent most of the afternoon catching up on Facebook and email. Kings Bay Naval Base is near St. Mary’s, and the town now has an interesting submarine museum.
There’s also a pirate ship replica docked just east of Lang’s in a city park, but we did not manage to get there during the hours it was open for tours. We'll make sure to visit the ship the next time we visit - when the weather cools off.

Hidden Harbor Yacht Club, just north of St. Simon’s, was our second stop in Georgia. It’s just off the ICW on Troupe Creek and staffed by Bobbie, formerly a stand-up comedian in LA and a very funny lady, and Adam, who fell in love with Midas.  The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is just minutes away on Highway 17, and at Bobbie’s suggestion, we had dinner at Pam’s No. 1, a restaurant that caters to the law enforcement community.  Bob, co-owner with his wife Pam, picked us up and took us back to Hidden Harbor after we enjoyed an excellent prime rib dinner.
Then, on Thursday morning, April 9th, we were off the dock at 9:30, heading for an anchorage in Wahlburg Creek on the inland side of St. Catherine’s Island.


St. Catherines Island today is a private nature preserve and research site 
that educators and scholars use to study Georgia’s coastal ecology, geology, 
fauna, flora, and 6,000 years of human history. The beach is accessible by 
private boat, but the interior of the island is not accessible to the public in 
order to conserve its natural and historic resources. Over a million artifacts 
found on the island are part of the St. Catherines Island Foundation and 
Edward John Noble Foundation Collection, which is stored and exhibited at 
the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia.

Wahlburg Creek had been our first lesson on how not to anchor Midas Touch, still named Mei Nu, in May 2012. We had crossed St. Catherine’s Sound in a high wind, fighting three–four foot waves, as Tropical Storm Beryl hit the Georgia coast. When we set out from Fort McAllister Marina that afternoon, the weather report indicated diminishing winds.  We had a commitment to get Midas Touch to Two-Way Boatyard in Darien for a haul-out and bottom paint, so we set out in weather that would now find us tied securely to the dock.  After several tries, we finally thought our anchor was holding, Mike took Midas a few hundred yards north to a sandy beach, and when they returned, we gratefully went to bed. The anchor did not hold, and the next morning, we found ourselves stuck firmly to the east bank of the creek.  The understanding and kind staff at the privately owned research center on the island graciously allowed us to spend most of the day on the superintendent’s front porch while we waited for the tide to turn and the boat to re-float.  It was on St. Catherine’s that we met Tim, a researcher and experienced sailor, the same Tim who loaned us his truck while we were in Carrabelle waiting for the shaft log to be replaced. Even though Tim and his wife Lisa were back in Carrabelle and enjoying their new house, they told us to stop at the research center to say hello to the staff and to meet Royce, whose porch we had enjoyed three years earlier. When we called Thursday afternoon, he had told us that he would be off the island until late in the evening but would be happy to see us on Friday morning.

We anchored correctly this time, deploying the correct amount of rode (boat speak for anchor line) to account for the seven-foot-tide on the Georgia coast. Next morning, after a quick breakfast, we dinghied over to the research center’s dock for a short visit.  We met Royce and his wife and renewed our friendship with Debbie, who is in charge of the ring-tailed lemurs and African hornbills. Debbie will be traveling to Australia this summer with a group of lemurs to establish a new colony there.  Midas, who never forgets a friend, greeted her with his signature happy tail wags and pendulum swinging hind quarters.

Fort McAllister Marina is about seven miles west of the ICW on the Ogeechee River, and its docks run parallel to the river.  Unlike many of the marinas we had visited during the Loop, our home marina has alongside docks, and the optimum arrival time is slack tide, the short period between an incoming tide and an outgoing tide.  Docking when the tide is running, creating a current of six or seven knots, is challenging for even the most experienced skipper and crew; although we now consider ourselves to be experienced, Midas Touch is a single screw trawler and has no bow thrusters to help with docking (and undocking). We had checked the tide tables and knew slack tide would be about 2:00 pm, so there was no rush to leave St. Catherine’s. Royce had work to do, as did Debbie, who had broken away from her duties to come to the dock when she learned we were on the island. Midas found a prime stick, we descended the steep ramp (outgoing tide) to the dinghy, and returned to the 38’ trawler that had been our home since March 2, 2014, when we left Dahlonega to begin final preparations for the Loop. Except for our unplanned delay – and trip home – while the engine was rebuilt, we had spent every night aboard the Midas Touch, a total of 371.  Subtract 24 preparation days in March 2014 from the total days away, and we were Looping for 347 days, very close to our estimate that the Loop would take us “about a year.”

We made the cruise from Wahlburg Creek, across St. Catherines Sound, then along the back side of Ossabaw Island to the mouth of the Ogeeche under warm blue skies, cooled by a gentle breeze, feeling a mixture of excitement as we passed Kilkenny Creek toward Flashing Red Marker R98 and bittersweet nostalgia, knowing that our Loop was nearly done. At 12:55, we turned west, passed the marker, and officially crossed our wake.  We’re Gold Loopers, and we have the burgee to prove it.
Above, marker R98 - our signal to enter the 
Ogeechee River.  Right, a new sign pointing the 
way to Ft. McAllister Marina.                            
Crossing our wake was a non-event for Midas, who stayed in his favorite cruising position.  For us, it was the culmination of     a dream.

We did it!  We really did it! 

We called the marina when we were about three miles away, glad to see that Butch has added channel marker buoys to guide boats through the deep water and keep them away from the shoals that move from the south to the north side of the river between its mouth and the marina. They are a welcome improvement! We already knew that we would be on the third dock from the river/second dock from Fish Tales and would be in front of Patience, our friend Kelly’s Tartan Toc 41 foot sailboat.  Kelly, Butch and Justin were waiting for us on the dock, where Kelly had set up a disco light to guide our way.  In the bright 2:00 pm sunlight, the lights were barely visible, but it’s the thought that counts.  (We don’t need a disco light in Dahlonega and there’s not a good place to mount it on Midas Touch, so we donated it to Fish Tales, the marina’s restaurant, for the new tiki bar that was still under construction when he left.)  Marian’s line throwing skills had improved dramatically during the trip, and she got the stern line to Kelly and the bow line to Butch on the first toss.  As they pulled the boat toward the dock, Justin stood by, ready to grab the midship spring line.  Butch, Justin, and Kelly quickly dogged the lines, and we were home.  As usual, Marian cut the engine, and Midas left his post on the upper helm to go ashore and renew his friendships with everyone around while Mike turned off the chartplotter and gathered the iPad, binoculars and other upper helm gear.  

More mixed emotions as Marian hugged Butch and Kelly, Mike shook hands all around, and Midas did a happy dance and whimpered with joy.  It’s good to be back.

Of course, we must have a few words from the Captain:
First, I am a blessed man to have had my wife Marian, my chief navigator with me on this adventure. Together we shared the experiences of the Great Loop. Some single Loopers we met along the way told us their wives said to doing the Loop, “No Way.” Some single Loopers had a dog or cat with them. I was a lucky man to have my wife as my partner in this adventure, and she was a hit with everyone that got to know her along the trip. 

On our wall in the living room we now have a framed map of the eastern United States and the lower part of eastern Canada. The map shows the outline of the entire Loop. Sometimes I look at it and think, “We did that. We did the 7,000+ nautical miles of the Loop.”  On April 10th, as Marian, Midas and I rounded red marker 98 traveling north on the ICW and started heading up the Ogeechee, I said, “OK, let’s call it. We’ve crossed our wake.”  For at that very spot a year and a month earlier we started our Great Loop adventure, and as hard as we try to record this trip in our blog, we understand we will never be able to explain this Loop experience fully. 

There are other, much better books, like Honey Let’s Buy a Boat, that describe the loop so well, but not our experience.  I once worked with a guy who was a true Texan. He would say, far too often, “Texas is not a place. It’s a state of mind.”  The Loop is a journey of the mind, of all your senses. I can still smell spring along the Atlantic states as the Midas Touch moved slowly north early in the trip. I remember experiencing the vastness of open bodies of water, peeking through the inlets along the Atlantic out into the open water of the Atlantic Ocean, or the amazement at the Chesapeake Bay, which was so big you could not possibly see the eastern shore. The Midas Touch still moved slowly along and was not intimidated by such mighty waters. Her heart, the 120hp Lehman, hummed along (except the time the injector pump failed in the rough water of Albemarle Sound). How is it possible to smell salt air? But this becomes a familiar smell to you, a comforting smell.  Somewhere early into the Hudson you will lose this smell for months as you move north to the land of the Great Lakes, Canada, and then the great central rivers of America. It only returns in the winter months when you get to Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. 

I am still awed by the thought of barges we experienced along the rivers. Marian would sing a Girl Scout song she learned in her youth:

I remember getting up in the middle of the night to use the head and look out the porthole to see a barge with its running light moving slowly up or down the river. I still dream of They would move day and night. I never realized before this trip just how much cargo these barges hauled. Right at this moment there are barges moving up and down the rivers of America.  “Up bound tow approaching Beaver Island, this is the Midas Touch PC down bound your location. Do you want me on your one horn or two horn?”  We did not know what I just said at the beginning of the loop, but we knew it well by the time we left the rivers at Mobile. 

Since we've been home--just over two months--we've told many friends about the trip.  Probably the most common question has been, "What was your favorite part of the trip?" with "Would you do it again?" a close second.  Truly, we can't choose any one favorite part, and there was no place that we didn't like.  There were many where we would have stayed longer, many places where we couldn't visit everything we wanted to see, side trips we wish we could have taken. Favorite part?  The totality of the experience - seeing things we'd never seen; making dozens of friends and meeting them again and again along the way, sharing meals, docktails, provisioning trips; helping fellow boaters tie up at the end of a rough weather day; lending a tool, a few gallon-size zip-lock bags; introducing S'mores to cruisers who'd never heard of them as we gathered around a campfire in Mill Lake - the list is endless. 
And yes, we'll do at least some parts of it again, maybe not in a year-long continuous cruise but in smaller segments, taking the time to explore places we missed or experience those we did see more deeply. Despite the setbacks, the unexpected engine issues, the delays for storm damage repairs, an engine rebuild, a new shaft log, we treasure every minute of every day. And now, it's good to be home in Dahlonega.