Saturday, April 7, 2012

Jacksonville to Savannah – Sounds, Shoals and Submarines

We pulled out of Dames Point Marina on Tuesday Morning, April 3rd at 8:30 am on the first leg of our resumed Great Loop cruise. The weather was clear and calm and the waters were at high tide. These conditions were important for several reasons. First, even though Dames Point has plenty of depth at the slips it can be a bit tricky to get in and out of with the strong currents that can whip up during tidal changes with a strong breeze. Second, we were going to take another shot at using the free pump out at the Jim King Park city “marina” just north of the St. Johns River on the ICW. I use the term “marina” loosely as it’s really just a very large boat ramp facility with a rather short facing dock where the pump out station is located, and going in there at high tide makes getting in and out easier.  All that went well and we started up the ICW towards our first anchorage some 25 more miles further up from Jim King.

As we headed North the dominant feature of the surrounding terrain became, well, nothing, except hundreds of yards of marshland in all directions. Now, I like a good marshland just like the next guy, but a little scenery along the way, (let’s say…trees.) would be nice. The route is very twisty and turn-y going in all directions except maybe south.

As in this blog entry’s title let’s talk about the sounds. There are a bunch of them, and I am not going to take the time to mention them all. The first (excepting the St. John’s River, though I guess technically it is a sound) was Nassau Sound. A lovely piece of water with nice depths and an easy cross to the other side. The hard thing about Nassau Sound is that shoaling at the mouth at the ocean (the second feature of the entry title) is so pronounced that it is considered a closed sound except at the highest tides. North of Nassau Sound the next features are Amelia City and Fernadina Beach.

The next sound is Cumberland and the Cumberland Divides. This is called the St. Mary’s Entrance with great depths and a very deep channel. Very much a deep water port. And it has to be because of the third point of the entry title…submarines. Going north into the Cumberland Sound is a nuclear submarine base. Don’t see many of those in Missouri. In crossing this sound we cross over from Florida into Georgia, and at this point we established a new tradition aboard Why Knot: spitting over the side of the boat when we cross into a new state.

Our first anchorage was at a very wide and hospitable spit of water just to the east of the ICW route and west of Dungenees on Cumberland Island. Nice anchorage. All went well. Good waters.

A word about weather forecasts – a lot of people like to complain about NOAA and NWS. I am not one of them. I think they do a great job, and even though they aren’t 100% right, considering the monumental complexities of a planetary environmental system and trying to regionalize it all down to a prediction of if it’s going to rain during your barbecue next Saturday, it’s a pretty daunting task and they do a great job. But after reading and paying so close attention to their forecasts as boaters must you do see a bit if CYA start to creep in. This is certainly the case in the spring time when every forecast says something like “Today – Clear, sunny, high of 80…and a slight chance of thunderstorms after 3:00 pm.” Their covered. If it rains during your afternoon drive time they can say, “See! We told you!” The above mentioned forecast is pretty much the daily norm. Sometimes it clouds over and rains, sometimes not. But as a boater I must error on the side of their CYA-ishness and try to make sure I am at anchor at around 2:00 pm. Well, on this second day there was a little twist. They did get the Tuesday night rain CYA right as it did rain a bit Tuesday evening. But they added a period of rain Wednesday morning. This bothered us in that the dreaded Jekyl Creek was on our route for Wednesday. Along with the Little Mud River (Thursday’s route) they are the two most distained stretches of water on the entire ICW known for their vicious shoaling. Our plan was to head out very early Wednesday morning (7:00 am) to try to catch Jekyl Creek at something resembling high tide. But we were delayed until 8:30 as the NWS was right and we had to sit out a passing rain system. And unfortunately that 90 minutes made a difference. After traversing Jekyl Sound we hit Jekyl Creek late and it was VERY shallow and VERY much a shoal hazard. We gingerly made our way up. We did fine for about three quarters of the way. Then we started shoaling. We still had prop power available as Why Knot has a pretty pronounced rudder skine. So I powered through using the channel walls and sometimes available rudder to get us through. We made it through but to be frank it sucked big time. We then emptied out into St. Simons Sound winding up the Mackay River and dropping anchor for the night in Buttermilk Sound with the plan being that we would again head out early on our third day to hit the dreaded Little Mud River a hair before the morning high tide. Then make our way to a point just south of the Isle of Hope Marina near Savannah for a short fourth day trip where we would pull into the marina for a few days.

In this case the NWS was right on the mark as the weather was perfect. We pulled up our anchor at 8:00 am for our third day and joined a small flotilla of boats that all had the same idea. The Little Mud River is not much to look at: just a meandering narrow river in a marsh. But its reputation is wide spread as a shoaling disaster in the making. Fortunately our strategy worked and we passed through without incident. But I must admit I was a tad freaked out. This combined with the Jekyl Creek incident made me wonder who it was that said that boating was relaxing. The late Jim White, a well know radio personality in St. Louis was an avid boater and looper. I think he best described the experience: “Boating is long periods of boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror.”

We proceeded North on a very convoluted route. The weather was for clear conditions until after 8:00pm. We continued to wind our way up until we got to our primary anchorage site for the night. We weren’t overly pleased with our choice. Even though the depths and swing room was fine there was absolutely no wind protection to be found on any side…just marsh grass. And as the NWS predicted thunderstorms in the evening (which they, it would turn out, were right) some coverage would be a good idea. It was 2:30 pm and we were only 17 miles from the marina so Lisa made a quick call to them to see if we could come in a day early. They said it would be ok so we pushed on. This resulted in a cruise of 71 statute miles and nine and half hours. Our longest day.

A quick engineering note – Our cruising “speed” is established by running at 1500 rpm and having our speed be whatever prevailing currents and winds will let us have. Speed can run anywhere from 5 knots up to a tad over 9 knots. As the marina closed its office at 5:30 pm and our facing dock space was going to be bit tricky getting there by 5:30 was the thing as the dock hand would wait for us until 5:30. Currents were in our favor we were able to proceed the rest of the way at about 8 knots. There was one more nasty little piece of water left, a very suitably named stretch called “Hell Gate”, a very narrow churning bit a garbage with a very sharp turn with no forgiveness outside of the maintained channel. We got to it on a rising tide and made our way through. We got to the marina right on time, docked and relaxed.

So, here we are at Isle of Hope Marina, a very quaint but modern marina. They have free loaner cars available so we are going to provision the boat and get ready to set out on Monday. Next stop – Charleston, SC.