Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Cumberland Island to Sisters Creek (near Jacksonville, FL) //
We left Cumberland Island on the morning of Wednesday, December 5 under some pretty windy conditions. Winds were blowing up to 20 knots as we pulled the anchor, and up to 25 knots as we rounded Fernandina Beach on the other side of St. Mary’s Inlet. The upside: we had crossed into the state Florida! The downside: it was still a brisk 46 degrees... We were donning our full winter gear. But we continued on as we wanted to do a big push and reach St. Augustine, FL in the late afternoon so we could stretch our legs and get back into civilization for a few days.
Since we left a bit later than planned that morning, we were making slow progress because the current, and (strong) winds, were against us all through the Amelia River. As we meandered our way through, we came up to a point in which we needed to cross the Nassau River onto the next section of the Intracoastal Waterway. Now, a little bit about the ICW, as it is normally called. There are two things that, in our minds, make this waterway a bit overwhelming, and at times stressful to traverse through: opposing currents and shallow areas. Both require studying the tides carefully and a whole lotta planning and scheduling ahead of time. With an opposing current, first and foremost, reaching your destination becomes impossible, particularly if it involves awaiting for bridge openings. You now have to plan for finding a good anchorage (or an unbudgeted marina stay) if indeed that is the case. Also, when coming up to a larger body of water that has a swift current flushing out to sea, or inland, cutting across said body of water can get pretty hairy. The second obstacle are shallow areas. Given the nature of these natural rivers and creeks, the ebb and flow of the waters, shoaling becomes pretty common. These are areas of sediment that start accumulating, creating shallow zones, even in areas that are marked as an open (dredged) channel.
Well, it was time for us to come put our skills to the test in the ICW. As we were coming out of the Amelia River, we came to face the Nassau River. The river was flushing eastbound, out to the ocean, and we had to motor against the 2 knot current in order to jump into the next section of the ICW, Clapboard Creek, which was upriver. Tricky, but not too bad —we made it through. On into this section of the ICW, however, we had to keep our eyes peeled to the depth gage because it was full of shallow areas not quite apparent in our charts (stress level: HIGH).
Clapboard Creek, eventually became Sisters Creek which flushes into the St. John River. Looking at our charts we saw we had to make a very strategic move across in order to get into the next section of ICW which was surrounded with hazardous rocks and shoals. Great combo. Since we were coming in at low tide, the whole thing was questionable, but we treaded carefully towards Pablo’s Creek which was downriver. We had a 2-3 knot current that was in our favor so we figured it would be a piece of cake. The problem was that as we were getting closer to the entrance of this next section, we saw two boats that seemed to not be moving. We asked ourselves: are they going into the creek, or are they stuck? Moving rapidly towards them we realized it was the latter. They had run aground in the middle of the channel! We quickly radioed them over on Channel 16 and asked what the situation was. Both boats confirmed their misfortune. With a vessel behind our back, and the St. John River now against us, we immeaditley turned around and motored ourselves out of the mess, back to Sister’s Creek to an empty dock we had passed by earlier. There we took a pause, cracked a couple of beers open, and let our minds rest from the frantic maneuvering we had just dealt with.
We continued monitoring the situation with the two boats that had run aground over radio. One of them, a sailing vessel, was hailing TowUS to no avail. As the afternoon went on, a couple of vessels passed by us and we were quick to warn them over radio about the conditions ahead. One of the boats thanked us, but seemed to have generally shrugged our advice off. Needless to say he was back at the dock with us 30 or so minutes later as he couldn’t get through.
The dock we had landed at was managed by the city as part of the Jim King Park recreational area, and as confirmed by the wonderful Waterway Guide (a guide that provides excellent information of bridges, anchorages, marinas, free docks, and many other various services that can be found on the ICW), it was free! Unfortunately, we quickly discovered the actual free dock was around the corner from us. The whole time we had been there, sitting under our noses was a big sign that read NO OVERNIGHT DOCKING. It seemed that mostly fisherman used this particular dock as staging and bring their boats out of the water using the ramp next door. We were getting worried we would be running into trouble.
By late afternoon a third Canadian vessel came in and tied up behind us. We felt a little more reassured about staying put since we had more of a quorum to play the “we are not from here” card, should anyone come by to see us off. Since our destination that day was St. Augustine, we had done little research on anchorages for the area we had now found ourselves at. We had stumbled upon the dock by happenstance. Any anchorage areas were far from us, a couple of hours back at least, since we couldn’t proceed South. We were so exhausted from the events of the day that it was hard to imagine we’d try moving or anchoring anywhere else. Having the same concern as us, the Canadian vessel that had come in last was sneaky (smart) enough to go check out the dock on the other side and moved their boat. But, we’ll give it to them as they found a full contigency of french speaking Canadian cruisers who were nice enough to make room for them. It was otherwise pretty packed.
By early evening a police boat had pulled in to the dock. We said hi and tried to look as friendly as possible hoping they wouldn’t give us a hard time. While cooking dinner, the police, on their way out, dropped by again and asked how we were. They asked if we were staying for the night and Tom came back, no hesitation whatsoever, with the vaguest answer one could possibly come up with: “We weren’t intending to.” To which they replied: “Well, this is public, you shouldn’t have any problem sticking around!” We were so relieved. We could finally get a goodnight sleep without nightmares of Sparidae getting impounded.
After dinner, we did some heavy research on the troubled section of the ICW we had yet to cross. We googled our way through the amazing network of cruisers in social media and online forums for real time updates about problem areas like the one we were facing. To our surprise, the second vessel that had run aground, a motorboat, had quickly logged their misadventure into one of the ICW Facebook groups. Quickly, many other cruisers started chiming in and we were able to get plentiful advice on crossing this treacherous section. We armed ourselves with with all kinds of screenshots, maps, and surveys of the area so we could feel confident on which side of the channel get through and stay away from any shallow areas. We made our way through safely the next morning at high tide. We were finally back en route to St. Augustine.
Light fog over the St. John River on the morning of December 6.