Position: 30°24’05.9″N 81°25’51.5″W
We pulled out of Fernandina and headed south, ever southwards, towards Jacksonville and the St. Johns Inlet. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this short section of the Florida coast, so let’s skip it. We arrived sharply into the Fort George Island Marina – a small, well-kept spot, about a mile from the mouth of the river.
Here we figured we’d have a quick exit in the morning as we hopped along the coast. The current runs fast here, but had just turned to the flood and we pulled somewhat smartly into the slip. A Beneteau 49, AP/EH, (punned, we learned later, from a racing term that Carol and I as relative lubbers were wholly unaware of), lay on the opposite side of the dock from us. It was owned by John and Judie, two Canadians from Victoria, BC, Halifax, and points north. John is tall with long-ish dark hair with a shock of white in it. Judie is about Carol’s height with a pixie cut and no-nonsense attitude. We liked them instantly. And they invited us over for a drink later in the evening.
John and Judie’s story was much like ours, only with a lot more sailing experience along the way. Having retired and then received an offer they couldn’t refuse for their family home, they decided it was time to up stakes, buy a boat and sail for the foreseeable future. Not completely retired, both are part-time sailing race officials, and they plan to keep officiating for as long and as often as time and locations allow. Their kids are happily looking forward to visiting them in exotic locales.
AP/EH is nine feet longer and two feet broader in her beam than Aleta. Being a Beneteau AP/EH also carries her beam aft to her square-ish transom, so that extra nine feet makes for a very spacious layout, almost double that of Aleta’s. Three cabins, two heads and lots of places to store stuff, too. AP/EH’s mast stretches a full 64 feet (bare) and her keel draws 7 feet. Yet, John and Judie had somehow managed to negotiate more of the ICW than we had the nerves for. Early on they had negotiated some of the shorter bridges with the help of their son. Scouting ahead in the dinghy, he’d lie down with a laser rangefinder and accurately measure clearance. At one point, when the bridge came up short, they hung a whisker pole over the side and dangled a couple of crew members from it, giving AP/EH just enough lean angle to squeak under. Clearly not a job for the fainthearted.
We eventually hatched a plan for an overnight passage to Port Canaveral. The forecast sounded pretty benign and we jumped at the chance of sailing with another boat. Leaving the marina wasn’t as simple on the ebb tide. A forceful four knot current rushed out to sea supported by a westerly breeze. Our undocking plan called for a controlled reverse into the empty slip behind us and then powering forward into the main part of the river. The last words I heard from the marina manager were, “You’ve got a bow thruster, right?” We haven’t. Instead we charged backwards while the wind caught Aleta’s bow and spun her around. I improvised a Crazy Ivan with some heavy acceleration and rescued the moment with a nonchalant wave.
Our agreed goal of reaching Port Canaveral by mid-morning demanded an average speed of roughly 6 knots which we easily maintained by motoring for a few hours. As the sunset’s reds deepened to crimson I tuned our VHF for an update from Patchy Fogg, NOAA’s perennially automated weather reporter. Instead of 5-10 knots predicted for daybreak, the winds would build overnight to 20+ knots with a small craft advisory starting at 6am. The wind remained determinedly and irritatingly dead astern all night. But as it increased, I raised the main with a single reef and snuffed the engine. John texted to let me know he’d done the same. Aleta picked up to 5½ knots dead downwind, not her favorite point of sail, and we rolled into the night.
The slightest winds shifts would back the main, but with the preventers in place any drama was minimized. Preventers are control lines that stop the boom slamming across the width of the boat if you gybe (move the boom from one side of the boat to the other when the wind is behind you). We even started using the preventers to assist with controlled gybes. It was simply a matter of extending the windward preventer while snugging up on the leeward one and not mucking about with the mainsheet. Piece o’ cake.
Cape Canaveral is a place where old folks go to retire and billionaires go to compensate. A brilliant light shone in the distance. Through the binoculars I could see a big white rocket being prepped for flight. A bulbous head sat atop a large center cylinder flanked on either side by two smaller tubes. Tiny as it was in the distance, I could make out the grey support gantry keeping it upright. It was a scene straight out of Thunderbirds. I half expected it to try and lift off, only to crash to ground in a spectacular fireball, the crew ejecting and floating back to earth safely under a billowing parachute while Scott and Virgil in Thunderbirds 1 & 2 fought the fire to a standstill. Thrilling stuff – or at least it would have been when I was five.
Yet, in all the pitching about I couldn’t be sure if the rocket was one of Jeff Bezos’, or NASA’s, and in the end decided it was one of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavies. When I was a kid, rocketry was safely managed by the American Government. Only in a James Bond movie did the super-wealthy fly rockets for fun and attempted global domination. It felt appropriate that we transited the safety area, off limits during a rocket launch, quietly in the dead of night, using only the wind as our motive force.
An hour later a sharp crescent of moon with a clear penumbra rose through the clouds and we rolled along, the seas now a steady 4-6’, the wind gusting to 23 knots. Aleta stuck to her a straight course, while AP/EH, tacked back and forth, reassuring us with a glimpse of green from her starboard side, then a beam of red from port as Judie and John gybed astern of us.
Two obstacles lay along our course, Hetzel Shoal and The Bull (another shoal). Texting with John, we agreed we’d cut between the two shallow spots on a southeasterly course, then turn south and eventually west around red buoy number 2 (aka Fl R “2” 2.5s), sometime around breakfast.
Sunrise – I decided we should balance the helm with a scrap of jib. Our speed immediately increased to 7½ knots. Lumpen waves rose up, green and grey flecked with white windblown foam, then rolled by. Carol took the helm and she immediately took it up to 11. Well almost 11. We touched 10 knots once or twice surfing along in 30 knot gusts and Aleta seemed perfectly at ease in our exhilaration. A bit later I took over and hand steered her through some of the bigger waves, as much for practice as the fun of it. Aleta’s stern would lift in anticipation of the swell, then she’d be carried aloft on the crest, finally she’d bob through a figure eight in the troughs between waves. She gave me very clear signals about which way to steer and then responded almost in advance of my compensatory turns of the wheel. No stress, no fuss. Just sailing. At last it felt like Aleta was in her element.
As we rounded buoy Red “2” the seas shifted to our beam increasing the roll. Given our goals for sleep, we finally dropped the main, furled the jib and powered up for the last couple of miles. It was 10:30 in the morning and we were right on schedule.