Thursday, June 8, 2023

My Little Cove

Spring Park, Green Cove Springs
Spring Park, from Florida Times-Union

There is a little cove across the river from Green Cove Springs, Florida. I have crossed from town and back twice in the last week. I find it hard to imagine why so many boats stay in the anchorage by the City Pier no matter the weather. 

It began last Wednesday when I had been in Green Cove Springs for a few days already. Not only was my mail service in this charming little town, but I had good access to a hardware store, groceries, and a little storefront Mexican Restaurant. La Casita has really good shrimp tacos and a little bodega section near the front door. Besides lunch one day, I picked up some guajillo peppers which I stock in my pantry and a couple bags of Cacahaute Japones (Japanese Peanuts are some of my favorite Mexican treats). 

I first anchored at Governors Creek on the north side of town. There is a county boat ramp there and right across the road is Hagan’s Ace Hardware. St. Brendan’s Mail Service is a bit further north of town and pretty handy as well. However, the docks are fixed which makes them inconvenient at low tide when they tower above the water. Further, with even a gentle wind out of the east, my new dinghy was tempted to bang against the dock pylons. After running some errands ashore, I hauled the anchor and moved Ruth Ann down to the City Pier Anchorage. Green Cove Springs’ City Pier is quite a nice facility with a small pavilion and some benches about halfway out and eight boat slips at the end. An overnight slip is just twenty dollars and includes power and water. Quite a deal, but limited to 72 hours. The floating docks are always at water level and there is ample room to tie up a dinghy as well; which is free. 

City Pier
City Pier, from the City's Website

I anchored Ruth Ann near the pier and went ashore for some more errands. My driver’s license was expiring, so I legally declared my domicile at the mail service, got a Florida license, and registered Ruth Ann in the Sunshine State. I found a bike at a pawn shop. It was $45 and barely worth that, but the three plus miles from the City Pier to St. Brendan’s or the store will be quicker and easier. The lock and cable, which I’ve had for some time, are way more valuable to me than the junky, but adequate bike. 

The Saint Johns River is the longest river in the State of Florida. It actually begins in a marshy area near Vero Beach and wanders up to Lake Monroe on the east side of Orlando. Continuing north, the lazy, slow-flowing river goes through Lake George in the Ocala National Forest, passes Palatka and Green Cove Springs, then flows through downtown Jacksonville, and on into the Atlantic. Green Cove Springs is on the western shore where the river is about two miles wide. An east wind across all that fetch can kick up a pretty good chop. After an annoying evening bouncing lightly as I made supper, I vowed to move across the river for protection from the wind. There was an anchorage on the other side marked on the chart.

A windy forecast was in the offing for late in the week and through Labor Day Weekend, so I got up early on Tuesday, hauled the anchor, and motored across to Hallowe’s Cove. Anchorages marked on charts can be hit or miss. It can be crowded because it’s marked and everyone goes there. Or the anchorage might have worked for someone else, but in the end will not meet my criteria for safe or comfortable. There are a great many different boat designs with different depths and different behavior “on the hook,” so not every anchorage will work for every boat – obviously.

The long dock NW of Hallowes Cove
NW of Hallowes Cove

I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at Hallowe’s Cove and we were the only boat. There are no services of any kind and no place to land a dinghy, but that wasn’t why we were there. The shore is an uninterrupted stretch of oaks, pine, and cypress shielding Ruth Ann and I from three directions; most importantly from the coming east wind. At night, the forest literally comes to life; buzzing insects, croaking frogs, and a whole choir of other wildlife. During the day, fish jump and osprey soar. Somehow I had found a small nook along the riverbank where no houses were visible. There was long dock off the point to the northwest and after the sun goes down only a few lights show through the woods to the east. The next dock is more than a half mile to the south. It was so peaceful and just what I needed; on several levels. 

We settled in for the holiday weekend. A couple other boats eventually joined Ruth Ann and I at polite distances. It was hard to imagine why more of the boats in the City Pier Anchorage didn’t come over for the storm. Many of them probably aren’t set up to move much anyway. Just forty five minutes of motoring and what a difference! There were no persistent little waves causing us to “hobby-horse" and even at the peak of the storm, I could hear the wind more than I felt it. 

Hallowes Cove Sunset
Hallowes Cove Sunset

By Sunday after the squall, I was running low on fresh food and knew that I would soon need some more water for Ruth Ann’s tank. After calling to confirm the holiday hours at Winn Dixie, I headed back across the river to Governor’s Creek on Labor Day morning. I hiked up to the store and back, rowed out to stow my groceries, and then returned to hit the hardware store. Back in the plumbing aisles at the Hagan Ace, I was doing some “redneck engineering” and picking through various parts to design and redesign a system for Ruth Ann. 

Tuesday morning I hiked back up toward Winn Dixie where I grabbed a couple grocery items that I had forgotten the day before, but I was there because my mail service, which wasn’t open on the holiday, is in the office park right behind the store. I’ve used St Brendan’s Mail Service for many years now. When I was truckdriving, if I was headed south through Jacksonville in the afternoon and knew some mail was waiting for me, I’d jump over to US-17 on the bypass and sneak down to Green Cove Springs. The first couple times, I pulled into the Winn Dixie, snuck around the store, and staged my truck to pull right back out on the road. However, the alley behind the store is pretty skinny, and I soon realized that I could get caught back there; blocked by the Hostess guy or a beer truck that happened to park in a tight spot. I started to simply pull over on the shoulder of US-17, just past the Circle K, and walk up to get my mail with the truck’s four-way flashers going. Not likely completely legal, but I never got caught. So this is almost like “home” to me. 

That was a lot of walking in two days for a crusty old sailor and I got lazy. My original plan had been to haul the anchor and head back down to the City Pier Anchorage yet on Tuesday afternoon. There is no water available at Governors Creek and I knew I was getting low. I don’t have a gauge on the tank, so I couldn’t know how low. Labor Day Monday and Tuesday had been peaceful with the town blocking the west wind, but the forecast called for the wind to clock around into the east by mid-morning on Wednesday. I decided that I could get water at the pier in the morning and head back across the river before the wind arrived.

Unfortunately, it was just 6:00 pm Tuesday when I already felt the wind shift. Now, my little anchorage at Governors Creek turned uncomfortable with a strong wind over a long fetch. We were hobby-horsing again. Ruth Ann’s bow was bobbing up and down and it was hard to work on the computer while my whole world dipped to the left, then to the right, back to the left, and on and on. I hadn’t even started making any supper yet. Further, with the wind clocking around unexpectedly, I couldn’t be sure about the safety of where I had anchored. If anything went wrong, the wind would blow Ruth Ann toward the seawall of the county park. I checked my watch, checked the times for sunset and the tide, to learn that if I hauled the anchor right then, I’d have just enough daylight left to get back across the river. So I stowed my laptop and checked that the cabin was mostly set for getting underway. Usually when I start Ruth Ann’s diesel, I always check the belts and fluids, but this time, since it had just run the day before, I jumped for the start button in the cockpit. The little Yanmar growled to life, the exhaust had good water flow, and I went forward for the anchor. In five or six minutes, we were motoring into the chop and headed back across the river as storm clouds brewed to the east.

I got the anchor down in the fading light and set about to make supper. In the galley, after only a couple pulls on the hand-pump faucet, I got the airy, gurgling sound of a nearly empty tank. It was no emergency, just annoying, as I could head back in the morning to get some water. The forecast, however, was calling for several days of east wind which meant that back across the river was back to the ‘wrong side.’ 

The weather had changed quickly because a squall had come in off the Atlantic. Before I had even cleaned up from making supper, the storm had passed, the wind had abated, and everything was peaceful again. It was then that I noticed that my batteries had not recovered well. During one of my long days ashore, I had left my fridge on and there hadn’t been enough sun in the days since to top my batteries back up. The coming weather was going to limit the available sunshine for several days. I am completely reliant on my solar panels for power and was in a pinch. Such a situation can make me doubt my solar set up, but subsequent data collection reaffirmed that my array is normally enough to cover my needs. One habit that I haven’t established well is to only run the fridge two or three times a day when the weather has been overcast for more than three or four days.  

The next morning, I had just enough water left in my filter pitcher to make coffee, so I had a luxurious breakfast before I hauled the anchor and headed across to the pier. On the way, I decided that if there was room, I would just tie up to the face dock at the pier, grab some water, and head back out. I rarely use a dock, preferring to anchor or moor, but when I remembered that the City docks were supposed to be inexpensive, my plan started to evolve. 

Another sailboat was, in fact, on the face dock when I arrived. While I had hoped to do a touch-and-go stop on that dock, my new plan was to stay the night in order to fill up on water and use the electricity to charge up my battery bank. With the wind behind me, I coaxed Ruth Ann into one of the shore facing slips on the pier and tied up. I got rid of some garbage, plugged in, and began filling up with water. My list of chores had been revised to take advantage of a night in a slip. Up the hill from Spring Park was a Shell Station, so I loaded up my empty diesel jug and carted it up the hill. On the walk, I spotted La Casita a couple blocks away. It was too much a temptation, so after tying down the now full jug, I walked back up the hill for a late lunch; shrimp tacos and a couple Dos Equis. 

I also spotted my bike still locked to the bike rack where I had left it a few days before. So that was good, so far. 

Back at the boat, I cleaned up, did some digital nomad work, and then the wind picked up again. If I had planned more thoroughly, I would have swung Ruth Ann around the City docks and used a slip that would face the wind. Instead, the stronger wind was now slapping waves up against the overhang of Ruth Ann’s transom and the dinghy banged against the boat as it was tied behind. I moved the dinghy inside the slip next to Ruth Ann, and adjusted the dock lines to make room. I cut my hair, took a shower, and made some supper. The wind kept blowing and I was increasingly less comfortable with the dinghy beside the boat. The waves continued to slap up against Ruth Ann’s transom and now the dinghy pitched wildly with a line grunting against the cleat each time it yanked to the top of a wave. I went out again to adjust the lines and eventually moved some fenders forward to tie the dinghy against Ruth Ann’s bow in the forward space of the slip.  

I was up several times to check my lines; cursing myself that I had stayed there. Nevertheless, I was plugged in and it was critical to get my battery bank fully charged for the stormy, overcast days ahead. All through the night, the waves slapped, the dock lines groaned, and the lines to the dinghy yanked and grunted against the cleats. I didn’t sleep much.

In the morning, I had a full water tank, ten more gallons in jerry jugs on deck, and a fully charged battery bank. I was up with the sun to get back across the river to my peaceful little cove. I had managed just a couple hours of sleep. Mornings are usually calm, but the wind had barely eased overnight. The slaps weren’t as angry but the waves still came in off the river, bumping Ruth Ann, and bucking the dinghy. Aft and to port of Ruth Ann was a seawall as a breakwater and I was going to have to maneuver backward, into the wind and waves, to head between the breakwater and a clutch of pylons off the end of the pier to starboard. Moreover, the bowsprit was hanging over the dock very near to the dock pedestal with the power and water connections. The last thing I wanted to do was tear that off the city dock with my bowsprit.  I also had to mind the dinghy. If it was close behind us again, it would be in the way. If I let the dinghy painter out too far, the line could get wrapped on the prop. If the dinghy got between the boat and the dock, or the pylons, or the breakwater, I could easily crush it. 

I walked around the slip, plotting and planning all my moves. I let out some bow line to be able to pull back on the spring line. The anchor was then behind the pedestal and as we backed out it would be pulled away from trouble rather than toward it. I left the dinghy tied to the bow, started the engine and let go all the dock lines save the spring, which I had looped against a single horn of the dock cleat. The spring line went from a midship cleat aft to the dock cleat and then to a cleat in the cockpit, forming a long skinny triangle. When I backed out of the slip, the spring simply fell off the cleat’s horn and I pulled it aboard quickly keeping it away from the prop.

Ruth Ann has one propellor and “single screw” boats have “prop walk” in reverse at low speeds. The propellor spins so slowly that the blades of the propellor “dog paddle” the stern of the boat to one side as much as driving it backward. I knew that Ruth Ann’s prop walk was to starboard and used that to my advantage. We started out of the slip slowly, I grabbed the spring line as above, and then gave more throttle in reverse holding the helm with the rudder centered. As Ruth Ann gracefully backed away, the prop walk danced her in a shallow arc toward the seawall swinging her bow to port. When the bow was pulled past the clutch of pylons, I eased the throttle and put the gearbox in forward to steer into the anchorage and open water. In steering to port, the dinghy, still tied to the bow, had drifted to the starboard side. It had spent the night on the port side where I had deployed a couple fenders to protect Ruth Ann. So when I was clear of the dangers near the pier, I slowed the boat, put her in reverse briefly, and then steered around to starboard to get the dinghy to the other side of the bow and against the fenders. Out in the river proper, I set the autopilot and went forward to untie the dinghy and put it behind us where it belonged.

Back in my peaceful little cove, I anchored Ruth Ann and made some breakfast. It was so good to be back in my little slice of paradise. After so many errands, all the provisioning and bureaucratic chores, I set about to start working on my list of boat projects. I have a new piece of equipment that I have wanted for some time and will write about that later, but the unit is now mounted in the head and I have most of the pieces and parts I need to hook it up. The dinghy had been in the water for a couple weeks, so I undid the hull sections and hauled them aboard for a good scrub. Also, the dinghy won’t collect any of the coming rain if it is upside down on deck. I sealed a couple leaks and cleaned up around the boat; inside and out. In the next few days, I’ll do an oil change and service on my engine, work on some dinghy modifications, polish the stainless, oil Ruth Ann’s teak, and more.  

That first night I was back was the night before a full moon. Out on deck after dark, I was dumbfounded by the beauty and just plain grateful to be alive and to be right there, just then. The river was completely still but for a gentle rippling as if a canoe had just passed. The moon was not yet smoothly round and hung in the blackness, misshapen like an ancient coin. The reflections on the water danced like hundreds of diamonds being scattered over black velvet. The Shands Bridge to the south seemed to only exist when taillights made the lazy trip across the open space in the dark. Even the wildlife seemed to be awed by the spectacle. I don’t remember a sound as we all stared with thankful wonder at the world before us.

Much to my chagrin, there was not enough light in the sky to capture that moment on a camera. I tried with my real camera as well as my phone camera to no avail. Then again, it is somewhat delicious to have such a moment captured only by eye and just for me. 

The next day a couple boats had joined us in the cove. That night the full moon splashed silver shards onto the river where two neighboring boats floated in the mess as if they had landed on and shattered a mirror. I knew there were other sailors probably sleeping aboard those boats, but it seemed like I was the only soul to witness the grandeur. Sights like that shrink the boundaries and I feel less and less separate from everything; and especially from the beauty of the universe. 

May all beings be peaceful.

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Notes from Todd’s World:

1) Hagan Ace Hardware is a small local chain in Florida. Six or seven years ago, when I was hauling sod, I used to deliver to several of the Hagan stores.

2) Where the St. Johns River flows through Lake George in the Ocala National Forest, I got one of the largest bass I’ve ever caught when my first wife and I stayed at a cabin on the river.

3) Literally, a couple dozen times I have stopped on the side of the road with a full semi to walk up and get my mail. Hilariously, the ladies at the counter at St. Brendan’s would have had no more idea that there was a semi down the hill than they might realize recently that I had walked a few miles with a little dock cart to get my mail; sometimes forty or fifty pounds of boat parts.  

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