Side Trip on the St. Johns River — Part 1

Time for a new adventure!

It is a commonly voiced observation among many cruisers that we like the thrill of actual travel,  but after several weeks of being on the move one also looks forward to staying put for a bit.  The  itch to be on the move again returns when tied to the dock for too long, and thoughts turn to the next part of the journey.  Which circles back to looking forward to staying in one place after a few weeks of travel.  The beauty of this lifestyle is you can just keep repeating this cycle at your chosen intervals. 

We had a great month in Brunswick, GA.  We made many new friends and met other Loopers,  thoroughly enjoying the exceptional boating community at Brunswick Landing.  We also completed many boat projects and lots of routine maintenance.  Of course, there was also the very successful Dave Knee Project.   But we started feeling that itch as he recovered, and so we wrapped up our many projects and looked toward our next adventure:  cruising down the St. Johns River in central Florida. 

Everyone says ‘down’ the St. Johns River because when you look at a map you’re traveling south from Jacksonville.  Except this is a weird river and actually flows north to Jacksonville and then out to the Atlantic.  So we’re heading south and down on the map, but up the river. 

Click the button to see a more detailed and interactive Google map of our route. 

Fernandina Beach, FL

Feb 19, 2022

Departed Brunswick on a beautiful day to be out on the water.  We passed by the submarine base at Kings Bay – familiar waters for Dave.   It was a Saturday, so not much activity.

AT LONG LAST WE CROSSED INTO FLORIDA —  only two months, a broken engine, and a fixed knee behind our original schedule!   Fernandina Beach is just lovely – a great destination for a weekend or a few days whether by boat or car.  I’m not actually sure where the ‘beach’ is, as we’ve been there twice and never saw any sand.

We had arrived early enough to have the afternoon to walk through town,  but first we had to wash the boat because we discovered we had been victims of a poop assault from a whole bunch of birds as they passed overhead.  And yes, we do seem to spend a lot of time cleaning the boat.  In what has become our own tradition,  we find a local coffee shop and bakery to share an afternoon coffee and treat when we get to a new town.  Today was a still-warm cookie right out of the oven from Nana Teresa’s Bake Shop and a latte at Amelia Island Coffee

When we were here in May as we transited up the coast, things were just starting to reopen after COVID.  I am happy to say that the place was packed the Saturday we were there – everything was open and people everywhere.  The great weather helped, but it was really nice to see business booming.  Fernandina’s claim is that it has Florida’s first sunset, and the one we saw that night did not disappoint.  

The restaurants were busy and had live entertainment on the Sat night we were there.
Well lit building in downtown Fernandina Beach.

Jacksonville, FL

Feb 20-21

We turned off the ICW and headed west on the St. Johns river shortly after departing Fernandina Beach early the next morning.  The lower (northern) part of the river is very industrialized and a busy commercial port; we saw many tugs/tows and commercial vessels even on a Sunday.  As we continued west we  passed through downtown Jacksonville — hotels, large high rises, condominium complexes, and Jaguars Stadium.  From the river it looked like a nice city, but we didn’t stop.  The St. Johns takes a left but we kept going straight to enter the smaller (but still substantial) Ortega River.  Passing under a couple bridges we arrived at Lamb’s Yacht Center along the Ortega River Marina Mile, so named because of the cluster of marinas in a small area.  We will be staying a couple nights in order to provision for the rest of our trip. 

Lamb’s is really a boatyard, but has a long dock for transient stays.  It’s mostly covered boat storage for larger boats, and also has a repair facility.  It’s similar to AYB where we holed up waiting for our engine to be fixed.  It’s nice enough for our purpose, but the big advantage is that it’s walking/biking distance to a new retail area with a Publix for provisioning.   So we hooked up the Burly trailer to my bike and Dave got on his scooter and off we went to do some shopping. We took care of a few other things to get the boat ready for the two week trip. 

Green Cove Springs

Feb 22-23

We backtracked a bit to return to the wide St Johns River (SJR) and continue south up the river. The river is so wide here in Jacksonville that it behaves more like a lake, but we were fortunate to have good weather and an easy trip.  We passed by NAS Jacksonville, watching planes taking off and noting other aircraft on the tarmac as we passed by. 

Historical Tidbit:  Green Cove Springs has a very eclectic history.  It was a tourist destination in the late 19th -early 20th century when riverboats were the vacation cruise of choice for the affluent.  But once the railroad came down through Florida, tourism moved to the beaches and resorts in coastal FL that still dominate today.  It had an airfield and then became home to the Navy’s mothball fleet after WWII, with a dozen or so long cement piers where the former warships were kept for years.  President Johnson’s first executive order was to move ALL the ships to – wait for it – TEXAS!  The very sturdy piers were eventually turned over to the city/county, with one of them to become Reynold’s Marina and RV Park.  These piers of course were sized for warships and not pleasure craft, with the top of the pier being about 4’ higher than our deck.  We tied off to these huge bollards as well – it was like Land of the Giants: Boating Edition. There were ladders at intervals, but Roxy has not mastered the art of ascending a vertical ladder (I’m a little sketchy on that skill, for that matter) necessitating creativity in getting her on and off for her walks.  We had to position the boat to prevent the stern from swinging under the pier.  So today’s lesson was on creative use of lines, fenders, and dog ramps to adjust to a dock lacking in infrastructure hospitality.  But it was certainly one of the more unique marinas we’ve stayed in so far.  We wandered by the other piers, which were used for a boatyard and an apparent small cruise ship graveyard – a true ghostly looking fleet in the heavy fog we awoke to the next morning.

How we had to get off the boat -- and this was taken at high tide.
Looking down on the boat from the pier at the marina. Notice we are tied to gian bollards - - NOT your typical marina fare.
The Arctic Discoverer. Looks like their discovery days are over. A little sad to see it in this state.
The 'ghost fleet,' or the graveyard. Mostly small cruise ships, several that were casino boats. Not sure if they are just being stored since COVID ashut down these cruises, or mothballed and awaiting the scrap heap. Some looked better cared for than others.

We dinghied around the corner to downtown the next day, tying up at the small city dock.

Spring Park, one of the loveliest waterfront parks we’ve ever seen, is the centerpiece of the town.  It had lush vegetation, a veterans memorial, large kids playground, community pool, and the spring for which the town was named that fed a small clear stream running through the park to the river.  There was also a children’s book trail, with a page of a book at each station that you could walk along and read together.  The rest of the downtown didn’t have too much except we could see the influence of the Art Deco age attributable to the town’s heyday in the 20s. 

Along the stream in Spring Park.
The actual spring in Green Cove Springs. It looks glassy, but is actually flowing from below into a stream that runs through the park to the St. Johns.
Part of the Vet Memorial in the park, looking out over the town docks.
One of the stations along the children's book trail. The book here is Hector the Collector.

We did go in search of our usual coffee shop and found Sweet Sensations, which seemed like a good bet when I peeked in and saw the COFFEE-themed décor.  But when I ordered was told they don’t serve coffee.  I did not point out the irony of their messaging with all the ‘coffee’ signs and art hanging on the walls; they really should fire their interior designer.  But the nice person behind the counter did refer me to Spring Cove Coffee a block down, so I got a slice of key lime pie to go and we headed there.  This was a really great coffee place, with local history themed décor, and said it was named for the spring on which the town was founded.  However, the town is named GREEN COVE Springs, which was a little confusing.  I like this town, but the local businesses all seem to be in dire need of a marketing and communications consultant. 

A lovely mural we found in town.
An example of the art deco style in town that harkened to the town's popularity in the 1920s.

We enjoyed our coffee drinks in the park before heading back to the boat.  Dave’s job –  his only one while I drove – was to protect the key lime pie we had saved for later.  I do not understand how a man can be trusted with a whole squadron of bejillion dollar submarines, yet could be defeated by a single slice of key lime pie on a 10 min ride back to the boat.  Lesson learned today: there’s a very good reason it’s not called Key Lime Upside Down Cake.


Feb 24-25

Short transit from Green Cove Springs to Palatka, where we were greeted at Boathouse Marina by Skip, one of the owners.  We arrived about midday and set about cleaning the boat to get rid of the residue from the nearby boatyard at our previous marina (I told you we do a lot of boat cleaning).  

Like Green Cove Springs, Palatka also has a history of being a riverboat tourist town until the railroad and highway came through.  At the marina was one of the old river boats, called Noah’s Ark after the original owner named Noah.  It is awaiting renovation, but certainly not getting any younger sitting up on land there.  Skip was a wealth of information about the town, the people, its past, and plans for future development.  We enjoyed walking Roxy through the nearby Riverfront Park, with its Vet Memorial including a tribute to a local submariner who was aboard the USS Tang when it sank in WWII. 

That's a lot of restoration that needs to happen...
A mural depicting Noah's Ark in better days.
The Veterans Memorial at Riverfront Park, featuring a tribute to the submarine force. You can see a Mark 14 torpedo off to the right.
Overlooking the US-17 Bridge across the St. Johns River from Riverfront Park in Palatka.

While the waterfront area looked newly renovated with more in progress, the main drag downtown was a little dated and tired.  The storefronts looked more like they were left over from the 60s, with many empty.  But they had over 25 murals scattered through town depicting the history and prominent people and events, some of which incorporated the actual building structures into the painting. We enjoyed following the map that took us to all of them.   The residential areas featured craftsman and Victorian architecture, and you really felt like you had time-warped back a hundred years.   Wandering the streets by foot and bike/scooter is a great way to really see a town’s personality.

Love how they incorporated the building's windows and awnings into the mural.
Roxy's not impressed, other than she found some shade...
Billy Graham preached his first sermon in Palatka.
Bartram was the naturalist who first explored and extensively wrote about the St Johns River.

Our second day there we bike-scooted to Ravine Gardens, about a mile from the marina.  This park was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.  It is more of a naturalized gardens than manicured, but the azaleas were still blooming.  It had a couple small suspension bridges to cross the ravines, a nice 1.8 mi loop bike path, and trails down in the ravines along a small stream.  It was built right as the old bridge across the river was being torn down, and they repurposed a lot of the bricks from the bridge into pathways and retaining walls throughout the park. 

Scootin' along past the azaleas in full bloom.
Ravine Gardens --the red brick used to prevent erosion were repurposed from the old bridge.
Crossing one of the suspension bridges at Ravine Gardens.

Dave’s brother Chuck was driving down from Virginia for a golf week, and it worked out for him to stay with us.  He arrived late afternoon after we’d returned from the gardens, and just in time for us to drop the dinghy and go across the river to Corky Bell’s for dinner, a local favorite.  Pulling up at a restaurant dock to have a meal is one of the unique joys of the cruising life, made even better when the food is good.  We finished just in time to dinghy back across the water into a beautiful sunset. 

Corky Bells restaurant with its dock, where we dinghied in for dinner.
Brother Chuck
'Dinghying into the sunset' after dinner.

And speaking of sunsets, that concluded our two days in Palatka and the first week of our cruise along the St. Johns.  We will continue south for another week, and into more natural wilderness, flora, and fauna rather than quaint historical towns from a bygone era.  Perhaps I’ll give Dave a chance to redeem himself with another slice of key lime pie.

Pops’ Stats Corner*

  • Tot days covered this blog: 7
  • Travel days: 4
  • Miles traveled: 144 statute/165.6 nautical
  • Boat washes: 4
  • Slices smooshed Key Lime Pie: 1

*’Pops ‘ was Dave’s dad.  He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked.  This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because we know he’s sitting in heaven keeping the stats for us.

6 thoughts on “Side Trip on the St. Johns River — Part 1”

  1. Springs diver several decades ago

    Love the prose as you share your adventure! Sunset photos were sublime. Don’t let Dave carry key lime pie

  2. Your photos are lovely Karen. It is so fun to read your blog. It is good you had key lime pie and not banana crème… just sayin….


  3. Love your blog. Keep it coming.
    Where are you located now?
    Maybe Dave and I can come and see you some weekend (we’re still working)

    1. Currently on the St Johns still — at Hontoon State Park until Monday, then we’ll make our way back to Jacksonville. Will be coming through St. Pete’s/Ft Myers area in Nov/Dec as we come out of the inland rivers into the Gulf.

  4. I’m going to need some context for that last picture of you with the microphone. Were you about to break into an impromptu Ted Talk? Perhaps you are taking a tour group for a spin on the boat in rough waters? Those are the only two scenarios I can come up with.

    1. Those are the headsets we use to communicate. You can’t hear anything over the engines if you’re outside the boat and the other is inside (such as when docking or undocking), and I don’t like yelling. The headsets are a Godsend. I think in this pic it was a nice day and I went up on the bow to watch for dolphins, taking Roxy with me (note her fashionable life vest). Anytime I go up front we use the headsets, sometimes just to chat about what we’re seeing.

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