The Island Woman (6324 bytes)

CRUISING FLORIDA'S  ST. JOHN'S RIVER
by Albin Trawler  (April 1999)

Small Boat - Big Adventure    

During our "Great Circle Waterway" trip (April 1997 issue), we passed many rivers - rivers with names like the St. John's, Savannah, Cape Fear, James, Potomac, York, etc. All waiting to be explored and enjoyed. Since our long cruise in '96, we have contented ourselves with shorter trips to the Keys and around the West Coast of Florida. It was now time to take an extended cruise again and we decided on Florida's St. John's River. 

This cruise will take us south to Fort Myers and then east by way of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie River and finally north on the ICW to Jacksonville and the St. John's River. Our return trip will take us back south on the ICW but we will then continue on to the Keys and return to St. Petersburg on the West Coast via Florida Bay. We picked the beginning of April to start our trip thereby reducing our chances of having to do battle with the mosquitoes that make their home in the mangroves and swamp land we will be passing. To this extent, our timing was perfect. 

On April 8, we departed our dock in St. Pete. Our boat, "The Island Woman" is an Albin 25' trawler with a single 35 hp Perkins diesel cruising between 6 2 - 7 knots. Tampa Bay had a light chop as we headed southwest to our first anchorage at Longboat Key. Early the next morning we were on our way with stops for the night at Venice (City has a free dock), Boca Grande, Caya Costa (our favorite West Coast anchorage) and Fort Myers. The City of Ft. Myers has a first class marina and is a good place to fuel up for the next leg of the trip across Florida. 

There are 5 locks on the waterway between Fort Myers and Stuart. They are easy to traverse and the rise or drop is minimal. In fact, the Myaka Lock was open at both ends because the water level was equal. The trip across Florida is always a delight - pleasant scenery and well protected from storms. The Corps of Engineers have two fine marinas along the route at very reasonable cost and the City of La Belle has free dockage for 72 hours (including electric & water).

Our first and only equipment problem occurred before entering Lake Okeechobee - our depth finder went out. To cruise Florida waters - especially if anchoring out -without a depth sounder is an engraved invitation to going aground. So our first order of business was to find a replacement. After many stops and attempts to find marine stores near the waterway, we were able to get a replacement in Vero Beach. At the municipal marina you can get a cab for $5 each way that will take you anywhere in the city - a great deal! 

Passing Cape Canaveral we were hoping to see a launch but no luck so on we went to St. Augustine.  Just south of St. Augustine is Matanzas Inlet.  The nearby Inter-coastal at this point has shoaled severely.  There were 5 vessels aground as we passed marker 82 - 4 sailboats and 1 trawler.  Seatow was having a field day.  On the return trip 3 vessels were aground.  We constantly tried to contact sailboats via VHF to appraise them on conditions but except in rare cases, our calls were unanswered.  The Coast Guard has done a good job marking the channel by setting out small cans and nuns.  The problem seems to be boaters not seeing them or not heeding them as the channel brings you within 25 ft of shore where you have a good 6 to 7 feet of water. 

The St. John's, at this point, is very wide with little of interest. There are side creeks which you can explore - such as Black Creek (anchored there on the return trip) which are virtually uninhabited and gives a picture of the Florida of yesteryear. It isn't until Palatka that the St. John's narrows and takes on the Florida Cracker ambiance. Unfortunately small river towns are having a tough time not only in Florida but all over. The push is to the suburbs and interstate highways so downtown although "historically restored" are left with antique and gift shops and restaurants but no food or department stores. Palatka used to have free overnight dockage at the city marina but now has a $25 fee. Just around the bend from Palatka is a Burger King where you can tie up and across the street is a shopping center with a major grocery B time to stock the food lockers. Since diesel fuel is very limited on the upper reaches of the river, we took no chances but filled up our spare 5 gallon container at this stop. Our on board fuel capacity is approximately 30 gallons - 25 being usable, which was more than enough. Not knowing when we would be able to fill up again, the 5 gallon container was our "insurance". 

Murphy Creek is a very picturesque and winding creek filled with alligators. Many nice anchorages but no place to go ashore. We anchored for the night near Welaka and used the boat ramp to go ashore. Again, stores were some miles away.

Lake George is over 10 miles long and has two springs on its western shore (Salt Springs on the northwestern shore and Silver Glen Springs on it southwest shore. The eastern part of the Lake is a bombing range for the Navy. The entrance to Salt Springs has a 1 ft sand bar so only dinghies and flats boats can enter. Once over the bar, depth increases. We visited Silver Glen Springs - our 30" draft allowed us entrance into the Springs which are crystal clear and a constant 70 degrees all year. The Springs allow great snorkeling and refreshing swimming. This again should be a "must" stop if your draft is shallow or you can dinghy in. The springs are a short distance from the entrance markers which show 3' depth on the charts. 

From Lake George south, the river takes on a different nature. It is narrow and void of commercial and residential development except for fish camps and occasional homes. It is in this portion between Lake George and Sanford that the river abounds with alligators, ospreys and herons. Again, being a slow vessel, we see things that those in fast cruisers miss.

Hontoon State Park is accessible only by boat and the marina is right up with the best having electricity, water, clean restrooms and hot showers at a very reasonable cost. The only drawback is except for the facing dock, the remaining slips only have 4' or less water. No problem for us but could be for larger trawlers or vessels drawing more than 3 ft. It still is a great stop for cruising boats who want to get ashore for some hiking and just plain feel land for a while. This area of the river abounds with houseboat rentals of all sizes. We were invited on one docked at the state park and was amazed at the room and open feeling you get. The accommodations are lavish.

Just south of Hontoon is Blue Springs State Park - another favorite of the local populace. You anchor in the river and dinghy ashore as no boats are allowed near the springs.

Sanford was the southernmost point of our cruise on the St. John's. While the marina is first class, we had difficulty finding the entrance which is nestled into a corner behind a wooden bulkhead. Like so many river marinas, we had difficulty contacting them by VHF. The weather was poor, Lake Monroe had a rough chop and we were getting frustrated trying to reach them. Finally we called on our cell phone and then communicated by VHF. The old section of town has been rejuvenated and is very attractive. The homes are nestled among huge trees and have the ambiance of days gone by. We topped off our day here with a fine dinner in a small Italian Restaurant just a couple of blocks from the marina.

What goes up must come down and so it is with the St. John's river. Our return trip was uneventful and the weather cooperated. The only section of rain was in Jacksonville which is a fun place to stop with both the Jacksonville Landing the Jacksonville River Walk giving you plenty to do on an afternoon. The City of Jacksonville has a Metropolitan Park which they don't call a marina because they do not want to be in competition with private enterprise. The "Park" has concrete floating docks and I would guess 50 or more slips - no water & no electricity. Restroom facilities are in the actual park section. The "park" is adjacent to the old Gator Bowl now the home of the Jaguars. I'm told the place is packed for all home games and special events and concerts. While we were there, we were the only boat docked. Docking is free for 72 hours. 

Instead of returning home over the same route we decided to go down to the Keys and do some snorkeling in and around Marathon and Bahia Honda.

Sanford was the southernmost point of our cruise on the St. John's. While the marina is first class, we had difficulty finding the entrance which is nestled into a corner behind a wooden bulkhead. Like so many river marinas, we had difficulty contacting them by VHF. The weather was poor, Lake Monroe had a rough chop and we were getting frustrated trying to reach them. Finally we called on our cell phone and then communicated by VHF. The old section of town has been rejuvenated and is very attractive. The homes are nestled among huge trees and have the ambiance of days gone by. We topped off our day here with a fine dinner in a small Italian Restaurant just a couple of blocks from the marina.

What goes up must come down and so it is with the St. John's river. Our return trip was uneventful and the weather cooperated. The only section of rain was in Jacksonville which is a fun place to stop with both the Jacksonville Landing the Jacksonville River Walk giving you plenty to do on an afternoon. The City of Jacksonville has a Metropolitan Park which they don't call a marina because they do not want to be in competition with private enterprise. The "Park" has concrete floating docks and I would guess 50 or more slips - no water & no electricity. Restroom facilities are in the actual park section. The "park" is adjacent to the old Gator Bowl now the home of the Jaguars. I'm told the place is packed for all home games and special events and concerts. While we were there, we were the only boat docked. Docking is free for 72 hours.

Instead of returning home over the same route we decided to go down to the Keys and do some snorkeling in and around Marathon and Bahia Honda. 

What goes up must come down and so it is with the St. John's river. Our return trip was uneventful and the weather cooperated. The only section of rain was in Jacksonville which is a fun place to stop with both the Jacksonville Landing the Jacksonville River Walk giving you plenty to do on an afternoon. The City of Jacksonville has a Metropolitan Park which they don't call a marina because they do not want to be in competition with private enterprise. The "Park" has concrete floating docks and I would guess 50 or more slips - no water & no electricity. Restroom facilities are in the actual park section. The "park" is adjacent to the old Gator Bowl now the home of the Jaguars. I'm told the place is packed for all home games and special events and concerts. While we were there, we were the only boat docked. Docking is free for 72 hours.

Instead of returning home over the same route we decided to go down to the Keys and do some snorkeling in and around Marathon and Bahia Honda. 

The ICW from Jupiter inlet south to Miami is both interesting & exciting - especially Ft. Lauderdale. Where else can you see yachts with tenders larger then the boat your cruising on plus a helicopter on the rear deck. Here you can see almost any type water craft made & on a weekend they all seem to be on the water at once.

As we approached Miami our VHF alerted us to the fact that a sailboat had become stuck under the 56 ft. high Julia Tuttle bridge. By the time we arrived this couple from Canada had been stuck for over 45 minutes with low tide some 4 hours away. We offered assistance but there was nothing that could be done at this point. Our concern was that no police or Coast Guard vessel was standing by to protect this vessel from the damaging wakes they were being subjected too, especially when less than a mile away we had spotted not less than 4 sheriff & marine patrol boats enforcing Manatee zones.

 The Keys with their crystal clear waters is always a treat. Whether you like to snorkel , dive or just watch the bottom as you cruise along they are always fascinating.

After days of calm weather, it is now time to head home. NOAA weather predicted light chop on Florida Bay so at 6:30 a.m. we headed back to Marathon from Bahia Honda and then set course for Indian Key some 80 miles north. For the first four hours, the weather was great with the light chop predicted but at this point, the weather deteriorated and thunderstorms rolled in from the east. This is when the "go fast" boats have it over my 7 to 8 mph vessel. As for the next six hours we were in what I call 5 ft slop - otherwise known as confused seas. I'm not sure what we would have done without G.P.S. and the automatic pilot. There was no way I could maintain a course by hand steering - in fact, all we could do was hold on so as not to get tossed all over the boat. Modern electronics being what they are, the entrance marker appeared and with a sigh of relief we slipped behind the islands and into calm water for a well deserved rest.

The next morning, the sun came out and the seas were calm and we again traversed Florida Bay a short ten miles to Coons Key marker and then took the inside route past the small town of Goodland and on to the marina at Marco Island. Luckily the trip was short as early afternoon thunderstorms and lightning rolled in again. It was at the marina that we heard a sailboat has been de-masted in the previous day's storm.

From Marco, it's approximately a forty mile hop out in the Gulf to Ft. Myers and from there the ICW again takes you behind the barrier islands until you reach Tampa Bay. We opted to go outside at Venice and then back inside at Longboat Key and then up Tampa Bay to our home in St. Pete.

Our trip lasted 49 days and covered just under 1,630 statute miles with 35 nights at anchor. Yes, you can have a big adventure with a small boat. Oh, and did I mention our fuel cost was under $200 - great for the budget.  

Trip Ended May 26, 1999.
 

   
       
   

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