It’s closer than you think: despite being Florida’s greatest waterway with 300 navigable miles, for anyone with a 45-foot mast, the murky St. Johns River comes to an abrupt end in Green Cove Springs.
As the manatee swims, that’s just 40.5 miles from Mayport inlet; and that is precisely where we pointed the bow of our Catalina 34, Ukiyo (and its 50 foot mast), on Presidents Day weekend.
“Why on Earth do you want to sail there?” asked my first mate, Kanako. “We’ve been there a dozen times.” She still has problems grasping the difference between driving the minivan and voyaging to a distant place.
“Maybe so,” I countered. “But we’ve never sailed there before.”
Any tidal-river boater will tell you it really pays to go with the tide. From the inlet, the trip from Jacksonville, Fla., in a sailboat is about eight hours — a good day’s sail and, if you time it right, you can do almost the entire trip on one flood tide.
Our day’s run brought us to a few miles north of the town. After many near-disasters through the years, I’ve learned not to push my luck in an unfamiliar place, so we dropped anchor in a nice cove in the lee of the forecasted winds and watched the sun call it a day. Little bats danced around our mast and owls hooted my daughters to sleep.
The next morning, we sailed off the anchorage and made for what we thought was the city pier. A quick approach to the previous night’s most prominent landmark, the Clay County Courthouse, turned out to be almost a mile off course. Rats.
I knew the city pier was close, I had walked it last spring after a picnic; unfortunately, it was unmarked on my chart. Unlike most places you sail into, Green Cove Springs has no definitive, easily identifiable downtown waterfront that’s easy to spot from a distance. Even with the morning sun at our backs, we had to feel our way in.
We tacked into the southeast wind, trying to find this place. In this part of the river, you must mind the markers because there are many muddy shoals scattered about. So it was one eye on the river and one on the depth sounder.
There were so many piers on the western shore; which was the right one? Thank Poseidon, the visibility was good. I repeatedly swept the shore with binoculars, searching for something I knew was there.
Finally, the city pier and its octagonal wooden gazebo heaved into view. The chart showed less than 5 feet around the dock and I was concerned that the semidiurnal ebb tide would lock us out for the day. Approaching the outer slips, the tide and wind conspired to push us crosswise, but judicious use of reverse gear and port prop walk got us in there. Whew!
After securing the lines, I did something I’ve never done before: I punched the waypoint into the GPS so I could find this place again. If you are electronically challenged and prefer an easier method, just sail down to 29 59 55 North and turn directly west to the pier.
Within minutes, it was clear that visiting sailboats were rare here. People began coming out for a look. They stared, they posed for pictures in front of Ukiyo, they waved at us and we waved at them — very strange. Someone even asked if we lived there. Was this Florida, or Fiji?
The pier is part of Spring Park and the spring that gave the town its name. My two little sailors bolted for the play park, eager to regain their land legs and try out the slides. This is definitely a family-friendly cruise. If you have little ones, you won’t be disappointed hanging out for a day or two — nothing but nice families and kids in the park.
The town was a popular tourist destination in the 19th century, when wealthy tourists would come to imbibe and swim in the warm therapeutic waters of the “boil.” For a time, it was owned by department store magnate J.C. Penney, who turned it over to the town after 1930. Today, the crystal-clear waters still percolate at the rate of 3,000 gallons per minute, and the pool it flows into is open to the public.
Our bellies began to rumble. We walked around and saw several restaurants, but decided on Ronnie’s Wings and Oyster Bar for an awesome chicken salad sandwich and a Caesar salad. A few blocks away, we made the obligatory stop at the Ace Hardware store to pick up some electrical repair items, and we wrapped up the shore leave with a visit to the spring for a fill-up.
As the last of the sun’s rays ran up Ukiyo’s mast, we backed out of the slip and headed north, being careful to aim directly for the red and green about a mile distant. To starboard, two giant ferries sat at the old Naval Air Station dock being refurbished. A little farther, the Shands Bridge burned orange in the setting sun. There is talk of the county rebuilding it to a controlling height of 65 feet, which is awesome news to everyone with a spar (though not so awesome news to everyone with a car; there would probably be a toll to pay for it). It would open up another 92 miles of the river to explore, all the way to just shy of Lake Monroe and Sanford.
Right on cue, the day’s thermal breeze vanished with the sunset; I fired up the Universal 35, doused the sails and flicked on the running lights. We were on our way to “Manatee Cove,” an anchorage where three sea cows had playfully danced around our hull one early morning last fall. But for a tug and barge to the north, the St. Johns was ours.
So much river, so little time.
Robert Beringer, 51, is a college administrator who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. He sails his Catalina 34 on the St. Johns River and coastal Florida, and he holds a USCG 50-ton Merchant Marine License with a sailing endorsement.
This article originally appeared in the Florida & the South Home Waters Section of the August 2009 issue.