A Gateway To Old Florida, Green Cove Springs Boasts Unique Marine Infrastructure and Artifacts

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Today I’m writing about where I live and where I keep my boat. Boaters who come to Florida think they know what the place is all about, but Green Cove Springs on the St. Johns River is still a secret to most of them. Regular readers might be surprised that most of what I will say here is positive, but please stay with me. There’s goofy stuff ahead.

The city — really a small Bible-belt town — is a way station for southbound cruisers and a haulout venue for a sizable Canadian contingent that spends summers back home between cruises downstate and through the Bahamas.

Green Cove has good anchorages and ample transient dockage, but it’s the extras that make it particularly well suited to a hiatus from cruising. Green Cove boasts a high-end but reasonably priced (and friendly) marina, excellent facilities for repairs and refitting, protection from late-season hurricanes, nearby shopping and — dare I say it — golf.

The marina where I keep my boat is the centerpiece of nautical life here. Reynolds Park Yacht Center is a remarkable facility in terms of its history and infrastructure. During World War II the 1,700-acre site was home to Lee Field, a naval air station. After the war, the Navy built 13 piers to mothball 600 ships of its reserve fleet, choosing Green Cove because of its warm climate, deep-water access and hurricane protection. It’s 40 miles upriver from the sea, so there’s almost no chance of storm surge.

LEGEND & FOLKLORE

Local folk like to spin a tale of how President Lyndon Baines Johnson moved the mothball fleet to Texas after the assassination of JFK, but in reality the base was decommissioned in 1961 while Kennedy was very much alive. Unwanted by the military, the base reverted to Green Cove in 1963. A couple of years later a scion of the Reynolds aluminum dynasty, Louis Reynolds, snapped it up for just under $1 million. Legend has it that the locals thought they had swindled Reynolds — until they watched as $1 million in scrap metal that the Navy left behind was harvested from the property.

The complex, which includes the airfield, a modest World War II museum and an 18-hole golf course, has operated ever since as Reynolds Park Industrial Center, ownership having since passed to Clay County Port, a privately held company controlled by Reynolds’ heirs. The 13 piers — 1,800 feet long by 30 wide — have been home to an assortment of commercial craft, such as tugs, barges, research vessels and ships the government seized. But in 2004 the port’s directors approved the renovation of Pier 2 for pleasure boats.

The new Yacht Center did not have to go far to find its first dockmaster. Capt. David Peden — a Scotsman who once commanded Henry Ford II’s yacht — had frequently berthed his last ship, the 168-footer Patagonia, at Reynolds Park. Peden happened to be on-site and about to retire when the decision was made to create a marina. His friendly competence and knowledge of all things nautical has made him a one-man clearinghouse of information for the growing circle of mariners based at the Yacht Center.

P-Nuts are boiled in brine and typically sold at roadside stands in sandwich bags.

P-Nuts are boiled in brine and typically sold at roadside stands in sandwich bags.

‘P-Nuts’ and ‘Crackers’

You know you are in “cracker country” when you see roadside signs for “hot boiled P-Nuts,” the word “peanut” always thusly abbreviated.

Boiled peanuts are the original snack food of northern Florida. You buy them by the bagful after they’ve stewed in a pot of brine all morning. You first taste the salt when you crack the shell with your teeth; then you eat the delicious soft peas inside. There is a variation in which Cajun spices are added to the salt boil.

Some Northerners hold boiled peanuts in contempt, although it isn’t always clear whether this is because of their flavor or just misguided anti-redneck snobbery. And by the way, the term “cracker” comes from this part of the country and refers to the sound of the bullwhips cowboys use hereabouts.

There is 12 feet of water at the pier, and bridge clearance to the sea is 65 feet. Multihull owners particularly appreciate the side-ties because it liberates them from the expense of having to rent adjacent slips to fit their vessels. Adjacent to the Yacht Center is Holland’s Marine, a full-service boatyard with a 30-ton lift.

Green Cove Springs Marina on Pier 12 also has a marine lift and allows owners to do their own work. The Yacht Center itself has its own storage and work area and a 60-ton lift sufficient in span to haul some of the beamiest catamarans.

ODDBALL STUFF

Twenty five years hence the place may well be all about hotels, shopping and a residential complex, but right now it’s a funky, semi-industrial waterfront with all kinds of crazy stuff to look at, as the images in the slide show will confirm.

To wit:

• A paddlewheeler that once belonged to actress Debbie Reynolds (no relation to the marina owners) until she sunk — the boat, that is.

• A once controversial cruise ship spends her off months on Pier 1.

• The Arctic Discoverer, which was used to recover the biggest sunken treasure in history, waits here to be scrapped, with her previous owner in prison.

• A funky spud barge used to recover Spanish treasure comes and goes.

• A massive space shuttle fuel tank, bound for a space museum that never materialized, lies abandoned here.

• A huge antique landing craft that somebody spent a lot of time and money to restore before apparently losing interest is here.

• The shell of an uncompleted hovercraft lies in a back lot, the vestige of a pie-in-the-sky project.

Overhead fly Russian helicopters and exotic fixed-wing designs operated by a semisecret CIA air force, a direct descendant of Air America of Vietnam War fame, engaged in pilot training, equipment testing and whatnot. We sip beer and watch Coast Guard helicopters chase Border Patrol go-fast boats on the river, gaming their roles in cops vs. smugglers.

I mentioned the Arctic Explorer and her imprisoned former owner. In 1983 Tommy G. Thompson used the former icebreaker to recover a supposed $150 million in gold from the 19th century wreck of the USS Central America. Thompson became a fugitive from justice and was arrested in January 2015 on charges related to the disappearance of the loot. Now Arctic Discoverer sits against a bulkhead at Reynolds Park waiting to be scrapped.

Getting to the Green Cove show is as simple as turning upstream at the place where the ICW intersects the St. Johns River and traveling 40 nautical miles west, then south. Cruisers frequently take advantage of free dockage at The Landing in Jacksonville — a downtown restaurant and shopping complex — to break up this leg of the journey.

Green Cove Springs is named for the city’s combined natural assets: a cove that provides shelter from southerly and westerly conditions and a nearby 3,000-gallon-a-minute spring whose sulfur-infused waters were believed to have curative properties. The spring feeds a public swimming pool that’s being rebuilt.

Directly opposite Green Cove, two miles across the river, is a headland where once stood a Spanish fort. In its lee is an anchorage with protection against northerly and easterly winds. For a week or so after Thanksgiving, here and elsewhere along the St. Johns, the foliage flares into reds and yellows, and though muted by New England standards, the change affords a welcome taste of the seasons.

NUISANCE & PESTS

A night spent on the hook here is peace, interrupted only by amphibian croaking or the rattle of a distant train — with the exception of Friday and Saturday nights. The staccato roar of automotive drag racing on one of the industrial park’s unused runways reverberates over the open water, utterly destroying the tranquility. Its operation is incompatible with the development of a first-class yachting center, so we hope it will not endure.

Another scourge is “blind mosquitoes,” which are neither blind nor mosquitoes and occasionally rise out of the river in swarms, then die in droves, staining white fiberglass a putrid green.

That negative news having been delivered, a renaissance is in the offing. With the recession finally over, Green Cove is growing again as urbanism plows down Highway 17 from the “New South” metropolis of Jacksonville.

The core of Green Cove’s resurgence surely will be centered on the city’s historic and beautiful downtown, anchored by Spring Park and the Ronnie’s Wings, Oysters and More pub. Both, by the way, front the road to the public dock, where vessels may tie up overnight.

The waterfront park, endowed with Spanish-moss-draped live oaks, boasts an expansive and solidly built playground, paved walkways with footbridges and the swimming pool I mentioned, fed entirely from the magic mineral spring.

CRITTERS

Manatees abound. Eagles, ospreys, hawks and herons, oh my! We have at least two resident alligators. A month ago, a black bear spent a week sleeping in our bushes until he made the local TV news and retreated into the woods. Coyotes occasionally stop by the marina to have a go at our feral cats. We are visited by bull sharks, which apparently eat blue crabs as if they were potato chips.

Wheels are important if your stay requires shopping or recreation beyond the basics. Green Cove is 30 miles from everything — 30 miles north to Jacksonville and 30 miles east to St. Augustine and its many attractions. In fact, en route to “America’s Oldest City” you must first pass World Golf Village with its two courses and the I-95 outlet mall with more than 80 shops. Within that 30-mile radius are three West Marine stores.

Green Cove Springs Marina has a well stocked used boat parts and consignment store called Monkey Fist Marine. Green Cove itself has a wonderful hardware store but sadly lacks a major supermarket.

NEW BRIDGE

For bigger vessels and many sailboats, Green Cove Springs is the end of the line; the nearby Shands Bridge keeps any boat with an air draft of more than 44 feet from proceeding upriver. No one seems to know why the bridge was built that way. Downriver and up, 65 feet is the controlling height, so the low-bridge mystery has spawned a host of dockside conspiracy theories.

Soon it will be moot, however. A new outer beltway for Jacksonville is under construction, and in a few years a standard 65-foot span will replace the Shands Bridge.

Opening the full 200 miles of navigable river to sailboats and big power will have a significant economic impact on the upriver towns while furthering the role of Green Cove Springs as a way station for waterborne time travelers en route to “Old Florida.”

I can hardly wait.