A Side Trip Down the St. Johns River… and More Lemons: Part I

May 17, 2021

From Palm Coast, a two-day cruise landed us at Ortega Landing Marina, on the southwest side of Jacksonville, Florida. Ortega Landing is iconic among Loopers, a hands down 5-star favorite. I will agree that there are many pros, and our stay was great, but generous slip size would not be one of them. With the beam of Red Pearl at 14 1/2’ and our slip not more than 15’, our big round fenders which we use for locking, were essential for keeping us off the neighboring boat. Of prime importance was connecting with a canvas company who will replace the remainder of our flybridge panels. Our prime delight was our afternoon with Mike and Brenda Finkenbinder, who made a quick trip down to Florida from Minnesota just because. It was so good to be with them and to meet their new family member Bertie, a big, handsome Australian Sheepdog Poodle mix. 

I will just mention (but not go into the weeds regarding need for) the services of Eric Weatherly, a quiet,  unassuming and highly-trusted marine repairman, who fixed our AC pump, our shower pump and our forward bilge switch, which all malfunctioned at the same time. I could also tell you what one-way plane tickets to South Bend cost that day….

After repairing the above-mentioned mechanicals, we provisioned and readied for a week in remote river country. Two weeks would have been ideal, but we have a date with the isinglass man, so 7 days it is! We departed on Friday, May 14, on a 50-mile cruise to Palatka, an old town a bit down on its luck, where most of the vessels in the marina appear to have been forgotten. The local dock master assisted us with our lines, as steady winds exceeding 15 mph buffeted us off the dock. Craig also was a garrulous story-teller, smacking of “the fish that got away” variety. We decided to pass on his recommendation for carrying in pizza for dinner and, craving activity, walked across the bridge two miles to Corky Bell’s Seafood and Grill. Corky Bell’s proved to be a very popular spot, and we had the best fried clams ever, and delicious local stuffed flounder. The kink in our plan occurred when the Uber service, which we had scoped out while making our plans, had no cars available. Steve was limping by the time we hiked back to the boat, although neither of us was worse for the wear the next day. On Saturday we were up with the bass fishermen—literally hundreds of bass boats dotted the city docks by day-break just feet from our dock. Craig informed us that this was a benefit for children’s cancer, and then regaled us with details of the tournament a few weeks earlier, which attracted the real pros and was televised live with overhead drones capturing the action and awarded prizes of over $100k.

A 30-mile cruise on Saturday took us to an anchorage around Welaka, where we met this magnificent fellow while gunk-holing up the Ocklawaha River. 

About 5’ long, this handsome guy apparently enjoyed our photo shoot.

Feeling that we had no choice but to ignore Loopers’ caveat to avoid weekend cruising, Sunday was our big 60-mile day. Our strategy was to get to our southern-most point so that we would have fewer boats to maneuver around as we dinked our way back north, exploring the sights on weekdays; but even so, the hordes of Sunday boaters around popular sights made the long Sunday cruise simply unpleasant. We reached Butchers Bend, which had been described as an idyllic spot…and it WAS pretty, but for the beach revelers just the equivalent of a block away! Steve and I both felt a little cranky; we were primed for wild-ness, and instead experienced mad jet skis, worrying tubing and packed-in family beach excursions. 

At this point in the story, “cranky” turns to “despondent”:

Ah, perfidious Red Pearl! Your siren call of Looping Delights wooed me, Your guiles now doth wound me.

The water pump has always been a—“question” of minor concern. A new pump two years ago did not remedy the occasional and random pulsing every few hours and eluded the plumber’s search. The pulsing has gradually become more frequent until, as we left Palatka, we agreed to turn the pump off at the panel except when needing water. But then, that evening Steve found the aft bilge full of fresh, clean water, with the water tank monitor registering only 1/4 full. We had topped off the tanks just the previous morning, but now 150 gallons of water were gone. Pumped out of the bilge into the river!  We quickly filled everything we could find with what remained in the tanks—buckets, thermoses, quart soup tubs—and the bathtub became a cistern for bathing and flushing. How uncanny that we pressed to our furthest destination, only to have this happen! 

Monday morning we stepped outside to the silent beauty which surrounded us—wafting mist on the water’s surface and the permeating scent of cedars, elegantly draped with moss all around the small oxbow anchorage. With our heads finally around this new water debacle, we relinquished the need to race back to Jacksonville, although we WOULD have to compromise the solitude of the anchor for fresh water at marinas. What a remarkable difference a Monday makes on the river, with only codgers like us making waves! We enjoyed gunk-holing the Dead River at Hontoon, seeing lots of turtles, a few alligators, an array of herons, only one manatee. Our most memorable sight was a great blue heron at the shallow water’s edge catching a 6” sunfish-shaped fish, wrestling it, and swallowing it whole.

As night falls, the wind has died. An alligator swims by purposefully, perhaps in pursuit of a hot date. The little turtle which has sunned himself all afternoon still perches alone on the end of his log. Frogs have begun their grotesque, whoopy cushion serenades; the birds, their cacophonous, tinny, speakeasy mating calls; and…I wonder if that wild cricket-ish racket is the once-in-17-years treat of cicadas. Night in the wilderness is noisy!

Our anchorage at Butchers Bend
Alligator hunting season in Florida is August 15 to November 1 and limits entry to 7000 permit holders, for which 15,000 will apply. Each Alligator Trapping License authorizes the harvest of 2 alligators, with specific dates for each permit. Hunters typically use airboats equipped with flood lights for nighttime hunting.
We are back in Egret territory. Below in a series of three: a hungry Great Blue Heron ignores the threat of our presence and catches a fish, wrestling with it and swallowing it whole.
“Do you have a problem with that?!”
Ospreys thrive on the waterways among boat traffic, often opting to nest on day marker platforms. Nonetheless, this mama is a showing her disapproval of our proximity.
Nightfall in the wilderness is noisy.

4 thoughts on “A Side Trip Down the St. Johns River… and More Lemons: Part I”

    1. John, it has been explained to us like this: The worst thing for a boat is to sit, which is what Red Pearl did for the past 13 months. The second worst thing for a boat is to use it. 😏 We’re newcomers to boat ownership, and Steve’s career as owner of a body shop does not inform boat maintenance, so we have a steep learning curve. The many interruptions we have had in cruising has slowed our learning, as well. I can embrace this on a sunny morning with a clean boat…. Thanks for following us.

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