Sunset Goes South: Part Four

Charleston, SC is quite the city. Historic mansions, cobblestone streets, palm trees, and bustling with activity. On December 3, my brother Aden and I met up with some of my college friends to experience Charleston's BBQ scene and visit a local brewery - a much needed break from the fine fare we had been eating during our ocean journey. After sufficiently stuffing ourselves with South Carolina BBQ and craft beers, and with Aden's flight departing early the next morning, we called it an early night and made our way back to Sunset nestled among the mega yachts in Charleston City Marina. 

 The mega sailing yacht "Athena" at the Charleston City Marina. 

The mega sailing yacht "Athena" at the Charleston City Marina. 

After Aden's departure on December 4, I would be sailing solo South through the ICW via South Carolina, Georgia, and into Florida. After fueling up, going for a jog, and running some errands that morning, I pulled off the dock just after noon, waved goodbye to a fellow solo cruiser named Luc, and entered the ICW to the South of Charleston. My next destination would be Hilton Head, SC to pick up my new dinghy from Billy, a solid two day journey through the ICW. With the late departure that day, 18 miles was all the mileage Sunset could muster before the light started to diminish. I scouted a pristine anchorage close to the "77" marker in the Wadmalaw Sound and dropped the anchor at 4:30pm just before sun down. Much to my surprise, 45 minutes after dropping anchor my new friend Luc aboard his Canadian-flagged s/v Feng Shui showed up at the same anchorage and joined me for a cocktail while we shared stories of our trips South. There is a strong camaraderie among fellows sailors who make such journeys aboard their boats.

 The anchorage at Wadmalaw Sound.

The anchorage at Wadmalaw Sound.

The next morning, I was up early to make a run from Wadmalaw Sound to the Skull Creek Marina where I was scheduled to meet Billy, the seller of my soon-to-be new dinghy. I spent most of the day motoring through wildlife preserves, away from civilization and other boaters. It's difficult to catch the right current and tides in this section of the ICW. You may have the current running with you, and then the course requires you to turn into another river with the current against you. I found this to be the case for most of December 5, but with 70 degree weather and plenty of sunshine I didn't mind too much. Sunset meandered her way down the Beaufort River enroute to Skull Creek Marina; however, progress would be cut short that day due to a slight inconvenience. There are many many bridges throughout the ICW and certain bridges only open and close for a few hours during the middle of the day. These certain bridges generally don't open during rush hour and are only open from 9am to 4pm. I knew I was cutting it close at 3:45pm as I approached the Lady Island Bridge crossing the Beaufort River. I called the bridge operator on my VHF radio and she confirmed my suspicion that the bridge would not be opening until 9am the next morning. That made the decision easy; anchor North of the bridge, call Billy to tell him I'll be a day late, and crack a cold beer to watch the sun go down.

The next morning was a lazy morning since the bridge opened only after 9am. That left plenty of time to make a hearty breakfast and enjoy the morning's nice weather before a nasty cold front bringing cold weather and rain was scheduled to come in later that day. Billy and I had agreed to meet at Harbour Town Yacht Basin, which was further South along Hilton Head Island past our original meeting point. The temperature dropped throughout the day and the rain held off for most of the day until the skies opened up while I pulled into the yacht basin. It poured and poured drenching Billy and I as we assembled and splashed the dinghy. After settling up and fueling up Sunset, I cast off the lines to depart the yacht basin. At this point the wind and rain were howling making it a good fight to maneuver the boat through the basin and out the channel. I motored out of the marina, crossed the channel, and entered the Cooper River to anchor for the night. 

As I read my logbook looking back at the next few days after picking up the dinghy in Hilton Head, each entry starts as "Woke at 0700 to cold, wet, rain," "Still cold, wet, and rainy." Despite the miserable cold rain, the section of the ICW I was traveling through is quite special. For most of this segment of the trip, I was surrounded by marshland with only the occasional settlement or fellow boater. I motored through the Cooper River, past Savannah, past the Skidaway Narrows Bridge, past the Vernon River and Ossabow Sound into the Bear River where I found a secluded anchorage for one night.

 Anchored in the Bear River surrounded by marshland without any signs of civilization.

Anchored in the Bear River surrounded by marshland without any signs of civilization.

The next day I motored through the Bear River and continued meandering through Georgia crossing big sounds with wind and waves along the way. Crossed St. Catherine's Sound, Sapelo Sound, Doboy Sound, and Altamaha Sound, finally settling into an anchorage in the South Altamaha River at 4:30pm. Sometimes the simplest luxuries that we take for granted on land can change your whole state of being on a boat. Shortly after dropping anchor, I made my way to the aft cabin and treated to myself to a hot shower while at anchor! There's a special sense of pride that can take over a sailor when finding oneself anchored in the middle of nowhere aboard one's boat with all systems operating as they should and providing a much needed hot shower.

The following day, December 9, was much the same as the previous day. More cold, more rain, more large sounds with wind and waves. This time I crossed the St. Simons Sound, past Jekyll Island, crossed St. Andrew Sound, and sailed alongside Cumberland Island. At this point I could practically smell Florida! It doesn't smell the greatest near Fernandina Beach, the first town I'd be crossing into upon leaving Georgia; however, Florida would have to wait one more day as I was starting to lose daylight and did not want to cross St. Mary's Sound separating Georgia from Florida with limited visibility. It would mean one more night at anchor in Georgia, and luckily I found a perfect serene anchorage next to Cumberland Island without any other boat traffic nearby and well protected from the Northwest wind.

With the weather improving and the sunshine drying out my trusty vessel, I crossed into Florida, meandered through the Amelia River past Fernandina Beach, crossed Nassau Sound, crossed St. John's River leaving Jacksonville in the distance and continued down the ICW to St. Augustine, signaling my first time stepping onto land since I left Charleston six days prior. It's amazing how a well stocked and fueled boat can sustain itself and its sailors for days, weeks, months on end. The freedom to sail un-tethered from land has been calling sailors to explore the seas for thousands of years. While I can't say I explored any new discoveries, I explored waterways unknown to myself and continued to push myself and my boat against foul weather and conditions.

After having a solid restaurant-cooked meal in St. Augustine and spending the night at a marina, I continued South to Daytona Beach and docked at Halifax Harbor Marina in Daytona Beach, Sunset's home for the next three weeks as I traveled to Colorado to spend time with my girlfriend Kelsey and celebrate the holidays with our families in Upstate New York. 

On December 30, Kelsey and I flew into Daytona Beach and were picked up at the airport by my new friend Ryan. I met Ryan and his girlfriend Jenna one night in Daytona Beach and we hit it off right away. They are also entrepreneurs and when they heard about my trip South with Sunset, they had to come see the boat. After hanging out on the boat for awhile, they asked if they could stay on the boat on Christmas Day with Ryan's two kids. I gladly accepted and set them up to stay on the boat. Ryan probably should have thought this one through a bit more, because his kids fell in love with the boat and I'll bet they've been nagging him to get a boat ever since.

After arriving to Sunset that evening, Kelsey and I got settled in and started preparing and provisioning for our trip from Daytona Beach to Port St. Lucie, FL. Surprisingly, there wasn't a convenient grocery store nearby the Halifax Harbor Marina, so we stopped in a Walgreen's to see what we could drum up. We found fixings for veggie burritos, spaghetti and sauce, bread, cheese, granola bars, and cereal. Who knew that Walgreen's would come through in a pinch for boat provisions? Luckily we would be relatively close to land and able to supplement some meals along the way.

The next morning we woke early and I noticed a pain in my throat had worsened. A couple days earlier, I felt that I was coming down with a cold, but now this didn't just feel like your typical cold. Luckily Kelsey was there to drag me to an urgent care clinic. If I had been on my own, I'm sure I would've put off going to the clinic. Sure enough, the doc said it was strep throat and gave me a prescription for antibiotics. Back to our favorite Walgreen's one more time before casting off the lines.

As I wasn't firing on all cylinders, Kelsey jumped right in and picked up the slack. Kelsey has had some experience on boats, but never an extended multi-day trip covering serious miles and situations in a boat. Generally, Kelsey's adventures reside in the mountains with her feet firmly, or sometimes not-so-firmly, climbing up jagged 14,000+ foot peaks. Man oh man can this mountain girl sail a boat! Kelsey started coiling lines, tying up fenders, and driving the boat in no time at all.

 Kelsey coiling lines as we departed Daytona Beach.

Kelsey coiling lines as we departed Daytona Beach.

 Kelsey behind the wheel headed South towards New Smyrna Beach.

Kelsey behind the wheel headed South towards New Smyrna Beach.

 Kelsey and I motoring to shore for New Year's Eve with Sunset in the background.

Kelsey and I motoring to shore for New Year's Eve with Sunset in the background.

With the late start that day thanks to strep throat, we would only be able to make it about 15 miles South to New Smyrna Beach. We got some good local tips for places to go and celebrate New Year's Eve, one of which being Norwood's, a tree-house style bar in New Smyrna. We continued South through the ICW gunk-holing our way through New Smyrna in search of a solid anchorage. After bailing on our first possible anchorage due to lack of depth and horizontal clearance from obstacles, we proceeded South past the Route A1A Bridge and found a beautifully solid anchorage with a few other boats anchored nearby. We dropped anchor an hour or so before sundown, put on our New Year’s Eve best, and boarded the dinghy to motor our way to shore. We chugged up the river in Sunset’s trusty new dinghy and motored into a corner of a dock at New Smyrna Marina, hopped onshore, and found our way to Outrigger’s Restaurant for a seafood meal and our first round of drinks. A Lyft ride later and we were sitting in Norwood’s treehouse bar enjoying their great cocktails and taking in the scene. Funnily enough, I even bumped into a friend from NYC making the world seem much smaller than it should.

Call us old school, but we didn’t make it even close to midnight at Norwood’s. Maybe it was the early start that evening, but more likely it was strep throat getting the best of me. We boarded the dinghy back at Outrigger’s and the New Smyrna Marina, and after climbing aboard I clicked on our LED lantern which would serve as our legally-required all-around white light. I explained to Kelsey that this was a requirement but that it was also a matter of safety so that other boats underway can see us in the dark. Kelsey took this very seriously and proceeded to swing the lantern over her head while singing “We’re here boats, we’re here!” loud enough for all the river to hear. Not only were we well lit for other boats to see, but we would have been perfectly legal traveling through dense fog making our necessary sound signals.

There were some miles to make up the next day since our first day was shortened thanks to a visit to the clinic. Looking back, it doesn’t seem we would have made it further than New Smyrna regardless of the strep due to the fact that we had planned to check out Norwood’s. There was a swift current running that morning as we prepared to haul anchor. The anchor would be difficult to haul seeing as it was very well buried in the mud, so I gave Kelsey a crash-course – less emphasis on the ‘crash’ part – and showed her the throttle, the shift lever, some quick hand signals, and where to steer to get us to the channel while avoiding other boats at anchor. I walked up to the bow and began hauling the anchor, signaling to Kelsey to bring the boat forward slowly. The anchor lifted off the mud and I shouted “Anchor’s aweigh!” as Kelsey expertly put the boat in gear and steered us clear of other boats and into the channel.

“Come to Florida,” I said. “The weather is great this time of year,” I told her. Well that may be true most of the time, but a God-forsaken bombcyclone was whacking the Northeast and carrying cold air from the North all the way into the deep South. It just so happens that this was occurring during our trip through Florida. While our first day to New Smyrna was sunny and a little cool, the next couple days would not be so nice. After raising anchor and getting underway to Cocoa, FL, the weather began to turn with temps dropping and rain moving in. Rather than wearing lovely warm-weather clothing, we were bundled up in cold-weather rain gear trying to stay warm and dry. Kelsey’s rain gear went as far as her feet, and from there she had to get creative. Neither of us thought we would have to bring rain boots, so Kelsey fashioned a pair of plastic bag rain shoes complete with hair ties around the ankles to keep them dry and from filling with water.

 Kelsey in full foul weather gear, enjoying the lack of Florida warmth and sunshine.

Kelsey in full foul weather gear, enjoying the lack of Florida warmth and sunshine.

Regardless of the weather, we had smiles on our faces and laughed the whole way to Cocoa, FL as we covered 45 miles that day – passing Mosquito Lagoon, although all the skeeters were hiding away from the cold - and found a nice anchorage just South of a large fixed bridge. The first thing sailors do after anchoring and after fighting the cold and rain all day is to hunker down in the cabins to dry off, warm up, and have a cocktail. With a warm pasta dinner cooking, we started a competition of Rummy 500 and Dominoes. Mind you, Kelsey comes from a family of fierce board game competitors, so I had my work cut out for me right from the get go. We played for a good couple hours and it’s safe to say the outcome wasn’t in my favor. This pattern would repeat itself for the next several days.

We woke up to a strong squall rocking the boat and driving rain. Once again, outside forces prevented us from departing early and covering the planned route. Instead, we hunkered down in the cabin for breakfast, coffee, and more board games as we waited for the storm to subside. At close to noon, the storm passed allowing us to raise anchor and continue South through the ICW. With the shortened day, we were able to cover about 15 miles and picked Telemar Bay Marina as a place to spend the night. With temps dropping to 35 that night, it would be important to plug into shore power to run the heaters. I called the marina to reserve a slip and was told that they were leaving at 2pm because of the weather so no one would be there to assist with dock lines. The icing on the cake was that we wouldn’t have 30 amp shore power either. After failing to find another marina in range, it was our only option to get out of the cold wind.

We turned into the Banana River per the instructions of the marina operator, and upon approaching the marina, I realized that the slip they assigned us was directly in the full fetch of the 25+ knot wind. To top it off, the cross wind would be right on the beam and I would have to navigate around pilings to get to the slip, all without the assistance of dockhands to catch lines. After the first attempt, and with Kelsey on the bow pushing us off pilings as needed, I threw the boat in reverse and motored away from that dangerous situation. Behind these exposed slips of the marina sat a well-protected basin. We motored into the basin and found a suitable T-dock to tie up to. Protected from the wind, we were able to easily and safely tie up to the dock with the added bonus of 30 amp shore power there for us to plug in to. Needless to say, the next day when I went to settle up with the marina I had plenty of words and gave them a lesson in how to avoid creating bad situations for future boaters.

Like typical New Yorkers – and once the boat was properly tied up and plugged in – we scouted out the closest pizzeria to gobble down some hot cheesy, saucy, delicious pizza. As if that wasn’t enough, later that night we decided we needed more pizza and decided to order a pie for delivery to the boat. There’s nothing quite like a hot pizza pie on a cold night while curled up getting beat at board games.

 At the mangroves anchorage in Vero Beach.

At the mangroves anchorage in Vero Beach.

The next day would turn out far better. We woke to plenty of sunshine and cool temps, a vast improvement over the previous days. It would be another long day covering 45 miles, but it turned out to be some of the prettiest cruising of the trip. We meandered through winding rivers, passed wildlife refuges, islands, small beach towns, and mangroves as we made our way South to Vero Beach. The houses grew in size and luxury as we approached Vero Beach. With about an hour left until sundown, we hung a left and motored past the Vero Beach Municipal Marina and found the most pristine and perfect anchorage nestled between mangroves. With the anchor down and a stern anchor set to keep us out of the bushes, we strung up our hammock, mixed up a sunset cocktail, and soaked up as much sunshine as we possibly could.

Our departure from Vero Beach signaled our homestretch. It would be a long day cruising South by the Fort Pierce Inlet, by the St. Lucie Inlet, followed by a quick right turn up the St. Lucie River, past Stuart, FL, to our destination of Sandpiper Bay Marina in Port St. Lucie. The sun was shining, dolphin jumping, and wind blowing us South. We were able to sail most of the day until turning Northwest up the St. Lucie River. From there it would be a motor cruise to our final destination.

 Our hammock and sunset cocktail in hand at the anchorage in Vero Beach.

Our hammock and sunset cocktail in hand at the anchorage in Vero Beach.

I called Darren, the marina manager, once we turned up the St. Lucie River to let him know we were about two hours away. When we arrived, a jolly Darren greeted us on the dock and guided us to our slip, Sunset’s home for the next three months. We had done it. We had traveled the cold, wet final leg of 140 miles. We had capped off this 1,100 mile journey.

It’s funny the way things work out. Originally, I planned to hustle for some charters in Florida this winter, but instead I ended up spending most of the winter in Colorado skiing, hiking, rock climbing, and enjoying time with Kelsey. I even took this opportunity to start pursuing my goal of getting my pilots license, and at this point I’m well on my way to having my private pilots license by late 2018.

As I finish Part 4 of Sunset’s journey South – and simultaneously plan the journey back North for the sailing season in NYC – I can’t help but think how special this trip has been. Special because my friends and I got to see parts of the East Coast that not many people get to see. Special because this was Sunset’s first trip down the East Coast. Special because I got to grow as a captain and mariner. Special because I got to sail a beautiful ocean leg with my brother. And special because I got to close the whole thing out with my sweet lady.

Thank you for following along for the journey, and I promise not to bombard you with blog posts on the journey back North. Thanks to my trusty crew, Matt, Alex, Mike, Cody, Rebecca, Aden, and Kelsey for joining me and making the journey that much more enjoyable.  

James BrooksComment