December 1, 2004
Building Memories In St. Augustine
By Bernadette Bernon
The anchorage to the south of the Harris Saxon Highway Bridge at New Smyrna Beach may not the best in Florida: the bridge noise is pretty constant, and Ithaka’s tail is hanging out a little closer to the edge of the ICW channel than we would like. But as the wind rages at 25 knots, with gusts reaching gale force, with rain pelting the deck, and with Ithaka’s anchor doing its job burrowing into the mud like a Jack Russell terrier, the view from here is just fine. There are two other cruising boats nestled around us as well – Crux and Mirabella, the former north-bound and the latter south-bound – and there’s not acres of decent depth around here for our deep-draft sailboats, so we’re close neighbors for the blow, and as all three boats pitch and sway in the gusts, we’re watching each others’ movements cautiously for any signs of dragging.
Ithaka arrived in this cranny yesterday, after a long and productive day on the ICW. We crept out of St. Augustine, Florida, before the sun was up; under genoa and with a generous push of positive current, we set our personal best record of one day’s miles on the ICW. By 4:00 pm we had logged 72 miles. During the day, the NOAA weather forecasts predicted gale-force winds to begin last night, go through today, tonight, and then die down to 25 tomorrow. With all that on its way, we were motivated to keep moving, and when we reached New Smyrna, we tucked in behind the big bridge and braced ourselves. Last night the wind began building as threatened, and now, at 1:30 the next afternoon, it’s howling and shrieking its discontent well above 25 knots. Cozy below, we cook, and write, get caught up on this and that, and chat about St. Augustine, where we just spent five nights among old and new friends.
Over the past two weeks, since we left Beaufort, South Carolina, Ithaka’s had her share of dramas – both large and small. Sailing along with us from Beaufort was a Valiant 42 named Alchemy, with Dick and Ginger aboard. In the small-world department, Douglas and Dick had corresponded several years ago. Douglas had already closed down his psychoanalytic practice and Dick was about to do the same. As best they knew, there weren’t that many psychologists closing practices to going cruising that year, so they were glad to find each other and compare notes. The guys had chatted on the phone a few times as well, but none of us had met in person. As we were pulling into the anchorage in Beaufort, a man hollered from shore: “Ithaka! It’s Alchemy! Welcome to Beaufort.” By nightfall we were all swapping stories.
Dick and Ginger have been cruising for two years -- in the Bahamas and the States and the Eastern Caribbean—and now were headed toward the Western Caribbean, starting with a Christmas rendezvous with their children in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. This put us all the same track, briefly, and it was a treat to meet in person folks with whom we’ve been corresponding. When the weather was good in Beaufort, and looking to stay that way for several days, both boats hopped outside together to head south toward Florida.
The winds were strong on that three-night voyage – 25 knots from astern for the first 48 hours, then winding down and shifting to the west on the third day. We flew along, chatting on the VHF from time to time during the day and night with Dick and Ginger -- Alchemy always a constant dot somewhere on our horizon. There’s something reassuring about chatting with another boat during the dark hours, if only to compare speeds and talk about what we’re reading during our watches. One drama marred the scene, though. During a reefing maneuver, a sail car snagged in its track, we tore our mainsail, and had to take the whole thing down to avoid damaging it further. This slowed us up a bit, and dampened our high mood, although with the strong tailwinds, and our 135% genoa, we still made landfall in St. Augustine by the fourth morning, and had to slow down that last night not to get in before dawn.
St. Augustine was a revelation. We’d visited the old city once before, four years ago, as Ithaka had inched her way down the coast. But that was in December, it was a cold winter, and we didn’t give ourselves any time to explore. This year, with our big sail now needing a professional repair, we decided to cool our jets, stay a few days, and take in the sights. The first night we anchored just north of the Bridge of Lions, but as the wind shifted to more northeast, the long fetch in the anchorage was a misery, so at first light after our first night, we took the 7:00 am bridge opening, scooted through to the other side, and found far greater comfort anchored there. The St. Augustine Municipal Marina sells a $7-per-day pass, that includes use of the dinghy dock, laundry room, television lounge, and long steamy hot showers. We organized our mail to be delivered to the ship’s store – a convenience they offer transient boaters—and caught up on our bills.
With Dick and Ginger, we ambled around America’s oldest city, an architectural jewel built by the Spanish during the 1500s. Explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles is the one who named St. Augustine after the saint on whose feast day he first sighted what we now call Florida—an area he claimed went from its southern tip all the way north to Canada. When he claimed this land for the Spanish crown, the goals were to convert the Indians to Christianity, guard the route of the Spanish galleons hauling treasures from the Americas to Spain, and find a route to the Pacific.
In short order the Spaniards began construction of various fortifications—they were at war with either the Indians, the British, the French or all three—and ultimately built the massive, and essentially impregnable Castillo de San Marcos, which stands sentinel over Augustine’s Atlantic inlet. It took a team of Spanish and Cuban artisans 23 years to build this spectacular fort, which was surrounded in its day by a seawater moat. The walls were built of coquina, a soft porous limestone formed centuries ago from the shells of the coquina clams. Quarried locally, this is a reminder that the ocean once covered Florida.
Walking around the older parts of St. Augustine today, it’s possible to imagine you’ve stepped back in time 400 years, that is, I suppose, if in the 15th century they’d had street after street of tee-shirt shops. Still, even such modern scourges can be overlooked here if you try. The Old Town is blessedly free of automobiles. The brick and cobblestone streets, and pedestrian-only areas, with many beautiful old Spanish buildings, lead to hideaway courtyards and verandas with overhanging bougainvillea. A few streets away, there also are 19th century architectural gems, grand hotels built by Standard Oil magnate Henry Morrison Flagler. His 1885 Ponce de Leon Hotel -- named after the Spanish explorer who’d landed near St. Augustine in 1413 believing he’d discovered the fabled Fountain Of Youth -- is ornate and elegant, filled with Tiffany stained glass, fountains, exquisite tile work, marble, and murals. Once the most luxurious hotel in the nation, it’s now home to Flagler College.
Douglas and I strolled King Street, poking into many of the small art galleries that exhibit the works of a thriving St. Augustine artists’ community. The galleries are first-rate, and we found much work that sang to us. In my old working life, I probably would have been inspired enough by what we say to actually buy a little something, but on the boat, one’s acquisitive tendencies are tempered. Our favorite was a piece by Jim Macbeth, a graceful digitized close-up photograph of pasta, overlaid with a postage stamp of wheat and other related water objects. St. Augustine sponsors an Art Walk on the first Friday of every month: 20 galleries are opened from 5-9 p.m., with a steady stream of hors d’oeuvres and refreshments. I love a town that treasures its artists, and treats its visitors so generously.
Off the boat for the first time in four days we were salivating for something—anything—that neither of us had cooked, and found dining heaven in a Middle-Eastern meal of lamb kabobs. In a quiet Lebanese restaurant across from a noisy-looking billboard announcing the Fountain Of Youth Theme Park, we called our good friends in Homerville, Georgia – Al and Teresa – to see if they’d come on down and stay aboard Ithaka for a quick visit. Always game for road trip, they loaded the car with stacks of our favorite southern delicacy, Jimbo’s Barbequed pork, and were on board Ithaka the next evening.
Al helped Douglas put the mainsail back on, once the sail maker had finished sewing on an entire new boltrope, a laborious and, of course, heart-stoppingly more costly repair than we’d anticipated. When Al and Douglas had finished bending on the sail, we noticed that the sailmaker had sewn on more sail cars than had been on the sail originally – he’d been trying to make it even stronger – and the result was that when they were stacked, they put the head of the sail way above our reach. At first completely deflated by this realization, over another hour of fiddling with the sail, we decided we’d try to live with it and see how it felt, making any adjustments somewhere down the road. Bottom line, with boats it’s always something.
With Al and Teresa, we hopped in the car, drove past the dramatic ramparts of Castillo de San Marcos standing dramatically over the anchorage, and went over to see the boat they were interested in buying for cruising the Bahamas – a Gemini catamaran at a nearby marina – and then that evening, well into the night, we drank a bottle of champagne and chatted about boats, and politics, and taking off, must-have systems, and life, and dreams. For a few days, being with new friends on Alchemy, and then reuniting with old friends Al and Teresa, and wandering about St. Augustine, we moved our minds off the mainsail. The tear had slowed us down when we hadn’t expected to, but that was okay– a reminder of what cruising is really all about.
Finally, we hugged Al and Teresa good-bye, dinghied back to Ithaka, and got the boat ready to move on. Another cold front had come and gone while we’d been there, and a biggie was on the way. We set out first thing the next morning, energized by our new memories of St. Augustine, warmed by the company of our friends, and we flew south with the wind, toward New Smyrna.