Freedom to Discover a Southern Gem
By Jim Favors
One of the underlying motivations behind having a trailerable trawler is the freedom to choose where, when and how they’re able to go boating. As fairly new trailerable trawler owners, we’d like to share an example of how we tested the flexibility of our current boating lifestyle by changing existing trip plans to include a new destination.
During trip planning late last fall, Lisa and I agreed to alter our initially planned driving route from Key West toward home (Traverse City, MI) to include a minor detour to Fernandina Beach (Amelia Island, Florida). We choose Fernandina Beach mainly because MTOA (Marine Trawlers Owners Association), a boat club we’re members of, was having their Southern Rendezvous on the island in April. My rational was that it would be great fun to catch up with members we’ve met over the years, also reunite with some close friends, who were attending. In addition, although we’d cruised past Fernandina Beach three times before while going up and down the ICW – usually anchoring off nearby Cumberland Island, Georgia — we had never set foot on Amelia Island – a place we’d read and heard all good things about.
To launch the boat, I had to climb onto the bow of the boat and down to the trailer, notice the high water mark over my shoulder.
Amelia Island is only 100 miles east of I-75 (adding an extra 200 miles to our trip). In less than a two-hour drive from I-75, we were scoping out the boat ramps of Fernandina Beach. Even if a boat could navigate on its own bottom from I-75 to Amelia Island it would take at least 12 hours at trawler speed, that’s a 24-hour round trip (as the bird flies) vs. 4 hours trailering. In my world this savings of time is what makes trailerable boating with our Ranger Tug, Kismet, so rewarding. Trailering provides us the opportunity to experience and explore more boating destinations in less time while also giving us the flexibility to linger for extended periods without time constraints.
Amelia Island is located at the furthest northeast corner of Florida. As the name implies it’s an island, separated on the north by the St. Marys River and the state of Georgia, the Atlantic Ocean is to the east and the ICW and mainland Florida is to the west. Amelia Island has a rich and colorful history and is the only municipality in the U.S. to have had eight separate national flags flown over it. Dating back to 1562 the island was first controlled by France, then Spain, Great Britain, Spain again, Patriots of Amelia Island, Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, Confederate States of America and finally the United States of America.
As we pulled into Fernandina Beach we slowly became aware of the abundance of southern charm emanating from the town. Stately, well cared for homes and a nicely preserved and vibrant downtown village graces the heart of Fernandina Beach along with the Harbor Marina, which sits on its ICW waterfront. Our immediate task was to get our boat launched, so I went about looking for local knowledge; I needed to find out if we should use the city ramp or if there was a better one to launch our big boat. After talking to some friendly locals, who quickly shared their opinion and suggested a better ramp north of the marina, I stopped at the Atlantic Seafood Market, adjacent to the marina, for a second opinion. We were again advised to head a few miles north, out of town, to the North Amelia Island Park/Ramp as it had an impressive new, wide and long ramp, with plenty of parking.
We headed over to check the ramp out and found it conveniently located, within a stones throw of the St. Marys River, also providing quick access to the ocean. The close proximity, coupled with a tide that typically fluctuates around six feet, provides a current that runs swiftly when not slack. With that in mind, we wanted to time our launch and docking of Kismet as close to slack tide as we could. Since it was late in the day, we decided to catch the optimum time the next day and just stay on the boat in the marina parking lot our first night in town.
We headed back to the ramp the next day, mid-morning, when the water was close to low tide. We backed Kismet down the long ramp launching into only 3.5 feet of low, tidal water. We were on pins and needles as we slowly negotiated our way down the long launch ramp out into the deeper water of the main ICW channel.
A Trident submarine, in St. Marys River, is shown with the 19th Century Fort Clinch in the background.(Photo courtesy of LA and Susan Wyatt)
In the three prior times we’d cruised past Amelia Island and anchored off Cumberland Island, Georgia, we‘d always been on the lookout for one of the Trident nuclear submarines stationed a few miles up river. As we were launching, we noticed a fleet of Coast Guard vessels heading out to the Ocean. A local fisherman at the ramp told us this was standard procedure for when a sub is going to be escorted in from the ocean, back to the Kings Bay Naval Base. I’m sure this was a routine event for the fisherman, but for us it was exciting to think we might be seeing our first submarine on the move, returning from some secret drama, and clandestine adventure.
Once into the depths of the main channel we loitered in and around the ramp patiently waiting for the escorted nuclear sub and entourage to make their way in from the ocean. Forty minutes later, we sadly had to abandon our submarine-sighting mission. I would have liked to have waited longer but I could tell the tide was beginning to move and I was not keen on getting caught in a full rage of rushing salt water, trying to dock our boat at the marina. About the time we finished tying up Kismet in her slip, a good hour later, I heard a Coast Guard call on the VHF for a pleasure craft to halt its forward progress and maintain a 500-yard distance. I guess the unsuspecting captain had a surprise when they saw what should have been our Trident nuclear sub sighting – maybe next time!
By the time we docked at the marina about 25 of the expected 70 boats had already arrived for the MTOA Rendezvous. Started in 1990 by two trawler owners, MTOA today has over 2,000 members in 40 states and several foreign countries. As their website (www.mtoa.net) states, they were founded for the mutual benefit of “Friendship, Rendezvous, Cruising and Messing Around in Boats.” Fernandina Beach was the third MTOA rendezvous we’ve attended since we joined the club in 2009. During those four years, we’ve developed close friendships with several members, we’ve learned a great deal from the seminars and forums, but above all, we’ve enjoyed the camaraderie both at the rendezvous and while we’ve been cruising.
MTOA is a 100% volunteer organization and during the rendezvous everyone signs up for a job, Lisa and I signed up to help on the docking committee. Our job included grabbing lines and assisting arriving members as they worked their way into their assigned slips. Helping out was a great benefit for us as well, giving Lisa and I a great opportunity to not only expand our MTOA acquaintances but welcome old friends as they arrived at Amelia Island.
Here you see Roy and Ellen (on left with backs to camera) making the big shrimp buy
Even though the rendezvous would not officially start for another couple of days, the fun was already beginning. Taking the lead in getting things fired up was Ellen and Roy from Our Turn, a couple we first met when we were both doing the Great Loop in 2008. Ellen & Roy’s idea was to have a dock party to kick things off for the early arrivers – not just any old dock party, a full blown southern shrimp boil. Because Fernandina Beach is considered the birthplace of the modern/motorized shrimp industry and one of the top harvesters of shrimp – Ellen and Roy, being southerners, knew how to get the ball rolling.
Cleaning shrimp is a messy business, best done on the dock.
Shrimp boil pot, getting ready for another batch. Lots of differing opinions, on the dock, on how long it should be cooked.
There was an immediate hush on the dock as people grabbed plates full of shrimp and began savoring
The shrimp boil was such a big success; the next day Roy and Ellen bought another 150 lbs. for MTOA members who weren’t there for the Shrimp boil or those that just wanted to stash some away for future enjoyment.
About 50 members had already arrived so it was going to take a whole lot of shrimp. Ellen made contact with one of local shrimpers and negotiated a price for 150 lbs of freshly caught whole, white shrimp (head, shell and vein still attached). We personally bought 20 lbs. for our own future consumption. Before the shrimp boil could start all 150 lbs. of shrimp had to be de-headed and de-veined, a new experience for us. We had to pinch the heads off and gently pull the vein away, wash and bag them and put them into the freezer. At 16 to 20 per pound, we had 320 to 400 shrimp to prepare. After finishing our batch we walked over to help the others, but to our surprise they (many hands make light work) had already finished prepping the 130 lbs. (2,100 to 2,600 count) of crustaceans that were soon to join each other in the large cauldron of boiling water. Cleaning shrimp is a stinky business but they sure are tasty in the end.
As you can see Kismet was not the only trailerable trawler in the marina, surrounded here by a C-Dory and a Rosborough.
A few hours later the dock was full of hungry MTOA members eagerly filling their plates with fresh cooked shrimp and a smorgasbord of potluck contributions. As everyone settled down to eat, the exchange began in earnest. Boaters love to share stories about their cruising adventures, routes, mishaps, and discoveries; many love to exchange tips on boat repair and maintenance. What a great way to end our first day in Fernandina Beach – and to think the rendezvous hadn’t even officially started.