Monday, July 10, 2017

Two long days and two short nights--Allens Pensacola Cay to Jacksonville

White Pepper was nearing the end of the season by early June. We had spent a delightful several weeks in the Abacos seeing old haunts and old friends. Sister, Susan, and niece, Emma, flew in for a whirlwind visit. We were able to have two long stretches at Treasure Cay, one in the company of new friends Bill and Mary Ellen from Sea Escape. Sandra and Jens from Kobald were able to stop by for one day at Marsh Harbor before tearing off through the Man-o-War Channel headed for the Chesapeake Bay. They made it 6 days later without problems.

However, the Bahamas in the summer is for power boaters who can quickly duck back to Florida or for sail boaters who have a credible hurricane plan. After all, Hurricane Matthew had just devastated this part of world only 10 months earlier.

Dreading another hot slog up the ICW White Pepper resolved to take the East Coast of Florida in one jump. In 2015 White Pepper had made a last stop at Grand Cay in the NW corner of the Bahamas before jumping off through the nearby Walker Cay Channel for the St. John's River. That trip worked out very well mostly because of a marvelous weather window. We wanted to try this route again.

 Robert Briscoe

 Susan, Emma, and taxi driver

Sandra and Jens

Good friend, Robert Briscoe, flew in to help and get his first Gulf Stream crossing. A weather window opened up for the middle of the week. Although the winds would be from a favorable direction they could be too light. And thunder storms were likely as they almost always are this time of the year in Florida.
Fortunately, White Pepper, still had the extra diesel jerry cans from the Ragged Island trip. I calculated that if we could sail all of one day we could motor the rest of the way. If there was no wind, we had enough fuel to motor to Cape Canaveral.

White Pepper topped up fuel at Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco Island and there also filed a float plan over the internet with the US Customs and Border Patrol. The float plan would allow us to clear customs in Florida with only a phone call.
Next stop was Treasure Cay again, then around Whale Cay Passage to Allen's Pensacola Cay. We had to motor most of that day. From Allen's Pensacola Cay is possible to gain the Atlantic through a nearby passage, but we chose to stay on the Little Bahama Banks as long as possible. We headed West for Grand Cay about 50 miles away. The wind lightened and we again had to motor. About 4 miles short of Grand Cay White Pepper left the dotted line and headed for Walker's Channel. We elected to skip Grand Cay in order to get Robert back in time to catch a scheduled flight. 

Whale Cay from offshore

Hurricane Matthew may have moved some sand around last year changing the channel. However, by going from way point to way point as recommend in the Waterways Guide to the Bahamas, we never saw less than 11 feet depth. By coincidence we were leaving at low tide. However, I could clearly see some shallow spots between the center of this wide open channel and Little Walker's Cay several miles away.

Upon leaving the banks the wind picked up nicely and White Pepper could sail freely and fast. It was about 6:30 pm so we had 2 hours to settle down before sunset. A huge crackling thunderstorm started about 10 miles away. It slowly moved off to the North West away from us (traveling North by North West). The night watches were quiet, pleasant and passed quickly. By 3 am the stars and the nearly full moon were shining down as a gentle breeze pushed us along.

Dawn, the photo does not adequately show the subtle colors

My game plan was to cross the Gulf Steam in the morning before the thunderstorms picked up. So at dawn White Pepper started her motor and headed due West. We crossed the axis at noon in conditions so benign that Robert joked he would have to have a repeat trip to earn his stripes. The GPS was recording speeds of 8 to 10 knots. Later in the afternoon the wind filled in from the South West as predicted, and we could sail until sunset. There were thunderstorms in the distance, but none came close. From there on it was a brisk motor all the way to the St. John's River jetties. Part of the hurry was to arrive in time for the flooding current. We cleared the jetties at 1:30 pm with 2 or 3 knots of incoming current. We had done 240 miles in 32 hours. Curiously, on the St. John's River maximum flood current is at low tide and slack water is at mid tide. We were quickly carried up to Jacksonville docking at our regular spot in the free Jacksonville Municipal Marina. We tied up at 5:30 pm in the shadow of the Jacksonville Jaguars football stadium. This was almost 16 months after we had departed from the same slip so long ago. The next day was an easy motor, albeit in the rain, to White Pepper's haul out destination Green Cove Springs Marina.

Downtown Jacksonville, rain cloud overhead and Main Street Bridge in center.

This post may seem overly long and detailed, but I wanted to make some points for anyone planning a similar trip. First, get some north miles the first night, cross the Gulf Steam early on the second day, and finish the trip along the coast during the second night and early the next day. Also be mindful of the strong currents in the St. John's River. White Pepper was pleased to learn that Sea Escape followed the same route two weeks later with no problems.

 Favorable current

 The Q flag, barely needed with local boater's option at C&BP

Easy trip