A Close Call from St. Augustine to Fernandina Beach Florida

53 is the magic number and in a moment I will explain what that means. For those of you following our journey you will probably be tired of the repetition but not as tired of it as we are. Our night at St. Augustine was fine and quiet and at first light the next morning we were under way. There were two reasons; one was the fact that we wanted to exit the St. Augustine inlet on a falling tide or at least slack water, and the other was the forecast of storms earlier and more frequent in the afternoon. The waterway between St. Augustine and Fernandina has several problem areas and lots of shallow water. We much prefer the short offshore hop. On the first count our timing was very good. We had an outgoing tide and light winds with calm seas. A great start so far and the trip north toward the St. Mary’s River entrance was relaxing if only we had been able to sail instead of motor sailing. About 10 miles or so south of St. Mary’s we were shadowed by a US Coast Guard cutter for quite a while. Finally they called us on the radio and asked a few questions like where we were coming from, where we were going, how many on board, the name of the owner and our registration number. We were sure we would get boarded but after the questions they wished us a safe voyage and went on their way.
Watching Doppler radar, we knew storms were forming out to the west and heading in our direction. The question was, would they reach us before we reached our anchorage? As we arrived at St. Mary’s River entrance channel we saw a dredge and a few tugs working the channel. We called several times to see if there were any concerns for us in the area but none of them answered our calls. We also saw rain moving in our direction and heard thunder off in the distance to the west. We immediately got all of the sails down and everything secured. Now we would normally stand off at sea with a storm approaching but all we could see in the distance was rain and our radar showed nothing significant. So we made the decision to head into the river entrance. The tide was going out so we knew to expect a good 3 or more knot current against us as we proceeded into the channel. This is a narrow river entrance and there are rock jetties extending out quite a ways from land. We proceeded down the channel and got about as far as inside the rock jetty when the storm exploded directly over us.
We found ourselves going from rain showers to 35 knot winds to black skies with thunder and lightning in a matter of moments and there was no place for us to go or nothing for us to do except to keep heading into the channel. At 35 knots of wind and a 3+ knot current against us we were down to about 1 ½ MPH over the ground and were inside the first set of channel marker inside the jetties. And then things got even worse. The rains went to zero visibility and we could no longer see the channel markers right next to us. The only way we knew where we were was by the chart plotter. Now you remember that 53? Well that is what the winds built to. We were treading into very dangerous conditions and fast with no options but to maintain our position as best we could. With the strong currents and 53 knot winds the chart plotter showed we were pointed into the wind and waves and moving back down the channel from where we came at 2 ½ MPH. We were pushing the engine as hard as we could since we had been having coolant problems all day and our concern was that the engine might overheat under these conditions. If that were to happen it would spell ABSOLUTE disaster and there would be a good chance that neither we nor the boat would survive. And I believe that we were indeed in a survival situation. Not that the boat would not survive these conditions, but in close quarters to those rock jetties, had we hit them under these circumstances we would not have survived it. I can’t really say how long all of this lasted. Maybe and hour or more, it just seemed like a lifetime. We had to literally fight for every inch to maintain a safe position and not get washed up on the jetty or hit the channel markers that we knew were on both sides of us but we could not see. Even letting the bow of the boat fall off a bit would have put us in a bad way. All of this while we prayed that the overheat alarm did not go off. Occasionally the wind would drop below 40 knots and the backward motion would stop and we would be down to a stand still. This has only been the second time in over 16 years that I was concerned that we might loose the boat or worse. This is also the reason we have such a great fear and respect for these local thunderstorms and try and do what ever it takes to avoid them. In time, the rains eased and the winds dropped into the mid thirties then the upper twenties. Once under 30 knots we were able to get the boat moving forward again and make some progress, albeit very slowly. Soon we were again able to see where we were and we moved as far to the side of the channel as we dared to try and cut down on some of the influence of the current. In hindsight, we felt lucky that the currents were going out and we had wind and current in that same direction. If this had been a wind against current situation, we don’t even want to think of how bad it might have been. The rains finally abated and the winds dropped to less than 5 knots. All we had to deal with from that point on was the 3 knot current against us. To say we felt a sense of relief is an understatement. We called the marina in downtown Fernandina and arranged to tie up for the night. We were in no mood for any problems at anchor since there was still weather in the area.
If we had to do it over we would have indeed stayed offshore for as long as it took for the storms to pass. But all indications were for no more than rain when we turned into the entrance channel. Once inside everything developed so fast we had no time to turn and run out or do much else other than what we did. It just shows how quickly conditions can deteriorate when not expected. Knowing a storm is heading in your direction is one thing but having it build right on top of you leaves little time for preparation or consideration. These past weeks have been the most stressful and uncomfortable in our cruising lifetime. I am not sure what we could have done differently or whether the timing was wrong or what. We have sailed these waters in the past at this time of year, but never experienced these conditions so often before and it is our hope we never experience them again either. But the trip is far from over and looking at forecasts for the areas between here and Beaufort, South Carolina there will be more to come. Cruising is not always cocktails in the cockpit at sunset and times like these try even the most experienced. We survived this experience and whether it is luck or a supreme being watching over us I can’t say. But we are thankful to be comfortably tied to the dock the next day with friends dropping by for lunch and to be able to tell our tale. We plan to spend several days in the area, fix our coolant problem, visit with good friends and do a bit of exploring of the area that we have not visited for some time. And keep an eye on the sky. Then we will again head north for our final, for now, destination.

1 comment:

  1. The entrance to St.Marys river must be an area of bad karma. I had an almost identical experience as you all (sorry, Texan) in July last year. I had just about reached the rock jetties in my 35' Allmand when what originally appeared to be a rain shower turned into a full blown thunder bumper. Winds gusted to 43kts and visibility dropped to...the bow. The lighting striking all around the boat and my little 18 horse Yanmar convinced me to throw out my big CQR and pray that she took hold. It did finally, after dragging backwards to within about 40' of the big green channel bouy. There was a Catalina 27' that had been behind me about 100 yards or so, and when he saw me drop anchor, he did the same. A half hour later when the wind subsided and the visibilty came back, I learned taht he had drug all the way across Cumberland sound and was aground on the island. Thank goodness for proper ground tackle! I love St. Marys, but next trip I may opt for Fernandina and drive over....
    JD Fuller
    S/V Southern Spirit


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