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One if by land, two if by sea

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image MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTOS Amelia Island is the only place in America to have existed under eight different flags. It was also the home of pirates and rumrunners. The unique history is celebrated today.

Part of an Observer News feature series

By Mitch Traphagen

“Uh oh”

“Now what?” Michelle asked.

“Small craft advisories have just been posted,” I said while gazing at the computer.

IMG_1715pelicans
The cold temperatures have followed me down from the Carolinas. With lows dipping into the 30s, even the pelicans at Fernandina Harbor Marina have tucked themselves in.

It is late in the season and we were preparing to leave Charleston to jump offshore to Florida. The National Weather Service provides an offshore forecast for vessels at sea and it bore ill tidings. High winds and large sea swells could be expected off the South Carolina coast. The North Atlantic can be grumpy in January. On the plus side, with the wind at our back, the heavier than expected weather was in our favor, pushing us to the Sunshine State, 165 miles down the ocean to the south.

Unfortunately, sailboats generally don’t like to be pushed. At least this sailboat doesn’t.

Michelle drove to Charleston so we could celebrate both her birthday and New Year’s together. Instead of returning to Tampa by car, she decided to stay on the boat for the sail to Florida. I knew the trip would be uncomfortable so I tried to talk her out of it all the while secretly hoping she would stay. She stayed.

With small craft advisories posted, we sailed into the cold sunshine of the South Carolina morning. As the strong current tossed us out through the funnel created by jetties off the Charleston Harbor, the waves increased tremendously. They weren’t waves so much as large swells with waves on top coming from a powerful system to the north. Our winds were moderate and I was glad that we weren’t seeing whatever conditions created such large swells. The swells hit the boat near the aft quarter, often spinning the nine-ton Shadow Marie as if it were a toy. With the wind almost directly behind us, each time a swell would push the boat one way or another, the large mainsail would slam loudly.

IMG_4990downtownfbFernandina Beach is unlike any other Florida community I have ever seen. It could easily be at home in any New England state. Locally owned restaurants, bookstore and gift shops line the main street. It is a picturesqe community well worth a visit.

I’ve said an overnight offshore sail can be almost a religious experience. While the conditions we experienced weren’t dangerous, they were uncomfortable with boat rolling in the following seas and the sails slamming. Below in the cabin was a cacophony of noise from rattling dishes to lines slacking and slamming from above on deck. And then, of course, the cold north wind blew straight through with the companionway and into the cabin. Clearly, I was a romantic fool for opining about a religious experience. The only religion involved was continuously praying that the passage would end as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Michelle is a scrappy little redhead who has earned a reputation for not taking a lot of guff from anyone. But out on the ocean in the pitch-black moonless night with swells towering behind, she looked small and vulnerable to me. I was grateful she chose to join me on this passage but worried continuously about her. I had no reason; she has spent many nights at sea and is certainly capable of handling the boat. Safely harnessed in, I knew she was safe but sleep did not come easily for me during her hour-long watches over the night. The rolling and slamming also made for strange and fitful dreams. The stars in the night sky offshore, however, were boundless and beautiful and the following seas rolled by into the inky blackness ahead. Perhaps there is a bit of religion in the experience. The ocean is beautiful even when grumpy.

IMG_4952fbcourthouseThirty hours after we left Charleston, we were closing on the northern-most city in Florida. In many ways, Fernandina Beach is an ideal entry point for those who come from the north. It is a unique and wonderful introduction to the Sunshine State. As if by magic, the temperature rose significantly as we crossed the invisible line into Florida.

Fernandina Beach, on Amelia Island, is the only place in America to have existed under eight different flags. The island was discovered by a French explorer in 1562 and was promptly taken by the Spanish a few years later, with the British invading a century after that. Over time, Mexico, a few impromptu governments, the Confederate States of America and, of course, the United States all have laid claim to the island. In the meantime, it has also been the stomping ground of pirates and rumrunners. General Robert E. Lee twice visited nearby Fort Clinch, today a national park, but the Confederacy’s hold on the island was short-lived. The Union reclaimed it in 1863, only a year after his last visit. An all-black regiment read President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as they raised the Stars and Stripes over the fort, the last flag to fly over the island.

The most striking feature of modern-day Fernandina Beach is that it looks nothing like any other city in Florida. It is believed that the Union soldiers who occupied the island at the end of the Civil War decided to stay and build the city in the image of their Northeastern homes. Indeed, if you look past the palm trees and odd bits of Spanish architecture, old Fernandina Beach, with brick storefronts lining Centre Street, the town’s main street, would be at home in almost any New England state. The picturesque street is home to locally owned bookstores, restaurants and gift shops and the Nassau County Courthouse, built in 1891 and one of the last 19th century courthouses remaining in Florida.

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While nearly invisible from town, two large paper mills bordering Fernandina Beach created an eerie spectacle from the water, particularly at night.

 

Another striking feature is the industrial nature of the area with two large paper mills bordering the small community, taking advantage of both the rail service from nearby Jacksonville and easy ocean access through the St. Mary’s River inlet just a few miles away. From town, the plants are nearly invisible; from the water, however, they dominate the vista, at night creating an almost eerie spectacle of lights and belching smokestacks.

Only a four-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area, this unique community is well worth a visit. For the snowbirds, it is a little taste of home; and for everyone, it is yet another shining example of vast diversity Florida has to offer with small-town friendliness that frequently gets lost in the stampede of tourists in other parts of the state.

One of the most difficult aspects of the cruising life is saying goodbye. At each port, friendships come quickly and easily with boats providing a common ground between strangers. But ultimately the winds blow differently for everyone and the goodbyes come nearly as quickly as the friendships were forged. On this leg of the journey, the goodbyes have included Michelle. Only a few hours after tying up in Fernandina Beach, a friend from Ruskin arrived to pick her up, leaving me once again alone on the boat. I walked the quaint streets of the town, seeing couples walking hand in hand, and became painfully aware that, more than ever, I want very much to get home.

The cold wind has followed me down from the Carolinas, urging me southward towards St. Augustine, Daytona and the Okeechobee Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico. The goodbyes have taken a toll and I’m looking forward to saying hello again. I’m looking forward to home.

 

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From my perspective, the deck of the boat is level, the ocean was tilted. Sailing offshore from Charleston was a relatively easy but rolly 30 hours underway.

 

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