First Leg: St. Augustine, Florida – But, first a nuclear sub!

Map of Passage - St. Marys to St. AugustineIt was a bitterly cold, but sunny morning. We got up and, thanks to our preparations, quickly had the engines running and cast the lines. Winds and currents were perfect and we simply drifted off the dock as Karen stepped back on board.

Karen in cold weather clothing at the helmBundled in our warm clothing and gloves, we had a nice motor down the curvy St. Marys river.  As we began the lengthy ride out the St. Marys inlet, I noticed several ships entering the far end of the inlet. As I looked closer, it appeared at least one was a Navy destroyer.  Usually you would only see a Navy fleet at the Jacksonville inlet.  But, I had a nagging suspicion what might be happening. I pulled out the binoculars, and just as I realized what I was seeing the VHF blared on:

“This is the US Coast Guard to the sailing catamaran in the St. Marys Inlet. We are escorting a naval operation and ask that you move to the side of the inlet and hold your position. Do you understand?”

Navy Fleet St. Marys Inlet

Given what I had seen in the binoculars, I wasn’t surprised. St. Marys is a very small coastal Georgia town. But, the one thing it is known for around the world is that it is home to a US Navy submarine base.  So, you guessed it!  The fleet we were seeing was an escort for an incoming nuclear submarine!

I couldn’t believe it!  The odds of our seeing a returning submarine are incredibly low. They usually are gone for several months at a time.  The chances of it happening while we were headed out the inlet are even lower!  As we held our position, the large USCG cutter (complete with armed guns) came by accompanied by a fast armored inflatable boat with a 50-caliber machine gun and fully armed coast guard personnel.  They held position just off our bow to make sure we didn’t move.   When they left as the submarine passed, a similar-sized Navy gunboat (probably containing Navy Seals) also stood by our boat for a few moments.  Before we knew it, the submarine had passed.  Another large USCG vessel stood just off the stern of the sub protecting its aft quarter.  Close behind the fleet were two cargo vessels (I think) which I surmised were held up by the operation.  But, maybe they were part of it? See the slideshow below for more pictures.

icicles on the boom of TahinaSpinnaker flying on TahinaAfter that thrilling experience, we continued our way out the inlet.  I was noticing on the way out we had some icicles forming from water dripping from the sail cover.  Once we rounded some shoals and were able to begin our intended heading for St. Augustine, we checked our winds.  Sure enough, we had perfect winds for flying the spinnaker.  Thank goodness for our cold-weather clothing! Karen and I had already raised it twice on the trip to St. Marys, so it only took a few minutes to get things set up and raise this huge powerful, and colorful, sail. We soon were making at least 8 knots on a beautiful sail that continued all the way down to St. Augustine.

About the only issue on the trip was that the new navigation software on the computer seemed to be incredibly slow when loading chart data from the chart plotter.  Since it ran fine before the upgrade, I could only conclude the upgrade messed up some network setting.

There were reports of right whales in the area, but despite looking out for them, we never saw any on the way down. The USCG asks that you report sightings and keep your speed below 10 knots while whales are in the area to help protect these immense creatures. We did spot a few dolphin, but none seemed to want to brave the cold to visit with us for very long. No bites on the fishing lines either.

About mid-afternoon we were nearing St. Augustine, and put away the spinnaker.  We were soon motoring our way in to the anchorage near downtown not far from the fort.  The anchorage already had about 10 boats, but we found a spot a little further from the shore. We took a brief break and then took showers and changed clothes so we could have dinner ashore. We lowered the dinghy and went to the city marina dinghy dock. A short walk later found us at Pizza Alley. We had eaten there several years back when we sailed in on PatiCat.

Here is a slideshow showing these and other pictures from the day:

We had just enjoyed some of the best pizza around, and had ordered some dessert, when it happened.  We got a call from home with a family emergency.   We soon found ourselves with a major dilemma.  We needed to get home as soon as possible.  Fortunately, we had friends back home who took care of some of the immediate needs.  Major kudos to our long-time family friends the Burkes for coming to the rescue.   But, we had to get one of us home by the next day.  Karen opted to go, and soon we had a plane ticket for her for the next morning.

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