Fat and happy in St Augustine

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A short trip in my kayak to the beach by the Fort

The daily sounds of gunfire have taken some getting used to during our stay in St Augustine, Florida. And the cannons. And the pirate battles.

Which is what you get if you park your yacht in Americas’ “oldest city” founded by the Spanish in 1565 (others may dispute their claim..) in a prime spot overlooked by the old San Marcos fort.

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A couple of times a day enthusiasts wearing the blue uniforms from the War of Independence from England, load and then fire their muskets from the fort, in our general direction.

After that they mould a couple of cannon balls out of squished up Wonder-loaf, wrap them in tin foil and fire them very loudly from the big cannons on the battlements of the fort, in our general direction.

Just down the river bank at the Fountain of Youth original Spanish barracks, archaeological site and ancient spring (a bit whiffy) they are also keen to demonstrate their historic firearms and daily, surrounded by shrieking peacocks and tourists they fire their muskets with clouds of white smoke. In our general direction.

The battling pirates don’t seem to have spotted our English flag and are still firing at each other!

He agreed to adjust his course by a couple of degrees and we wished each other a good night, just like I was a proper sailor. So civilised!

Our 2 night sail from Palm Beach, Florida in May took us past Cape Canaveral with its spacey looking buildings outlined against the bald coast and we watched as a vertical con-trail plumed up from the area. On closer inspection through the binos’ it seemed to be a military plan at a funny angle, but still…

We also had the best dolphin escort to date on this trip, with three large freckled beasts enjoying crossing and recrossing our bows and making eye contact, just out of reach of my fingertips as I dangled my arms over one of the bows.

I also did another new thing!

While I tracked other vessels around us at 3am on my night watch I spotted something on a similar track to us. So I took a deep breath and called up the captain on the VHF radio to chat about the fact that we would bump into each other in about 35 minutes and what would he like to do.

He agreed to adjust his course by a couple of degrees and we wished each other a good night, just like I was a proper sailor. So civilised!

Jazzy coral for me, blue for L, we have put some serious miles on these babies with trips…

As we sailed towards the inlet in the coast that would bring us into the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers of St Augustine we enjoyed hearing real Southern voices on the VHF radio, discussing how close they should be to the dredger. This mysterious conversation became very relevant when we realised that none of the crucial red and green markers on the inlet to show the safe way in was placed where the chart said it would be!

This dredger is a hellish machine – a giant platform, spouting water, with terrific noise, flashing lights, floating booms and cranes. It was deepening the channel that the rivers were constantly trying to silt up and moving the entry markers around as it went, like the bollards on a motorway contra-flow, except if you went the wrong side of one you would hit the bottom!

After tackling that particular challenge we could be forgiven for thinking we had taken a wrong turn and arrived in Spain or maybe Copenhagen.

With its river frontage of wooden and colourfully painted houses and shops, St Augustine is reputed to be the most European feeling city in the USA. That European feel is nicely mixed with the Southern atmosphere of old North Florida with masses of trees, shaggy hanging Spanish moss, tropical flowers, an obsession with all things boats and fishing and masses of birds.

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The view from The Bridge of Lions, which lifts open to let the pirates and other boats out throughout the day

After spending too many $ on hire cars just to get supplies in Palm Beach we decided that bicycles were the way to go – having a roomy catamaran we have the space to stow them too.

We spent a lovely couple of hours with Jim of Island Bikes, kitting out a couple of aluminium framed cruisers – the preferred bike of hipsters and cruising sailors ‘cos they have no messy gears, brake levers, wires or other stuff to snag as you try to manhandle them from the dock into the dinghy and back up onto the boat without dropping them to the bottom of the river!

Jazzy coral for me, blue for L, we have put some serious miles on these babies with trips up and down US-1 for groceries, to the Anastasia Island state beach park, the lighthouse, various boat yards and suppliers, the iconic A1A Florida highway with its shady neighbourhoods of old beach houses and ALL over the peaceful, picturesque back streets of the old town.

This town was certainly not what we were expecting from Florida. It has narrow cobbled streets of old houses and garden walls built from coquina stone – ancient compressed seashells mined by the Spanish colonial settlers.

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The old Spanish coquina stone quarry, now become a boggy meadow
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Spider lilies

This coarse and quite soft stone was formed over millions of years of the sea levels first rising and laying down banks of little shells, then falling again to expose them. As the rain water fell onto these exposed banks the chemistry gradually changed and fused them together into stone.

One of its unique properties is that it is not brittle, so a cannonball fired into a fort for example, will either bounce off the wall or plug in, to be levered out and fired back again – recycling!

The town has thriving tourist industry dating back to Henry Flagler – the originator of Florida tourism  – around the beautiful old hotels, museums,  garden squares and preserved buildings that in many USA towns would have made way for the new.

There are also a lot of nice places to eat.

The more time we spent in the extreme civilisation of St Augustine, the easier it became to stay a bit longer.

  • Can we get the steel pulpit repairs done which we had been putting off since Puerto Rico plus get the weed scrubbed off the boat bottom by a diver? Yes!
  • Can we replace that mainsail block that exploded on the way here? Yes!
  • Can L get the parts to service both of the Yanmar engines from “The Yanmar Lady”? Yes!
  • Can we go out to eat practically every day for fabulous local fish, shrimp, pizza, ice cream, flat whites, cake etcetera so putting back on half the weight we lost since we started? Yes!

The living is certainly easy here and it makes a very nice change to be indulging in a bit of “normal life” in between the usual catalogue of jobs.

What we though were pink flamingos turned out to be streaky pink and red roseate spoonbills, which sieve methodically through the muddy shallows…

Our anchorage just off the marshes and sandbanks by the fort has proved to be a beauty, with a gorgeous views of the sunset and the boat activities in the channel.

We are daringly close to the shallow sandbanks and little beach, so mostly we have it to ourselves as other yachts travel through looking at their depth sounders, decide we are a bit crazy and clear off to find a nice mooring buoy!

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Did I mention the massive crucifix? No?

Wherever you have a river flowing into the sea you also have fish breeding, which means things for birds to eat, which means a great view of the constant comings and goings of many and varied birds, catching food in their own particular way.

The undulating flight of long strings of brown pelicans individually plunking into the water; the impossibly elegant swallow-tailed kites; majestic, wide-winged osprey; tiny, acrobatic diving terns; herons, egrets and huge woodstorks on long legs at the water’s edges. What we though were pink flamingos turned out to be streaky pink and red roseate spoonbills, which sieve methodically through the muddy shallows for shrimp and small fish with their weirdly flat, spoon-shaped beaks.

Also chasing this abundance of fishies are the dolphins mooching up and down and round our boat, alerting us to their presence with their regular “pscht” noises as they come up to breathe.

There were a few days when all the local dolphin families seemed to be out together, doing laps of the bay chaperoning at least 3 marvellously uncoordinated baby dolphins which was magical. We watched the little ones poke their bodies out of the water at clumsy angles and flop over again, while trying to master that smooth dolphin arc through the water. Not as easy as it looks apparently. What a show!

With all this easy living and luxury it was time to stretch myself a bit and make friends… with the dinghy.

That afternoon I tacked fairly competently up and down by the stripey lighthouse, with Stephanie laid out horizontally across the front of the little boat for balance and Bubba snoozing in the cockpit under my feet.

Not having had a motorbike/ratty Ford Capri as a youth, the inflatable dinghy with its pull-cord starter, petrol engine and whirring propeller blades scared me I admit. The day I mastered starting it myself, heading off alone round the moored boats, under the bridge and bumped it gently onto the dinghy dock to tie up was epic for me.

Even more “normal life” stuff followed with L waving me off, such as going to the pictures, shopping, getting a haircut and going down river a bit for a (it’s never too late) sailing lesson with Stephanie.

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St Augustine lighthouse

Stephanie we met when she drifted past our boat in a small, slowly sinking, sailing dinghy along with her marvellous Tibetan Spaniel “Bubba”. After 4 coffees, 6 fags and some colourful episodes from her life, she convinced me to buy a bottle of her Neem tincture mosquito repellant and a sailing lesson later that day.

That afternoon I tacked fairly competently up and down by the stripey lighthouse, with Stephanie laid out horizontally across the front of the little boat for balance and Bubba snoozing in the cockpit under my feet.

The gracious and relaxed nature of Americans in the Southern states is a wonderful thing. They step to the side of the pavement to let you cycle past and actually apologise for being in your way. They call out “Hey, I like your bike, be safe!” from their massive trucks. They remember you and welcome you back to their cafe with a smile after a week. They laugh and joke with work colleagues as though they actually like what they do!

At some point soon we will leave this cool and beautiful little city and the many nice people we have met here to discover and enjoy the next place.

But meantime we are very happy to be stuck here.