Not since our first days after leaving Houston eighteen months ago, have we travelled North. On a sunny May Day morning, we loosed lines and left our slip at the Harborage in Stuart, FL, provisioned for a two-week journey, northbound to Jacksonville.
It was a milestone departure. While wintering in Stuart, I sought counsel to learn how to better deal with the intense anxiety I often feel in advance of a cruise. It wasn’t always this way and it was getting worse, becoming debilitating. After a decade of planning and preparing, falling prey to such demons was depressing. I’m happy to share that the counseling worked wonders. Knowing we were prepared, and focused on the moment, we entered the St. Lucie River, happy to be underway again.
Fifteen minutes into our trip, as we cleared the A1A bridge leading to Sewell’s Point, Dawn asks “All systems look good?”. Scanning the instruments again, I reply “No, not really, we’re running hot.” Our engine exhaust temperature was reading 220 F, 10% higher than normal for the rpms we were turning.
Dawn circled in the channel at idle speed, while I went to the engine room to check the strainer, coolant, and water flow. Everything appeared normal. Retaking the helm, I kept us at about seven knots, and our exhaust temperature stabilized. Making mental note of contingency destinations, we pressed on, knowing that turning back would have been capitulation.
We turned North into the Indian River where the St. Lucie Inlet offers a brief glimpse into the Atlantic. Between there and Fort Pierce, twenty miles to the north, the inner coastline rises high above the Indian River. If sea levels rise six feet, these folks will be safe, and better still, will be ocean front on the new barrier island. It takes an hour to round Sewell Point and reach the Jenson Beach bridge, a ten minute care ride from The Harborage. The waterfront homes gradually shrink as we approach the nuclear plant perched on Hutchinson Island.
Nearing Fort Pierce, the waters brighten, as silt, sediment and nutrient runoff are diluted by ocean waters near the inlet. The transformation is remarkable, and a joy to experience at each inlet along the coast. Just beyond Fort Pierce, Jack Island and dozens more dot the outer boundary of the Indian River. It’s Saturday, so small boats are beached along the sandy shores of these small islands. Tents are pitched under the palms. Fishing, swimming, and beer drinking rule the day.
We approached Vero Beach mid-afternoon, thirty minutes behind schedule because of our reduced running speed. The Municipal Marina, tucked into small cove behind Fritz Island, is well protected and quaint. It feels like a step back in time compared to the newer corporate marinas which charge for amenities seldom used. It’s an easy walk for Lola to the grass under huge live oak trees which shade the grounds. Above all, it’s very peaceful. Lola liked it and so did we, thus we decided to stay a second night.
After a sound sleep, and as the sky began to brighten outside the stateroom portholes, I noticed something was not right. Our freshwater pump was kicking on every five minutes, and the bilge pump was running more frequently. You get to know what all these things sound like. We had a leak somewhere – a dripping faucet, or head, or leaking water heater. I jumped out of bed, and before making coffee, started searching. Climbing down into the engine room, it didn’t look good. Water was dripping down the back of an electrical junction panel in the engine room. Limited access made it very difficult to find the source. Ten minutes of contortion and cursing later, I found and fixed it – all except for a soaked relay, critical to our autopilot. I’ll fix that one later.
During my cursing, Dawn thankfully made the coffee and I finally settled in the cockpit to enjoy a cup. I almost lost the fourth sip when a school of flying fish took flight just off the stern quarter. Two flashing leaps, then gone. Halfway through my second cup, and almost done with my morning Words With Friends ritual, came a sudden “thunk” just over my head. At my feet lay a small bird, knocked silly trying to fly through the window behind me. I think it was an Orange Crowned Warbler. I cradled it in my hand, as it lay on its side. One leg didn’t work, one eye was shut. Dreading feeding him to the flying fish, I waited. Fifteen minutes later, he stood perched on my hand, looking better but still afraid to attempt flight over the water. I decided to walk him to the bougainvillea growing along the bank. Halfway there was close enough – he took off and was gone.
Late that afternoon, we dinghied to the Riverside Cafe for dinner, a classic waterfront eatery and drinking establishment along the Vero Lagoon. It’s a recommended stop; their Bang-Bang shrimp are outstanding! Soon after we got back to Cirila and stowed the dighy, dolphins entered the small lagoon to feed. We sat on the bow, mesmerized as always, by these happy creatures. They jumped, rolled, and might have even been doing a little mating, right off our bowsprit. What an unexpectedly interesting day!
Northbound in the Indian River before 7:30 the next morning, we crossed the unmarked boundary between Florida’s “Treasure Coast” and its “Space Coast”. Exquisite waterfront homes line the twisting waterways near Vero for the first hour. These are the kind of places with statuary by their pools, bronze and marble tributes to dolphins and sea turtles, David and Ben Hogan. The unaffordable housing gives way to nature at the Pelican Island Preserve, where the Indian River widens. I looked up from our instruments only to be startled by a bald eagle, crossing our path twenty feet in front of the pilothouse, close enough to see the gleam in his eye, a fresh caught fish still flopping in its talons. Unfortunately, it happened too quickly to reach the camera.
If the Indian River sounds familiar, it’s probably because of oranges. Though you’ll see orange groves all over the state, it was the Indian River district near Vero that started it all. Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast railroad put fresh oranges within easy reach to millions. Didn’t we all sell bags of Indian River oranges for grade school fundraisers? During WWII, researchers figured out how to concentrate the juice, freeze it, and ship it to the troops. A marketing consultant was hired, and Minute Made was born. We all know fresh squeezed is best, and if you grew up in Ohio in the 1960’s, you probable still can’t shake the jingle from Lawson’s, a convenience store ahead of its time. On the commercial, as gleaming stainless tanker trucks cruise the highways, the singer belts out “Roll on Big “O”, get that juice up to Lawson’s in 40 hours.”
Near the Sebastian Inlet, the river grows clearer, deeper, and bluer. For the remainder of our seven hour cruise to Cocoa Village, the waterway was a mile or two wide, more like a bay, and big enough for the breeze to kick up a light chop. On its distant banks, the houses become more austere, the foliage more coniferous – decidedly less palmy. Bridges are few, and all have a 65 foot clearance. We are no longer in South Florida. Hopefully we’ve left my demons behind.