The First Coast

Northbound to New Smyrna, as Mosquito Lagoon narrows near Oak Hill, rustic fish camps begin dotting the mainland bank. Continuing North, the camps evolve into small campgrounds, then into RV parks, then mobile home communities. By Edgwater, the waterfront is lined with modest single family homes behind ramshackle docks, growing in size as we near New Smyrna.

Edgewater should really define the southern boundary of The First Coast because along with New Smyrna, it was part of the original settlement developed by the Scotsman, Andrew Turnbull. Back in 1768. Turnbull brought some 1,255 Greek, Italian, and Minorcan settler’s through Mosquito Inlet on 7 ships, creating from scratch, the largest English settlement in North America.

Just steps from the marina, remains of a foundation thought to be a manor house Turnbulll was building for his partner

Florida was England’s booty following the Seven Years War, winning it from Spain in 1763. Since Ponce de Leon’s first days, Florida had been Spain’s conquest. They built successful towns and coquina forts in both Pensacola and St. Augustine, but their resources were stretched thin. The same Paris treaty which ceded Florida to the British, awarded Cuba to Spain, so the Spaniards packed up and sailed to Havana, leaving Florida for good.

New Smyrna’s quaint City Hall

New Smynra’s harbor lies just North of the 65′ Harris Saxon, A1A bridge. We passed its large anchorage, turned sharply to port around the River Deck Restaurant, and backed into slip 39 at the New Smyrna Marina for our three night stay. I envisioned the same harbor full of Turnbull’s ships 250 years ago, or Ponce De Leon’s 250 before that. Imagine, anchoring your schooner in uncharted waters, rowing ashore, and starting a new life with just a bag of seeds, clutch of chickens, and bucket of nails.

We timed our journey so that our stop in New Smyrna would coincide with a vacation to the area by Dawn’s brother Gary and his wife Kathy. They drove over from their rented beachfront condo, joining us on the boat for cocktails before we strolled into town for dinner at the Yellow Dog. (best pulled pork tacos I’ve ever had!). Two nights later, we headed their way for a seafood dinner on the deck at JB’s Fish Camp. The mosquitoes there may still be discussing the delicious human dinner they shared.

With Gary and Kathy Krueger at JB’s Fish Camp

Adjourning to the condo for cigars on the deck, we made a valiant effort to finish off Gary’s Bourbon before their morning flight home. We were celebrating the birth of our second grandchild, June Helen Brennan!

We cleared out at 07:30 the following morning, for a five hour run North to Palm Coast. The first hour wound through brackish fishing grounds in the cut behind Ponce inlet, before emerging in the Halifax River in South Daytona. Saturday morning in Daytona! The channel was jammed with center consoles sporting up to five outboards, beer flowing faster than gasoline.

The Halifax through Daytona is not particularly scenic, but it does get pretty near Ormond Beach, and especially Ormond-by-the-Sea. There, the Halifax narrows and for some reason, becomes Smith Creek. Save for two trawlers 1/4 mile ahead, there was little boat traffic as motored North. Covered boathouses just twenty feet off our starboard beam matched architecturally with homes behind, live oaks and pine shading the banks.

Near Flagler Beach, boat traffic picked up again, fed by small marinas and docks, amenities built for the many low rise condos along the waterway. These are the cheap seats for snowbirds and retirees. Just beyond, as we near Palm Coast, those seats get pricier. Country club developments line both banks, first Grand Haven, then Hammock Dunes. In the midst of it was Palm Harbor Marina, where we tied to the sea wall overnight.

The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse

We chose Palm Harbor so we could time our arrival the next day in St. Augustine at slack tide. This allowed for a full, leisurely breakfast, rather than our usual protein bars en-route. From Palm Coast, Smith Creek becomes the Matanzas River, another puzzling name change. My theory is that early mariners made these trips “outside” in the Atlantic, and it wasn’t until the last century that many of these inland waterways were connected to become the Intracoastal Waterway. Smith Creek probably flowed South, the Matanzas North toward St. Augustine, rivers probed and named by the explorers before they were connected.

Boating guides are full of cautionary tales about docking at St. Augustine’s Municipal Marina. The tidal current runs through it at 3 knots. We were coming in at close to slack tide, which would negate this impact, but the strong winds were worse. We circled in the harbor until the deck hands were ready for us, talking us in on the VHF. I abandoned our first attempt as the wind pushed us beyond our target and nearly icrashed us against the outer dock.

We would have enjoyed a longer stay in Staint Augustine, but were pressed by oncoming weather.

After re-aligning, the dock master hollered over the radio “Back right at the black-hulled sailboat. Right at it with purpose!”. The stern was generally on track, but our bow was falling off the wind, the bow thruster unable to overcome the windage. Dawn got the stern lines to the deckhands as we became increasingly perpendicular to the slip. It was like trying to put your foot into a shoe sideways. Through a team effort, we got Cirila into her slip with gathered onlookers cheering. We took some hide off the swim platform, but thankfully, didn’t hit any other boats. It was the most challenging docking experience we’ve had; our adrenalin didn’t ebb for two hours.

The City Marina is worth the stress because it lies in the heart of Old St. Augustine. We stayed just one night, eager to get to Jacksonville before a long string of stormy weather settled in. Making the most of our stay, we ate Italian at Pizzalley’s, then grabbed a hightop at the Tradewinds Lounge to listen to some music. The band’s opener hooked us – an excellent cover of “Melissa” by The Allman Brothers. Yuengling drafts were $4, so we stayed for two sets. It was the first quasi-normal night out for us since the pandemic began.

A quaint cottage overlooking the ICW in Florida’s First Coast. These places have $100K of patio furniture, but know one ever using them.

The landscape grows more industrial after passing under the 202 bridge, on our way to the intersection of the Saint John’s River. The outgoing tide had us speeding along at over 10 knots with the engine running only 1600 rpm. I was nervous about the intersection, as a shoal had developed in recent months, grounding numerous boats and forcing the Coast Guard to move the channel markers. We never saw less than 9′ depths, but having just been in 30′, I was looking at our depth gage – a lot. We made it safely into the Saint John’s River, then on to Ortega Landing just beyond Jacksonville, but I’ll save the rest of that story for another post.

Before closing this one though, a bit more history. Turnbull’s New Smyrna story didn’t end happily. For him, it was a money pit. For the indentured servants who settled it with promises of land grants, it was soul-sucking hardship. Hurricanes, hunger, disease, and drought killed half of them. With St. Augustine just a day’s journey up the “road”, and already established for over 200 years, the settlers abandoned New Smyrna in 1777, creating perhaps America’s first ghost town. By about this time, there were also a lot of crown Loyalists flocking south from Charleston and Savannah, run out by pesky patriots starting a new country. The early American’s wouldn’t leave the Brit’s alone, eventually chasing them out of Florida as well, after only twenty years of colonial rule. While many escaped to Bermuda and the Bahamas, others sensing great golf and real estate opportunities, joined the cause. Florida became a US Territory in 1821, and the Union’s 27th state in 1845.

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