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Voyaging

Cruising the St. Johns River

Still Waters

Among Alligators and the Ghosts of Mad Men on the Mighty St. Johns.

The Betty Jane pushes up the St. Johns to ports unknown, at least to a lifetime Yankee like me.

Late last summer an email from Editor-in-Chief Richard Thiel pinged into my inbox—“I have something up my sleeve for you”—it read. The editors here were in the midst of planning our trips for the magazine’s annual cruise issue, and my mind began to race. Would I be going to Belize? The Med? Maybe even the South Pacific?

Jump cut, if you will, to Thiel’s office the following day. “How’d you like to cruise the St. Johns River with [Senior Editor] Bill Pike? It runs from Jacksonville into northern central Florida,” Thiel offered, leaning back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head.

“Sounds great,” I said. “The hell is the St. Johns River?” I thought.

A few minutes later I was Googling the river and quickly surmised that not only did it (somewhat mind-bogglingly) occasionally run both north and south, but it was allegedly teeming with alligators. “Nice,” I thought to myself. “I’m definitely going to get eaten.”

After a bumpy flight into Jacksonville, Bill picked me up, and we drove to the Ortega Landing Marina on the Ortega River, also in Jacksonville, where I laid eyes on a vessel I had read much about but never seen, Bill’s beloved trawler, the Betty Jane. At 32 feet, she is, for lack of a better description, a happy little boat—with gleaming brightwork and a sheerline that suggests she is smiling. From some angles, she almost looks like a Disney cartoon version of a boat—which is fitting, because Bill himself, with a bushy beard, ever-present eyeglasses, and a folksy voice drenched in an accent of inscrutable origin, smacks of a Disney character himself. Wise and kind, he brings to mind Geppetto, the unassuming woodworker who, through skill and care and little bit of luck, managed to bring an inanimate object to life.

Bill contemplates a less-than-sunny morning over a hot cup of joe.

On the dock at Ortega, there were pressing matters at hand—namely a tropical storm that lurked on the horizon like somebody’s bad dream. Bill wanted to see if we could press upstream and maybe get ahead of it, so after a little provisioning and a quick wipe-down of the boat, we pushed off into the Ortega River around 3 p.m. and chugged towards the nearby Ortega River Bridge, the entrance to the mighty St. Johns.

Bill had been fiddling doggedly with his VHF, determined to get a bead on what the storm might do. As we neared the bridge, it creaked slowly upward, the traffic on the road came to a halt, Bill made some chitchat with the bridge operator, and—boom—there we were, in the wide open gape of the St. Johns. I chuckled remembering something Bill had said moments earlier, “Kevin, we are about to venture up the St. Johns River, amongst the ghosts of mad men and psychopaths.” I was not sure what he had meant.

We made it about 200 yards before it started to rain.

Bill pulled back on the throttle. “Well,” he said, his palms up, feeling for drizzle. “This doesn’t look particularly promising, Kevin.” Our adventure was officially hamstrung. He spun the boat around and hopped back onto the VHF. “Ortega River Bridge, this is the Betty Jane,” he said, a tad sheepishly, “you’re going to think I’m insane, but would you mind if we made another pass through your bridge?” The bridge operator was still so close I could see him with my naked eye.

“No, not at all,” a voice came crackling back, “that’s something any sane person would do. You’re not a lunatic at all, are ya?” A pause. “Ask my wife,” replied Bill. And back to the marina we went.

It stormed all night, and though the morning broke dry, the sky remained a pallid gray. Undaunted, we shoved off again, back down the Ortega, past the bridge, and again into the mouth of the St. Johns. This time the skies held, and a lone dolphin frolicked off of our bow—always a welcome sign at the start of a journey.

I get prepared to dock in Palatka.

We motored steadily upriver—which means south—at about six knots, with our course set for the small town of Palatka, about 50 miles away. Twenty miles in however, a downpour commenced. So much for the “Sunshine” State. Bill and I simply shouldered our rain gear and stayed on the bridge throughout the day’s damp undertakings. (Well, Bill did anyway. I got some reading done down in the saloon.)

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This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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