Cruising the First Coast

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It’s called the First Coast for two reasons:
It was the  first to be discovered — by French and Spanish explorers a hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock — and it is the first you come to as you enter Florida on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. By either definition, it is, indeed, a wonderful introduction to Florida waters — waters that offer a delightful blend of history, contemporary charm, varied cruising grounds and equally varied opportunities for activity ashore. In this respect, the First Coast is much like the rest of Florida. And yet, you'll also discover that each of our “Coasts” is special and offers more than a few delights you'll find nowhere else. The First Coast presents uncrowded cruising, anchoring and gunkholing, fishing and touristing with beaching opportunities everywhere — all served by excellent facilities.

The Georgia-Florida line runs through the middle of St. Mary's entrance near ICW Mile 712, with Georgia's Cumberland Island on the north and Florida's Amelia Island on the south. From there for a considerable way southward, this stretch of the Waterway is mostly natural, and runs through the chain of rivers, creeks and sloughs that separate the mainland from the barrier islands. Anchorages, fishing spots, and nature-watching opportunities abound. So do shoals.

But be aware of the area's wide tidal range — seven to ten feet (which is extreme by Florida standards) — and the strong currents that result. Use of a tide table is absolutely essential for everything from calculating bridge clearances to selecting an anchorage that won't be a mud flat in the morning.

Also be aware that a few portions of the rivers, creeks and sloughs that comprise this stretch of waterway are not naturally deep enough to accommodate boat traffic and only repeated dredging makes them navigable. Since Mother Nature is always trying to restore her order, dredged channels have a habit of shoaling in again, which eventually calls for the placement of  temporary buoys to mark the best water. Obviously, these buoys cannot be charted, nor be counted upon to be in the same place on subsequent trips. Keep your eyes open. Shoaling has been reported in the vicinity of Fernandina Beach Lights 1 and 3 and extensive shoaling has been reported in the vicinity of South Amelia River Daybeacon #34.

We will always try to warn you of such places. Not so you can avoid them, but rather so you will be sure to be extra vigilant. In truth, transiting any of these areas shouldn't be a problem as long as you pay attention. The skippers of deeper draft vessels can hedge their bets by going through on a rising tide. But in every case, the “extra” attention required to safely navigate these shoal areas will be rewarded by the delights you'll encounter once you have them behind you.

Fort Clinch, a pre-Civil War fort now part of Fort Clinch State Park still guards Amelia Island. To its south lies the beautiful old town of Fernandina Beach, which has lived under more flags than any other place in the country — a total of eight: France, Spain, England, Mexico, the Republics of Georgia and Florida, the Confederate States and the United States.

Originally important as both a seaport and a railhead (it was the eastern terminus of Florida's first cross-state railroad, which had Cedar Key at its western end), and one of the first destinations in Florida to be enjoyed by snowbirds, who built wonderful Victorian houses there.

The whole town has been restored, and is full of stores and shops. Architecture also spans everything from Florida's oldest surviving hotel (The Florida House — Inn & Restaurant on 3rd Street) to restored Victorian homes to ultramodern condominiums.

For boatmen newly arriving in Florida, Fernandina Beach is a perfect first destination, a town that effectively says — and means — “Welcome to Florida.” The town is charming, absolutely a delight to visit. A walk along Center Street might include window shopping and trying one of several restaurants for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Tiger Point Marina is at the north end of the island and its only natural deep-water marina. Right downtown in Fernandina Beach is popular Fernandina Harbor Marina, with dockage, gas and diesel and a waterfront restaurant. (Continue...)

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