Cruise to Fernandina Pirates, thieves, revolutionaries, shrimpers, and now lots of cruising sailors! By Fred Braman Fernandina Harbor Municipal Marina with Bretts Waterway Cafe in the background. Fernandina Harbor is one of the great city marinas in Florida, and its greatest draw is its close proximity to a fun little town.
ernandina Beach, FL, has seen it all during its 400-plus years of history! Frequently a center for nefarious activity, residents of this small town on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) on the northeast tip of Florida no longer harbor marauding pirates, evade Union blockades, smuggle rum in from the Bahamas, or load plantation sea island cotton at busy wharves. In later times, the colorful shrimping industry dominated Fernandina’s economy and retains a presence today. Regardless of changes over the years, the town has maintained the swashbuckling spirit of bygone eras. The mid19th century customs house is still operating, except now it’s a restaurant, as the focus of the community has shifted toward tourists, including cruising sailors. Fernandina is one of my favorite destinations, and this October 2013 visit was my third of this year. It was my first stop on a three week mini-cruise that started in Jacksonville, FL, and would also include Cumberland Island and the town of St. Marys, both just across the Florida-Georgia border, a few miles north. Boasting that the area has existed under eight national flags, one tourist brochure describes its history as an island where “the French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named, and the Americans tamed.” As a testimonial to this varied national character, Fernandina
Beach was named after King Ferdinand IV of Spain and is on the northern tip of Amelia Island, named for the daughter of Britain’s King George II. Its current charm lies with railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s decision to bypass Fernandina in the construction of his Florida East Coast Railroad. The new railroad pushed Florida tourism south, creating tourist megacenters like St. Augustine, West Palm Beach, Miami and the Florida Keys. Economically devastating at the time, the bypass did preserve Fernandina’s 1800s-era buildings that almost certainly would have been replaced during a Flagler boom that didn’t happen. Today, the entire 50-block downtown area of Victorian buildings and houses is cited by the National Register of Historic Places, and makes an invaluable contribution to Fernandina’s special allure and ambiance. Getting to Fernandina Beach Fernandina Beach can be reached by boat from the north via the AICW through Cumberland Sound or the St. Marys River entrance, and from the south via the AICW and the St. Johns River. My 40-mile trip from downtown Jacksonville was unusually swift as my Catalina 30, Rhombus, enjoyed a favorable current almost all the way. Most sailboats leave downtown Jacksonville on an ebb tide to avoid bucking a strong St. Johns River current. That works for about half the way to Fernandina. Once you turn north into the AICW at Sisters Creek, favorable and unfavorable tidal currents usually alternate as you pass the several openings to the Atlantic Ocean encountered along the way. If you are lucky and your timing is perfect, you can get a favorable ebb all the way down the St. Johns River, then a favorable flood up Sisters Creek and
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