St. Augustine Christmas Lights (night)

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Greg Bailey
Published Wednesday, January 04, 2006

St. Augustine is always a neat place to paddle sea kayaks.  It doesn't matter if it's sunny or cloudy, windy or calm, hot or cold.  There is always an interesting area in which to paddle, if enjoying the day on the water was your plan.    


  On this day the club had planned to launch late in the afternoon so as to see the sunset and witness the Christmas lights of St. Augustine's waterfront.  Franklin and I wanted to paddle a bit earlier, just for the exercise, so we met at noon at the Vilano Beach boat ramp.  The winds seemed a little stronger than forecasted, but then that was no surprise.  After finishing one of Larry's subs (these were giants, not Cynthia's), we eased our boats into the water just off the concrete ramp.  The water felt cold but the sun was shining and the air temperature was a balmy 74 degrees.  We headed north up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICWW) a few miles, then turned into one of the flooded marsh channels.  With the tide at peak high we could meander through places that normally you couldn't.   We had only a couple of hours before the group was to arrive so we moved back out into the ICWW so we would have enough time to paddle the inlet. 

  Arriving at the inlet it was obvious that the tide had now turned and was exiting the pass very quickly.  That ebbing tide was bumping against the incoming sea swells and creating lots of 4 foot seas, some occasionally breaking on the top.  It didn't take us but a couple of minutes and we had made it out past the last red buoy and to where most of the waves were breaking on the northern sandbar.  At that point Franklin, who was ahead of me a bit, turned around and began the exhillaring ride back.  I turned at the same time and we both smiled as we recognized the challenging conditions that we were soon to encounter.  Franklin's pace was quick as he attempted to surf down the incoming waves.  Some of them were moving too quickly, but more often than not he was able to hitch a ride.  The current was moving out fast and the sensation was quite impressive when a fast moving wave would first lift the stern of my boat and then drop it, as it moved out ahead of my pace.  I slowed my pace just enough to become almost mesmerized by the motion.  My boat felt very stable and the bracing was predictable, as long as I watched and listened for the occasional breaker or cross channel rouge wave.  We pulled up near the white sandy north shore as we slowly made our way back inside of the inlet, and after describing a few of the close calls, decided to head back to the put-in to meet the group.


  Back at the boat ramp, the group was busy unloading their gear and packing the essentials for the soon to be night paddling event.  Our club hasn't done a lot of night paddling, nor have I lately, so it was adding a little more excitement to the rush.  Franklin wasn't able to paddle any longer, since he had other obligations for later that evening, but the group of 13, Larry and Cynthia, Keith and Shirley, Deb, Karen, Richard, Jay, Dr. Bob, John and Gloria, Greg and me, hit the water at 4:30 PM.  There were so many launching power boats, that half of us launched from the floating dock.  The height was just about right, but could have been a little lower, with softer concrete.  Not long after clearing the boat channel and turning south, we noticed Paul coming our way, his sailing rig (beach umbrella) on a down wind reach.  As we made our way toward the city we cut behind the two low profile islands to avoid the shallows and having to paddle against the strongest of the outgoing tide.  It didn't take long before we were paddling next to the fort and noticed a great many tourists along the waterfront.  Paddling at an easy pace, between the many beautiful sailboats and the waterfront, it was quite relaxing and enjoyable, with just a little headwind in our faces.  We paddled past the temporary bridge being built next to the Bridge of the Lions, and decided to ease under the walking ramps to the city docks.  We passed under both ramps and emerged beside the Santa Maria restaurant, that famous spot where the patrons can feed the fish below from a slot next to their dinning table.  The fish were not present that day, maybe the water was too cool, or the bread too old.  It was now nearing 5:30 and we still have approximately 45 minutes or so before nightfall so we continued on past even more interesting yachts and the red, retired fireboat.  Having spotted a white shoreline across the waterway, we made a course correction to make our way over for a short break.  Finding a spot to get out wasn't hard, yet avoiding the sticky, ankle deep muck was proving difficult.  We tried several places until half of us decided to yuck it out and walk to higher ground.  The others made it further upstream and actually found a nice place to exit.  Nice and hard packed bottom, yet with no oyster beds.  Most of us had packed our lights away in dry hatches and now was the time to have a snack and rig the lights.  Red and green light sticks were the favorites, with Gloria and Shirley donning light rings of necklaces and bracelets to add a touch of the NASA space gear look.  FSKA meets ups with NASA to outfit the night stalking kayakers?

As the sun disappeared, with little fanfare nor color, our flotilla slowly began to assemble again, and began to drift back toward the city lights with the last of the outgoing tide.  Darkness hit quick, I suspect due to the cloud cover low in the western sky.  I sped ahead to move in front so we could travel in an organized fashion and soon we were passing some of the same sailboats again, this time many of them illuminated only by the city's glow.  Some had the required mast lights, but all were easily visible nonetheless, with just a few sporting a spooky, don't come hither look.  The city was awash in bright lights, with many of the large oaks in the square displaying their seasonal, multi-million white lights.  The buildings along the waterfront all were adorned in a similar fashion, but with more intensity to their lights.  We noticed that every single light was white, no green, blue nor gold.  Occasionally a few red ones were spotted, most probably taillights from the horse drawn carriages.  Several people took pictures in the night as we drifted slowly by the beautiful city, with the photo flashes blinding but only temporary, thank goodness.  Appearing almost magically out of the night, a single kayaker approached us just in front of the fort.  Was it to be one of the Spirits of the Old City?  Was it a scout for an offshore pirate ship?  Nope, it was only Dana, who had to come later but promised to find us along the route - and he did.  I suppose we were easy to see and hear, what with all the light gear, photo photography and animated conversations.  Dana was quick to explain that we had earlier missed the overhead passing of two satellites, somewhere near a star formation whose name totally escapes me at this time.  Once Dana merged into the group, we were again passing the now dimly lit fort, so we turned back east toward the ocean and practically total darkness.  A few channel markers were flashing intermittently but they were not really going to be helpful, since we were determined to stay away from the boating channel anyway.  I knew the two islands were to stay left of us and so we just continued with their silhouette barely visible at times.  As we were carried closer and closer to the inlet, one could hear and feel some of the incoming swells, some breaking off our starboard side on a shallow bar.  Nothing large near us though, but in the night your imagination was at work, since the not too distance waters were invisible.  A couple of times we bumped the sandy bottom and had a few small choppy waves to contend with, but each time we easily pushed away and continued.  After passing the last little island we turned north toward the Vilano Beach Bridge, hoping to find the little tidal island that sits parallel with the ICWW, just east of the boat ramp channel.  We had stopped at the island once back in the summer and practiced rescue drills and just enjoyed a bit of paradise.  Then we saw lots of sting rays in the shallow waters, along with many seabirds. 

  Tonight however, was to be a different story.  We finally found the island, thanks to John's theory of seeking the birds, but it had shrunk a little.  In fact it had lost most of itself, leaving only an area approximately 8 feet by 14 feet above the water's surface, at low tide!  And with the now incoming tide, soon we were drinking our hot cocoa and coffee with waves washing our feet!  Careful attention was made to watch the kayaks and paddles, since if anything drifted away in the dark, one could kiss it goodbye forever.   Soon it was time to depart, the water eager to wash over the islet anyway in another 15 minutes, so we re-boarded and began to look for our way back to the ramp.  Nearby was a very large houseboat that earlier had run aground at the channel entrance, temporarily blocking it, until a tug came by to pull it out of the way.  I noticed a jetty wall directly in front of us and put my headlamp on the Danger - Underwater Obstruction sign, confirming our location as being on target to enter the now more narrow channel.  We slowly glided toward the ramp, surprising a few nearby fishermen, who exhorted upon seeing us, “What the Hell is that?  Oh, it's kayakers.  It looks like kayakers”.  I guess it was the NASA gear that threw them off a little.

  A quick count of boats on the grass indicated that we were in fact missing someone.  Not to worry though, Cynthia had come in and exited her boat via the floating dock and was now patiently waiting for a helping hand to lift her boat from the water.  Help was quick to arrive and soon we were all packing our gear, having enjoyed another great time on the water, this time from a little different, darker perspective.


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