Imagine the portion of the St. John’s River – between the ICW crossroads at Sister’s Creek/Pablo Creek and the intersection of the Ortega River southwest of the City of Jacksonville – as shaped like a hockey stick. Imagine the handle oriented mainly east/west and the paddle turned
south. Imagine Jacksonville city located at the transition from the handle and the paddle. This 24-mile stretch of the St. John’s River offers an eclectic mix of vistas which include expansive bridges and overhead power lines, a coal-fired electric generating station that has cooling towers resembling those of a nuclear power plant, large scale military and civilian shipping/seaport infrastructure, large southern mansions, residential neighborhoods with docks lining the shoreline, and undeveloped marshlands. Quite a mix.
Between the ICW crossroads and the City of Jacksonville, virtually all of the commercial seaport infrastructure is on the “north” shoreline. This includes cargo terminals and fuel terminals with docks that extend well into the river. By contrast, the “south” shore has very little large-scale commercial development. Jacksonville city itself occupies both sides of the river. Beyond Jacksonville city, the river turns south, widens and shallows.
The current in the St. John’s can run to 3 knots at ebb, which can be of significant help or hindrance to slow and/or low-power vessels. Navigation of the river can be very easy. Along commercial channels, Sanctuary and crew prefer to operate just outside the shipping channel lateral markers. On the St. John’s, we chose to run the “south” shoreline. That keeps us well away from the various security zones along the commercial “north” shore. However, on the south side, we did encounter numerous crab pots, some in as much as 40’ – 50’ of water.
Concentration and situational awareness are essential on the St. John’s. Vessels encountered on the river will include open rowboats, kayaks and canoes, all variety of pleasure craft, large and small cruise liners, very large tows, research, military and commercial cargo vessels. The large Crowley barge tows accommodate 3 levels of tractor-trailer and RR freight car-sized vehicles. These very large barges are managed by multiple towboats, with one tug pulling the barge, via cable, and one or more tugs handling the stern swing of the barge. Via AIS, they appear as a tight cluster of slow-moving vessels, but they definitely occupy a lot of river.
As might be imagined, there are many law enforcement swift boats from several agencies, including US navy and USCG patrol boats, Customs & Border Protection, Immigration and a plethora of state and local authorities.
On the north shore of the St. John’s, approximately 7 miles east of downtown, is Trout Creek. This creek offers anchorage and marina options to cruising boats. Just east of downtown, there is a public marina with floating docks, power and water. Dockage is free; power is $8.50/day. The stay limit is 72 hours.
Downtown at Jacksonville Landing, cruisers can tie up to a free wall. This location is a no-wake zone. There are no services, but it’s fine for the self-sufficient cruiser. Local attractions at the location include Chicago Pizza, Hooters and a variety of local eateries.
Just to the west of Jacksonville Landing is the Florida East Coast (FEC) railroad bridge. This bascule bridge is normally open except when a train is approaching. Virtually everyone will need this bridge to be open. There is a lighted sign that tells boaters the approximate wait time. If that time is long, tie up at Jacksonville Landing and “stretch your legs.”
Proceeding southwest through the FEC RR bridge, the St. John’s turns south and the character of the river changes. It’s just a short 2 – 3 mile run to the Ortega River. The Ortega River is reached by turning to the southwest (260°) at approximate position 30°17.35’ N, 081°40.6′ W. There are no obvious landmarks except for a large, square building on the western shoreline. The Ortega is marked red-right-returning, and boats coming from the St. Johns are “returning.” Honor the markers.
The Ortega River boat channel carries 10’ – 12’ and is well marked. There is a road bridge (Ortega River Bridge) that most boaters will need opened. Depending upon final destination, there is a CSX/Amtrak railroad bridge that boaters may need opened. The road bridge is not restricted. The RR bridge is normally opened except when a train is approaching. The RR bridge is an old single-track bridge that carries the classic Amtrak east coast passenger services, like the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Auto-train. The RR bridge periodically experiences operational problems. Plan accordingly.
There are several large marina and boatyard operations along the Ortega River. Note particularly Lamb’s Yacht Center, which has a 100-ton boat lift and a large, well stocked onsite chandlery. Lamb’s allows liveaboards, and the folks there – staff and residents – are very friendly and helpful.
I would suggest that this area is not truly a “destination” in itself, but if planning to have work done or needing to take cover from nasty weather, it is a good, safe, secure refuge. There is a full-scale shopping center within walking distance. The shopping center boasts a Publix, CVS, UPS Store, West Marine, Belks, and several restaurants. The “Metro restaurant” is especially good for breakfast. “Tom and Betty’s” is great for home cooking at reasonable prices. There is a large marine consignment operation (“Sailor’s Exchange;” http://www.sailors-exchange.com/) and a large “used book” store operation (“Chamblin’s Book Mine;” http://www.chamblinbookmine.com/default.aspx) in that immediate neighborhood. Bus service is available to downtown Jacksonville. US Rt. 17 is less than 5 minutes from the Ortega River marinas.