Suwannee River, Part 2 (birthday to the GULF!)

I haven’t been a fan of my birthday in many years, but 4 years ago I started the tradition of going camping from my boat and it’s given me something new to look forward to. The last 3 years I’ve really enjoyed camping on the St. Lawrence River on the NY/Canada border, but this year that wasn’t going to be a possibility. I decided to use the opportunity to do something I had dreamed of for a while, taking my YACHT all the way from my house to the Gulf of Mexico, and back! This year’s trip was just Sheck and I, plus a giant bag of Swedish Fish and a few PBR’s.

Sheck and I did a shake-down cruise in October last year, but since then my boat had been giving me a bit of trouble. In the week leading up to this trip I had discovered a large crack in the transom, filling the entire inner hull with water each time it was in use. Two days prior to departure I set about on the fiberglass repair, sanding and finishing it up the following day. Being a good boat owner I decided to change the lower unit oil prior to this big trip and was shocked to discover 1/3 of it was straight water with the remainder a light milky solution. I read up on possible causes and decided to change the drain plug washers (again) as well as the prop shaft seals (there are 3). Changing these seals is fairly straight forward I read, maybe on an engine that isn’t 28 years old! The actual seal replacement took me a couple of hours, but in the process of reinstalling the carrier I accidentally pulled out the prop shaft. The shaft is held into the gear assembly by two ball bearings with a spring in between them, forcing them out once installed. I could only find one reference as to re-assembly, and it required a special tool and complete disassembly of the lower unit to get it in. NONSENSE! With a little bit of grease for holding the balls and spring, a lot of finesse and one pair of magills forceps (surgical instrument for removing airway obstructions during intubation) I was able to apply just enough forward movement and linear squeezing of the ball/spring assembly to facilitate placement. Much to my surprise, it worked and the trip was back on.

I got a late start on July 28th, my 31st birthday. We launched from the TREPO launch on the Santa Fe River and headed upstream to one of my favorites, Sunbeam Spring. The rivers are very high right now and not a sign of the spring could be found, no boil and no water clarity change on the surface.

Heading downstream we went to the split and went up the Ichetucknee river all the way to the 27 bridge, the farthest point motor boats are allowed. Our timing was pretty good as it started to rain and we were able to seek shelter under the bridge. Foreshadowing for the trip to come…

I think the rain started at 1pm and didn’t let up until at least 8 or 9 at night. We made the most of it, stopping along the way at Turtle, Rock Bluff, Sun and Hart Springs. Unfortunately none of these are even remotely clear, still a way off from being diveable. We saw lots of birds and unfortunately quite a few half sunken boats. We found a great little spot to camp along the east side of the river near Manatee Springs. There are a few official camp sites on this stretch of river but if you’re covert and clean up after yourself, an endless supply of stealth camping spots. This year I brought my tent, a really good move given the rain. On our first day we covered approximately 60 miles.

We slept great and enjoyed the rain-less morning. We got back on the river around 10:30 and cruised onwards towards the Gulf. The section from Manatee to the Gulf is amazing, with just a few sections of clustered houses. The large majority of the river is still wild, protected by multiple expanses of National Wildlife Refuge land. We cruised for hours and didn’t see any homes or even other boaters. There are many side creeks feeding into the river, dip off into any and you’re almost guaranteed to have nothing but solitude for days.

Around noon we entered into Suwannee, the last spit of land before the ocean. I checked our fuel supply and noted we’d used about 1/2 of our 12 gallon tank, so we skipped a refuel and headed onward! Emerging from the marshes and into open water was a great feeling, so much so we continued for another 5-10 miles off shore before turning around. We got a few looks from the two large, multi-engine fishing boats we passed out there, but I don’t think they realized we’d just come from 75 miles away.

Water on the gulf was warm and pretty calm, I wish I’d had my scalloping gear! We turned back around and grabbed fuel in Suwannee before continuing back up the river. For the first 96 mile leg of the trip we used about 7.7 gallons, for a downstream fuel economy of 12.5mpg. This was with a 3 blade, 9×10.5 prop and an average speed around 16mph.

We made it upriver about 10 miles before it started pouring rain again. Soon after passing Manatee Springs we were flagged down to a nearby dock, where a family of 4 (grandma, mom and two little ones) were “stranded” in their canoe. Turned out the canoe was perfectly functional, but they had separated from their tour group and were too scared to cross the river in the rain. I made one trip with the grandma and oldest child and found their tour guide back at the launch. He paddled a kayak up to them (about 1/2 mile up river) but was unable to convince the mom/child to return with him. I briefly started back upriver thinking the guide would get them back, but I decided to turn around and make sure. I am glad I did, because the guide had left them and went back to the launch! I put mom and the youngest in my boat, tied Sheck’s leash to the canoe and took them back.

After our little rescue, Sheck and I continued upriver with plans to camp somewhere north of Hart Spring. The rain didn’t let up much and eventually I decided to see if I could make it back to the boat launch before dark. We motored onwards at around 9:30pm arrived back at the Trepo launch, having covered 115 miles that day and a total of 175 miles for the trip.

The trip was fun, it was something I’d wanted to do for a long time and definitely something I would love to do again. Next time I’d like a little larger boat, and some company.