The morning in Mosquito Lagoon was warm with clear skies. We weren’t ready to leave this place, so we launched the dinghy, attached the outboard, and motored over to the beach. A short walk from the lagoon, up the boat ramp of the park, and across the parking lot took us to the beach. The tide was up, so there wasn’t much beach there. In the early morning sun, we walked a short distance out and back. We were impressed, but not by the stark beauty of the place or by the endless wonder of the waves rolling up onto the sand. What impressed us most was the line of plastic trash at the tide line. We’re not used to this, and probably don’t see it because there are so very few unattended beaches along the Atlantic coast. With no one to rake the beach, it is littered with the detritus of our advanced civilization. Most consistent were tops of plastic bottles. Most were from drinking water bottles. I counted two plastic tooth brushes in a short distance. There were plastic fragments of other unidentifiable things.
|Looking over the dunes, Canaveral National Seashore|
Suitably chastened by the vision into this particular hell of manmade origin, we returned to Luna, lifted the outboard engine onto its bracket on the stern rail, and retraced our path back to the Waterway. We headed south past the Kennedy Space Center and, with a half-hour to spare, reached Titusville and the causeway bridge, which will not open during rush hour between 3:30 and 5 p.m. From here we motored to Cocoa and anchored right off the channel south of town. Still in evidence here, as there have been all along since Fernandina Beach, are the hulls of sailboats broken free of their moorings and washed up on the shore by the recent hurricanes. These unfortunate ladies advise caution to all casual mariners who would think to challenge the strength of the storms.
Nearing Stuart, where we plan to spend a few days, we stop in Vero Beach. Vero is a popular destination for cruisers, and the municipal mooring field is nearly always full of boats. They never turn anyone away, so when the last mooring is taken, new boats raft up with boats already moored there. This lack of privacy doesn’t appeal to us, so we prepared to pass the harbor when I looked over and saw an empty mooring ball, the one closest to the Waterway. I called the office and asked if we could take it, and they said, “Sure.” So we moored in Vero for the night, though the dock master made it clear that we would likely have to raft up when other boats showed up the next day.
Vero has it all, and the cruising world calls it Velcro Beach because, once there, sailors may find it difficult to leave. The beach is an easy walk away. There are parks, dog parks, restaurants, art galleries and an art museum, a free shuttle bus to the larger stores outside of town. There’s a friendly happy hour gathering at the municipal marina at 5 p.m. We didn’t see any of that, however. A week of windy, rainy weather is forecast to start tomorrow afternoon, and we’d like to be in Stuart by then. So we had showers in the marina, took the dinghy over to the nearby Riverside Cafe for happy hour, and left early the next morning.
Expecting windy and choppy conditions on the Waterway, we hoisted the dinghy back up onto the foredeck and lashed it down. The northeast wind built as we motored south, and before too long, we unfurled the genoa and turned off the engine, making 5 to 6 kts by sail alone. There were waves on the Indian River, through which we were sailing, but they were not nearly as high as what had followed us on the Chesapeake, on the Pamlico Sound, or on the Atlantic Ocean off Charleston. We had a really pleasant run down to the St. Lucie Inlet, where we turned to windward up the St. Lucie River and finally furled the sail. From there, we motored the final few miles upriver to the mooring field at Sunset Bay Marina.
The St. Lucie River is remarkable. A short stretch of water that drains the counties east of Lake Okeechobee (and the lake itself, it turns out) to the Indian River and the ocean beyond, its color is unique and nearly beyond description. In Luna’s wake and in the bucket we hoisted up, the water is a sickly shade of brownish-gray. Not the clear tea-brown tannin color of the Alligator River, nor the sediment-rich chocolate color of parts of Lake Champlain after a rainstorm, the St. Lucie simply looks dead.
|The St. Lucie River is brown in the outboard's wake|
Now I’m no stranger to toxic rivers. I was in Cleveland when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. Of course, that was Ohio, and the river is cleaner now. The area known as the Flats in Cleveland, through which it flows, has become a tourist attraction with restaurants, a brewery, and a river walk. But this is Florida, where in the nexus of politics, business interests, and the environment, greed and power prevail, usually at the earth’s expense.
The South Florida Water Management District, which maintains authority over the health of the river, noted that:
The St. Lucie River and Estuary is an ecological jewel on Florida's Treasure Coast that is integral to the environmental and economic well-being of Martin and St. Lucie counties. The St. Lucie is part of the larger Indian River Lagoon system, the most diverse estuarine environment in North America with more than 4,000 plant and animal species, including manatees, oysters, dolphins, sea turtles and seahorses.
This sounds good so far. But the environmental group, Rivers Coalition, fills in the background with more detail in a 2007 report. You can read the entire astonishing story of the death of the St. Lucie River here: riverscoalition.org/reports-info/st-lucie-rivers-decline.
According to this report, the modern history of the St. Lucie River began in 1898, when a group of local businessmen, seeking a more direct route to the sea, created the St. Lucie Inlet. This cut in the shoreline allowed salt water to enter the brackish Indian River Lagoon and mix with the fresh water of the lower St. Lucie River. This infusion of salt water extended the estuary and created a rich marine environment in the river, which became densely populated with sea grasses, oysters, clams, and numerous salt water fish. Four U.S. Presidents, starting with Grover Cleveland, fished in the lower St. Lucie River and outside the St. Lucie Inlet.
In 1925, the state of Florida dug the infamous C-44, a canal connecting Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River. This single event marked the beginning of the end of this “ecological jewel.” The canal was deepened after World War II and was followed by canals C-23 and C-24 to drain the marshlands of St. Lucie and Martin counties and permit agricultural and residential development.
As chemical-dependent modern agriculture spread and the pace of urban development quickened, the canals allowed the rapid discharge of pollutants and fresh water from Lake Okeechobee. The local fishery, the sea grass, clams, and oysters disappeared, and, in their place, algae grew in the turbid, nutrient-rich water. In 1950, a coalition of businessmen formed the River League to combat the damage.
When the Cuyahoga burned — and 1969 wasn’t the first time — Time Magazine covered the story, Randy Newman wrote a song, and the attention of the nation focused on the health of its rivers. The EPA was created in 1972 in response to the disaster, and the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts followed. Many new regulations and agencies, both state and federal, indicated a strong government response to the problem of water pollution. Over the ensuing years, more than 21 different government agencies have overseen the deteriorating conditions in the St. Lucie River. Yet, the water quality continued to decline through the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Between 2003 and 2007, the prevalence of cancerous lesions in bottle-nosed dolphins in the lower Indian River increased from 3% to 42%. Apparently, the dolphins have gotten the message. The commander and I have seen dolphins nearly every day along the Waterway, as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. But approaching the St. Lucie, we saw no dolphins whatsoever. Perhaps there are no fish for them to eat.
In 2009, a coalition of environmental groups successfully sued the EPA, challenging the decades-long delay by state and local governments to limit pollution in the St. Lucie. The EPA agreed to limit sewage, pesticide, and fertilizer discharges into the river, but in 2013, even as a massive outbreak of blue-green algae covered the river, the EPA returned to court to attempt to loosen the restrictions.
Agricultural interests depend on Lake Okeechobee for irrigation during dry times, so they lobby to maintain high water levels there. The Water Management District has built a series of catchment basins built to contain runoff when the lake level gets too high. These would direct the water slowly into the Everglades away from the river, but they are inadequate to contain the water during periods of heavy rains. And so 62 billion gallons of toxic water continue to flow annually into the St. Lucie river. Yet industrial farmers continue to demand through their lobbyists and their political allies at the local, state, and federal levels that the high water levels in Lake Okeechobee be maintained. At this point, I should point out that Lake Okeechobee is sugar cane country. Sugar is the crop for which the health of the estuary is sacrificed. The United States Sugar Corporation abetted by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the South Florida Water Management District have been the ones fighting to maintain this unhealthy situation.
To me, as we sit on Luna moored in the dead river, the foregoing is a cautionary tale. The Clean Water Act and the EPA have not had the power to solve this problem. The EPA’s 2013 effort to loosen restrictions on the pollution of the river occurred during the administration of a liberal, environmentally conscious president. Florida’s politicians may be easily corrupted, but apparently even on the federal level there is not the will to change. Imagine what will happen under the rule of a political party committed to weakening or dismantling environmental protections.
|View of the Sunset from the mooring at Sunset Bay Marina|
Beyond its doorstep darkened by the polluted river, Stuart is a pretty nice place to be. It’s one of those Florida coastal towns that line up along the Federal Highway (U.S. Route 1) like beads on a string. And in common with some of the other small towns like Fernandina Beach and New Smyrna Beach, Stuart is bisected by the railroad which goes right through the town. The freight trains seem to travel mainly at night. And out on Luna, it’s not the lonesome whistle of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers we hear calling at 3 a.m. It’s the blare of the diesel airhorns, Mroooot, Mroooot, Mroot, Mroooooot, that comes as the train passes the empty crossings.
Cross the tracks, and there is a cute little downtown with restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. It’s all within walking distance of the marina. We can walk a little further to a bakery with decent bread and delicious croissants. There is a decent Taco Shack, where we had lunch with our boat neighbors, who had sailed down from their home a little north of here. The supermarket is also within walking distance.
|The Commander and Mike at Ground Floor Farm|
While walking about, we discovered an urban farm and café, the Ground Floor Farm. Here they grow vegetables in individual pots and raised beds on about an acre of land behind the building, which serves as a farmstead and café. We spent some time talking with Mike, one of the young farmers whose enthusiasm for the project is infectious. They are experimenting with different growing methods. They use closely spaced individual pots (plastic bags of soil and compost) because the Florida soil is mostly sand there, and because nematodes in the soil would destroy the plants. Their chemical-free method uses far less water than a conventional garden would use. We had lunch in the café, organic food grown there or locally sourced. We bought a loaf of their excellent sourdough bread, a bag of fresh salad greens, a few very tasty heirloom tomatoes, and a jar of their incredible chipotle dill pickles.
Theirs is a soul-restoring operation that provides us a much needed counterpoint to the seemingly hopeless situation out on the river. Yet even on the river, there are groups working to clean up and raise awareness of environmental issues. Beyond the touristy downtown, there is a community of people here that I believe we would be happy to get to know.
A couple miles from the marina is Enterprise, and we walked out to rent a car. Enterprise would pick us up, but we felt we needed the exercise. The car allowed us to get some stuff at West Marine and the hardware store. Back on Luna, I replaced the float switch on the bilge pump that turns it on automatically if the water level rises in the bilge. This was clearly not operational when the heat exchanger sprang a leak back in the Georgia sea islands. I also replaced the hoses on the hot water tank so when we use the engine we will have hot water.
Later, we also took our spare propane tank to be refilled at the local Ferrelgas Company, and we drove out to Staples to exchange the CO2 cylinder in the Sodastream we brought with us to make seltzer on the boat.
The rental car allowed us to do some sightseeing, so we drove north a few miles to Jensen Beach to walk in the sand and sit by the surf for a while. Just to the west, across the Intracoastal Waterway, is Conchy Joe’s, a seafood restaurant on the river. On their covered deck overlooking the water (and trying to overlook the other patrons who were feeding the seagulls out the open window), we had a plate of oysters. The commander had a bowl of clam chowder, and I, anticipating the next leg of Luna’s travels to the Bahamas, had an excellent bowl of conch chowder and a Kalik. The food and atmosphere here were good, and we’ll come back, I’m sure.
|Even with the solar panel, we run the generator in the mornings.|
There are a few loose ends to address on our final day or two here. I need to get below the V-berth in the bow to reconnect the Y-valve and macerator pump to the holding tank. This allows us to pump its contents overboard once out in the ocean and in the Bahamas where pump out facilities are scarce. Near the holding tank is the transducer for the depth finder, which I will inspect and clean. The Commander needs to wash the sheets and a few other things.
Looking back on this leg of the journey, we’ve covered about 1,200 miles and have spent more than two months living aboard Luna. The voyage has been different than last time. There was the nearly constant anxiety about storms at the beginning. The Waterway has been almost empty of other travelers, and we’ve missed the camaraderie of our last trip when we had friends who were making the trip at the same time. Storms have left the Waterway shallow in places, and we’ve taken extra care and paid close attention to the tides to avoid running aground. And the economy has improved since we travelled this course four years ago, but quite unevenly so. Larger and larger houses now mark (we would say, “mar”) parts of the waterway.
On the other hand, traveling alone and not needing to keep up with companions in faster boats, we’ve been able to sail much more than we did before. And we’ve travelled with much more confidence than on our last trip four years ago. The confidence has paid off. By this time on the last cruise, we’d called TowBoatU.S. twice for help. So far this year, we haven’t had to call for help once.
|Authentic Jamaican food in Stuart|
|Stuart was the Sailfish Capital in the better days of the local fishing industry|