It was the ultimate “Florida Man” challenge – are five cases of beer enough for three-and-a-half days of floating along Florida’s wild and scenic St. Johns River on a houseboat?
Two good friends and I, and my wife, Linda, attempted to answer that age-old question.
Other than my apprehensive non-beer-drinking wife, my shipmates were Amelia Island pals Pajama Dave Voorhees and Fran Kane.
Let Me Introduce You to the Ultimate “Florida Man”
In addition to the fact that he’s hail-fellow-well-met and hilariously funny, I wanted Pajama dave along for his skills as a licensed boat captain and because he is renowned in northeast Florida for his incredible knowledge of Florida wildlife and vegetation.
This bearded and pony-tailed eccentric is so named Pajama dave because he wears pajamas all day.
He’s also a respected captain and narrator for the popular Amelia Island River Cruises and owner of the local Fernandina Beach watering hole, PJD’s Beer & Wine Garden.
Fran, despite not being a licensed captain, also has experience driving large vehicles that float. I do not.
The four of us left Fernandina Beach, just north of Jacksonville, and drove 150 miles southwest to Deland, about 25 miles west of Daytona Beach, where we checked in and boarded the Holly Bluff Marina’s 63-foot houseboat, Lady St. John.
As we were unpacking our gear and icing down the beer, we were greeted by personable deckhand, Tim, who briefed us on how to operate the boat.
Um, Do I Need a License to Drive this Thing?
I was surprised to learn that none of us had to show any proof that we were capable of piloting this very expensive hulk. Since certification and prior experience aren’t required, it’s really important to pay attention to Tim, particularly if you aren’t traveling with your own captain and forgot to pay your insurance premiums.
Tim offered suggestions for situations we might encounter once underway. The ones I found most interesting were: never cross in front of a barge, because barges can’t stop because they have no brakes, and avoid the east side of Lake George because it is an Air Force bombing range.
Tim also provided a booklet detailing all of this and more, including a note saying that feeding alligators is illegal and can be dangerous as they are unable to distinguish a human hand from an anchovy.
Tim said the most difficult houseboat renters he encounters are people who own sailboats because they have no concept of reverse.
He recalled that one of the best novice crews he’s ever experienced was a group of young girls celebrating a bachelorette party. “Those girls picked up all the details quickly while a group of sailors who left at the same time thought they already knew it all and had to be towed back in,” he related.
Livin’ Large in a Penthouse Suite that Floats
If the Lady St. John, which Holly Bluff owners Judy and Rick Armstrong recently purchased from a private owner, was located on land, it would be the size of a penthouse suite at the Ritz Carlton. It contains two roomy private bedrooms, one with a king size bed and the other with twin beds. Both have their own bathrooms complete with toilets, showers and sinks. There is also ample closet space, and a chest of drawers in each.
There is a complete kitchen, with a large refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, oven, and generous cupboard space. A dining area and bar are in the living room that also boasts a couple of arm chairs and a fold out sofa-bed that will sleep an additional two folks.
And, yes, there was a big TV, which we never turned on for two reasons: 1- we couldn’t figure out how and; 2- we were busy drinking beer and didn’t care. Linda, however, made good use of the radio-CD player combination which had speakers on the top and lower decks and inside.
The boat can be piloted from the enclosed living area as well as the top deck which contains another bar, chairs, and chaise lounges. Bath towels, linens, dishes, pots and pans, cork screws, and silverware are all supplied. A propane grill is located on the front deck that also hosts a table and four chairs.
A gas powered generator powers the air conditioning system, stove, refrigerator and other such appliances.
This thing had all the amenities of a large yacht or a small modern house, with front and back porches.
It was suggested we bring certain items and here’s what worked for us.
And lots of ice to keep it cold. We also brought some food.
As we departed Holly Bluff onboard the Lady St. John we left behind a cacophonous, distracting world of dings, beeps, whirrs, and compulsive cell phone checking for a getaway free of tension, chatter, and apprehension that didn’t involve a pursuit that could be described as busy, controlling, active, impatient or stressed….
…just the opposite. I brought a few magazines and books.
Did I mention that we also brought along some beer?
Me Tarzan, You Jane
Since the maximum speed for our floating hulk was about 10 knots, we leisurely putted along, impressed with the dense attractive foliage on both banks of the river. We had been told that several Tarzan movies had been filmed along our route and we could easily understand why. We could have been on the Amazon or a remote African river based on the jungle-like scenery, exotic birds, peculiar noises coming from the river banks, and lack of populace.
Florida is the country’s third most populous state, but that wasn’t evident as we floated along this isolated river, inhabited only by fish, reptiles, birds and invisible creatures screeching from the interior of the dense jungle-like forest.
Birds performed some of the most impressive animal activity we witnessed, particularly the Osprey and Kingfisher, both excellent fishers.
We watched as huge Osprey plunged feet first into the water near our boat and caught fish with their claws. After they deposit their catch in one of the many huge nests they’ve built along the river, they return to skim just above the river with their feet in the water to clean their talons before going in for another catch.
After spearing their fish, the Ospreys will drop it, then catch it again so the fish’s head faces the direction they are flying, making its flight aerodynamically easier. Our experienced Captain PJ Dave said he has seen eagles swoop in and grab the Osprey’s catch.
The Kingfishers were abundant and it was interesting watching them hover over an area and when they spotted a fish, dive into the water to grab it.
What I initially thought was a snake, was actually a bird called an Anhinga.
This odd bird has no oil glands so its feathers are not waterproof, a factor that enables it to dive and chase fish underwater and spear them with its pointed beak. When it was swimming toward us, its head was sticking out of the water resembling a snake thus giving it the nickname snakebird.
There were also an abundance of egrets, ibis, cormorants, eagles and heron.
The first night we tied up to a couple of large cypress trees just before entering Lake Dexter and enjoyed beer, grilled steaks, beer, sweet potatoes and salad, followed by a refreshing cold beer.
Linda by then had figured out how to work the boat’s CD player and we were subjected to her eclectic playlist that included an English girl named Adele and a Texan, Jerry Jeff Walker.
The next morning we headed toward Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida after Lake Okeechobee. This is the lake where the Jacksonville Naval Air Station has a practice bombing area. If that isn’t enough to scare off boaters, a note in our Houseboat Handbook says the planes have been known to “buzz boaters” that stray into the range.
We also had to maneuver under two bridges that weren’t tall enough for the Lady St. John to pass and used the marine radio to call the bridge tenders to raise the draw bridges.
The second day was as relaxing as the first and we witnessed numerous alligators and large turtles laying on both banks and logs, and could hear the gators bellowing from the undergrowth.
Who are You Calling a Sea Cow?
The river is also home to numerous manatees, but we didn’t spot any. And I didn’t care. Manatees, known as “Sea Cows,” are big and ugly and perform only two functions that I am aware of — eating and farting.
If you do see one, the handbook says don’t run over them and don’t give them water.
I don’t know why you aren’t supposed to give them water but just don’t do it, OK?
If these creatures live in water and beg for water, they obviously aren’t the sharpest knives in the animal kingdom drawer.
In the early evenings, the dense jungle-like growth, gentle breezes, sounds of mullet jumping, and bird calls were calming and soothing.
Is that the Swamp Ape? Or Hilary Clinton?
However, during our last evening, we heard startling primordial screeching, bellowing, crashing and thrashing sounds coming from the thick foliage that can only be described as similar to what could be expected if the lights were flipped on and Harvey Weinstein and Stormy Daniels found themselves alone together in the same hotel room– or Hillary Clinton on election night.
The clamor was loud enough to drown out Adele and Jerry Jeff and it was the only time we locked the boat’s sliding glass doors.
Rumors are that large colonies of monkeys live in this densely wooded area that’s dripping with vines. There have also been reported sightings here of Florida’s Sasquatch-like creature, Swamp Ape.
We didn’t see any monkeys. Swamp Ape or Hillary.
The areas of the river we navigated mostly contain what is called “Black Water” but is closer to dark brown, a condition caused by tannins from decayed plants that fall into it. It’s not something you’d want to jump into due to its tea-like color — but also because there are things in it with sharp teeth and fangs.
As we putted back to Holly Bluff, we passed clear natural spring areas and watched kayak paddlers, snorkelers, swimmers, fishermen and other boaters. There were swimming areas along the shore and another on a small island that featured rope swings and clear spring water.
Holly Bluff encourages patrons to bring kayaks for the houseboats large enough to accommodate them, thus enabling boaters to enter spots too shallow or narrow for a houseboat.
Holly Bluff Marina houseboat rentals are available from $825 to $3,300 depending on the size of the boat and the season.