“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Admiral Grace Hopper
Carol writes: Three years ago we spent a month near Jacksonville at Naval Station Mayport while we waited for our Pleasure-Way RV to arrive from Europe on a vehicle transport ship. After we were reunited with our RV, we spent several days back in January 2014 camped at Pelican Roost RV Park along Mayport’s ship channel to the Atlantic Ocean. This time, we coveted a front row spot for a premium view of all the civilian and military ship traffic… and that made all the difference.
Warm breezes and sunny skies were the norm for our entire two-week stay, although when we arrived it was a bit cold and very windy, so a double red flag warning was posted at the beach. After the cold air moved out, lazy strolls along the beach provided incredible photographic opportunities.
Day and night, we observed an endless variety of civilian and military ship traffic up and down the canal. On arrival, Navy ships entered a barrier-controlled harbor to the left, and civilian ships went right. Container ships, like this one,
stretched my imagination for how they managed to stay afloat during ocean voyages that at times were sure to include all kinds of stormy weather.
Vehicle transport ships, similar to the one that transported our RV back to the States after our 2014 European RV adventure, frequently caught our eye.
Even local restaurants along the ship channel were great venues for watching ship traffic along the waters of global commerce.
Coast Guard ships, easy to spot due to their iconic Racing Stripe emblem that was adopted 40 years ago, were a frequent sight heading out every morning for duty on the seas.
What excitement must have been building for the passengers of this giant cruise ship as they departed for fun on the seas in the Caribbean...
But it was the Navy ships that would send a flurry of campers scampering from their campsites with cameras in hand.
The raw beauty and awesome sea power of a U.S. Navy ship evoked a fierce sense of patriotism. On our very first day in camp, we were in awe of the USS New York as she headed out for several days of sea maneuvers, gently protected by a tugboat in the narrow waters of the ship channel.
Ship’s crew manning the rails on the guided-missile cruiser USS Hué City brought back deployment memories for Al.
We saw the USS Zephyr arrive home after a 45-day mission of drug interdiction in the Caribbean.
It was interesting to see the nearly brand new, somewhat controversial, littoral combat ship USS Detroit.
TIMUCUAN ECOLOGICAL AND HISTORIC PRESERVE
St. Augustine has the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States. However, in 1564, a year earlier, French Huguenots in search of religious freedom founded a settlement near Mayport called Fort Caroline.
Although the precise location of Fort Caroline has yet to be scientifically determined, a small-scale reproduction of the fort has been constructed along the banks of the St. Johns River at the Timucuan Historic Preserve. This was a great spot to dive into our nation’s earliest history when European explorers met the local Timucuan civilization for the very first time.
Timucuan was also an ecologically protected preserve with some interesting hiking trails
that showcased a salt marsh habitat,
with a fascinating variety of bird life—like this watchful wood stork and magnificent blue heron.
On a section of the Timucuan Preserve’s 46,000 acres was the site of a former estate named the Kingsley Plantation. Harkening back to a very dark time in Florida’s past, for over 100 years Kingsley Plantation was run off of the backs of slaves from Africa. Made out of tabby concrete composed of oyster shells, a curved row of original slave quarters was haunting…
The plantation house was very well preserved and conveniently located on the bank of the river, an essential location for bringing crops to market.
CATTY SHACK RANCH AND WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
We seldom do any of our outings after dark; however, when Al read that Trip Advisor’s #1 attraction in the Jacksonville area was the night feeding of the big cats at the Catty Shack Ranch, we made an exception.
Feeding time was precisely at 7:30 p.m., and every cat knew that. Each cat was pacing in its enclosure and seemed happy to see visitors, for in their eyes visitors were associated with food.
Much to our surprise, feeding time was organized and calm! None of the cats seemed overly anxious or aggressive. Each animal knew exactly which hole in the fencing was assigned to them; obediently, each big cat waited its turn to be fed on the appropriate platform.
Huge chunks of raw chicken and red meat were hand-fed to each animal.
Nighttime pictures were a huge challenge, but a few pics came out better than expected, especially those of this white beauty.
What an extraordinary group of volunteers show up faithfully each night to feed the large rescue cats at the Catty Shack Ranch.
REUNIONS WITH FRIENDS
Our stay along the front row of the ship channel at Mayport was just about perfect in every way, including reunions with friends from years long ago. We had a marvelous lunch date in St. Augustine with Greg and Linda. Greg was one of Al’s classmates whom he hadn’t seen since graduation day in June 1969. Over lunch, it was fun bringing each other up to date on the decades of our lives since graduation day.
Once again, the bonds of friendship formed over four years of challenges at the Naval Academy seemed as intact as ever…
And finally, we had a great reunion with Dick and Gayle. Gayle and I went to high school together, and we had kept in touch ever since we had incredibly reconnected 3 years ago at this very same campground at Naval Station Mayport. We were delighted to do lunch together as Dick and Gayle headed in their motorhome down the Florida Atlantic coast to this year’s winter home.
|Hey, that looks just like our motorhome!|
Usually, I am ready to move on to the next stop along the trail in our full-time RV lifestyle. However, I was a little sad when our time at Mayport had come to an end. As our country once again went through the rituals of Inauguration Day, I was struck by the selfless sacrifice of the men and women who serve in the United States Navy. Along the banks of Mayport’s ship channel, we had experienced an extraordinary close-up look into the daily activities of the ships and their crew.
On our day of departure…
as we slowly eased our big “bus” out of the naval facility at 8 a.m….
it was touching to pause respectfully one last time as morning colors were observed with the stirring notes of the Star Spangled Banner at the start of another Navy day.
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;”
—from the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield