Taking care of Jacksonville’s crown jewel

River advocates say getting feet wet is first step toward lifelong passion

By Rob DeAngelo, Resident Community News

While it’s certainly true you can develop a passion for something at any age, early exposure to it can be key to a lifelong love affair. For these river advocates, dipping in the toe or casting the rod as young boys have given them a deep appreciation and love for our city’s greatest asset – its waterways.

Many people don’t realize that the St. Johns is one of only 14 rivers in the entire United States federally designated as an American Heritage River. It received this esteemed designation because of the tremendous historical, cultural, recreational, ecological, and economic benefits that it has provided to Florida and the historic neighborhoods of Jacksonville where the river is such a prominent feature and constant presence in our lives.

I have the benefit of working on the river. Our offices at Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute overlook the St. Johns. I have a fishing pole in my office and occasionally head down to the dock during my lunch break to clear my head and soak in the sights, sounds and smells of my surroundings. More times than not, I fail to land a fish, but I always return to my desk with a greater sense of purpose and resolve for protecting this magnificent waterway.

Jimmy Orth, Riverkeeper Executive Director

The St Johns River is the reason this city exists and we need to be better stewards of it. For example, the city and JEA need to repair or replace leaking septic tanks (we have thousands of them, I understand) which are the primary source of e. coli bacteria in our tributaries, like Fishweir and Willowbranch creeks in my neighborhood. The city needs to do more street sweeping to keep leaves and debris out of the storm sewers; and all of us must quit blowing leaves into the street, and we need to stop using our waterways for trash disposal.

The river provides so much for us. It’s a thing of beauty, it moderates the weather for thousands who live near it, it provides drinking water for some cities, plus we kayak, swim, water ski, boat, and fish in and on it.

Doug Coleman, founder of Jacksonville Ski Club

The St. Johns River contributes to so many aspects of our city, including real estate values, commerce and quality of life. Growing up on the river gave me a special appreciation for it, but it wasn’t until the algae blooms in 2005 that I began to understand the challenges facing the St. Johns. That summer, foul conditions on the river had a negative impact on our business.

There are many ways to get your feet wet without a boat. Take a kid fishing. Jacksonville has a great park system, many are waterfront. There are sailing programs and paddle sports outfitters in this town for people with different budgets and ages. If more of us realize the value of the St. Johns, advocate for it and expose its wonders, our community and the health of the river will improve.

Brooks Busey, owner of Sadler Point Marina

For me, water is not just a neighborhood setting but rather a defining feature of my home, work and call to conservation advocacy. I reside on a half-acre lot on Fishweir Creek. Since 1990, I have been based at Lambs Yacht Center Yacht Brokerage. Much of the immediate area is quite literally a “working waterfront” – three boat yards and related services.

There is daily engagement with the boats, and often the adjacent river, during trial runs and vessel demonstrations. It is always fascinating to experience the river and water environment at the docks in its different states because of tides, wave action or wind.

And the people! All connected by the “water gene” but you don’t have to have a large boat to enjoy area waters. Enjoy them by kayak, like I do!

Mike Webster, yacht broker

I remember standing on County Dock in Mandarin, watching the river. Beautiful yet underused. The St. Johns Riverkeeper was working on the Georgia-Pacific pipeline issue at the time. I thought my personal goal to swim across the river could demonstrate how we can use recreation to bring focus to the issue and more community value to the St. Johns. After meeting with Jimmy Orth at St. Johns Riverkeeper, JumpingFish, a nonprofit that advocates for the waterways, was born. In the summer of 2011 after much training, studying, practice and reconnaissance work, I swam it with a great support team just as passionate about the river. It was 3.8 miles across the St. Johns from Fleming Island to County Dock.

Up the River Downtown is now an annual event. A trained, open-water team swims, accompanied by a flotilla of kayaks and boats, from Jacksonville University six miles to the Riverside Arts Market. It sends a message. That’s how the community can care for the waterways. Use them or lose them. Use the River Taxi, walk by the river, paddleboard, kayak or watch the dolphins.

Jim Alabiso, writer and founder of JumpingFish

Living in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and traveling during the week, I wanted something to do on the weekend that would be fun, enjoyable and adventurous. After winning a 7-foot sailboat in a retail store contest, I took it down the Brigantine canals and knew right away that a) I enjoyed this sailing thing and b) I needed a bigger boat!

After purchasing a Catalina 21-foot sailboat with a swing keel, I set sail without lessons. When I ran aground in the canal, which was often, I just cranked up the swing keel and off I went – my first “depth finder!”

Three boats and two states later, after sailing Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico, I landed at The Marina at Ortega Landing with my 32-foot Hunter, Euphoria. I have spent many relaxing and enjoyable days sailing the St. Johns River, participating in the Light Boat parades and just relaxing at the dock, where I can hop in the pool or watch television in the clubhouse.

Warren Hickernell, General Manager, The Marina at Ortega Landing

I like to refer the St. Johns River as Jacksonville’s crown jewel. The river gives the city its main identity and the city gives the river a grand finality it so very much deserves. Our waterways offer something for everyone. We can enjoy the beauty of the banks of the river or we have user-friendly waterways for everything from kayaks or paddle boards to 300-foot mega-yachts. Water activity is an economic driver for North Florida so it is important we do all we can to ensure our waterways are protected and kept available to people.

Captain Jim Suber, City of Jacksonville Harbormaster

My father was an underwater archaeologist so you could say I’ve been aware of the water and everything it has to offer from my earliest days. I can remember being on a surfboard at 4 or 5 years old. I’ve also been teaching as a paddle sports educator since 2000, helping to grow the sport throughout the state.

Our area is conducive to water activities and much of what I do involves safety, education and instruction about, as well as stewardship of, our waterways. Especially the St. Johns River, which is so important to Northeast Florida. I attribute my vitality to being centered in a waterman’s lifestyle.

Keith Keller, Harbormaster of Epping Forest Yacht & Country Club

Chris Register is on the far right.

The St. Johns and its tributaries have a very specific meaning to me and my team. It provides us with the means to become better people. Rowing has one of the lowest ratios of races to training hours, meaning that athletes train many more hours per competitive race than traditional sports. Over 10 months of training, we’ll race about eight times. Although this is a challenge to keep people engaged, it develops the core values that we want in our community. We ask middle school and high school athletes to work their hardest – three hours a day, six days a week, for 10 months. This sport takes dedication, patience, full reliance on your teammates, and the courage to push your body and mind to limits you didn’t know were even there. It’s the most honest sport anyone can do.

Chris Register, Director of Rowing, Stanton Riverbank Rowing Club

Sailboat sunset submitted by Will Newton

I grew up on the river and spent countless hours in it, on it, over it, around it, competing with it – I was literally raised in the river, like all of my friends. My father and I built a boat together when I was in first grade; the boat and the river she plied for years represented freedom, exploration, excitement, friendships, love of nature, and deep respect.

First job at 15 was working for a dock builder and I commuted to work by boat. Manatees nuzzling your legs and crabs pinching your toes while setting dock pilings or walking the flats.
Racing Lasers, Thistles, sailboards, J24s…the river is a racecourse, the battle ground. You work hard to beat the other sailors and you strain your mind to understand what the river is telling you; little hints leading to advantages or the wrong way. You race against the river – it is always different.
The river and the coast is part of my identity and that of the city.

Will Newton, Florida Yacht Club member

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