Boatgating

When Florida plays Georgia, boaters dock in the shadow of Jacksonville's riverside stadium and cocktail hour lasts all weekend.
By Jennifer Chappell

On this Friday night before one of the biggest games in the Southeastern Conference, Jerry Wilcoxon has docked between rival vessels, school banners fiercely fluttering in the St. Johns River breeze.

"Food, friends, and football make a perfect weekend," declares his wife, Jennifer. "But the water brings tranquillity to the chaos."

And there is a little chaos in this Jacksonville, Florida, marina. On competing boat radios, sports announcers make predictions about this year's matchup between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators. Classic rock music blares from somewhere up the river. And water taxis periodically deposit rowdy fans nearby. They're harmless, though, eyeing the boats while strolling toward the stadium to meet friends. Some shout a friendly "Go Dawgs!" to Jennifer and Jerry as they sip cocktails on deck dressed in the Georgia colors of black and red.

"Jacksonville is set up perfectly for what it does," Jennifer says, as a water taxi pulls away. The stadium stands a distance from downtown's bustling heart, where riverside hotels fill up fast and students and keyed-up fans descend en masse on bars and restaurants. Eating and spending the night on board away from crowds makes a great alternative for boaters, who find the scene in the Metropolitan Park Marina a bit less boisterous.

Dedicated Bulldog fans from St. Simons Island, Georgia, the Wilcoxons reserved their slip months in advance. They left four days before kickoff, taking their time on the cruise down the coast in their sleekly restored, classic wooden yacht. "It's my heartthrob," Jennifer says of the 1939 boat, Drifter.

Maneuvering their 76-foot vessel into its double-wide space was no easy task, but since this couple bought it back in 1998, they've mastered such moves. "I drive the boat, and Jennifer throws the lines," says Jerry, a former football coach whose nickname, "Crash," has nothing to do with his abilities at the helm.

The couple and their 9-year-old daughter, Caroline, arrived in time to revel in the party atmosphere that always precedes this showdown between border state universities. It's a contest so intensely fought that people call the longtime series the "Border Wars." Fans also have a nickname for the weekend's festivities: "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," with a reputation as storied as that of Florida's powerhouse offense.

But tonight, the Wilcoxons will keep the celebration simple, just a cookout on deck with a few friends. From the galley, Jennifer calls for Caroline, who returns balancing a stack of wooden plates and the platter of hamburger meat and hot dogs for the grill. Jerry greets guests--a mix of Georgia fans who've driven down from St. Simons and a friend from Jacksonville who pulls for Florida.

Tonight, archrivals get along. The brackish river waters seem to soothe everyone's spirits. And there's more emphasis marina-wide on mixing cocktails than on checking stats. Still, anticipation hangs in the air like the smoke from Jerry's grill.

Actually, the smoke attracts attention from marina authorities, who stop by to tell Jerry of the strictly enforced "no open fires" policy. "I had no idea," Jerry says, switching off the grill and avoiding a fine. Luckily, the burgers are done. "Just in time," he says, raising his eyebrows.

On this end of the river, "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" doesn't turn out to be as wild as its reputation and winds down pretty early. Saturday morning, the Wilcoxons' friends return for brunch and Bloody Bulldawgs before kickoff. They deal with the usual confusion about who has the tickets, and cell phone calls come in from more St. Simons buddies who want directions.

Jerry, who once coached the semipro Atlanta Spartans, demonstrates a bigger passion for his yacht than the pigskin. He fields questions from curious passersby who recognize it as something special. " Drifter just attracts people who really love boats," Jennifer says. As evidence, an interested Coast Guard crew can't resist Jerry's invitation to come aboard.

Drifter, he tells them, is one of only a dozen this size designed by John Trumpy & Sons, Inc., that are still afloat today. It's a sister to Sequoia, which served eight presidents--from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. The couple keeps an eye out for other Trumpy classics in every marina they visit and maintains a log of the encounters. Jerry says, "Trumpy people are drawn to each other."

Once the impromptu tour concludes, conversation returns to who has the tickets. With the boat secured and shakers in hand, the Wilcoxons and friends head for the stadium. Whatever the game's outcome, its riverside locale makes dealing with victory or defeat a little more fun. This cocktail party isn't nearly over yet.