Georgia Coast Passage 2004
The following is the log of the Caledonia
Yawl Rebecca Ann during a one-week trip along the tidal waters of the
State of Georgia in late March and early April. Each daily entry is
supplemented by comments added later to round out the story. Most of
this, and all of the good parts, are true.
This story is not about great sailing challenges
or an extraordinary small boat adventure. We struggled through a few
mishaps and had a few interesting moments - a raised mast and a low
bridge, being lost in the marsh, large alligators - but they were never
especially dangerous. That's the point, I think. These small boats provide
the opportunity for small adventures with a lot of fun without serious
risk to the sailors.
Dale Davenport - December 2004
Sunday, March 28, 2004
Toward: Sea Camp Dock, Cumberland Island, Georgia,
From: Fernandina Beach, Florida - Municipal Launch Ramp
Wind: Light and variable
Distance: 8.5 n.m.
Notes: Sparkling clear and sunny in the 70's.
Ann captain's comments: Finally, we had begun. It was the first day
of a long-planned trip. We were four men with a lot of gear in two boats.
Cal Marks, a commercial lawyer from Harrisonburg, Virginia crewed that
day in the beautiful, petiteNess Yawl Sara. Cal is an experienced outdoorsman
and consummate deer hunter, but he had little sailing experience. He
had come along with us on a voyage one year earlier, when he had demonstrated
an ability to learn sailing skills quickly and an unusual ability to
conduct diplomacy with indigenous peoples along our path. Self confidence
and focus are his traits.
owner and captain is Jay Eberly, a telephony engineer from Loudoun County,
Virginia, the fastest growing county in the United States. Jay is a
native and is not pleased with what the last ten years has done to the
land of his youth. He sailed on vacations as a boy and after finishing
at Penn State went down to the docks of New Orleans. A friend of a friend
helped him get a deckhand job on an oceangoing tugboat. He worked his
way up to a 500-ton master's license before he came ashore six years
later. Jay is a reserved man, so you don't know what he knows until
you need to know. For instance, on our trip the previous year I had
gone on at length elucidating the fundamentals of tidal currents. Jay
listened carefully, but only later did I hear about his professional
old friend of mine, who also is Cal's brother-in-law, crewed the first
day in Rebecca Ann. Harry Holmes had practiced law in Harrisonburg for
a quarter century. He was not well known to the public, but nobody was
more highly regarded by his or her peers for ability and decency. He
retired a few years back, moving out of the Shenandoah Valley eastward.
Harry was raised in Richmond, Virginia, but his family always kept places
on Gwynn Island, on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay. He has
a Virginia Tidewater drawl that makes us grin, because the sweet, refined
sound of his accent soothes a Southerner's ears and heart. He can tell
a story in a way that keeps you hanging on his words, regardless of
the state of sobriety of teller or listener. Harry has watercraft in
his genes, and has sailed and power boated extensively. He now divides
his time between Richmond and Gwynn's and does what he wants to do.
That includes fishing, building ship models and riding his motorcycle.
Harry is related to half the dead Confederate officers I ever read about,
although his own military service was six or eight years with the Union
as a JAG officer in Korea and elsewhere. You learn a lot about people
when you sail together. Our trip revealed that both Jay and Harry truly
are scholars of the American Civil War. Cal and I offered sad little
contributions to the first late night discussion, but soon knew we were
way out of our depth.
own Rebecca Ann, a CY that I finished out from a bare hull Geoff Kerr
built for me in 2002. My sailing experience is limited. I had built
a couple of little boats for my children and sailed them to justify
the construction, getting hooked in the process. Starting late in life
and living two hours from decent sailing water, I push the limits because
I want to learn fast. I don't mind breaking things on the boat that
I can fix. In fact I kind of like to break things and fix them, but
ever since an 8:00 a.m. drown proofing course in college I have despised
being in water. Those are my sailing parameters: sail hard but stay
afloat - on the water, not in it. In real life I'm merely another business
lawyer, where I try not to break things but often have to fix them,
with the same great wife after 30 years and two kids away in college
So, there we were outside the Comfort Inn hotel
at Fernandina Beach, Florida on a spring morning with the sun coming
up over the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Nessie and the Caledonia were on the trailers in a sand lot across
the street, just yards from the public launch ramp. We had permission
from the dockmaster to leave the vehicles and trailers in the ramp parking
lot for the week. We intended to get the boats in the water and sail
across the St. Mary's River and then up the Cumberland River alongside
Cumberland Island where we would land and stay at least a day.
four of us had visited Cumberland Island before, Cal, Jay and I the
previous spring when we camped a week on the island and day-sailed our
boats. Cal and I had been raised in Georgia and Cal had visited Cumberland
several times during his college years and later with his family. The
year before Cal had jumped at the chance to return to a place he dearly
loves. Harry had been there with his wife fairly recently. Cumberland
is a magic place: about fifteen mileslong and from one-half to two miles
wide, covered with live oak trees and Spanish moss, and populated with
wild horses and armadillos.At one point in its history, legions of Maine
loggers lived on
the Island solely to timber off the trees for shipbuilding. Now, 300
people are allowed entry each day, and the National Park Service maintains
a campground and allows backcountry camping by permit. The island is
reached only by a twice daily ferry or private boat. A few families
have outholdings on Cumberland, some with large homes, from back before
the bulk of it was transferred to the U.S. government for preservation.
Our departure point of Fernandina Beach, Florida
is on Amelia Island, the barrier island lying to the south of Cumberland,
and is the most northeastern point in Florida. It is a lovely old resort
town, cheerfully gentrified. The four of us had driven over 700 miles
from Virginia the day before, towing the two boats, after converging
early that morning near Richmond, Virginia. The last hour of the trip
down Interstate 95 paralleled in reverse direction on pavement the watercourse
we would travel over the next several days.
passage had been months in the planning. The planning had been fun and
gave us something to do over the cold winter months. Jay and Harry had
never met before our rendezvous the previous morning in Richmond, but
they hit if off quickly on the long trip down the East Coast. The general
idea was to travel north from Fernandina Island to see how far we would
get in a week. The Georgia coast is about 120 miles long from the Florida
to South Carolina borders, and has seven main barrier islands separating
the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. There are sounds between the islands,
ranging from perhaps one to three miles across. Tides run from six to
eight feet and currents can be strong. Winds in late March are usually
southwest but vary, and daytime temperatures of 70F with nights in the
50's are typical. The water temperature was about 70F according to the
WX but seemed colder when experienced as spray.
geography of the Georgia coast makes it an ideal small-craft cruising
area. You can envision the terrain as four vertical bands, each a different
kind of geographic area. From east to west, first there is the edge
of the North Atlantic, often with wide, white sand beaches. Next are
the barrier islands, with Cumberland's narrow width being typical.
Next is some sort of north-south channel, sometimes
a half-mile across and sometimes 100 yards. These widths vary according
to the tides, though, and there can be long stretches of shoal water.
Threading its way down this band is the navigable intracoastal waterway,
the well-known in-shore route for snow birds coming down the coast to
Florida or the Caribbean Islands in the fall and going back to the northeast
in the spring. There are no sweeping, large bays behind the islands
or peninsulas as there are in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware,
New York and Massachusetts.
Then to the west are the marshes, although this
region melds with the channels, and there are plenty of marshes on the
in-shore side of the barrier islands, as well. West of where the rivers
run into the sea, and there is at least one honest river flowing between
all the barrier islands, the marshes often extend inland for miles,
with an average for the whole coast of six miles. The marshes are tall
grasses on mud, covered according to the tide. Old midden bars, supposedly
formed from oyster shells discarded by Native Americans over centuries,
line some of the channels. The Altamaha River watershed, about halfway
up the coast, is the second largest drainage by flow volume on the east
coast of the United States, behind only the Susquehanna, which feeds
and forms the Chesapeake Bay.
The coastal area is tied to significant events
in American history, particularly of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Like many areas of the southern coast, to the extent they have not yet
been discovered as second home and retirement areas, there is not much
going on these days, totally unlike the thriving communities that existed,
say, 125 years ago. For example, in the late 1800's Darien, Georgia
was the leading timber exporting port on the east coast of the United
States. At present, a small fleet of shrimp boats still tie up in the
quiet town of about 2,000 residents. Now, while there are significant
ports for commerce at Brunswick and Savannah, two other urban areas
along the coast, and a major submarine base near Cumberland, far more
traffic moves along Interstate 95. That major highway, traveled by millions
moving from the Northeast down to Disney World and Miami, is actually
on the east side of the wider marshes at some spots. But, the highway
traveler has no idea of the complexity of the areas they are speeding
by, and the tidal waters are so vast that somehow the presence of the
road is insignificant in those areas where it can be seen from the water.
Although the first sea island from the south
is Cumberland, slowly now reverting to wilderness under penalty of federal
law, there are resorts with hotels and restaurants located on the next
two islands in the southern half of the coast. The northern half is
fairly empty of people and amenities until one nears Savannah at the
Since we were largely at the mercy of wind, tide
and weather, and free to indulge our whims, we needed flexibility in
food and shelter. While our preference overall was for a roof at night,
or at least for shore camping for which we brought small tents, we had
prepared as best we could for boat living. I had made a boat tent and
Sara had a tarp. We had bought two gimbaled propane stoves and a week's
worth of food. In addition we stowed sleeping pads and bags, first aid
supplies and tools and materiel for boat repairs, and cooking equipment.
We also took a lot of beer and rum. Rebecca Ann has a 3.3 hp motor for
her well, and we brought three gallons of fuel mix.
The launch went smoothly for both boats. I like
to rig up on the trailer.
prefers to do it all on the water, so Harry and I rowed out pretty far
ahead. With a light wind, basically blowing in the direction of the
ocean and thus on our port side, we meandered along down the Amelia
I was vaguely apprehensive, as usual at the beginning
of a boat trip. There is something fundamentally and deeply unnerving
about floating in a small boat in a wide expanse of water. This feeling
for me I think is quite different than what is felt by someone in the
same circumstances who is unfamiliar with sailing small craft. The beginner
is nervous about the tippiness of the boat and what lies ahead. I am
worried about problems I appreciate fully. I am concerned that since
the last time the boat was sailed something has weakened, come loose,
been chewed halfway through by mice, broken or been mislaid, and all
these things combine to produce unease.
This feeling is commonplace and of no great import,
but it still requires a bit of will power to master. John Stilgoe in
his book Lifeboat writes of the "waterborne moment" as castaways
settle into their small boat and leave the sinking ship behind, a transitional
state that can last for hours and produce great anxiety. I have never
experienced anything of that kind, but I suspect my apprehension that
morning as we began our little adventure up the Georgia coast at least
hinted of the jolt of the waterborne moment.
After a short time under sail, though, my moment
of unease had passed. My confidence was regained fully in the amazing
combination of science and art that is sailing, as Rebecca Ann moved
north, with the familiar gurgle of water on lapstrake and the wind filling
We passed on starboard old Fort Clinch, built
at the point to guard the entrance off the ocean. At that spot one enters
the St. Marys River, crossing it between Amelia and Cumberland Islands.
Sara had gotten balled up back near the fort and was quite far behind.
Boat traffic was light. The shrimpers had all moved out early that morning
and were not back yet.
As we moved into the Cumberland River, on the
west side of the Island, the wind became more fickle. If it had been
a hot day we would have been frustrated. But, for the first few hours
of a long trip, with a clear blue sky and enough wind to keep us moving
at least a little all the time, we were happy enough. At times we hauled
out the oars and gave the sails some help, and after a while it was
early afternoon and we had poked our way up to a dock near the Cumberland
Island headquarters of the National Park Service. Nothing remarkable
in that sort of sailing, but nothing wrong either, and a fine start
to the trip.
we arrived on Cumberland, we paid $32 for two nights of camping, lucking
into one of the couple of dozen sites at the Sea Camp campground. We
had reserved a backcountry site accessible by water, but the Park Service
couldn't find the booking. The same thing had happened the prior year;
if you go, requesting a written reservation confirmation would be wise.
During the most desirable fall and spring months, Cumberland camping
is booked far ahead, so we were fortunate that no-shows left room for
us. The campground is a half-mile trek across the island, just behind
the dunes on the ocean side. Transportation of gear is easy, though.
You just load up carts provided by the Park Service and wheel it all
down a flat, sandy lane to your site.
we hedged our risk with two days' of prepaid camping fees, we tentatively
planned to sail on the next day. But the lures of Cumberland would hold
us there for two.
Now go to Part 2...