Home>Rebecca Ann cruises the Georgia Goast Passage 2004
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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, U.S.A.
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.

Ness Yawl SaraRebecca 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.

Jay Eberly with Ness Yawl SaraSara's 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 mariner background.

Harry HolmesAn 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.

Caledonia Yawl Rebecca AnnI 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 Preparing to launch Rebecca Ann and SaraOcean. 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.

Trees on Cumberland IslandAll 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 Cumberland Island sand duneson 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.Wild horse on Cumberland Island


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.

Cumberland Island houseThe 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.

Sandy beach on Cumberland IslandThe 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 northern end.

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.

Rigging Rebecca AnnRigging Sara

The launch went smoothly for both boats. I like to rig up on the trailer.




Rowing Rebecca AnnJay 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 RiverRebecca Ann sailing on the Amelia River.



Stress management aboard Rebecca Ann




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 her sails.

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.

Rebecca Ann & Sara arrive on Cumberland IslandAfter 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.

The trek to the camp ground on Cumberland IslandAlthough 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...

Rebecca Ann's hull was built by Geoff Kerr. Dale Davenport fitted her out and did all the finishing work. You can learn all about it here.
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