Five : Georgia Coast Passage 2004 - by Dale Davenport
April 1, 2004
South end of St. Simons, Island, Georgia
15 to 20 kts., with higher gusts in the afternoon.
We sailed up the Frederica River. Eventually we reached the South Altamaha
and from that point forward a NW wind caused us to motor and tow Sara.
Standing waves and spindrift dampened the crew. We picked our way through
a complex maze of marshes. We were about nine hours on the water. Rebecca
Ann handled very well, but the gusts over-powered a double-reefed main
and rolled mizzen at times. I had reduced the mainsheet size from 1/2
to 3/8, which ran through the camcleat fairlead much better. The mizzen
step repair held, despite severe pressure on it before we rolled the
mizzen. Numerous large alligators on Frederica River.
Ann captain comments:
forecast when we woke up was for 20 kt. and rising winds from the northwest,
which was our course direction. We cooked some bacon and eggs on the
boats, making use of one of the gimbaled Seacook one-burner stoves for
the only time of the trip.
wanted to see the ruins of Fort Frederica,a
fortified village built under the leadership of James Oglethorpe in
1736 to guard the earliest English settlers from the Spanish to the
get there, instead of keeping to the wider main channel, after a mile
or so we took a right turn into the much narrower Frederica River. (In
the previous installment I erroneously said we already were in the Frederica.
In fact, it's the Mackay River that runs under the bridge.) We were
under sail, single reefed. The river wound around and often we found
ourselves on a beat, but we made good progress. We saw several people
at a few scattered homes along the first part of the river, before we
reached the fort site, but passed no other vessels the entire way on
the Frederica. In fact, I don't recall meeting another one after the
first half hour that morning.
river became increasingly narrow. On both sides there were marshes,
with muddy ground visible in some places and standing water in others,
both uniformly covered with grasses six or eight feet high. The river
banks varied through the day according to the tide, but ranged from
almost none to head-height. We began to notice mud chutes, pathways
coming down to the water from the top of the river bank. Then we begin
to see alligators sunning on the banks near the chutes, or floating
in the water near the bottom of the chutes.
had never given a lot of thought to alligators. I now know some statistics:
from 1948 to 2000, thirteen deaths by lizard chomping occurred in the
US. From 1973 to 1990, there were 5 deaths, but 127 attacks. I was ignorant
and unperturbed on that trip; now, I am still figuring that alligators
are the least of my worries, on small boat trips or otherwise. Not all
of us were sanguine about alligators, as it happened. Cal didn't know
it until about that point in the passage, but as it turned out, he has
something of an alligator phobia.
day was sunny and we were fairly sheltered from the wind most of early
distance on the river, due to our heading. At one point, Jay and Harry
nosed into the west bank to put in a reef, and I ran up nearby, pushing
the yawl's bow well into the beginning of the marsh grasses. We were
stopped there, taking advantage of the pause to fiddle with something
or other, when we noticed a gator just a few yards upstream. It was
right at the edge of water, on the same side of the river we were on,
partly on the mud and partly in the water. It was big. It had to be
twelve feet long and probably was the biggest one we saw all day. It
just lay there watching us.
on, we reached the fort. What a great defensive position, right in a
bend of the river. Nobody could approach by water without being exposed
to fire for a long time, and nobody would be able to move across the
marsh except at low tide and then it would be an endless slog. Jay nosed
up on the shore, but I wanted to try something new. I had seen in WoodenBoat
an outhaul anchor system, and had rigged up one on my Danforth. I thought
it would be good to drop the anchor and get right up the shore to get
off, and then pull the boat off in deeper water, tie it in that position,
and tour the fort.
was a single live oak tree within a hundred yards on the shore. Paying
too much attention to the anchor rig, I managed to tangle both masts
in turn in the branches going in. Live oaks are tough and even little
branches don't break easily. Months later I was still finding those
leaves in my boat.
a muddy, graceless debarkation, using lines to haul ourselves up the
high bank, we walked through the ruins of the fort, read the markers,
tried to educate Cal about the alligator's penchant for stowing its
prey under logs for several days so the flesh provides a stronger flavor
when consumed, stretched our legs and for lunch ate some aged salami
we had stowed underneath something else in our food basket.
the time we got back in the boats the wind had picked up out of the
north. We had about four more miles on the Frederica River, and it turned
out to be the most difficult but satisfying portion of the whole passage.
When it was all over and I was home in Virginia, I took a thorough look
at the GPS track log. It was easy to tell where each day began, even
thought it is not a chartplotter. I was amazed to see that we made 62
tacks that day. Most of them, far more than half, were made in that
four-mile stretch north of Fort Frederica.
river is less than 100 yards across and significant stretches run due
north or pretty close to it. In those portions, we crisscrossed with
the boats sailing very near to each other. It was a great test of the
characteristics of the two boats and the focus of the captains. On one
tack I would gain, and on the next Jay would make it up; on the third
he would pull slightly ahead. On and on and on, sailing like that, slowing
clawing our way up that river. We both were standing up the whole time,
shifting our weight, often crouching and twisting to look under and
around the mainsail, running within as little as a yard of the bank
as we turned. There was never a problem with depth of water even right
against the bank, but a few times each of us were headed by a wind shift,
missed stays, and had to drift back and recover with scant maneuvering
times on port tack we seemed to catch velocity headers. Much to port
we then could go, significantly turning the boat so that instead of
heading for the opposite shore at a steep angle, we suddenly were speeding
up the river, angling only slightly toward the bank. Maybe it was a
chronic wind shift instead; at any rate, it didn't happen nearly as
much on starboard tack.
Rebecca Ann, we keep the main spar and boom on the starboard side of
the mast. Sometimes extra large gusts on a port tack, perhaps with the
better efficiency we enjoyed then, caught us before we could head up
enough or dump some wind by sheeting out. We shipped some water over
the starboard gunwale when that happened. This stretch of water was
dense with alligators; there were chutes on both sides just a few hundred
yards apart. The perpendicular direction of the chutes compared to the
bank line became a regular, expected dividing line between sections
of grass banks. Cal was not happy about the fact that we were taking
on some of the water that obviously held a lot of big lizards.
we ran out of Frederica River into the Buttermilk Sound. The wind had
settled into a strong, two-reef northwester. The next stretch was three
or four miles with much wider water, at least a quarter of a mile, and
an easier beam reach for more than half. Then we beat once again for
what proved to be the last mile or so of sailing for the day, but the
increased width made it a nice cool down from the high stress section
turned left at the South Altamaha, and after being roughed up trying
to sail in the strengthening wind now over much bigger water, we managed
to strike the rigs, set up the tow and get out of the grassy margins
where the wind had driven us, without winding either grass or the towline
up in the propeller. The wind was now coming straight at us with plenty
of fetch and the water resembled the standing waves of a low class 3
stretch was tough on Jay and Harry. The chart showed some scary ruins
of pilings along the shores. The waves were much higher in the middle
of the river, but I kept thinking about how far backwards we would go
if I broke the shear pin on the prop, so I stayed away from the edges.
Poor Jay and Harry rode a bucking boat for quite a while.
section of water ended when the river divided into the many channels
that flow into it. We were confronted with a navigation problem. Since
we never thought we would go to Darien, expecting to stay closer to
the ocean on our way north, we didn't have the best chart for the area.
Our location was near the edge of the one we were using, and it happened
to have a big data block that began right over the area we had entered.
had to decide which channel looked most promising. None of them actually
showed on the chart, which was confusing. The one on the left was a
bit narrower than the one next to it, but being a methodical man, I
took us into the one on the left. After a mile or so, with the width
decreasing to about ten yards, we gave up and turned around. Something
predatory was in the water, because on the return trip two good-sized
fish jumped in my boat, one hitting me in the face.
terrain offered no visual cues at all, even though we were only a few
miles from I-95. The marsh grasses were taller than our heads when we
stood up, so the channels all appeared the same to the eye - water paths
with grass walls. Illustrating the disorientation, later when I was
looking over the GPS track log, I could tell that our false route was
only a few dozen yards from the correct channel, parallel with it.
next channel we tried indeed was the right one, but we had a fair amount
of anxiousness for a while until we figured that out for sure. The wind
had calmed down a lot, because we were in a more protected area, but
we all were getting tired. Cal was wet from the spray as well, because
he had to steer while I hunkered down with the GPS, the almost useless
chart and my imagination.
this point we knew we were past the data block and could make use of
the chart if only we knew our exact location. Of course the GPS was
telling me that, but there were such interwoven little channels and
sloughs that I wasn't very confident. What I wanted was a buoy number
that matched the chart. Strangely, the chart didn't have buoy numbers
Harry recalled that the guidebook chartlets had buoy numbers. We saw
one in the far distance, I predicted its number, and when we saw in
the binoculars that it was indeed that number, everybody felt better,
we motored on our winding course. Once, we stopped for some reason I
forget, and I chewed up the tow line with the prop when we started out
again. Jay quickly cut the tangle away with the razor-edged, Case folding
cutlass he keeps sheathed at the small of his back. I later spliced
the remnants back together.
were nearly done with picking our way through the several distinct channels
to reach Darien, taking a left turn here and a right turn there. The
next to the last turn placed us in a virtual ditch called General's
Cut, twenty-five feet wide and with a few visible, resident gators.
A few minutes there took us to the main branch of the Altamaha.
final left and a short way onward, and the shrimp fleet of Darien came
into view, lining a dock, looking just like it does in the photo in
WoodenBoat in the Robb White article on shrimp boats, which came out
in Spring, 2004. We tied up at a new municipal dock, as far as we could
from a rotting, large gator carcass drifting in the backwater by the
pier, and set foot on land about nine hours after we began that morning.
nephew was in college an hour or so up the interstate, and we had tentatively
planned to phone him and have him take Jay and me back to the vehicles.
But, he still was in exams and it didn't suit, since we were two days
earlier than we planned. We headed to the local police station, made
some new friends, and within an hour the police chief's brother was
driving Jay and me down I-95 toward Fernandina. The boats were safe
at the pier in town, and the police would check on them during the night.
We had deposited Cal and Harry at a motel and placed them in charge
of our dwindling rum inventories. By 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., Jay and I had
reclaimed the vehicles and brought them and the empty trailers back
to the motel at Darien. It was too long a day for middle-aged men, but
the boats, the tow rigs and all of us were together at the same spot,
so that stage of the passage was complete.
probably all kept sailing in our dreams that night, bone-tired. We had
run 30 miles by the GPS, although that included all the tacking back
and forth. Jay and I had thoroughly enjoyed the technical sailing. The
group decided to drive up to Savannah the next morning, give ourselves
a tour of the old city and the waterfront bars, and wind up the day
at Tybee Island, the barrier island east of Savannah and the last one
in Georgia. We hoped to day-sail the following day before heading home.
6: Coming soon...