Home>Rebecca Ann cruises the Georgia Goast Passage 2004
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Day Five : Georgia Coast Passage 2004 - by Dale Davenport

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Toward: Darien, Georgia

From: South end of St. Simons, Island, Georgia

Distance: 21 n.m.

Wind: 15 to 20 kts., with higher gusts in the afternoon.

Notes: 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.

Rebecca Ann captain comments:

Breakfast - Day 5The 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.

We 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 south. The gimbaled Seacock one burner stoveTo 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.

The 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.Sara reefed in anticipation

I 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.

The 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.

There was a single live oak tree - we grounded on itSailing 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.

There 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.

Fort Frederica  (Nice flag - Ed)After 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.

By 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.

Looking the back the way we had come. The fort was uapproachableThe 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 room.

Where we were headed. Dead upwindMany 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.

On 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.

Eventually, 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 before.

Typical Gator chuteWe 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 whitewater river.

This 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.

That 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.

No we weren't lost - the prudent  mariner never relies  on a single....I 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.

The 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.

The 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.

By 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 there.

Finally, 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, especially me.

So, 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.

We 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.

Dead Gator. Otherwise a great spotA 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.

Cal's 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.Tucked in at Darien dock

We 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.



Day 6: Coming soon...

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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