Saturday, February 4, 2023

Finally In Warmer Waters

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series detailing my voyage down the East Coast in search of warmer weather for the Winter. 

Editor's Note: When we last left our hero, he was just leaving Savannah after having hunkered down for an icy cold Winter storm.  

Ironically, a couple hundred miles from where I had started near Wilmington, NC, I was now on the Wilmington River. The Wilmington empties into the Atlantic south of Savannah, but the path of the ICW turns up the Skidaway River. There were little patches of houses along the shore and more wilderness. Georgia wilderness is slightly different from the Carolinas. The same acres of salt marshes, but more hammocks of scrub pine and oak; perhaps more areas of "solid" land than wetlands between rivers. It was actually hard to tell passing by at sea level. 

I thought I had gotten to Hell Gate and watched a catamaran just ahead of me steam right through. In the channel, Ruth Ann was unperturbed. The water was quite low, but we only need four feet of water to pass comfortably. I had to check my chartplotter to be sure, but we had, in fact, just passed through the gate; quite anticlimactic actually. 

It’s hard to keep track of river names on the ICW. The Skidaway River had become the Moon River without any obvious geographical reason, then the Moon dumped into the Vernon, which emptied into the Little Ogeechee River. Hell Gate was actually a cut between the Little Ogeechee and the Ogeechee River. After crossing the wide expanse of the latter Ogeechee, I turned in behind Ossabaw Island onto what felt like another river, but it was simply called Florida Passage.  The Passage is a natural path of water, definitely not man-made, but somehow never earned the moniker “river.”  Just over the top of Ossabaw Island I found Redbird Creek and pulled in to anchor for the night. It was relatively warm, clear, and calm that evening so I took that opportunity to change the oil in my little Yanmar diesel. 

The next morning, after the temperature eventually climbed back up to 45 degrees, I hauled the anchor and continued south. If you look at a map of the Georgia Coast, huge swathes of it is green; signifying the land is a park or wildlife refuge. I made my way past Ossabaw Island, crossed St. Catherines Sound, past St. Catherines Island, across the Sapelo Sound, and halfway by Sapelo Island without seeing more than two or three other boats and nearly no houses or docks at all.  That evening, I passed a powerboat anchored in the mouth of the Crescent River and anchored Ruth Ann a comfortable distance beyond them. It was getting a little warmer each day, each mile I trekked further south, but after hours of standing outside in the cockpit steering the boat, it was still chilly by the end of the day. I always appreciated closing Ruth Ann’s companionway and warming myself and the cabin by making supper.

Beyond the Crescent River anchorage, I blasted out of the wilderness, and into civilization again. Brunswick, GA is a coastal boating community that also has a large port. Many import cars, both European and some Asian, come into the Eastern US through the Port of Brunswick. After crossing St. Simons Sound, I ducked behind Jekyll Island and found a spot to anchor just south of the island’s one bridge. It was a bit crowded but I found a spot about 20 yards off a gravel beach. Just over the berm behind the beach was a water treatment plant, but somehow there were several people and some kids walking along the shore. After so many nights in a lonely creek by myself, it was disconcerting that suddenly people were close enough that they sounded like they might have been talking to me. 

That night I was texting with a sailing friend of mine and he described a fogbound trip around the end of St Andrews Sound; part of my next day’s route. So, of course, you know what happened. The ICW route goes all the way out to the last inland buoy of the sound before turning back toward the East River and winding it’s way behind Cumberland Island. Wade, my sailing friend, had mentioned that he had always thought about jumping offshore from there, but never had. 

That next day, the closer I got to the last buoy and the turn on the ICW, the fog thickened right on time. I took a picture of some cormorants on a buoy, and five minutes later another picture in the same direction (both shown). That same buoy is almost invisible in the second picture. Besides the fog, my charts warned that there was shoaling all around the buoy that I was struggling to find. The fog was obviously the effect of the cool ocean air flowing over the warmer, shallow water of the sound. If Wade and I had both encountered fog there at different times of the year, it was likely a regular feature of this section of the ICW. It occurred to me that if I was going to motor all day anyway, I might as well motor offshore as the fog would probably clear faster over the waters of the Atlantic than along the shallow waters of the sound. When another buoy loomed out of the fog, I checked that it was the right one, and steered Ruth Ann to port to head out of the sound. 

It took a while to get out of the fog. Luckily, the depths of the sound turned south, exactly where I wanted to go. I couldn’t see much for while but I followed the depth contours and watched little sandbars go by. At the mouth of the inlet there were sandbars on each side with waves breaking less than 50 yards away both to port and starboard. After cleanly exiting the sound, the swell evened out and Ruth Ann savored being in the ocean again. It was like coming home for me. 

The offshore route was about half the miles compared to winding down the ICW. However, what I hadn’t planned on was the angle of the swell. I’ve crewed on boats where the captain was adamant about running the rhumb line (the planned route) without much regard for comfort. As skipper, I am a firm believer in angling into the swell, not only for comfort, but with less swinging and banging around it is also easier on the boat, the rig, and anything stowed below. Ruth Ann and I ran away from the shore for a few miles, then turned inward for a time, then outward again, etc. We were headed for the St. Marys Inlet where St. Marys, GA is up the river, but Fernandina Beach, FL is just inside to the south. A couple huge industrial towers loomed over Fernandina and made it easy for me to judge my southward progress and heading as we went along. 

My zigging and zagging got us down to the offshore buoys of the inlet and we turned in toward the mainland.  After such a peaceful jaunt across a little-used patch of the Atlantic, it was a shock to be back in traffic. There were fishing boats and pleasure boats buzzing around, there was a good size cargo ship, and I was just waiting to see the upside down wake of a submarine. The Navy's Kings Bay Submarine Base is north of the inlet and submarines regularly come and go. I had been warned about the power of the underwater wake of a sub. Luckily for me there were no submarines and once inside the inlet, the Amelia River was soon to our port. Up the river, just past an industrial complex and a small commercial port, was the Fernandina Anchorage, the day's destination. I was finally in Florida waters! Florida is not such a nice place anymore for vagabonds at anchor like Ruth Ann and me, but arriving in the state simply meant a warm winter to me. That was the goal. 

It was clear and calm when I anchored across the river from downtown Fernandina Beach. It was mid afternoon, it was warm, and I had survived the cold weather. Lots of fresh air and arriving at a milestone stop had made me feel tired, and after a quick supper, I went to bed pretty early. The next morning, I organized to go into town – twice actually. At first, I was just going to get some diesel and some water, but after returning to Ruth Ann with the lunchtime smells of local seafood still wafting in my nostrils, I gave in to temptation and headed back. The marina dockmaster had given me a recommendation but that place was packed. Around a corner, I found the Crab Trap and had a wonderful blackened Mahi sandwich and a beer. After lunch, I found the hardware store despite having no connection to cellular data – in town!  

It was New Year's Eve. I made a snacky supper after the late lunch and watched the Fernandina fireworks, which were pleasantly early. I did not stay up until midnight and there wasn’t even enough noise as the clock struck twelve to have woken me up. 

On New Year's Day, I got up reasonably early, hauled the anchor, and started moving again. Around the second curve of the Amelia River, I got hailed by a powerboat coming up behind me. He was so pleasant and considerate that I slowed for them to pass. Unfortunately, I was also giving them room by steering toward the starboard side of the river. Just as that powerboat, and another behind him, were passing me, I felt Ruth Ann bounce off the bottom. I quickly steered back toward the center, but soon we came to a slow stop; stuck in the mud. It was almost exactly the bottom of low tide, so there was no reason to call for a tow. If I was patient enough to wait, the tide would come back in and we’d be free.  

Another sailboat came around the bend and I hailed him on the radio. Even though it looked like I was in the center of the river, Ruth Ann was sitting on the bottom and I warned the other boat that the channel was in the narrow space between me and the eastern shore. He thanked me as his boat was bigger and deeper than Ruth Ann. We chatted on the radio as he approached and he told me what he was seeing on his chartplotter. I had been ‘lucky’ enough to have found a small island of shallow water right where I had tried to get back to the channel. Of course, just before he got by me, an obnoxious powerboat had to come flying down the river, snaked around the other sailboat, and buzzed by me without slowing; kicking up quite a wake. 

“That might bounce you out of trouble,” the other sailboat called on the radio.  

I scrambled to restart the engine and was already in forward gear when the powerboat’s wake hit us. The waves lifted Ruth Ann and set her down strongly a couple times ... and we started moving!  My theory was that each time we dropped back down, we made a slightly deeper groove in the mud helping to set us free. I hate to give the schmuck in the powerboat any credit but I got unstuck a lot sooner than I might have just waiting for the tide to rise. 

After getting free from the mud, we continued down past the end of Amelia Island, seeing the ocean again, but under a bridge that was too low for us. The ICW makes a sharp right turn to continue down Clapboard Creek. We passed through the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve. The Timucua were an indigenous people of Northern Florida and Georgia. They numbered about 200,000 when the Europeans arrived in the 1500s, but by 1800 there were none left and not much is known about them or their culture. 

Pic by Two Down Crew

Clapboard Creek winds around the inland side of Fort George Island and empties into the St. Johns River. Just outside the creek is a boatyard working on a half-covered US Navy vessel. Another boater, a bit ahead of me, strayed too close and was being assailed on the radio by a security detachment patrolling the area in a RIB. I gave the boatyard a wide berth as I entered the river and watched for ship traffic. Jacksonville also has a big port; just up the river from where I crossed. The river is wider and I was slightly more familiar there than I was at the Savannah River, so I hadn’t checked for ships. It was New Year's Day and there was almost no traffic to speak of; except for me, that other boat, and the security guys.  

I had planned to stop early as there aren’t very many anchorages in the stretch of ICW after Jacksonville, but with the delay from running aground, I had arrived at a good spot just before sunset. I anchored behind a little island just north of the Atlantic Blvd Bridge. The noises of the city were less bothersome than I expected, but I was waked several times by local yahoos and their powerboats; including a couple boats who had purposely steered closer just to rock Ruth Ann and me. Nevertheless, after the locals went home, there was a lovely sunset as appetizer to my supper.  

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