31 May - Georgia on my mind?

Escapade of Rame
Richard & Julie Farrington
Thu 14 Jun 2018 19:07

31:09.4N  081:30W

The weather forecast for the weekend in St Augustine was rather mixed: fine on Saturday, but the tail end of tropical Storm Alberto was due to shake itself dry over the area on Sunday.  So I stayed put and spent some time on Saturday exploring the waterways and beaches around the city by car.  Further south, the shoreline is difficult to access, either due to luxury homes or mangroves.  Here, the full majesty of the Atlantic surf, mile after mile of dunes and glorious sandy beaches are all open to the ordinary American.  It’s preferable if you have some kind of souped-up truck or jeep, ideally with the doors removed and some really knobbly tires, but I managed to struggle along on foot!  I had lunch in one of thousands of ‘world famous crab shacks’ that pepper the shoreline from Key West northwards and met a local man at the bar who was NOT a Trump supporter, worried about the destruction of fragile habitats such as the Everglades and was pleased that the US was going to bring some ‘globalisation’ of the Royal Family after a thousand years of marrying other Europeans. We got on!


The St Augustine lighthouse

I did some food shopping before returning to the boat, only to find that I could not park anywhere near the waterfront because of all the weddings taking place there.  There must have been six venues within a few hundred yards of the marina, each churning out three or four newlyweds every Saturday afternoon.  In 90o heat, I didn’t want to walk two miles carrying my shopping, so after an hour of driving around trying to find a slot, I parked illegally and ran for it.  Fortunately, the Sherriff (for I was in his slot) was attending one of the weddings…



Memorial Day at the National Guard Cemetery

On Sunday, the heavens opened just as I returned the hire car to Walmart (how many UK supermarkets offer an Avis franchise on site?).  They didn’t empty until dark, but by then I’d serviced the main engine on the boat and dried myself out.  There was even somewhere to dump the used oil and filters… as I relaxed with a beer an English couple appeared in their boat: they were OCC members who knew a good friend of mine, the well-known RNSA yachtie, dit-spinner and ex-Junglie pilot, Tony White (Comedy of Errors and Mzungu).  Paul and Babs Watkins own a Moody 44 ‘Lyra Magna’ and are following a similar itinerary to ourselves, albeit at a more leisurely pace and via the Intracoastal Waterway.

I sailed from St Augustine first thing on Monday morning, bound for Brunswick in Georgia, some 80 miles away.  I reckoned I could get there before dark.  The exit from the river wasn’t as straightforward as the entry: they obviously do most of their dredging at slack water and during the night hours, so I found the huge floating pipeline apparently straddling the buoyed channel.  There was a strong tide coming from the south and the southern side (where the channel seemed to be) was very rough, with steep seas, breaking waves and overfalls.  The wind was about 20 knots from the south east.  The water to the north of the pipeline was flat calm, but was it deep enough?  If I ran aground there, I would be pinned on to the sandbank by a combination of wind and tide.  I slowed right down and considered the options.  A tug was approaching the entrance from the south, so I decided to wait and see what he did.  He skirted round the pipeline and came through the calmer water to the north with a friendly wave, so I took that option.  The water was deep, the tidal stream manageable and ten minutes later I was in open water, heading north under full sail with the kettle on.

The passage north to Brunswick was uneventful.  I saw no other yachts and only a couple of tugs towing barges until I was about five miles short of the river entrance, when I started to come across large shrimp boats.  They were all inshore, fishing in about 10m of water.  The river entrance follows a similar pattern to St Augustine, with a fairway buoy about five miles offshore and a dredged channel through the sandbanks into the estuary.  It was about 15 miles from the fairway buoy to the harbour at Brunswick, but there was a decent flood tide underneath us and the boat was pushing along well at around 9 knots over the ground.  The scenery is splendid: flat, but heavily wooded islands - swamp country, with alligators and an abundance of interesting wildlife.  The frigate birds and boobies of the Caribbean have been replaced by egrets, pelicans and terns. 


St Simon’s Island, the Golden Isles.  A rich man’s playground in Georgia?

To the north of the Brunswick River is a more developed area called the Golden Isles and the shoreline was dotted with fine country houses, typical Southern Colonial mansions, interspersed with modern architectural ‘challenges’, no doubt holiday homes for rich folk from further north.  Ahead and to the left though, the landscape was relatively wild.  Primary woodland, swamp and marsh grass, bounded by sandy beaches as far as the eye could see.  There was plenty of sea room; I should think you could overlay the Solent from Gilkicker Point to Beaulieu on the estuary of the Brunswick River without touching the sides.  Clearly, big ships use this piece of water, judging by the size and quality of the navigation marks, the depth of the dredged channel and the glimpses of heavy industry visible in the middle distance.  But this was late on Memorial Day and apart from a solitary shrimper at anchor sorting out his gear, I saw nobody.


Shrimper with the Brunswick River Suspension Bridge behind

The tide squirted us under a fine, modern suspension bridge and I turned right towards the town of Brunswick.  The docks were mostly empty, apart from a cluster of shrimp boats and a couple of tugs, before I reached the Brunswick Landing Marina almost at the top of the navigable stretch of water about half an hour before sunset.  Nobody would answer the VHF or the phone, so I pulled alongside the fuel pontoon.  As I was tying up, a couple of people came out to help with the lines.  One of them was the Dockmaster – they were just finishing a BBQ and free beer event to celebrate Memorial Day.  I’d run out of gas and the generator had overheated on the way in, so I decided to remain onboard and get my head down.  Not a bad plan as it happened: twenty minutes after getting alongside we had the mother of all thunderstorms.  The power cable on the boat next door erupted in flames as the water got into the circuitry; fortunately or otherwise, I could not connect my 220V systems to the same supplies, so restricted myself to offering encouragement as the owner struggled in his night clothing (after all it was after 9pm!) to sort himself out.


Jeckyll Island, on the south side of the Brunswick River.  Natural beauty…

I was a bit grumpy about the gas.  I was still unable to connect the new US propane bottle to the boat system, despite an abundance of connection possibilities. Exasperated, I sent a curt email to Haywards, the UK suppliers of my ‘go anywhere, connect to anything’ gas kit, telling them it was a feed of chutney.  I turned my attention to the generator but found no obvious fault in the salt water cooling system.  The fresh water coolant was very low however, so I topped it up and prepared to dismantle it one piece at a time in the hope that the problem was a sensor rather than a pump. 



Sunset at Brunswick Landing Marina; the paper factory is on the right

In the morning, I found a very helpful email waiting for me from Haywards, with a couple of suggestions.  After half an hour of fiddling with a spanner, I persuaded the gas bottle to release some of its precious cargo.  It appears that the brand-new seal on the bottle itself was a bit too tight… kettle on!  Without thinking, I started the generator.  It worked.  After half an hour without a murmur of complaint, the temperature gauge seemed happy.  Morale improved, and I went ashore to explore.    


Rush hour in Brunswick

The marina provides free bicycles for clients, along with free barbecues on each dock and free beer in the ‘clubhouse’.  I started with the bike; like Florida, this part of Georgia at any rate is pretty flat.  Turns out the town was established by an English soldier and philanthropist, Jame Oglethorpe, in the eighteenth century.  He had a plan to reform Britain’s worthy poor by helping them start again in Georgia, with a grand plan based on equality, racial harmony and social development without the ‘curse’ of urbanisation, wars with Indians or slavery and established Georgia as a colony around 1730.  The idea worked for a while, until the settlers saw how rich their neighbours in the Carolinas were becoming without Oglethorpe’s constraints and they gradually forced him out.  History would probably observe that his ideas on everything from slavery to free trade were about two centuries too early, but you can’t fault his vision. 

Brunswick is beautiful, with wide, tree-lined streets, fine houses and great oak trees everywhere, many covered in Spanish moss.  It looks exactly how you might imagine a ‘Deep South’ town to look.  Except that there’s tumbleweed everywhere.  Most of the shops were shut.  I could not find a coffee shop or a sports bar.  There were a couple of pizza joints and an art gallery, several thrift ships and some signs of amateur dramatics organisations.  Hardly any people, very few cars.  I found the black neighbourhood, but most people seemed to be indoors.


Escapade at Brunswick, with the swamps behind

Unlike St Augustine, which is 80% white, Brunswick is 80% black.  The average income per household is $25000 per year, which probably explains why there wasn’t much in the shops.  There is a big paper and cellulose factory running, but the shrimping industry is not as big as it once was, and several other heavy industry sites were shut down or running part time.  The port extends further upstream and is a major hub for car imports and exports. Apparently, things get lively on the first Friday of the month, just after payday, but the rest of the time, only the churches (and there are plenty) see any social activity.


One of many wonderful trees that give shape, shade and colour to the town

So, a slightly strange place.  A strong sense of the sea and a long maritime tradition, old money nearby in the Golden Isles, clearly some investment in the local economy as evidenced by the fine bridge, the port and the huge paper plant.  But most of the boats in the marina were owned and occupied by retired folks from ‘up country’ – as far away as the Canadian border - who come here for the warm weather, the beauty of the Georgia swamplands, the peaceful location and the access to the Intracoastal Waterway.  Not many of them move their boats far.  I guess the cost of living is lower here than in much of Florida. I wonder what Oglethorpe would have thought?


Yes, the driver is a dog.  The owner leaves them in a running car with the aircon on… only in America!

Some good news as I considered the next step.  First of all, Julie and her sisters were all in Milan and her Mum was receiving excellent care from the Italians.  Back in the US, faced with the challenge of getting from St Augustine to Norfolk, Virginia around Cape Hatteras, at some stage I would need to spend at least 48 hours at sea.  My insurance does not cover me for singlehanded passages at night and the cape is notorious for claiming ships and seafarers over the centuries.  So I went ‘on line’ amongst the OCC membership looking for some help.  Several potential candidates popped up, mostly for July (I hope to be well north by then) but most happily, my new friends from St Augustine, Paul and Babs Watkins.

We hatched a plan: I would get the boat to Charleston, South Carolina.  Paul would join me from wherever they had got to, we would make the passage and I would then drive him back to his boat.  My immediate challenge: 140 miles from Brunswick to Charleston, in reality an overnight passage.