November 15, 2003
Isle Of Hope, Georgia
31º 58.630
81º 03.240

Georgia On My Mind

By Bernadette Bernon

- At first light, with tears in our eyes, we hauled up the anchor, steered Ithaka in a slow circle around Zia Lucia, and waved good-bye to David and Shauna, who’d gotten up early to say good-bye. Douglas blew three long lamenting calls on our conch horn, as we finally turned away, ghosted out of little No Name Harbor, and began to retrace our GPS track out through the shallow Key Biscayne channel toward the open ocean. Shauna and David were our last touchstones to the cruising community, dear friends who’d shared “re-entry” with us, the emotional roller coaster ride of coming home. After experiencing so much together, this, finally, is where our paths diverged.


Ithaka sets sail from Key Biscayne, away from cruising friends, and on to new adventures in Savannah, Georgia.
After about 45 minutes of motoring into the wind and waves, over depths that showed only two or three feet under Ithaka’s stern, we finally tip-toed toward the last shallow GPS mark, turned left into deep water, relaxed a bit, trimmed the sails, and headed north with our thoughts, toward Savannah, and an ocean passage of a couple of days. Saying good-bye always makes us quiet for the first few hours of a journey.

Douglas and I like to stand a two-hour watch system all night, especially the first couple days at sea. This way, during the day, the person off watch can go below for longer periods and sleep uninterrupted, while the person on watch maintains control, checks position, watches the horizon for ships and squalls, trims the sails when needed, and so on. By catching up on sleep during the day, we feel a little better rested during the middle of the night, when it’s harder to stay awake. Trading watches is how we spent our first day out of Key Biscayne, one of us always up in the cockpit, and the other either reading or snoozing. With good winds but overcast skies, we were close-hauled with Ithaka’s sails sheeted in tight, and made fantastic time, riding the Gulf Stream.


The wide-open inlet at St. Simons Island is where Ithaka tucked in for protection from the building elements at sea.
Gray curtains of rain began appearing here and there on the horizon before sunset the first day, and after darkness fell we tracked more squalls approaching on our radar. By morning, we’d sailed through a couple of doozies, with their downpours and increased winds clocking around and requiring us to shorten sail by furling in more of the genoa, and lowering the mainsail one reef point. With a bit less sail area, Ithaka lost nothing in speed, but she was less heeled over, and the ride more comfortable. Day two brought more squalls, and a more persistent driving rain.


Night after night, we had the dramatic sunsets in the Georgia marshlands all to ourselves.
Sailing about 30 miles offshore, to position ourselves in the strongest northern flow of the Gulf Stream, we picked up a warning from a local Coast Guard station on VHF channel 16, announcing that a large line of thunderstorms was moving at 35 miles an hour directly toward us. They cautioned boaters to stay in port, and suggested that those on the water seek shelter immediately. There was no shelter for us, so for two hours Douglas and I worried about our impending rendezvous with this monster-system, and kept checking the horizon. When the dark squall line finally emerged, we reefed Ithaka down some more, and over several dramatic hours sailed through pounding rain, high winds, and dazzling lightening bolts striking all around us. We were glad for one thing, though; for a change this all came during daylight hours. Normally, it seems, these beasts are nocturnal.


The reliably consistent mile markers all along the American Intracoastal Waterway show you where the channel is, and keep you out of the shallows.
About 350 miles north of No Name Harbor, we turned west, exited the speeding Gulf Stream, watched our speed drop to normal numbers, and ducked into the Intracoastal Waterway, just south of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. Once Ithaka was in the protective lee of St. Simon’s, and headed north into the Georgia marshes, our world changed for the better. The water calmed. The still-strong winds carried us along through green grassy avenues and creeks. Dolphins jumped alongside us as we soared from mile marker to mile marker, and a watery landscape unfolded as beautiful as any we’d ever seen. As far as the eye could see in the rainy mist were valleys of bright-green marsh grasses undulating in the wind, and thick green-black forests of towering firs. The banks along the sides of this natural inland waterway were a ribbon of black mud at low tide, and here and there were graceful long-legged egrets, white as snow against the black, foraging for their dinner, or just standing elegantly watching the world go by. As we motorsailed along, we watched the tide change, and the slowly rising waters swallow the ebony ribbon, till only the top half of the marsh grasses rose above the brackish water.

So this was Georgia! Wow! What a feast for the eyes. To think that three years ago, on our hurried voyage south from Rhode Island, we’d sailed offshore past this state. We’d been freezing in ice storms up north, and just wanted to reach Florida in double time, where we could peel off our gloves and fleece hats as soon as possible. We’d no idea how spectacular Georgia is, and what we were missing.


You could lose yourselves among the undulating marsh grasses of the Intracoastal Waterway in Georgia
Our first night in the marshes, we nuzzled into Wally’s Leg, a beautiful little creek off the main artery, dropped the hook in 12 feet of water, and throttled back on the rode to make sure the anchor was well dug in. No worries. This was thick Georgia mud. If any squalls found us in here tonight, they could knock themselves out. We were going nowhere.

That evening, we studied our chartbook, and Skipper Bob’s Anchorages Along The Intracoastal Waterway (a compilation of best anchorages, marinas, and fuel prices) to review our route and see where we could bring Ithaka to rendezvous with some friends who lived in south Georgia. As we traced our fingers along the waterway, the names on the charts painted a picture of the old south, sometimes evoking a simpler life in times gone by -- Buttermilk Sound, Mud River, Old Teakettle Creek, and Possum Point -- and occasionally evoking the tragic human dramas that once played out here; one of the most poignant was called Escaped Negro Creek. Sitting in our cockpit that evening, Douglas and I looked out over the marsh-scape around us, and imagined the story that must have inspired that name.


Al and Teresa
We decided to aim the next day for a marina called Two-Way Fish Camp (the name as well as the location intrigued us), where we could leave Ithaka while we visited inland. Two-Way was located about five miles up a winding, well-protected creek. It was reasonably priced, and the fellow on the phone won me over with his musical accent and promise to lead us in through the last of “them dad-blang shallows” if we ran into trouble on the way. Ithaka spent three days tied up at Two-Way, while Douglas and I hopped in the car with our friends Al and Teresa, whom we’d first met two years ago when they were running a private school in Honduras, and Ithaka was hauled there for bottom painting. Now living back home in the Barbeque Belt of Georgia, Al and Teresa rolled out the red carpet for us, driving us through thousands of acres of “pupwood”(the soft wood used to make “paypuh”), filled us with all kinds of lore about the Okeefanokkee Swamp, and gave us a big ‘ole dollop of southern hospitality. We ate our way through three days of home-style Creole, Cajun, and Low Country specialties; barbecue; country-style hams, burgoos and stews – until we were plum wore out, and had gained about 100 pounds! Douglas and I each dream of one day returning for yet another dinner with Al and Teresa and their family at the infamous Jimbo’s BBQ in Homerville.


A country dinner would be incomplete without Jimbos Barbeque Sauce world-famous and bone-sucking good!
From Two-Way, stocked with provisions from the Piggly Wiggly, we hugged Al and Teresa, and set off on the marshy waterway toward the Isle Of Hope, our gateway to Savannah. On the way, we anchored the first night tucked up in a secluded creek, watched snapping turtles circle us, flocks of birds soaring overhead, alligators sunning on the banks, and a heartbreakingly beautiful sunset. Deciding that things couldn’t get much better than this, we lingered for two days, enjoying our solitude, catching up on a few boat projects, and some writing. Being back in the hustle and bustle of the United States, we were craving the balance of quiet times more than ever before. The Georgia marshes, which we had all to ourselves, were a gift.

After we finally picked up the anchor, and carried on, we passed the Ogeechee and Little Ogeechee rivers and puttered through Skidaway Narrows – every turn of the waterway revealing a scene more beautiful than the one before. Then, just west of Burntpot, close to mile marker 46A, we dropped Ithaka’s anchor again, in 10 feet, at the Isle Of Hope. This was an exciting stop. Here, we’d finally meet in person friends we’d made over the internet, Kenny and Mary, who live in nearby Sandfly. It was a bit like a blind date!


A couple of years back, we’d gotten to know Kenny when he contacted us through this column. A lieutenant colonel in the Army, he’d been following our story online, and had told his friends Al and Teresa in La Ceiba, Honduras about it. We’d ended up meeting Al and Teresa in La Ceiba because of Kenny, and later we spent great times with them in the Bay Islands of Honduras, in Venezuela, and most recently just a few days before in Homerville. Finally in Isle of Hope, the triangle of friends was joined. After so much correspondence, and after discovering we had so many mutual interests – Kenny is a gifted writer who’d shared his hilarious short stories with us -- finally meeting and hanging out with him for a couple of weeks was a thrill for Douglas and me.


Kenny and Mary
Kenny’s dream is to go cruising when he eventually retires from the Army, and he’s doing his best to entice his girlfriend Mary into the sailing and cruising life. Over the next two weeks, as we hung around on Ithaka, or at Kenny’s house, or Mary’s house, or as we poked around Savannah together, it was fun to give them ideas about boats and places they’d like, and then see their reactions and how it fueled their ideas of what’s possible. It reminded us how some of the places Douglas and I have been over the past three years once seemed so distant and unattainable to us, and now that we’ve gone there, one step at a time, they seem so accessible and easy. What a difference a few years make!


The infamous Mercer house, which climbed to fame as the site of the murder in the equally bestselling book Midnight In the Garden Of Good And Evil
Meanwhile, Kenny and Mary showed us Savannah – a breathtaking city to walk through. We came to understand why, during the “War Of Northern Aggression,” as many southerners still call The Civil War, General Sherman, who said he “could make Georgia howl,” could not bring himself to torch Savannah. It was just too beautiful. In the daytime Savannah is genteel, hospitable, and beautifully planned, a city that William Harris wrote, in his page-turner Delirium of the Brave (a great historical-fiction mystery), “danced a slow waltz with time.” At night, though, Harris saw other dimensions, calling Savannah: “Georgia’s state within a state, her penultimate zone of forbidden but tolerated pleasures, a beautiful and sassy child… a defiant and seductive lady.”


Everywhere you look in downtown Savannah, is dazzling architecture, shady parks, and southern charm.
When we weren’t all together, Kenny lent us his truck while he was at work, so Douglas and I were able to do some errands during the day – an incredible help to us – and go visit some other old friends living in Savannah, and in Colombia, South Carolina. In the evenings, we strolled around town. Then Al and Teresa drove in, and for a few days we all made a big old southern-style party out of it.


Behind almost every garden gate in downtown Savannah, it seems, are spectacularly lush gardens that thrive in the humid air.
A highlight of our time in Savannah was a walking tour with guide, Sharon Gaylen, which began in her ante-bellum home on Calhoun Square. For hours we strolled streets overhung with Spanish moss, and paved with ballast stones from trading ships. We passed Forest Gump’s bench, took pictures in front of the home where the murder in the bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil took place, visited elegant churches and synagogues, and were mesmerized by Sharon’s history of the city. We read aloud the plaques on statues of southern heroes. For example, General James Edward Oglelthrope, the founder of Georgia, stands proudly in Chippewa Square, dressed in military uniform and facing south, his back never turned on his enemies and the dangers from that direction. Sharon explained that the Spanish had settled in Florida and wanted to capture English territory to the north. Georgia served as a buffer to keep them out of the Carolinas. Even in death, Ogelthorpe was keeping his eye on the ball.


We visited the Congregation Mickve Israel Temple
In colonial times, Georgia stood for freedom of religion, except for Catholicism, which was not allowed. The Georgian colonists feared infiltration and possible attack from the Spanish, who were Catholics and had settled Florida, and he didn’t want to take any chances. Another statue, of a soldier in Forsyth Park, honors the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy. That soldier faces north, said Sharon, “for obvious reasons.” (For information on an excellent private walking tour, contact Sharon Gaylen at savseen@aol.com)


With Al and Teresa, and Kenny and Mary, we had a night of terrific Irish music at Kevin Barry’s Pub
While we were in Savannah, we also celebrated a reunion with Naomi and Thea, good friends of Douglas’s from graduate school, and Thea’s husband Matthew. They too squired us about as we reminisced, laughed, and compared how all our lives have meandered since we’d last seen each other. Late afternoons we often stopped into the Driftaway, a favorite local watering hole in the town of Sandfly. We poked around Moon River, forever immortalized in the chestnut that became one of Andy Williams’ theme songs, and we began to imagine what it would be like to live in Georgia. What we’d seen so far, we loved. It’s funny how cruising does that to you. It makes you imagine all kinds of different lives for yourself, and endless possibilities for change and growth. And that feels mighty fine, as they say ‘round here.


Thinking back on Georgia, we’ll remember most fondly our friends, the spectacular unfettered sunsets, and having peaceful anchorages all to ourselves.
Finally, it was time to mosey onward, to tear ourselves away from our friends, this beautiful state and its hospitality. Douglas and I had agreed to do a slideshow-lecture in the Chesapeake, and we were pushing the time frame as it was. Reluctantly, with promises to meet again up in Newport, we hugged our friends good-bye for now, pulled up the anchor, puttered Ithaka back into the marshy waterway and headed north.

Cruisers often say that one of the hardest things about the cruising life is the number of times you have to say good-bye to people with whom you’ve shared intense times. Saying good-bye in Georgia was like that. I thought of our friends David and Shauna on Zia Lucia, starting a new life for themselves back in Key Biscayne, and wished they’d been here to share all this with us here. For a good long time we’d keep Georgia on our minds.