In the hopes of delaying a return to ice-bound New England for a couple of more days following the Strictly Sail Miami boat show last February, I drove north along the Florida coast and across the Georgia line to visit my pal, Joe Baptista, who was wintering over on Jekyll Island aboard his Passport 40, Little Wing.
I'd heard all about the wonders of this island while sitting aboard Little Wing on summer evenings in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Joe's home port. He'd spent a winter on Jekyll a few years earlier and raved about the friendly people, the walking and biking trails, the beaches, and the mild weather.
So I wasn't surprised to hear that when Joe sailed south in the fall of 2007, plans to push on to Florida were swept out with the tide and, instead, Little Wing nestled snugly into a berth on the inside of the floating dock at Jekyll Harbor Marina.
After a long day's drive through some truly torrential rain, I was more than ready the next morning to go exploring, starting with the marina grounds that are on the Intracoastal Waterway, just south of the 65-foot-high bridge that connects Jekyll with the mainland. At the head of the dock are a small store and office, and across a lush, green yard lie a restaurant, laundry, showers, and a pool surrounded by oaks and Spanish moss. The marina also has a large storage shed where all descriptions of powerboats are stored in racks; on the waterfront, 38 slips are located inboard of an 800-foot-long face dock that's often bustling with transients.
The amenity I found most useful at the marina was the free bicycles available for cruisers, because everything on Jekyll Island is accessible on two wheels. Our tour, dutifully narrated by Joe, took us first past the shops in the center of town, then to the beach that runs along the entire east side of the island. At low tide, you can ride on the sand, but instead, we rode north along paved paths to a trail that winds though marshland surrounded by forest. At its end, there's a park that includes an array of fishing piers that overlook St. Simons Sound and the lighthouse on St. Simons Island, to the north.
From there, we rode south along Jekyll Creek and the I.C.W. (mile markers 680 to 685) to the Jekyll Island Club and the island's historic district. The club dates back to 1886, when some of the richest families in America pooled resources to buy the island and build a winter retreat and hunting preserve. The state bought the property in 1947, turning it into a park and an ongoing restoration project.
As we rode back toward Little Wing, the temperature dropped considerably, and dark clouds erased the sun. Soon, a north wind screamed down the I.C.W., bringing sheets of rain along with it. By then, though, I was sitting below, a little wiser about why the cruisers I'd spoken with that morning on the dock found it hard to keep cruising once they stepped ashore here.
Tom Burkhardt and Mary Hazel landed on Jekyll Island aboard their Swiss-built Nomade, named Nomade Parisette, in August 2007. In the late 1980s, Tom had taken a year off and cruised south from his home in Ohio with his son and his first wife. They made it as far as Highbourn Cay, in the Exumas, before returning home. When Tom sold his business last summer, Mary sold her house, and they bought Nomade in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Sixty-something Mary was new to sailing but eager to start on a new adventure before she turned 70.
By the time they were two hours out of the New River, Mary had mastered the chart and was telling Tom where to steer. "She's still using left and right," Tom says, "but that's OK."
So what brought them to Jekyll Island?
"I think it's one of the prettiest islands," says Tom. The plan was to pause for a few boat repairs before heading for the Bahamas. Then the repair list grew to include a new windlass, autopilot, and mainsail. They still planned, though, to visit the Bahamas in the spring before returning to Jekyll, then sailing north for the summer.
The Schlumps-Philip, Sasha, and 8-year-old twins Corwin and Chantelle -were another family settling into their boat, Amazing Grace II, a Beneteau 50. Philip sold his software company in Colorado, and when his contractual obligation to the new owners ended, the family packed their belongings, left their home and small sailboat behind in Denver, and moved aboard their new floating home in St. Petersburg, Florida. They got to the boat in October and arrived at Jekyll the second week of December. Sasha, who's homeschooling the kids, says classes are easier to conduct on the boat than in a house because there are fewer distractions.
Philip grew up with an adventurous father who once took him sailing for two months on a pair of small folding sailboats in Panama's San Blas islands; his sailing résumé also includes an Atlantic crossing. A decade ago, while sitting in a restaurant in St. Pete at the end of a weeklong charter aboard a Beneteau 50, Philip and Sasha decided that they'd someday take their own children on a sailing adventure. They sat in the same restaurant last fall as they signed papers on Amazing Grace II.
So far, Corwin says he likes the adventure, and Chantelle likes the fish. Come spring, Amazing Grace II will head north to the Chesapeake so the kids can see Washington, D.C.
Anthony "Pete" Bartleson and his wife, Carol, planned to leave Jekyll Island much sooner than spring and head for the Florida Keys, where Pete once owned a marine-electronics business in Marathon. They've been living aboard their Allied Mistress, Maerdym, for 26 years, and Pete had just finished converting the V-berth into a television room, complete with a flat screen mounted on the bulkhead. Evidence of his handiwork could be seen throughout the boat's cozy interior.
An ex-Marine, Pete closed his business seven years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer, and eventually they moved north to Jekyll Island, close to the airport in Jacksonville, Florida, so it would be easier for him to travel to Texas for his regular treatments. This winter, he'd gotten the all clear from the doctors, and the two sailors were eager to head south once more.
Both he and Carol spoke passionately about the treatment afforded to cruisers along the Florida coast, where they say authorities have been randomly boarding boats to enforce pumpout and other regulations and handing out stiff fines, in some cases for questionable violations. Meanwhile, they say, no attention is paid to RVs in the Keys that sometimes dump their tanks along the road.
The most egregious enforcement practice? Pete says it's the marine patrols that stop people in their dinghies and fine them $75 if they don't have a whistle with them.
"It's just a way of making trouble, to stop us, to poke into our lives and see where we're going," says Carol.
Mark Pillsbury is CW's senior editor.