Beyond The Garden Of Good And Evil

A cruising guide to the waters around Savannah, Georgia.

The historic southern city of Savannah, Georgia, is in the spotlight, both in the blockbuster bestseller Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and also as the host city for sailing events in the 1996 Summer Olympics set to begin in mid-July. Whether or not you’re Olympics-bound, consider coming to Georgia by boat. You’ll discover a cruising ground rich with history, sea islands, wildlife, tidewater creeks, and a relaxing, slow-paced lifestyle.

The marsh grass takes on a golden hue, the water turns the color of honey, and the sunset sky kaleidoscopes from pink to brilliant orange. Sea Lion, our Gulfstar 37, is snugged in tight in a bend of Georgia’s Crescent River. All is quiet when a loud flapping sound startles me. From the riverbank, six wood storks lift from the limbs of an oak tree. The wingspan of North America’s only stork, now an endangered species, is 51/2 feet. The birds wheel in loose formation, following the curve of the tidal creek. To see a single bird as magnificent as the wood stork is one thing; to see a whole colony is another. With each fading flap of the birds’ wings, I am reminded powerfully that the world once existed on quite different terms: without taxes or faxes, without highways or political surveys, without the tyranny of news updates or ever-changing fashions.

Cruising Georgia’s water world, with its labyrinthine tidal creeks, lonely barrier islands and history-laden coast, is a voyage of rediscovery. On this coast, Guale Indians built middens, Spanish friars preached and French traders trafficked in furs. Along these riverbanks, British Redcoats and rag-tag revolutionaries battled for a nation; nearly 100 years later, the battle to keep that nation raged across its shores. Rice and cotton plantations thrived, then waned. Economic booms and busts have come and gone. Today, as Georgia prepares to greet the world during the Summer Olympics, the coast continues to entice sailors with its natural beauty, its history and its slow-paced lifestyle.

The Inside Passage

The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) stretches 137 miles through Georgia, alternately crossing open sounds and cutting through narrow channels. But from Savannah in the north to Cumberland Island in the south, Georgia’s coast is marked by a consistent geography. A multitude of rivers drain into a vast network of salt marshes, tidal flats and meandering creeks. Spartina cordgrass forms a four- to six-mile band behind the barrier islands, creating one of the most extensive and productive marshland systems in the United States. Wide, open-water sounds break the monotony of the marsh, and serve as entryways to the sea. The Georgia coast etches a deep, V-shaped bight in the southeastern seaboard. Because of this, tides are high and currents are swift. Twice daily, the tides ebb and flow six to eight feet or more; spring tides can reach nine feet easily, which must be taken into account when figuring anchor scope or correcting for current.

Roughly, the Georgia coast can be divided into four sections: Savannah and its environs in the north; the mid-Georgia coast with its miles and miles of undeveloped marsh and hidden history; the "Golden Isles," where resorts have replaced cotton and rice plantations of centuries past; and the southern coast, with the pristine loveliness of a national seashore and the appealing town of St. Marys.

Historic Savannah: Home Of The Sailing Olympics

In 1733, General James Oglethorpe laid out the town of Savannah, the first city in the colony of Georgia. The city survived British invasion during the Revolution, and went on to grow and flourish as a preeminent trade center. In the mid 1700s, Savannah residents began to build lavish homes in their own distinct Low-Country style. Along the riverfront, the massive brick cotton exchange dominated the world cotton market. The Civil War wrought destruction, but the city rebounded to become the thriving port town it is today.

Savannah’s brick streets, shady city squares, stately house museums and revitalized riverfront are enchanting. Wonderful restaurants abound; antique stores dot every corner and ornate statues guard the streets. But while the town’s rich heritage is almost tangible, so is excitement for the sailing venue of the upcoming Centennial Olympics. For three weeks this summer Savannah will host some of the world’s most exciting sailing. Over 440 sailors from 80 countries will compete in eight classes and 10 events. Cruisers have two options for exploring Savannah. Boats can detour nine miles off the ICW to the heart of Savannah’s historic district, where the only dock that accepts transients is at the Hyatt Regency Hotel (call first, and be forewarned that there are no showers or other facilities). The other option is to stay on the ICW and dock at one of the full-service marinas clustered near the town of Thunderbolt. From there, it is just a short bus or taxi ride into Savannah.

Ten miles south of Thunderbolt on the ICW is Isle of Hope. Nestled in a tight hairpin curve on the Skidaway River, it is a bicyclers’ paradise. Beautiful old homes with mint-julep verandas and azalea-clad lawns line the high bluff; in the spring, the sight of the azaleas blossoming is a sight for sore eyes. The old-fashioned Isle of Hope Marina welcomes transients at its docks and offers a dinghy dock for those who choose to anchor in the nearby basin.

Exploring The Low Country

With its hundreds of secluded anchorages, the central coastline of Georgia is a gunkholer’s heaven. But civilization’s amenities are few and far between. Before tackling this stretch, stock up on groceries, gas and water. And bring plenty of film: The beauty and shifting light of the marsh will fascinate you. South of the Isle of Hope, Ossabaw Sound and St. Catherines Sound open their wide, blue waters eastward to the ocean. To the west of St. Catherines runs the Medway River, on whose bluffs lie the ruins of a Revolutionary War fort.

Diverting off the ICW to explore the Medway calls for careful navigation of the sand shoals, but a cruiser who carries and carefully studies the required charts should have no problem (see "Charts And Guides," below). Drop anchor in the Sunbury Channel, which is about six miles upriver, and dinghy the short distance to the public boat ramp on the western shore. A quarter-mile up the road and a half-mile to the left is Fort Morris. A bustling port that rivaled Savannah in the 1750s, Fort Morris is now a state historic site that welcomes history buffs throughout the year. The fort is open daily except on Mondays.

Back on the ICW, cruisers meander inland of St. Catherine’s Island, which was once the capital of the Creek Indian Confederacy. Now privately owned and closed to visitors, the island is a zoological sanctuary for endangered species. The subtropical island hosts breeding colonies of lemurs, gazelles, zebras, hartebeests, parrots, cockatoos and Madagascar turtles; if you’re lucky, you may get a glimpse of this "Out Of Africa" scene.

Sapelo Sound, which boasts a well-marked channel to the Atlantic, offers a pleasant five-mile sail when wind conditions are right. At the southern end of Sapelo is the Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge, a nirvana for naturalists.

Named for the notorious pirate who reportedly frequented the island, Blackbeard Island has been in government ownership since 1800. There are no roads to Blackbeard, and no access except by private boat. The seven miles of shining beach are likely to be shared only by you, crashing waves and crying gulls. Off the beach are more than 20 miles of hiking trails that wind through forests of oak, pine, holly, southern magnolia and cabbage palmetto.

To explore Blackbeard Island, enter Blackbeard Creek from the mouth of Sapelo Sound and follow it to the secluded anchorage just north of Cabretta Inlet. Although locals who carry a five-foot draft navigate the creek at low tide, those unfamiliar with the area may feel more confident at mid-tide. (The island closes for two weekends per year, usually toward the end of October and the first of December. Call 912-652-4415 if your visit may coincide with these dates.)

To the south and east of Blackbeard is Sapelo Island. Once a thriving plantation and later the private domain of tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds, the island is now home to a national estuarine research reserve and to the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute. Access to the island is strictly by the Sapelo Queen ferryboat, and tickets must be purchased in advance in the town of Darien. As a cruiser, you will have to be content with a glimpse of the lighthouse that has stood since 1820.

Between Sapelo and Doboy Sounds, the ICW offers serenity and solitude. And in this area, perhaps, lie the archaeological remains of the very beginnings of American history as written by Europeans. In the fall of 1526, a Spaniard by the name of Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon sailed from Hispaniola with six ships and 600 colonists. After his flagship sank off the coast of South Carolina, he ventured farther south and built a village. Shortly thereafter, Allyon and most of his followers died from disease and starvation. The remaining would-be colonists returned to Hispaniola, leaving the first European colony on the North American continent to sink into oblivion. Although the remains of Allyon’s colony have not been found, archaeologists believe it was located near Sapelo Sound. Sail these waters with an eye for the ghosts of history.

The best way to enjoy the desolate beauty of this stretch of the Georgia coast is to anchor in one of the creeks or rivers that crisscross the ICW. Break out the dinghy and explore the narrow tidal creeks; you’re apt to see otters, raccoons and wood storks, herons, hawks and bald eagles. Back on the ICW, you’re as likely to come across shrimp boats as other cruisers. The white-hulled working boats trimmed with colorful paints bear names as southern as a steel magnolia: Susie-Q, Bobby Lee, Miss Julia. Bedecked with the unpretentious paraphernalia of men who make their living casting for crustaceans, the shrimp boats ply these waters day and night.

In Darien, a town of less than 1,800 residents, you will have your first chance since leaving Savannah 75 miles north to buy groceries, read a newspaper, access an ATM machine or sample other benefits of civilization. There’s an antique store or two, historic homes and a church built by former slaves in 1876. A mile from the town proper is Fort King George historic site. Built in 1721, the fort was the first English military outpost in what is now Georgia. The site, open daily except Mondays, features a museum and a replica of the fort’s blockhouse.

Cruisers can access Darien by venturing up the Darien River (checking the chart and watching for shoals) and berthing at the small town dock, which does not offer fuel, showers or laundry, but is only a stone’s throw from Darien’s historic district. Another option for reaching Darien is to wander up the South Altamaha River to the Two-Way Fish Camp. The friendly folks there are liable to let you borrow their pickup truck to go the three miles into Darien. The marina there has ample dockage, showers, a small ship’s store and a restaurant.

Two miles down the road from the Two-Way Marina is the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, an historic rice plantation dating back to 1807. Open daily (except, you guessed it, Mondays) the plantation has a museum, walking trails and a restored plantation home. Built in 1851, the plantation home was one of the few houses on this section of the coast that escaped devastation when Federal troops "burned their way to the sea" during the Civil War.

Brunswick And The Land Of The Golden Isles

As you travel south on the ICW, you will skirt behind two of the Golden Isles: St. Simons and Jekyll. So-named for the golden marshes that protect their western coasts, these barrier islands are more developed than their northern neighbors, yet retain their unspoiled beauty and unhurried charm.

St. Simons Island is casual but chic, funky but traditional and commercially developed but mesmerizing in its natural beauty. At its southern tip is an eclectic village where trendy boutiques and old-time drugstores mingle with surf shops and art galleries. At the edge of the village looms a gleaming, white, 200-year-old lighthouse. A climb to the top of the 106-foot-tall structure offers panoramic views. At the base of the lighthouse, the keeper’s cottage houses a museum of coastal history. Beyond the village, St. Simons has many historical charms.

The island has only two marinas. From the Hampton River Club Marina on the north end, you will need to rent a car to explore the island. From the Golden Isles Marina on the southern end of the island, you can explore the Village area by bicycle, or -- if you’ve got sturdy hiking shoes -- by foot. (It’s three miles from the marina to the Village.) Even so, you may want to rent a car and drive over the causeway to Sea Island to see the famed Cloisters resort. By all means, linger long enough to see what brings generation after generation of Georgians back to this congenial island.

Barely five miles south of St. Simons lies Jekyll Island. In 1886, this intriguing isle was purchased by a group of America’s wealthiest families. For the next 56 years, until it was sold during World War II, Jekyll Island served as the private winter playground of the Pulitzers, Rockefellers, Morgans, McCormicks, Astors and Goulds.

Jekyll Harbor Marina, on the ICW south of the Jekyll Bridge, is a good place to tie up. From there, you can explore the island’s 240-acre historic district either by bicycle, by foot, or by way of guided trolley tour. Either way, take time to imagine the turn-of-the-century lifestyle of the outrageously rich. Stroll through their mansion-size "cottages," dine in their ornate Millionaire’s Club (not a resort hotel) and peek into the chapel that glistens with Tiffany windows.

Should you tire of island life, consider a visit to the mainland. Just west of St. Simons Sound, a four-mile detour up the Brunswick River leads to Georgia’s newest full-service marina. Brunswick Landing Marina, with new facilities and a 50-ton Travelift, is just blocks from downtown Brunswick. Several nearby eateries offer bountiful southern breakfasts complete with biscuits, eggs, ham and grits. A morning’s walk can take you to the points of interest: the impressive courthouse built in 1907, the Old Towne district with its Victorian architecture and 900-year-old Lovers’ Oak. Come nightfall, this sleepy coastal town closes up, but a taxi can ferry hungry passengers to nearby restaurants.

A Magical Island Matched By A Charming Town

South of Jekyll Island, the Satilla River flows into St. Andrews Sound. Because the ICW curves east to the edge of the Atlantic before boomeranging back inland, bad weather can make this passage nasty. For boats that draw less than five feet, the alternate ICW path offers the proverbial scenic route.

The reward for crossing the sound is Cumberland Island National Seashore, with its lush maritime forest and wide pearly beach. This tranquil, 16-mile-long island has been preserved from development since 1972. Point of entry for private boats is the Park Service’s Sea Camp dock; if the dock is full, anchor off and dinghy ashore. Walk the half-mile or so through the forest of live oaks draped with Spanish moss and rustling with sounds of armadillos, deer and raccoons. Beyond the high sand dunes, wild horses gallop along the beach; sandpipers dance in breaking waves. Seasonally, at night, loggerhead turtles lumber ashore and lay their eggs, although visitors are discouraged from viewing the spectacle so as not to disturb the turtles or harm the newly laid eggs.

Overnight dockage is not available at the public docks at Cumberland, but the Greyfield Inn will work to accommodate boaters who call ahead, wishing to visit and perhaps stay at the historic inn. Built by Thomas Carnegie and now run by his ancestors, the inn provides a taste of the monied pleasures of a bygone era. You can also anchor in one of the many nearby gunkholes or sail on before nightfall to the town of St. Marys.

As you traverse the ICW toward St. Marys, you may end up sharing the channel with more than just playful bottlenose dolphins. Don’t be startled if you wind up next to the steel-gray carapace of a surfacing nuclear submarine; the U.S. Navy maintains a base on nearby Kings Bay.

The St. Marys River, whose clear waters are tinted burgundy with tannin, marks the Georgia-Florida border. A few miles upriver is the village of St. Marys. A stone’s throw from the historic downtown, Lang’s Marina offers low-key, well-protected docks. Find a spot to tie up, then stroll up to Lang’s Seafood Store to check in.

Orange Hall, a Greek Revival mansion dating to 1829, houses the town’s welcome center and museum. From there, the town’s shady streets lead to restored homes, antique shops and a wonderful bookstore. The charms of this gentle town are impossible to resist.

When you finally say farewell to the town of St. Marys and head south, you will be saying farewell to Georgia. On reflection, you may agree that on the whole of the Atlantic Seaboard, perhaps no other place is quite so unsullied, quite so undiscovered as the Georgia coast.

Georgia’s On My Mind -- When Should I Go?

Georgia’s stretch of the ICW sees an annual migration of northern cruisers heading for tropical climates every fall, then returning north in the spring. Fortunately for those who want to stay and explore, spring and fall are probably the best times of the year to cruise coastal Georgia.

March usually brings spring rains and balmy weather full of golden sunshine, with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees. But spring’s fickle side can produce blustery weather and even an occasional gale. As always when sailing, a good weather eye is called for.

By mid-June, summer is in full force. Temperatures routinely reach 90 degrees, the humidity is high and afternoon thunderstorms appear like clockwork. But to native Georgians, summer is the time to be on the coast. The beaches are gorgeous, the fishing is good and the beer is cold.

Mid-September through November is usually an exquisite time for cruising. Warm blue-sky days with moderate winds, followed by crisp nights, predominate. West-northwest cold fronts sometimes blow through, but usually pass quickly. This is still hurricane season, which stretches from June to mid-November, so use common sense: Listen to the weather channels on VHF radio and take precautions should bad weather be predicted.

December through February brings heavier winds and colder weather. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, but expect to see the 40s at night and 50s and 60s during the day. In the midsection of Georgia, some of the fishing villages may be shuttered for the season, but the more sophisticated Savannah and the resort-oriented Golden Isles will be in full swing.

Helpful Charts And Guides For Georgia

The Georgia coast is covered by NOAA charts. 11507: Intracoastal Waterway from Beaufort River, South Carolina, to St. Simons Sound. 11489: St. Simons Sound south into Florida. (Depending on which rivers and towns you decide to explore, you will need several additional charts.) 11512: Details the passage upstream to the city of Savannah and the marina area south of Savannah. 11511: The Ogeechee, Medway and North Newport Rivers, as well as Ossabaw and St. Catherines Sounds. Necessary for the side trip to Fort Morris. 11510: Sapelo and Doboy Sounds. 11508: Altamaha Sound. Required for a trip to Darien. 11506: St. Simons Sound and the route to Brunswick. 11504: St. Andrews Sound. 11503: St. Marys River and the entrance to St. Marys Village.

The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk To Miami edited by John and Leslie Kettlewell (Seven Seas Press) and the Waterway Guide Chartbook, Norfolk To Jacksonville edited by Judith Powers (Argus Business) contain chart reproductions covering the ICW. For off-the-ICW exploring, however, additional NOAA charts, as noted above, are required.

The Intracoastal Waterway: A Cockpit Cruising Handbook (3rd ed.) by Jan and Bill Moeller (Seven Seas Press) and the 1995 Mid-Atlantic Waterway Guide edited by Judith Powers (Argus Business) provide a sketchbook tour of highlights along Georgia’s ICW.

The only true cruising guide to Georgia is Claiborne S. Young’s Cruising Guide To Coastal South Carolina And Georgia (John F. Blair, Publisher, Winston-Salem, North Carolina). The guide serves up doses of local history while giving detailed information on marinas, anchorages and restaurants.

Helpful Hints And Numbers To Know

Gear. Many of the historic sites are two to three miles from the nearest dock, so folding bicycles are a boon. The flat terrain makes exploring by bicycle particularly pleasurable and many places have delightful bike paths.

Because certain times of the year can be buggy, insect repellent is a must. For the "no-see-ums," natives swear by Avon’s Skin-So-Soft bath oil applied liberally to the skin. Fine mesh screens for the boat’s hatches and companionway are a worthwhile investment for keeping bugs at bay.

Repair Services. Full-service marinas with maintenance and repair facilities are abundant near Savannah and again near Brunswick, but are scarce in the midsection of Georgia. Near Savannah, Tidewater Boatworks (912-352-1335) has a 45-ton Travelift and a large parts store. Extensive repair services are also available at Palmer Johnson of Savannah Marina (912-352-4956). The Yachtworks boatyard (912-897-1914) and the Isle of Hope Marina (912-354-8187). From here south to Florida, the only haul out is the 50-ton Travelift at the Brunswick Landing Marina (912-262-9264).

Mechanical repairs are also offered on a limited basis at the Golden Isles Marina (912-634-1786) and the Jekyll Harbor Marina (912-635-3137).

Numbers To Know. Visitor information: Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-444-2427); Brunswick & The Golden Isles Visitors Bureau (800-933-COAST); Cumberland Island National Seashore (912-882-4335); The Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island (904-261-6408); St. Marys Tourism Council (800-868-8687).

Marinas: Savannah Hyatt Regency Hotel (912-238-1234); Palmer Johnson of Savannah Marine (912-352-4956); Savannah Bend Marina (912-897-3625); Ambos Marina (912-354-4133); Isle of Hope Marina (912-354-8187); Two-Way Fish Camp (912) 265-0410); Golden Isles Marina (912-634-1786); Hampton River Club Marina (912-638-1210); Jekyll Harbor Marina (912-635-3137); Sailing Schools and Charters. Sail Harbor Academy (912-897-2135); Blackbeard Navigation and Coastal Sailing School (404-351-9463).

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Freelance writer Susan Mason and her husband, Gardiner, divide their time between their home in Atlanta and their cottage on the Georgia coast. Their Gulfstar 37 is docked in Brunswick, Georgia.