The "Live-Anywhere" Boat - The Trip South, Part III, Charleston to the Bahamas
Updated January 8, 2009
Our Saloon Table, Finally Installed

In Charleston I finally got the dining table properly installed, in time to have dinner with our friends Jim and Barbara; this would not have been possible without friends, as I simply would not have had the time to do the necessary. Walter and Esther Greene built the basic seat structure, Richard Hallett made the cushions in a great rush, Scott Whitman built the pedestal, and David Scrase made the top. Public thanks here to all!

We hoisted the dinghy and left Charleston late in the afternoon of the 15th, with the idea that we would be at the Savannah River sea buoy about dawn the next day. We had learned that Charleston is the 4th largest container port in the US but our anchorage was the other side of the peninsula from the commercial port, so we did not see the ships, though we heard them on the VHF. On our way out, however we were passed by the pilot boat going out to an arriving ship we could just see in the distance.

We arrived at the Savannah sea buoy on schedule, but there wasn't any dawn that day. We started in, seeing the bright range lights for the channel, but suddenly we didn't see them any longer. We circled a little, and it became clear that although it was clear outside, there was a blue dungeon of fog in the river. We waited a little, then felt our way in, sound signal blasting. The visibility was about 50 feet, but between radar and chartplotter and common sense we made it up the river and were alongside at the Savannah City Docks by 9:00. We found later that the river was closed to shipping because of the fog, and when it was opened we had a regular parade of ships by our berth, seemingly very close.
The Ever Diadem coming in by us in Savannah

Savannah is a delightful city -- at least fron the tourist point of view. It is different from Charleston in many ways. For one, it is significantly larger and feels more like a real city. Where downtown Charleston has to a certain extent made a museum of itself, Savannah feels less polished and more vibrant. There are parts of Savannah, near the river, that look very much like Paris, which is not surprising, since both cities were very prosperous at about the same time, the last third of the 19th century. Savannah profited in an indirect way from the Industrial Revolution, as growth and building in the northern US and in Europe brought about a timber boom in coastal Georgia, and vast quantities of wood were shipped from Savannah.

The Juliette Gordon Lowe, One of Several River Ferries Named After Savannah Belles

We learned that Charleston was hit hard by the demise of slavery and by the loss of the rice culture, and so was unable to modernize its 18th century buildings, which is now, of course, a great advantage. There is probably not another city in the country with an equal aggregation of pre-Civil War houses. Savannah, on the other hand, was very prosperous after the war, and so many of her old buildings are in more 19th century styles. The city itself is on a bluff and the river front (at just above water level) is lined with brick buildings that were warehouses and offices of cotton brokers.

Factors' Walk - Paris in Savannah

Former Cotton Warehouses Viewed from the City Side

An elaborate series of picturesque catwalks with wrought-iron rails connects what is probably the 2nd floor of these buildings to the street level on the city side.

A few blocks back from the river, the streets perpendicular to the river are interrupted by green squares lined with live oaks and surrounded by big houses, some in beautiful shape and some undergoing extensive reconstruction. The city was laid out by James Oglethorpe, one of the original Georgia colonists, in 1733, and the squares were intended to allow artillery to fire down the streets in case of an attack from the river, just as the boulevards and circles of today's Paris were intended to allow a few artillery strongpoints to control the city.

Factors' Walk Buildidngs from the River Side

The brick-paved park along the river is divided into raised and lower areas, and seems to be the scene of a lot of informal street theater. One evening there were three guys (a pretty good tenor and two of his friends) singing Christmas carols with harmonies somewhere between gospel and doo-wop.

Savannah also provided us with a supermarket and a hardware store, both in easy bicycling range, and a pleasant cafe with good wi-fi. The hardware store let me solve a nagging problem; the generator had been losing coolant and when I finally dedcided to take the situation seriously I found that the overflow hose had chafed through by rubbing against the exhaust manifold. We had all kinds of spare hose on board, but not (of course) that kind. A friendly local lady directed me to "Thrifty's", a combination hardware store and general store, where a young man cut me the length I needed from a reel.

A Wrought-Iron Gate in a Savannah Square

We enjoyed Savannah and were a little sorry to leave, but our Christmas deadline loomed, so at mid-morning on the 18th we started down the river under much better conditions. The fog was finally gone and it was a beautiful sunny day. It seemed a little strange to actually see the buoys. On one bank some construction equipment was apparently working on a levee.

The pilot station is at the mouth of the river, and as we passed it the pilot boat hailed us and complimented us on Barbara; praise from professionals is always particularly nice!

A Typical Scene in the Lower Savannah River

At the mouth of the river, just before we went out into the channel over the bar, we met two 1000-foot container ships in quick succession. There seemed to be hardly room enough, but we talked to both pilots on the VHF and established that we would squeeze over to the green (right) side of the channel and there would be no problem. The pilots are real pros and know their waters intimately.

We later googled one of these ships, MSC Messina, and found that she is 60,000 Gross Register Tons and 300 meters long. By comparison, Barbara is 60 GRT.

MSC Messina at Close Quarters

It is a long haul from Savannah down the river to the sea, so we had planned on a relatively short run. We had read that there was a good anchorage behind St. Catherines Island, and in fact there was.

The cruising guides are full of worries about inlets, and in this case we were warned that the St. Catherines Inlet had shoaled to the point that it was impassable, but as I looked at the chart I could hardly believe that to be the case.

In these inlets, the least depth is usually over the bar which may be several miles offshore, and we did find that one buoy had been relocated by the Goast Guard as the bar shoal had grown, but by just following the buoys and watching the depth sounder we got over the bar, through the channel and were tucked in in a very peaceful Walburg Creek, behind St. Catherines Island, by 5:30, just in time for a beautiful sunset.

St. Catherines Island is owned by the New York Zoological Society (the Bronx Zoo) and is used for raising rare animal species, but we did not see any zebras, though we did hear some strange calls in the night.

Sunset Over Walburg Creek

The next day we got away early and ran down the coast to St. Simons Inlet and the small town of Brunswick, Ga, where we stayed in a very pleasant marina. Brunswick is full of paper mills and is the homeport of a very large number of shrimpers, but chiefly remarkable, as far as we were concerned, for having the cheapest fuel on the coast. The day after we arrived we checked out the farmers' market in the morning, filled our tanks the same place the shrimpers do, and headed offshore for an overnight run to Florida.

We arrived off the Ponce de Leon Inlet mid-morning and entered on a rising tide, as we had planned. Once again there was no difficulty, even though we had no "local knowledge." We did meet a good-sized casino boat coming out, but there was plenty of room for both of us. Once again we were back in the Intracoastal Waterway, sometimes in narrow rivers and sometimes broad sounds. It was Sunday, so there was a lot of small boat traffic, mostly outboards and pontoon boats. We passed a few "fish camps" (think trailer park with docks and a launching ramp); at one in particular the dock was full of what seemed to be ordinary people, black and white, fishing, drinking beer, and generally enjoying their Sunday. They waved happily. A nice scene, and a nice change from gated condo communities.

By 3:00 on the 21st we had made it to Titusville (just across the Indian River from Cape Canaveral), backed Barbara into a slip, (she is by now pretty used to marinas and tight quarters) and stopped the engine. The marina is in a very enclosed basin, and here Barbara would stay while we went inland to Orlando for Christmas.

In the next two days we worked on the boat, cleaned, changed the oil, did laundry, wrapped Christmas presents, and rested a little.

Between the marina and the town (such as it is) there is a park with a pond where people (maybe some NASA engineers?) race radio-controlled sailboats, some of them quite big, with 3-ft. masts. When we cycled by the back of this pond and saw a sign forbidding swimming and warning about alligators, we realized we weren't in Kansas any more.

A Friend at the Titusville Marina

Barbara in her Slip at Titusville Marina

On the 24th we locked the boat up, and my brother-in-law came to pick us up with our suitcase and three Beans bags of presents and take us to Orlando. Christmas was wonderful as usual and did not seem affected by the absence of snow. There were grandchildren, nieces, and nephews of all ages all over the place, huge amounts of good food and drink, and lots of good talk.

On the afternoon of the 27th we went back to the boat, and we left about noon on the 28th for the Bahamas.

Beware of Alligators

Before we could go anywhere we first had to get out to the open ocean, and our route took us through the Canaveral Barge Canal which leads from the ICW to Port Canaveral, an important freight port but maybe the busiest cruise ship port on the East Coast. There are two drawbridges and a lock on the canal, and passage through them was complicated by dozens of small boats that seemingly had no idea we were less maneuverable than they were -- or that there was any such thing as rules of the road.
Drawbridge in the Canaveral Barge Canal

Cruise Ships at Port Canaveral

One old guy in a little outboard was meandering obliviously back and forth in front of us, going slower than we could go and still maintain steerage way, so we finally resorted to two blasts of the horn, signifying that we would overtake him on his port side, but serving also to wake him up to our presence. He jumped and then looked very affronted as we slid by.

There were something like five cruise ships in port, and three of them later followed us out. Two of them were apparently headed for Nassau, and the third turned north when she hit the Gulf Stream, maybe heading for Bermuda.

Mariner of the Seas and Carnival Sensation

Sunrise Over the Gulf Stream

It is about 220 nautical miles from the Port Canaveral sea buoy to Man-o-War Cut in the Abaco Islands, and our problem was to time it so we came in through the barrier reef in daylight, specifically in the morning, so we took it slow and enjoyed the ride. We had a beautiful crossing, winds never more than 15 knots and an easy swell of maybe 6-8 feet. We saw great mats of Sargasso weed and Barbara saw her first flying fish, those improbable creatures that soar from crest to crest over huge distances.

We hove to a few miles off until dawn, then went through

Approaching the Commercial Wharf at Marsh Harbour

the reef and on into Marsh Harbour. Yachts are encouraged to clear customs at marinas, but the marinas charge a fee for this service and we saw no need to pay it, so we headed to the commercial wharf. We had to wait a little (on the advice of the docking pilot) while a small container ship was docked, but then we went alongside and did the formalities, finally hauling down our Quarantine flag and hoisting the Bahamas courtesy ensign.

Marsh Harbour lies on a very protected bay, and we settled in to stay for a while. I would get some work done on the boat and Barbara would finish an editing project while we were still in wi-fi range. The wi-fi is pretty marginal, however; Out Islands Internet, in spite of charging fees that are outrageous by Stateside standards (to be expected) has serious delusions of adequacy. Nonetheless, we managed; Barbara got her work done and I updated the website with the Norfolk-Charleston run and filed the various reports required of businesses by the state.

Marsh Harbour Street Scene

Traps on the Shore at Marsh Harbour

On the boat, I got the shower working and bolted the washer/dryer down and hooked it up. With these things done, we are not, of course completely independent of the shore (we still have to go shopping sometimes, especially if we want fresh fruit and vegetables) but our "endurance," our independence from shore facilities, has radically increased; Barbara is another big step closer to being the boat she was designed to be.
Sunset over Guana Cay

Marsh Harbour has changed a lot since I first (and last) saw it just about 20 years ago. The last time was on a good-sized sailboat with fuel system problems, and I persuaded the engine to run long enough to get us safely in past the reef and Man-o-War Cay by running the fuel supply and return lines into a jerrican lashed in the head and filling the jerrican from the tanks by dipping fuel out with a tin can.

Today there are more marinas, some of them gated, and many more fancy houses -- in fact the changes are much like what is happening in Maine. There is even a traffic light! Many things are the same, however -- it is still a small town with friendly people who speak to you on the street and are helpful to idiot strangers. We could almost see spending the winter here.

The harbor is a little too dominated by snowbirds, however, and we will explore the sights of this area and other near-by harbors (we really want to see the famous lighthouse at Hope Town), check back here for our mail, and then strike out for the Exumas, then the southern Bahamas, then Turks and Caicos.

Barbara at Anchor in Marsh Harbour

No Need for a Caption!

Rocks and Flowers on the Shore

Part IV