Sailing during the Coronavirus was not easy. We heard from many of their trouble with entering or leaving countries. Many were just stuck where they were, even if it meant the ocean. Sailors that had been off-shore when the lockdowns went into affect arrived at their next port and were turned away. So, I guess we can count ourselves extremely lucky that Winter 2020, we stayed in the US, quite by accident actually.
We had always planned on having some work done in the boat yard, which we did during January, February and March. After that, we spent the remainder of the Covid Winter Sailing on the Georgia coast in the Savannah area. We experienced the most dazzling sunrises – I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to see them. Sunsets were just as spectacular, but I was never in any hurry for a day to end.
Our adventure began with a Thanksgiving weekend departure from Charleston SC (we covered that trip in another video). When we arrived, we docked at Bull River Marina near Tybee Island. Bull River is a quiet marina on the edge of the beaten path, surrounded by so many waterways we couldn’t explore them all, but we’ll cover the ones we did.
In January, we dropped the boat at Thunderbolt Marine Services for some maintenance and upgrades – the subject of another video. While there, Stephen and I celebrated our birthdays – January 3 and January 13. We stayed at the Hyatt right on the Savannah River, had our birthday dinner at Vic’s on the River, a MUST if you ever get to Savannah. From our own balcony, we enjoyed views of the historic River St, the Westin Resort and of course the large freighters on their way to Savannah port loading/unloading facility.
We finally got PILAR out of the boatyard in mid March.
Great Blue Herons, according to allaboutbirds.org, “are the largest of the North American herons with long legs, a sinuous neck, and a thick, dagger-like bill. Head, chest, and wing plumes give a shaggy appearance. In flight, the Great Blue Heron curls its neck into a tight “S” shape; its wings are broad and rounded and its legs trail well beyond the tail.
While hunting, Great Blue Herons wade slowly or stand statue-like, stalking fish and other prey in shallow water or open fields. Watch for the lightning-fast thrust of the neck and head as they stab with their strong bills. Their very slow wingbeats, tucked-in neck and trailing legs create an unmistakable image in flight.
Look for Great Blue Herons in saltwater and freshwater habitats, on open coasts, marshes, and riverbanks.”
On our way back from Tybee, we collected a few oysters for our appetizer for 2. Stephen was famous for his oyster roasts long before I met him, and we love to carry on the tradition now together. In fact, when we both were single, we started to fall for each other when I was invited to one of his oyster roasts back in Fall 2011. So they still hold a certain romance over us.
On our April visit back to PILAR, we decided to sail out to the gulf stream for fishing. We planned an overnight sail, followed by a morning of catching fish and a late afternoon sail back. Although we had checked the weather, we encountered gale force winds of 35 knots. When I came up for my 2 AM watch, I learned that our jib furling line had snapped, which left us with no way to get our head sail in. Our jib sheet car had also lost it’s wheel, so that sheet was frayed and was in danger of snapping as well. We had to figure out something fast.
So, we slowed down as much as we could, and even with life jackets and safety lines, I still felt that I had to hold Stephen’s legs as he ventured out on the foredeck to rig a line. Luckily, it had snapped at a point where we had just enough to tie a knot, so that we could furl the sail. We left the main up for stability – well reefed – and turned around. With the strong winds pushing us north, we decided to take advantage of a close reach which naturally brought us to Port Royal Sound and Hilton Head Island.
We anchored around 6 am in the sound and got some rest. We enjoyed the afternoon and evening on anchorage, ran a new jib line, rigged a temporary fix to the car, and left the next morning for Bull River. A smooth sail renewed our spirits.
Next we explored some tidal creeks on Little Tybee Island, by Lazaretto Creek. Too beautiful to describe, we explored for hours until the setting sun beckoned us back to PILAR.
The next day, we set off to explore Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge. Only accessible by boat, the refuge is over 10,000 acres and includes long secluded beaches, live oaks, pine woodlands, and vast salt marshes. The refuge is made up of three islands.
Wassaw Island is the largest of the three and faces the Atlantic Ocean. Ossabaw Sound is to the south and Wassaw Sound is to the north. Seven miles of beach, a low ridge of dunes, and old growth forest stand between the ocean and the salt marsh of the island.
Two smaller islands – Little Wassaw and Pine – on Ossabaw Sound lie behind the larger Wassaw Island. These are largely made up of salt marsh and interconnecting creeks, with occasional hammocks of oak and palm. Ossabaw Island is made up of 26,000 acres and is owned by the State of Georgia.
Refuge visitors enjoy bird watching, beach combing, hiking, and general nature studies. The 20 miles of dirt roads on Wassaw Island and seven miles of beach provide an ideal wildlife trail system for hikers. Bird watching is particularly fruitful during the spring and fall migrations.
The island supports rookeries for egrets and herons, and several species of wading birds are abundant in the summer months. In summer, telltale tracks on Wassaw’s beach attest to nocturnal visits by the threatened loggerhead sea turtles that come ashore for egg laying and then return to sea.
As one of Georgia’s barrier islands, Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge provides protection to the coastline and habitat for a diversity of wildlife.
Salt marshes are a mosaic of snaking channels called tidal creeks that fill with seawater during high tides and drain during low tides. Fish species, including flounder and mullet, live most of their lives in marsh creeks.
These branching and meandering creeks cut through salt marshes to encourage the flow of water, nutrients and sediments. These creeks provide pathways for flooding during high tides and drainage during low tides. Be sure to watch your tide charts when planning tidal creek explorations. We love low tide to see creatures we wouldn’t ordinarily see and high tides to access areas that we usually can’t.
Levees are areas of higher ground that border the marsh creeks. Between the levees and tidal creeks are marsh flats, which contain pools and salt pannes. Salt pannes are shallow depressions that contain very high concentrations of salt. Salt-marsh snails and green crabs are some of the creatures found in pools scattered across the marsh.
Low-lying areas of the marsh are often covered with large, flat expanses of mud called mud flats (Bertness, 1999; Smith and Smith, 2000). Composed of fine silts and clays, mud flats harbor burrowing creatures including clams, mussels, oysters, fiddler crabs, sand shrimp, and bloodworms.
Salt marshes are salty because they are flooded by seawater every day. They are marshy because their ground is composed of peat. Peat is made of decomposing plant matter that is often several feet thick. Peat is waterlogged, root-filled, and very spongy. Because salt marshes are waterlogged and contain lots of decomposing plant material, oxygen levels in the peat are extremely low—a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia promotes the growth of bacteria which produce the rotten-egg smell that is attributed to marshes and mud flats.
Salt marshes are covered with salt-tolerant plants, or halophytes, like salt hay, black needlerush, and smooth cordgrass. However, these plants do not grow together in the same area. Marshes are divided into distinct zones, the high marsh and the low marsh. The difference in elevation between these two areas is usually only a few centimeters, but for the plants that inhabit each of these zones, a few centimeters makes a world of difference. The low marsh floods daily at high tide. The high marsh usually floods about twice a month during very high tides associated with new and full moons. The more often an area is flooded, the more saline it is. Plants living in salt marshes have different tolerances to salt. Those with higher tolerances are found in the low marsh, and those with lower tolerances to salt are found in the high marsh zones. Plants from one marsh zone are never found in the other.
Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) dominates the low marsh all the way down to the estuary’s edge. It is tall, sturdy, broad-leaved, and one of the main components of peat. As one moves toward the high marsh, salt hay (Spartina patens), a very fine-leaved grass about 1-2 feet tall, and spike grass (Distichlis spicata) dominate the area. The highest parts of the marsh are characterized by black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus), which grows in dense swaths.
Surrounding the high marsh are the upland habitats. Uplands are rarely, if ever, flooded with saltwater.
The most common of sea turtles in U.S. coastal waters, the threatened loggerhead can be found nesting on the beaches of Wassaw Island from late spring through summer. When a female loggerhead reaches reproductive age (around 35 years old), she returns to the beach where she hatched to build a nest and lay her eggs. Average adults weigh around 200 lbs. and are approximately 3 ft. long.
Piping plovers are one of many species of shorebirds that inhabit the beaches of Wassaw NWR. All populations of piping plovers are considered either threatened or endangered. The oldest recorded piping plover was at least 13 years, 8 months old, when it was spotted and ID’s by its band in Texas in 2015. It had been banded in Saskatchewan in 2002.
Dominated by live oak and palmetto, maritime forests provide a protective buffer between the mainland and the sea. The maritime forests of the southern coast are as unique and enchanting as any other forest in the United States. The intricately gnarled Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) cloaked in Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and Resurrection Fern (Polypodium polypodioidies) and surrounded by Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) seem to be relics of a slower and quieter past.
The spreading canopy of Live Oak, Southern Pine (Pinus sp.), Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandifolia) and Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto) temper the harsh forces of wind and water that assault the dunes and beaches. Temperatures and winds are moderated under the tree canopy, which increases moisture levels and allows a dense understory of herbs and shrubs to develop.
Spanish Moss and Resurrection Fern are both epiphytes, plants that live on other plants entirely independent of the soil. Typically epiphytes require humid environments where they can absorb moisture directly from the atmosphere, so they are more common in the humid tropics than temperate regions.
In the understory dense clusters of Saw Palmetto provide excellent hiding places for Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus), a shy and elusive predator vital to the maritime forest ecosystem.
We accidentally caught a ray while docked and let it go.
We went out to explore more waterways in the afternoon, but had to speed back to the boat when an afternoon thunderstorm popped up.
We even enjoyed the rain.
Next, we ventured out headed to St. Catherine’s Island. St. Catherines Island today is a private nature preserve and research site that educators and scholars use to study Georgia’s coastal ecology, geology, fauna, flora, and 6,000 years of human history. The beach is accessible by private boat, but the interior of the island is not accessible to the public in order to conserve its natural and historic resources. However, when our auto pilot went out AND locked our steering, we decided to cut the trip short and stopped at Ossabaw Sound, which ended up being one of our favorite anchorages. You can learn what we did during that disaster in a different video.
Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge was sold to the Nature Conservancy in 1969, (except for a 180 acre parcel with a home still owned by the Parsons family heirs. The hike through the refuge was as beautiful as the beach, well, except for the very end where we had to wade through some quagmire unexpectedly. To this day, Stephen has bug bites that have not gone away from this little mistake. So, don’t take Fire Trail! The Trail map will show you the way.