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On winter break from college in Vermont I traditionally visit all my buds in Savannah for a few weeks. Having paddled the Georgia coast in seven days with friends in 2001 I decided to solo it this year. My original plan was to attempt the 100 mile coast in three days bringing enough food and water for four days if my body and the weather didn't cooperate. I packed up and launched from Jekyll Island (north of Cumberland Island) and paddled south to meet some friends who were staying on Cumberland for a few days at the Brickhill campsites on the northern marsh side of Cumberland. My friends were not to be found and I slept next to my boat in a bivvy and made ready to start the paddle north.
The first day I paddled from the marsh (what we call 'the backside') on the west side of Cumberland and north to the frontside of Jekyll. I was blessed with warm temps and a tailwind. I just got the Viviane and once I got it figured out I poured it on knowing that I had two days of warm weather with tailwinds. The first day I stayed out front (on the ocean side as opposed to the backside in the marsh) past Little Cumberland, Jekyll, St Simon's and Little St Simon's and I stopped on Wolf Island between Sapelo Island and Little St Simon's Island. There I stayed on the beach as camping is allowed nowhere else. I slept a full 8 hours and got two big meals leaving the next day in the fog.
The second day I had another warm, beautiful day with a tailwind and I felt great. I had the wind behind me and I was full of beans so I opened up the throttle and paddled my hiney off from Wolf past Sapelo, St. Catherine and Ossabaw Islands. My three day plan included camping on a great hammock (marsh island) in St Catherine Sound and when I came up on the north end of St Catherine Island I had a choice to make. I had pulled two forty mile days and doing the coast in three days was looking like it was going to happen. I don't know if it was the wind and sun and spending all day on the gorgeous Georgia coast or hypoxia limiting my ability to make sound decisions but I decided that if I pushed ahead and made the north end of Ossabaw Island I might be able to get to Tybee Island (the last island on the Georgia coast) in 48 hours. I paddled through dusk and when I started to get cold I stopped on the expansive beaches on Ossabaw's frontside and put on some more clothes, ate and got back in the boat before I thought better of my crazy plan. I paddled the rest of the way to the north end of Ossabaw Island in the dark under the nearly full moon while the shrimp boats (just like the shrimp boats in Forrest Gump) pulled their nets slowly back and forth with their flood lights on and gulls behind. On the north end of Ossabaw I camped just above the rack line (tidal rack is marsh grass that has come loose on the tide and been deposited by the last high tide on the beach and depending on which way the tide is going being above it means you won't get wet during the night) I made dinner and prepped for the next day and eventually fell asleep looking up through the mosquito netting of my bivvy at the clouds scudding across the bright Georgia winter moon.
I got up at 4am in the dark and overnight the wind had shifted and the temperature had dropped. I looked across Ossabaw Sound toward Wassaw Island but I could not see it in the black. The wind was enough to make three foot waves that hit me beam on as I paddled north across the sound. It was cold, the wind and waves were blowing out to sea now so I was sharply attentive as I was all alone in the dark way out on the Georgia coast. At first light I had almost reached the north end of Wassaw Island and as the light came up I could see Tybee in the distance north of me. Here is where I made my only mistake: Being in sight of Tybee in 'home waters' I made the tactical error of letting the wind, waves and outgoing currents in Wassaw Sound take me out to sea a bit. My original plan was to hug the shore of Little Tybee to hide from the wind (which was now blowing from the north) I had a scary 20 minutes paddling as hard as I could to get back in to shore which had the eventual consequence of slowing me down 30 minutes. I dragged in to Tybee bucking the outgoing tide on the Back River and hit the beach at 9:30am. 48 and 1/2 hours after I left Cumberland Island. So I didn't quite make it in two days (technically) but close enough for bragging rights.
I know what you are thinking: Why? Honestly, I don't have a good answer. I am not obsessed with doing every paddle as fast as I can. I race but this was not a race. I would not recommend paddling the Georgia coast in two days to anyone as there is a lot to see and it is an unrealistic plan. All I can say is that I was struck by a certain quality of mood that made it a worthwhile thing to do. It was not a grind, it was not a death march. I paddle a lot and have some fairly honed skills so for me this was a way to push my personal comfort envelope a bit. The two days with a tailwind were a sublime experience and while I do remember being intermittently frustrated learning the new boat my lasting memory was of flying along with the gorgeous coast to my left and the wind at my shoulder and the sun on my face. It was divine. It was a gift. Please feel free to contact me with questions. Jonathan Long
The Georgia Coast is a special and unique place that will reward the prepared paddler. It is also fairly remote and each island has it's own natural and cultural history. I would recommend contacting someone local before attempting a coastal trip as each island is different and camping is not something one should assume is OK. There are some very fragile ecosystems and touchy caretakers so know where you are going.
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