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Cumberland by Sail

Not far from where the paper mill exudes the unrelenting smell of sweet, astringent sawdust, I am anchored just offshore of Cumberland Island, the largest barrier island along the coast of Georgia. I came here by sail, on board the Harvey Gamage, a traditionally rigged wooden schooner. Long before I began to work on board, I grew up on Gamage. Every year from the time I was three until I was about twelve, my brother and I spent months on the boat as my parents worked educational programs at sea. This is where I learned to read, to swim, and to tie knots. I had my first kiss on board this boat, and my first cracked rib. Most days, Harvey Gamage’s 94 x 24 feet, fore to aft, is home to thirty people. Privacy is a thin curtain strung up outside the little cave of our bunks. We shower with a toss, pull, and pour of saltwater from rubber buckets on deck. Now, we are at the midpoint of a four-month high school program. Our students left for a service project ashore, and we crew have settled in, taking the rare opportunity of staying in one place for more than a few days to spread fresh paint, build sole supports, and get some much-needed welding done. There are days when the air is so thick with gnats that painting is halted because the rails on deck look like fly strips. On runs ashore to Fernandina Beach, we watch tourists step down the streets dressed to the nines and men in white shorts and pink polos suck ice cream cones. The woman at the corner shop lets our engineer borrow her Jeep to make a hardware store run, and he returns to tell us about the man in front of him in line buying bear traps for armadillos digging up his yard. This evening, though, it’s my turn to keep watch and attend to the ship’s routine tasks while the rest of the crew are ashore. In this lifestyle, which seldom allows for personal space, let alone solitude, I relish the relative quiet of having the whole ship to myself.

I lean against one of our white, barrel-like life rafts and let my eyes wander through the weaving passages and salt marshes. Every return to Cumberland is a pulse against which I mark the passage of time. I have been coming to the island since I was a child. My family and I always came by sail, often on Harvey Gamage, but also on the other tall ships on which my parents worked when I was young. We never stayed more than a few days, and as I grew older, the gaps between visits began to lengthen. Cumberland has never been my home, but it has been a companion to me for as long as I can remember.

A wash of dying colors unfurl over the island, and I remember following sliding, wavy lizard tracks in the sand between dunes and sea oats until they melted into the bright wax myrtle and dark, deep holes. I used to climb into the twisted branches of live oaks until I was eye height with my parents. I felt like a giant then. I remember the branches of oaks entwined with Spanish moss over old carriage trails and saw palmettos that brushed my calves, leaving the feeling of creeping, illusory ticks. I remember the wide beach on the ocean side of the island. It was here that, for the first time, I recognized the passage of a decade. A decade into my past had always faded into a drawn-out haze, but now it collapsed into clarity; I had a clear memory of my younger body planted in the sand. The timeline of my life was becoming palpable. I stood there at the edge of the Atlantic with feet buried in harsh white sand that stretched into dusk on either side of me and suddenly felt like I had grown up.


The history of Cumberland is riddled with stories of displacement. The first people to know the island were those of the Tacatacuru tribe. They came to the island first in seasonal fishing camps and later in settled villages. They weathered warfare, infectious disease, Spanish missionaries, and increasing piracy from the Guale and Yamassee who were being pushed south by English colonists. Relentless piracy from these groups eventually forced the Tacatacuru and the missionaries to seek shelter on the mainland at St. Augustine. The Yamassee then occupied the island, but colonists from Spain and then Britain continued to fight for it until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when Spain finally ceded the island to England. Eventually, the Yamassee were, yet again, displaced. The island’s trees fell to shipbuilding, and its Sea Island cotton was harvested by enslaved people on newly founded plantations. Mansions were built atop old shell mounds. By the 1840s, most of the island was cleared. Native black bear, Florida panther, and bobcat were replaced by the dogs, pigs, chickens, and cats brought from the mainland, but these domestics silently slipped away, too, when those who brought them left. During the Civil War, the Union took control of the island and most of the Black people who had been enslaved there left. Some, however, stayed on the north end of the island, working to make a home for themselves. But efforts to redistribute land to them were short-lived, and the old plantation owners soon reclaimed the land for themselves. As tourism grew in the years after the Civil War, the island caught the eye of wealthy industrialists and hotels and private winter estates began to crop up. The old Dungeness Mansion was purchased by the Carnegies, who ensconced themselves for many decades. But now even that is hollowed by fire.

When I was a child, I played a game with my brother near the old Dungeness ruins, black and woven with vines. Foot by foot, we quietly stalked to see which of us could get closest to an armadillo, which shuffled through the overgrown grasses. As we grew close, three feral horses shook through the buckthorn scrub and Spanish bayonet into the open, and our attention switched to their long backs and straight hocks, revealing conformation bred from another century. When we turned back, the armadillo was gone.


It is 17:50. With ten minutes before the battery charger needs to go on, I tread to the engine room, where I rest my knee against a greasy toolbox, check gauges and dipsticks, and turn the switch on the generator. It coughs and shudders, shaking the whole tiny compartment, then turns over into a constant cycle of reverberations. I check the temperature gauge and take the time while it warms up to calculate when the sun will drop below the horizon, right down to the minute. This is when the ship’s flags will come down, and I note that every day it is a little later than the previous.

Reaching a place like Cumberland by sail means working with the elements, and while it is possible to sail against the wind, there is no question as to whose terms we are on. Sailing to Cumberland, like to any destination, can take days or even weeks longer than anticipated. The sea requires that I remember it would be foolish to believe that we are in full control. Superstitions are strong: never whistle up a wind, never wear new shoes on board, the captain should eat the first flying fish that lands on deck. The boat offers a directness that I crave these days: gauges can be read to determine functionality and safety, fresh paint offers a layer of protection against salt, I can calculate the exact time when I can expect the sun to set. Glancing at the second hand of my watch, I lower our program flag, the Georgia state flag out of courtesy for our current port, and the Maine flag for our home port. Finally, I bring in the American flag just as the crimson light on the water turns to its shadow color and a pair of harbor porpoises break the slack surface of the water.

There is pride in the sailing world for proper flag etiquette; a ship whose flags are in order signals to the outside world that everything else on board is in order. I wonder if perhaps these traditions are what continue to draw me into this world of tall ships. In the last ten years, my family has reshaped and there is little in my life now that feels in order. My parents live in separate houses, my brother follows the jobs that move with every season, and I go to sea for months at a time with no connection to the world outside the small, tight community of the boat. We’re scattered now. Sometimes I call my mother late at night, knowing she won’t yet be asleep. Time means little to her these days, and she often works into the night until dawn brings a glow to the sky and she finally turns back, ready for bed.


To the north, the Satilla River separates Cumberland Island from Jekyll Island, and to the south, the St. Marys River does the same with Amelia Island. During summers, heat waves rise into thunderstorms, and in the winter, fronts move in and away. Throughout these periods, the rivers and creeks that twist through the marshes and towns carry sediments to the north shores of the barrier islands. These sediments settle, rest, and build, mimicking the islands’ formation over thousands of years. The island is a lesson in patience. After a hurricane ripped away the sea oats, the dunes were washed down and, with the protection of the barrier island compromised, ocean salt and spray battered the inner coastline. Cumberland, like all barrier islands, has long absorbed the shock of storms acting as a buffer between the sea and the mainland. Regeneration comes slowly, but as years went by, sand recollected into dunes, the sea oats came back, and inland the land sighed in relief. There is a sense of comfort in returning to a place that is in the constant ebb and flow of remaking itself. Vines creep through the blackened stone seams of Dungeness, and spiders nest in the crevices of the walls. Bobcats, once killed off, breed again on the island. I doubt the island takes much notice of my comings and goings—I am tiny on the scale of sand and sea—but whether or not I am here to see them, it’s reassuring to think that, at any given time, somewhere beneath the rippling surface among the beds of seagrass, manatees graze. I’d like to think that Cumberland is a lesson in tenacity, but barrier islands have always been shaped by the sea in response to the elements. Now, I wonder, will they last?

Sea levels are expected to rise four to six feet along this section of the coast by 2100, and coastal communities are experiencing new shifts in the patterns and pulses that have defined this area for time immemorial. Hurricanes now claw the land with greater frequency and force. What will happen if the succession of storms is too swift for the dunes to rebuild and the sea oats to re-root? Barrier islands up and down the Atlantic Seaboard are already at risk of disappearing as shipping traffic eats away at their shores and damming and infrastructure projects upriver reduce the amount of sediment that used to reinforce what was lost to erosion. While Cumberland was established as a national seashore in 1972 and, largely protected from modern development, may be more resilient to the rapidly changing climate, there are no guarantees. As ocean levels rise and storms intensify, some islands may weather the changes. Others will be swept below the waters or reformed into new ground as ocean eats into the mainland. If the place I call Cumberland scatters to the currents, will the creatures disperse to other shores or slip out of human memory altogether? I imagine its sands relaxing into the familiar sweep and shift of oceanic rearrangement. I do not think Cumberland will grieve if it is given up to the sea, but those of us who might be left to remember it will feel the loss.


Terns move swiftly past the ship, hunting for fish in the soft, greying light that has followed the evening sun’s glow. A pelican plummets from the sky, piercing the glassy surface. It emerges and, with glinting beads of water rolling off its wings, rises from the water with a sputtering silver fish. Even now, from across the channel, I feel as if I can almost hear raccoon and opossum, lank and pale, rustling through the palmettos on Cumberland. I know that across the darkening shores, sand dunes swell and sigh like the waves rolling in from the expanse of the Atlantic.

The hum of the generator rumbles through the cabin top. I glance at my watch—time for a boat check. My bare feet tread up, down, up the peeling varnish of the ladders as I echo my old footsteps. I move through the cabins and compartments and poke a flashlight into the dark, dank bilges to mark off where the inches of scummy water gather. On deck, I note the direction and force of the wind and check the tension of the anchor chain as the last strands of the sunset melt away. A sharp breeze smooths over the water, calling the hairs on my arms to attention. I look up at the uneasy anchor light swaying aloft, suspended by a single line, and feel the seams of pitch and worn wood beneath my feet. However itinerant I may be, I know that if I care for it, this home will carry me.

I can no longer see the island. Instead, there is just the ship. So, I go back to following the patterns that have been passed down to me, the patterns that reassure me, the patterns that will warn me when something is amiss.


NELL SMITH is an interdisciplinary writer, field biologist, and former tall ship sailor. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Electric Literature, Flyway, EcoTheo Review, Camas, Pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. Originally from Maine, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Wyoming and lives in the Intermountain West.


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