Now that the freighter Golden Ray has our attention, let’s talk about the St. Simons Sound and Brunswick’s natural deep water port.
Just in case you were immersed in a really good book and missed it, the 656-foot Golden Ray was heading out to sea in the wee hours last Sunday morning when it began listing heavily. The vessel then flipped on its port side, just out from the St. Simons Island Pier. Mercifully, Coast Guardsmen rescued all 24 Filipino and South Korean merchant mariners onboard.
And there the Golden Ray sits, its starboard side sticking halfway out of the water like some futuristic dystopian megalith. As Coast Guardsmen, engineers and salvagers figure out a way to get the big steel beast safely out of here, my advice is: Get used to the view, at least into early 2020.
It kind of makes you wonder what the native Guale and Mocama indians thought when they first saw an oceangoing ship glide through the sound. That would have been in the mid 16th century when Spanish explorers first arrived to establish Franciscan missions on the island. Historians are pretty sure those first European arrivals would have cleared the sound, turned up the calm waters of the Frederica River and made port somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Gascoigne Bluff on St. Simons Island.
The British arrived 1736 to found Fort Frederica, a military outpost and pioneering settlement of Colonial Georgia. Capt. James Gascoigne sailed through the sound and up the Frederica River aboard the 20-gun warship Hawk, establishing the settlement’s naval defenses on the bluff that now bears his name. Gascoigne’s Hawk was the vanguard for two ships bearing the 40 families that would settle the Frederica township.
Capt. Gascoigne also was likely the first European to explore the Brunswick harbor and inland waters in any detail. Another was Mark Carr who, as Captain of Boats at Fort Frederica, led flotillas of immense armed dugout canoes in expeditions as far as the Turtle River. The Marine Company of Boats even established a military outpost on the Turtle River.
“Captain James Gascoigne of the Hawk was directed to survey the harbor and approaches to the Brunswick area for the British admiralty,” writes Capt. Bruce Fendig, a local harbor pilot, in his book Brunswick: The Ocean Port of Georgia. “Captain Gascoigne was possibly one of the first European men to become an experienced, knowledgable mariner for the Brunswick Bar and Harbor.”
By the time of American independence, the Port of Brunswick was poised to play a vital role in the development of an emerging nation. In 1789, President George Washington authorized the local harbor as one of five ports of entry. The others were New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
For all its deep water attributes, navigating over and around the sandbars in the sound has always been a dicey proposition. Getting “across the bar” and into safe harbor could be vexing for incoming ship captains with no knowledge of local waters. Not to fret. There were old salts hereabouts who were all too happy to share their intimate knowledge. For a fee, of course.
The local inception of the harbor pilot profession began in colonial times with an agreement between a frazzled British sea captain and a confident local mariner.
“One day, a British captain, who, wearied from bucking the weather and uncertainty into Brunswick, met a captain on shore who knew the channel well,” a 2007 article in Professional Mariner magazine explained. “The pair agreed to a deal for the captain with the local knowledge to bring the British ship out across the bar. ... He was paid in gold for his efforts ... “
That young pilot found his niche in a job that could keep him on the water, but also close to home. “He began waiting outside the bar for ships, and the legacy of the Brunswick Bar Pilots was born.”
International taste in rice and a desire for smooth sea island long-staple cotton put the wind in the sails of the local shipping industry through the antebellum era. Following the Civil War, inland Georgia’s vast tracts of tall pines fed an international demand for lumber and naval stores. The docks in Brunswick and on Gascoigne Bluff were lined with tall sails and steamships as the coast thrived on a timber boom well into the turn of the 20th century.
The Downing Company operated a prosperous naval stores operation at the Port of Brunswick beginning 1890. Shipping the turpentine, rosin, tar and pitch products derived from pine, the Downing Company occupied all of the Brunswick wharf between Gloucester and Mansfield streets.
“Brunswick’s rosin and turpentine were sold worldwide as a result of Downing’s efforts,” according to Brunswick: The Ocean Port of Georgia. The Southern Pine Company of Georgia’s docks in Brunswick “shipped to both foreign and domestic markets on a regular basis.”
Several shipbuilding companies have operated on the Brunswick waterfront over the years, including Brunswick Marine Construction. Established in 1866, the company churned out ships during the Spanish American War, World War I and WWII. Brunswick became a boomtown during World War II, as J.A. Jones Shipyards on the Brunswick River employed thousands of workers who produced nearly 100 liberty ships for the war effort.
The modern Port of Brunswick took shape beginning in the 1960s when the Georgia Ports Authority acquired Colonel’s Island, the East River terminals and the Mayor’s Point terminal. Ships leaving the East River terminals are often loaded with pine wood pellets, used as biofuel in power plants throughout Europe.
Since the mid 1980s, the Colonel’s Island facility has served Ro/Ro ships, so-called because automobiles are rolled on to them at one port and rolled off at another port. Brunswick is one of the nation’s leading Ro/Ro ports.
If you are within earshot of the St. Simons Lighthouse sometime and hear three baritone horn blasts, look toward the sound. You are sure to see one of these behemoth city-block sized Ro’Ro ship inbound to the port. The custom dates back to an era when harbor pilots had to be hailed audibly. That sort of thing is unnecessary nowadays, what with radio and internet and who knows what next.
But ship captains from all over the world still observe the custom upon entering the sound between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. Traditions die hard in a port whose history runs this deep.