I cannot help but smile at the irony of this. Not so long ago I offered advice in this space (Waterlines, Nov/Dec 2019) on how to tactfully borrow empty moorings in areas where mooring fields have obliterated anchorages. Some of my online readers promptly complained that using someone’s mooring for the night is tantamount to theft. (Insert giggles, please.) Now this month I’m here to tell the sordid tale of how the state of Georgia has blatantly stolen from the boating public many thousands of acres of prime anchoring space.
There was a time, not so long ago, when anchoring in public waterways was something you could take for granted. As long as you anchored responsibly and did not obstruct marked channels or mess with other people’s boats or property, you were cool. The pressures of an ever-growing population and incessant coastal development have necessarily somewhat abridged this presumption, but still, all things being equal, transient cruisers in most places can drop their hooks where they need to.
Florida, until recently, had been the primary anchoring-rights battleground, but as of January 1, 2020, this dubious title has been seized by Georgia. New regulations issued by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) now prohibit overnight anchoring within 1,000ft of marked shellfish beds and any marine “structure,” except in areas near marinas, where the offset is 300ft. Marine structures include public and private docks, wharfs, bridges, piers and—get this—pilings. Boater’s rights groups fighting these rules estimate the regulations have placed 61 percent of Georgia’s viable anchorages out of bounds to the 13,000 boaters who transit the coast each year.
Given the sweeping nature of this prohibition, the number of affected anchorages is bound to increase, probably very quickly. As a coastal homeowner now all you need do to keep those pesky cruisers away is drive a single post in the water in front of your property. In a single stroke, you will have seized control of about 36 acres of public waterway, the equivalent of over 27 football fields.
One huge problem with a law like this is the question of how the heck to know when you’re within 1,000ft of a structure? The Georgia DNR has published an incomplete set of interactive maps on its website showing which areas are now out of bounds but freely confesses the data used to create the maps is 10-years-old and can’t be relied on. Any such map would be constantly evolving in any event. So, ultimately, it will be up to boaters to guesstimate offset distances, assuming they can even see the structures they’re supposed to be worried about. From a range of 1,000ft, small low-lying structures can be hard to spot, or may not be visible at all if they are hidden behind terrain features.
Another big problem, of course, is that we pesky boaters actually do have a right to navigate in public waters, and the act of navigation has long been held to include anchoring. Fortunately, there has been a reaction in our favor, and the Georgia legislature is now considering a bill, House Bill 833, that would reduce the anchoring offset from shellfish beds and marine structures to just 150ft.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I have some skin in this game. I really like the Georgia coast. I spent some time cruising there in the spring of 2018 and was thoroughly enchanted by its gorgeous labyrinth of marshland creeks and rivers. To my way of thinking it is one of the best cruising grounds on the U.S. East Coast, which is saying a lot. I liked it so much that last fall I sailed my boat, Lunacy, down south and left her for the winter in a marina in Brunswick, Georgia, just so I could cruise the coast extensively in the spring and maybe write a story about it for SAIL.
As this magazine goes to press, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks to a grassroots group, Save Georgia’s Anchorages, and advocacy groups like Boat/US and the Great Loop Cruisers Association, HB-833 has passed the Georgia House of Representatives and sits in the Senate, where it will hopefully also pass. So maybe… hopefully… I’ll be able to go on my cruise after all. If not, it looks like I’ll have to give Georgia a pass.