O’er the Restless Surge: Jet Skiing at Tybee Island

For many years now, the various members of my clan have gathered over the Labor Day weekend, usually somewhere in the mountains, to spend time together and do some sight-seeing.  As the adults have aged, we’ve gradually shifted from sleeping on the ground in tents to sleeping in a bed in a cabin.  For quite a few of those years, we stayed at a commercial campground in Cherokee, North Carolina, where the kids would spend long hours playing in the creek, we’d enjoy meals cooked over a fire, and we would venture out to check out nearby towns or to go on what some family members would probably call a forced march — that is, a hike.  But when we made the transition to staying in rental houses, it freed us up to try other locations in different parts of the Appalachians.

I think there are two types of people: mountain people and beach people.  I’m clearly in the former category, but I had a rare attack of consideration for others and suggested that we head to the beach this Labor Day.  There must be several long-suffering beach people in my family, for they were quick to snatch up the offer!  Since my extended family live in North Carolina, we decided to find a place on the East Coast, and I proposed a trip to the Georgia Sea Islands.  Ruth found a rental house for us on Tybee Island, and ten of us drove to the beach.  Those of us coming from the west mostly came in on the heels of Hurricane Hermine, and those coming from the north pretty much drove through the teeth of the storm.  Fortunately, it had lost a lot of punch by the time it got to Tybee, so everyone got there eventually just fine.

It was a nice vacation.  We enjoyed each others’ company, visited some friends in Savannah and toured the city, spent some time on the beach, had a look at the Tybee Lighthouse, and ate some seafood.  I won’t bore you with a vacation travelog, but we did try one activity that relates to Woodlands and Waters’ theme of outdoor adventures — we had our first experience on a personal watercraft, also known as a jet ski.

My sister’s family had some experience with jet skiing, and the youngsters were keen to try it again.  Ruth has been interested, and I was willing to give it a go.  My brother-in-law called and made arrangements to rent four two-person jet skis, so eight of the ten in our party would be riding the waves.  This particular rental agency allows drivers to switch once you’re in the channel, but there’s no returning to the dock during the rental hour so two people would have to give it a miss.  It was a no-brainer that the six “kids” would go (they ranged in age from 17-27), but there were only two spots for the four adults.  My sister was quick to take herself out of the running, and my brother-in-law could not be dissuaded from giving up the other spot, so Ruth and I would be the “adults” in the crowd.  I found out while we were waiting that on their previous jet skiing experience, my sister had unseated my brother-in-law, landing him neatly onto a jellyfish.

After signing various waivers and safety briefings, all of which could be summed up as, “You’re quite likely to get hurt, or even worse, damage our personal watercraft, which will then become your damaged personal watercraft.”  Our guide, Freddy, told us that the waters were a bit too choppy to go out right away, but they’d check again in half an hour.  If we were willing to wait, we might get a chance to ride; otherwise, they’d refund our money and we’d find ourselves with a little more beach time.  While we waited, we watched a safety video made by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in which we were sternly told to keep 100 feet away from pretty much everything.

Freddy came back with the good news that the waves had calmed just enough to make it safe for us to ride, so we had another safety briefing, donned personal flotation devices, and trooped down to the dock where we paired off onto jet skis.  After a quick lesson on how to start, stop, and accelerate (there are no brakes), the jet skis were pushed off into the water, and we slowly followed Freddy along Lazaretto Creek, under the U.S. Highway 80 bridge, past Goat Point, and out into the Cockspur Island Channel.  Freddy gathered us around for a final briefing, then he sped off to hang out near a corner of our designated area.  Because of sand bars and other hazards, we stayed in a rough square about 1/2 mile to a side, which was plenty of room for us to speed around.  One edge was marked by the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, at 46 feet the smallest lighthouse in Georgia.  This little beauty has been standing since 1855, “holding its lantern o’er the restless surge,” as Longfellow says in his poem “The Lighthouse.”  Actually, its lantern has been snuffed out since 1909, since navigating shifted to the larger north channel of the Savannah River.  Other edges of our watery playpen were denoted by channel markers and a dredge.

Ruth was up first as the driver on our team, and in no time we were zipping along the channel, gaining in speed as she grew more confident.  It took a few minutes to get the hang of balancing on the jet ski, though it was pretty stable, especially compared to a kayak or canoe.  I clung tight as we bounced along, with spray slathering us.  It’s impossible to say if we got completely airborne, but there were a few times that the pitch of the engine changed as we leaped over a wave, so it makes me wonder!  I got bounced around a bit and was a little surprised at how I didn’t have to hang on too tightly, but also how I felt like I was clasping the seat with my legs.

After a bit, we changed positions, with Ruth slipping into the channel and swimming around to the back of the machine and clambering in.  Only later did we find out from Freddy that it wasn’t necessary to go swimming — the driver can carefully scoot to one side while the passenger counterbalances, then slides up into the driver’s position while the former driver gets reseated.  We were worried that we’d flip the jet ski, but tried it later with no problems.  I took my turn as driver, getting the feel for how to accelerate, and discovering that I hadn’t quite found the proper speed to deal with some of the larger waves, which cheerfully broke over our heads.  This had happened to Ruth once while she was driving, and as passenger I didn’t quite get the full effect of driving my face through a swell.  It happened twice during my shift as driver, but it was really more surprising than unpleasant.


I thought the jet ski was easy to operate and steer, as long as you remember that you must be on the throttle during your turns.  It was easy to avoid the other three jet skis and the occasional other boats in the area, and unlike most of my other experiences with piloting a boat, I didn’t run aground or bonk into anything.  I found out afterwards that there were dolphins in the waters around us and most of the other riders had seen them, but the only wildlife I noticed was a pelican that was pacing us for a while.

We switched back to give Ruth another go as driver, and she laid her ears back and threw down some fast runs that bounced us around a bit, but it was fun.  We were getting close to the time to go back, and as we floated at the end of another fast dash, Ruth commented, “I feel like we’re always about to tip over.”  And her words proved instantly prophetic, as we had drifted broadside to the waves and with no warning we both pitched into the water.  It was a surprise to suddenly be swimming, but the water was warm and the swells were only a couple of feet high.  The engine cutoff lanyard on Ruth’s wrist did its job flawlessly, as the jet ski floated just ahead of us.  Freddy came zooming over as Ruth climbed back aboard, and he told me how to climb back on, which was easier than I thought.  We were a little embarrassed at our spill, but when we got back ashore we found out that two other teams had also taken an improvised swim at about the same time.  The only all-girl team, our daughters, had stayed in the saddle, though they had a close call themselves.  But make no mistake about it — every one of us was drenched.

Our hour was up, and we slowly drove back to the dock.  Following shouted directions, we sidled up to the floating platform and abandoned our aquatic steeds, though I inadvertently tried to go for another swim by stepping into the space between the platform and the jet ski.  Luckily I was able to recover in time to avoid being a complete idiot.

We enjoyed our first ride on a jet ski, and would definitely do it again!  It’s not cheap — we paid $119 to rent a tandem personal watercraft for an hour, but I’d say it was worth it to get a taste of this activity, under controlled conditions with experts to help us.  Kayaking may be more our speed, but it was fun to try something new.  Hmmm…maybe sea kayaking next time?