Most days, Alley 3 is a pretty mellow spot.
The parking lot and boat ramp on Tybee Island's Back River might crowd up for a minute with a crew of kayakers coming in from Little Tybee. Other than that, it's usually just a couple of families hanging out on the tiny beach.
That is, until the floaters show up.
Hundreds of people carrying every possible kind of flotation device--from dollar store plastic rings to fancy 15-person rafts to homemade pontoons boasting onboard margarita blenders--descend upon Alley 3 for the sanctioned events known collectively as the Tybee Floatilla.
"I've even seen folks just wearing a life jacket," says Floatilla founder Brian Stafford. "As long as it floats, it'll work. Though the smaller, the better."
Stafford, a City of Savannah firefighter, started organizing such group floats in the summer of 2009, when he and a few friends dropped in a raft at Alley 3 and floated all the way down Lazaretto Creek to The Crab Shack. That was so much fun he planned a few more, experimenting with tying floats together and trying different routes.
"We tried to follow the tides out the other way but that didn't work," he recalls.
The following year, the Tybee native had the idea to turn the events into fundraisers, collecting donations for local charities like Ronald McDonald House, Second Harvest Food Bank and Shriners Hospital for Children. With nothing but Facebook as a marketing tool, the floats attracted bigger and more buoyant crowds until June 2011, when 1200 people showed up at little Alley 3.
"That's when the city manager and the police chief called me up and said, ‘We need to talk,'' chuckles Stafford.
He's spent the last year shoring up a more orderly game plan for the Floatillas, including instituting a $25 charge for participants, who receive a wristband, a coozie and an official a t-shirt. The rest of the money goes to charity, and with the help of his lawyer girlfriend, Christie Register of Register Law Firm, the organization earned its non-profit status a few months ago.
"The reorganization has changed this for the good. By charging people we've kind of weeded out the trouble," he says. "It's much more family-oriented now."
The season's first Floatilla is Sunday, July 1, and this time the theme is "Float for History," benefitting the Tybee Post Theater and the Tybee Lighthouse renovations. Over 220 wristbands have already been sold via the Crab Shack and Register Law Firm as well as through www.tybeefloatilla.com (there's an extra $5 for purchasing online.)
Stafford plans to cap it at 400 to prevent overcrowding in the water, citing safety as his first priority. He spent 10 years as a lifeguard on the beach, and The Tybee Marine Rescue Squad will be on hand for any emergencies.
"If you aren't a good swimmer, this fundraiser is not for you," admonishes The Tybee Floatilla Facebook page, which also has a list of rules and highly-advisable suggestions, including wearing shoes (to protect feet from omnipresent sharp oyster beds) and leaving phones and expensive sunglasses at home (Stafford knows from experience that even in a Ziploc bag, such items don't float.)
As always, the Floatilla leaves Alley 3 at dead low tide, right as the current turns inland (Stafford recommends showing up an hour early to park and pump up floats.)The route is timed so that floaters reach a wide sandbar referred to as Criminal Island (for reasons nobody really wants to know.) Here floaters get out to play in the sand until the tide covers the island up again, then everyone pushes off to follow the river to the Crab Shack's dock. All in all, the whole trip takes about three and half hours.
Stafford says he has five Floatillas planned for the summer season, including another Sunday float on July 29 and Monday float on August 13 especially for service industry folks, which will benefit the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The Tybee Floatilla has already raised over $20K for other charities, with sponsorship help from area businesses and Savannah Firefighters Local Union 574. Stafford does the planning between shifts at the firehouse, dedicating about 20 hours a week to the cause. Still, he says he's not interested in drawing a salary from his new non-profit.
"I'm not a fundraiser, I'm a firefighter," he laughs. "I'm just doing this for the fun."
"Float for History"
When: Sunday, July 1, 11 a.m.
Where: Alley 3, Tybee Island