Bonnie James and Jim Miller sailed their Newfoundland-registered Victoire yacht ‘Vagrant Sea’ from the Queen City Yacht Club in Toronto via the ICW to the Bahamas and now we cover the return journey
Intracoastal Waterway – Georgia to South Carolina – ICW North part 4
As we approach the Savannah River, we feel like little kids about to cross a super highway. We post a lookout on the foredeck to take advantage of the extra couple of feet of height. We stare hard to starboard and port. The terrain is flat, marshes with tall golden grasses, and a line of trees along the river’s winding bank. The Savannah is not especially wide, and we will scoot across it in a few minutes. The problem is, it carries massive container ships that can appear around the bend in a heartbeat.
Some friends of ours tell a story about the first time they were nearing the intersection of the waterway and the river. They could hear someone on their VHF radio hailing “the southbound sailboat approaching the Savannah River”. When they answered, the calling vessel said it was a container ship coming upstream. The caller warned then to hold off entering the river. Steve and Ann took a look, saw nothing, then called back to say, “We can’t be the sailboat you want. There’s no big ship in our sight.”
The radio operator described the boat he was worried about. It did sound a lot like theirs. Then he said, “I think you had better look again.” At that moment, our friends cleared a line of trees that had been blocking their view. Now they could see a 10-storey high wall of freight coming towards them at 20 knots. Their boat did the fastest 180 degree turn it’s ever made.
Today we have the river to ourselves, and we leave Georgia to pass into South Carolina. The Carolina coast is protected by a long chain of barrier islands. In times past, when the islands could be reached only by boat, the inhabitants were mostly black settlers, descendants of freed slaves. They earned modest livelihoods through fishing and subsistence farming. In the early 20th century, a few islands became summer playgrounds for the rich and famous. They built fabulous mansions for their extensive households on the seashore. Each June they moved lock, stock and barrel down to the coast via private rail car and boat to escape the heat of the big eastern cities. More recently, developers have constructed holiday resorts, condominium complexes and golf courses which attract visitors all year around. Many islands are now linked to the mainland by bridges and causeways.
We pass islands in quite different phases of development. Daufuskie Island is still home to descendants of the original black residents (novelist Pat Conroy wrote of his year as a teacher here in The Water is Wide). Hilton Head has modern palaces. Children of the African Americans who used to live there years ago now commute to the island each day to work at the resorts.
In South Carolina we alternate nights in remote creeks with visits to grand old southern towns and cities – Beaufort, Charleston, Georgetown. The heart of each city is on the waterfront and we can drop anchor just a short dinghy ride from downtown. When we go ashore, we leave our unlocked dinghy at a dock the municipality provides for cruisers. Some towns have public libraries where we can check our e-mail, just like home. Often there is a supermarket where an employee will drive us and our groceries back to the dock.
In Beaufort (pronounced Bew-fort, as opposed to the town of the same spelling in North Carolina, which you call Bo-fort) we always visit a couple from Sarnia, Ontario. We met Meindert and his wife Gayle, who spend winters here, through Ham radio connections. While cruising, Jim checks in early most mornings with two different Ham networks. The Mississauga Net provides a connection back to Canada, and Laurie Cashin from St. John’s often sets up a regular schedule to supply news from home. It’s reassuring to know that the Net operators – all volunteers, and mostly retired – always have a good idea where we are. If someone needs to get a message to us, we can be found within 24 hours. The group is very obliging and helps in all sorts of ways. One of the regulars from Toronto is a retired surgeon. When Jim developed an infected tooth, Ernie was able to offer advice about taking an antibiotic we had on board. They have also taken to newer technology. Most of them are on e-mail, and will relay messages to and from family and friends.
On this visit to Beaufort, we are happy to see Phil and Marie, transplanted Cape Bretoners, now living in southwestern Ontario near Meindert and Gayle. They have driven south for a break from winter. Both these couples are former cruisers. They belong to the Turkey Net, the second of Jim’s regular HAM nets. It includes lots of people sailing in the southern U.S. and the Bahamas. Other Hams on this net have switched to land cruising, and are on the move in RV’s. Is this our future?
Beaufort is a good walking town, and if you look carefully you can spot the settings for Pat Conroy’s novels, later made into movies: The Great Santini, Prince of Tides, Beach Music. Back on the water, it’s just a day and a half (or 90 minutes by car) to Charleston, a city that oozes ambiance. It is not so much any particular building, but the overall impression the place makes. Charleston’s traditional ‘single’ houses have verandas on the side, at both ground level and the second storey. There is plenty of wrought-iron railing and decoration. Old live oak trees drip with lichens. We can’t wait to see the city again, but wait we must.
An hour south of Charleston, we encounter one of the crabbiest bridge tenders on the entire waterway. I swear she set her watch ahead, so she could say we were late, and refuse to swing that bridge for us. She actually kept us waiting 59 minutes for the next scheduled hourly opening. The bridge that came after this left us with an entirely different impression. The operator asked us our boat name and home port. When he heard we were from Canada, he congratulated us on the gold medal the women’s hockey team had just won, and let us through immediately. Yeh, team!
Fair winds and snug harbours,
Bonnie James – Vagrant Sea
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