Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A memoir of North Inlet, South Carolina

When I was a kid, I spent the entire summer each year floating on my dad's houseboat at North Inlet. (During the school year I was with my mother.) North Inlet is an inlet that sits between the southern end of DeBordieu beach and the northern tip of North Island. Back then North Inlet was empty--few boaters ever ventured there because it was far from Georgetown and to get there you had to cross unmarked channels with shifting sandbars and oyster beds. There were no people on the beach either, because DeBordieu had not yet been developed. To walk there you would have had to swim across the inlet at the south end of Pawley's Island and then walk 10 miles or so to North Inlet.

North Inlet is the northern-most point of an 80-mile stretch of the South Carolina coast that is still undeveloped. If you were to walk from one island to the next and swim across the inlets, you could walk from DeBordieu in the north to just north of the Isle of Palms in the south and not find one house. The reasons for this are both geographical and philanthropic.

Tom Yawkee, who once owned the Boston Red Sox, owned North Island, South Island, and Cat Island as well. North Island is to the north of the entrance of Winyah Bay and South Island is to the south. To the south of Cat Island, the North Santee River empties into the ocean. Tom Yawkee gave all of this land to the state of South Carolina.

Below Cat Island is Cedar Island and then Cape Romain. When I was a kid I used to go with my father to the Santee Gun Club on the South Santee River. This land, north of McClellanville, is cut in two by the Intracoastal Waterway which runs from New York to Miami. To the east of the Santee Gun Club is Cedar Island which is bordered by Cape Romain. All of that area is likewise in state hands. Even if private landowners owned this land it probably could not have been developed because there are miles of marsh, creeks, oyster bars, and sand bars that make it impractical to build any roads there.

I don't know the area south of Cape Romain very well, but the area to the North I once could navigate in a small boat day or night and not get lost. But let's go back north to North Inlet and let me tell you of the unspoiled paradise where I spent much of my youth.

From the ocean, the entrance to North Inlet is not marked by any buoys. We used to race through the inlet and head out to sea to fish for Spanish or King Mackerel. Back in those days you did not need a fishing license and there were no limits of any kind. To catch a Spanish Mackerel we would head out of North Inlet, passing the wreck of a sunken menhaden boat whose mast stood above the waves, then head out into the ocean. My father was especially good at scanning the horizon for the telltale signs of birds diving in the water and fish leaping out of the sea. Then we would gun the engine and zip over to the feeding frenzy and toss Clark spoons into the fray.

Mackerel are voracious eaters. When they were in a school like this, tiny baitfish would turn the surface of the water purple as they sought safety in numbers. The mackerel themselves would leap above the water and the whole sea seemed to churn. Passing through the school--more often than not--our trolling rods would double over with three or even four fish hooked all at once. We usually quit fishing when our cooler was full and the fish would still be biting.

This was in the days before the Loran-C or GPS systems. So we used dead reckoning to find out way back to North Inlet. Then we would barbecue fish on the deck of our houseboat.

We kept out food cold with large blocks of ice that we bought at the Georgetown Ice Company. Our boat did not have refrigeration nor air conditioning because my father believed that a generator would always break down so why bother to try to keep it running.

My father for 20 years owned the only tugboat company in Georgetown, South Carolina: Marine Industries. My grandfather built the two boats that my dad owned, the Kathy-Ann and the Wal-Row. When a ship pulled into the harbor my father's job was to push it up to the pier at either the International Paper Company, the state-owned dock, or at the German-owned steel mill. But only a few ships came in per month. So when my dad was not working we headed back out to North Inlet for more days of endless fishing and swimming. When we not at North Inlet we were at our farm on the Black River beyond Chopee.

I cannot recall what my father did on those long, empty days except watch his boys play. Sometimes he dragged along various girlfriends but usually it was an a-male affair. My brother Andy and I would fish for hours on end. We did what is called "bottom fishing" which means you toss your line out and let it sink to the bottom. Draw the line tight and wait for the tap-tap telltale sign of a fish.

We always caught as many fish as we wanted except when the wind blew from the Northeast or on the falling tide. When the tide is rising, small fish swarm into the inlet and up into the creeks. When the tide is falling they must go the other way because we caught less fish then. And when the wind blew from the northeast, the skies grew gray and surf turned choppy. On those days all we could catch were annoying saltwater catfish, pinfish, and sand sharks. But on halcyon days we caught pompano, croakers, sailor's choice, flounder, blackfish, and a slew of other edible varieties. When we fished at night we caught stingrays, sharks and other spooky creatures. Because they were spooky were usually did not fish at night.

The beach at north inlet dropped off quickly so it made for an excellent place to swim. Beside that beach, the low tide left a sand bar exposed where we would go and collect clams. We used a technique called "keyholing." When a clam digs his way into the sand he uses his mantle to make a hole. Viewed from above, this looks just like an old-fashioned keyhole. So you dig the clam out with a hand-held scoop and toss them into the bucket. Clams collected in this manner often have sand inside them so we would hang the bucket of clams from the railing of the houseboat so they could cleanse themselves in the tide. But more often than not my father would hoist the anchor on his houseboat and then motor off to another location at the inlet. Invariably when he did this the bucket would turn over and the clams would drift down to freedom at the bottom of the water.

Small clams caught like this are best steamed. Bigger clams we called "chowder clams" and used them to make clam chowder. We never made "New England" or "Manhattan" style chowder like you find in a restaurant. Rather we made "Georgetown" style which is made with onions, clams, some back, salt, pepper, and maybe some celery soup to give it some thickness. The other disk that we often ate was "Brunswick Stew" which is shrimp, corn, and sausage all boiled together--in North Carolina Brunswick Stew is made with barbecue pork. When we were at home we often ate "Chicken Perlo" which is chicken and sausage. Politicians used to host events on the Carolina coast where they served Chicken Perlo.

North inlet is formed by the intersection of several creeks that spill into the ocean. Each of these larger creeks were fed by a series of smaller creeks. The smallest creeks were prime hunting ground for chowder clams. To dig them, you would put on some tennis shoes so that your feet could not get cut. Then you waded into the tepid, warm often hot water and felt with your fingers in the black muddy ooze until you felt a clam.

Beyond clamming we often went flounder gigging. We usually went in a specially-designed boat that my grandfather had built. It was specially designed so that it could float in very shallow water. To "gig" a flounder means to spear it. We would wait until there was a night with little wind and no moon and head out on low tide. If the moon was up then the flounder could see you. If there was wind there then water was cloudy and you could not see the flounder. It was a bit eerie floating there in the dark with only the distant sound of the surf and your own thoughts to comfort you.

Flounder lie in the shallows at low tide and wait for a shrimp or other prey to swim by. You can usually tell where a flounder has buried themselves for they leave a hole in the sand. Flounder change color with their surroundings. If they are lying in black mud then they are dark. If they are laying on the sandy then they are brown.

To gig flounder you push your boat across the flats. A twelve-volt car or boat battery is used to power bright waterproof lights that you stick below the surface. You use the wooden end of the 14-foot long flounder gig to push yourself across the flats looking for the outline of a flounder laying on the bottom. When you see one you stick it with the gig. The gig has three prongs that are designed to they will not easily pull out. A flounder boat has a notch in the front seat. When you spear the flounder you flip the fish into the boat and them use the notch to pull the gig free of the fish.

When you turn on bright lights in the otherwise dark night all sorts of fish come swimming into view to check out all the commotion. My brother and I sat in the back and tried to grab by hand the small needlefish that swarmed around our craft. There are like tiny freshwater gar fish--they have a snout with many teeth. No matter how quickly we tried to grabbed them they always stayed just out of arm's reach. This is the same with porpoise that you see on the high seas--they come close to your boat but no matter how far you reach overboard you never seen to be able to touch them.

Flounder in my opinion is the best fish in the ocean to eat beside grouper. Both have totally white flesh whereas mackerel is slightly green. Mackerel is only good when it is fresh and bluefish is not edible at all. In New Jersey and other areas of the cold northern ocean they eat bluefish but in South Carolina if we caught one we would just toss it back.

Sometimes we went fishing for grouper. Usually you catch them by fishing deep over an offshore reef. But the problem for me with drifting in an open boat on the ocean is you can rapidly become sea sick, because the boat rolls with the motion of the ocean and the tide. So it was more comfortable when we trolled meaning we kept the engine in gear and let out lines follow us aft. Thus the boat made headway again the rolling waves. We used deep riggers to hold green Drone spoons down deep and caught many grouper trolling slowly over rocks.

Most of the time that we went to North Inlet we were alone, but on other occasions we were joined by friends. Often we tied our boats together in a flotilla that pivoted and swung from the anchor of the largest vessel.

As I said before, even though this place was paradise there were rarely other boats there. In the latter years as houses began to be built at DeBordieu beach some boaters would come down for the day because they built a boat landing for the homeowners there. Among these were Doc Lachicotte.

Doc Lachicotte and my father went to school in Georgetown and for many years were friends. Later my father moved away to Wilmington, North Carolina and then Edisto Island, South Carolina so he saw less of Doc and his other Georgetown-based friends. But my earliest memories include seeing Doc motor up in his Boston Whaler with his two large coolers stuffed to the gills with shrimp that he caught with a seine. Tourists to Pawleys Island know Doc Lachicotte for his Pawleys Island Hammock shop. The Pawleys Island hammocks he sells are nationally known. You even see them advertised in The New Yorker magazine. Practically everyone I know in South Carolina has one of these largest, comfortable cotton-rope hammocks.

Doc and his family lived behind the Hammock Shop at Pawleys Island. His daughter Ginger, his wife, and even Doc all looked like the same because they all had the sharply angled facial features of Jackie Onassis. Doc's son is named Chip. I don't remember Chip much except I remember going duck hunting with him a few times. Chip took us with his to jump ducks in the creeks on the Waccamaw River.

In the winter we kept our houseboat at Doc's Caledonia plantation on the Waccamaw River. From there we would set out in the pitch black dark and go duck hunting on the many creeks and tidal marshes that were behind this section of Pawley's Island. Now Caledonia is gone having been turned into a golf course. Some people consider this progress--I think it's a disaster. But I guess it's better than turning it into one endless string of condominiums.

A more ubiquitous presence at North Inlet was Dickie Crayton and his houseboat the Casa del Gato ("cat house" in Spanish). The Casa del Gato was a leaky wooden crazy. Whenever Dickie left for Georgetown for supplies he would anchor his boat on the sand bar where we went clamming. So at low tide his boat would be high and dry several hundred feet from any navigable water.

The Casa del Gato was always sinking. I can recall more than once my father dropping a hawser from his tugboat around the keel of Dickie's houseboat and then towing it to a place in the harbor at Georgetown where low tide would bring the waterline above water and let Dickie make yet another repair.

Dickie Crayton and his brother Sam were both local characters. Dickie lived with his German wife Lilo at North Litchfield Beach. Lilo was a local artist--her house was full of paintings. Dickie worked building houses when he wasn't bobbing up and down on the waters of North Inlet. Dickie and Sam both died a few years ago. Both were great storytellers.

Dickie liked to eat turtle eggs. I don't recall whether these were terrapin turtles or loggerheads. It's against the law to collect turtle eggs now, but back in the 1970s I am not sure what the law would have said about that.

We often spotted loggerhead turtles when we were out fishing on the ocean. They would rise to the surface looking as large as a Volkswagen Beetle. They would draw in air with an audible gasp. The loggerheads laid their eggs on the sand at North Island. North Island had an eerie look to it because jetties had been built at the entrance to Winyah Bay. So the beach had been shifted backwards. Large trees that had once been in the woods now stood at the ocean's edge and ultimately fell into the water. It was sort of a grave yard for timber. There once were a couple of houses there because we stumbled upon the foundation for one once. But I had read that a hurricane killed everyone on the Island. Now the only structure there is the lighthouse that points out the entrance to Winyah Bay.

The way you catch turtle eggs is to poke into the sand dunes with a stick until you find the eggs underneath. I never learned to like the eggs. They are leathery rather than hard like a chicken egg. You would probably have to look far and wide today to find anyone who has eaten a turtle egg because harvesting the same is a federal crime.

When Dickie Crayton needed to be towed back home--his boat was a barge and thus had no engine--his brother Sammy Crayton would show up in his old wooden tugboat and tow Dickie back to Georgetown. Sammy was the captain of a sportfishing boat that belonged to Jerry Bradshaw. If you have ever been where interstate 95 passes by Manning, South Carolina then you would have seen Mr. Bradshaw's enormous truck stop there on the freeway. It earned him his fortune to buy his boat. For many years he kept it tied up at Ed Braynard's Belle Isle Marina but then moved it into Georgetown. (Ed is another local character who deserves a proper written portrait. I spent many summers hanging out at his marina.) Jerry had a sense of humor so he named his boat the "Bull Ship". Sam and later his son Sammy were captains of that sportfishing boat and took people out on charters.

Sam was somewhat conservative in his approach to fishing. I wondered why he used artificial lures when we all used dead ballyhoo or mullet. Sam never went much further offshore that the Georgetown wreck while my Dad and I would go 50 to even 70 miles out to catch marlin, wahoo, and dolphin. Perhaps he was old and that was why he liked to fish somewhat close in shore rather than far out at sea. In those days you saw very few people fishing far offshore. While most people went there in their 50-plus foot yachts my Dad went offshore in his 35-foot Betram or his 25-foot Mako. But the Bull Ship was a 42-foot oceangoing Bertram.

Sam liked to drink hard liquor. To me that was a positive aspect rather than a negative one, because I had always associated drinking then as I do now with good times and good friends sitting around and telling lies and good stories. But I embarrassed myself and Sam both when I tied to give hima bottle of Scotch. A friend and I had bought a case from Wayne Thigpen who with my father had been in the ship chandler business. (A ship chandler buys goods for cargo ships and their crews on a duty-free basis.) It was an awkward moment for Sam I am sure because here was a young man who he had known since a boy who was offering him booze. Now that I have become a wine writer I don't drink hard liquor at all preferring wine.

I owe Sam Crayton, because he bandaged a wound I got when we were shrimping at North Inlet. My father, great-uncle, and cousins had all owned shrimp boats. But at North Inlet the way we caught shrimp was to jump into the water and draw a 100-foot seine across the creek. We always caught shrimp plus lots of interesting fish like anchovies or other tiny creatures whose name we could only guess at. But for some reason I was more prone than anyone to falling down on oyster rocks and suffering nasty cuts. The scars on my legs are a testament to the many times I have fallen on oysters and cut myself to the point where I needed stitches. On that day we were 20 plus miles from Georgetown by water and I cut myself deeply. Blood poured from my wound and Sam Crayton wrapped it with gauze. I almost fainted and I recall it was the first time in my life--and the last time--that I ever asked my Dad for a cigarette. (I no longer smoke. He still does.)

Another person who we saw at North Inlet was Lester Larimore. He was perhaps 80 years old and had a severely crooked back. Lester lived on his cabin cruiser that he kept tied up on Front Street in Georgetown. He was old enough to have had rowed to North Inlet as a boy. He would row down on the falling tide and row back on the flood.

My father told a funny story about Lester Larimore some years ago. Once Lester and another man were rowing in Winyah Bay to set some nets. The other man had an upset stomach, so Lester offered him a new invention: Alka Seltzter tablets. Not knowing what to do the other man simply popped them in his mouth and swallowed them. Of course you are supposed to pop-pop-fizz-fizz-oh-what-a-relief-it-is dissolve them in water. The man was soon frothing at the mouth. Lester thought he had rabies or had gone mad so he proceeded to pound him over the head with a paddle.

Lee Ballard was another of my father's friends who often joined us at we journeyed out to North Inlet together. My grandfather built Lee's houseboat. It was unique because it had that unheard of luxury, air conditioning, in addition to a steel hull that was designed so the boat could get up on a plane like a motor boat. Lee owned a welding business in town and would often weld the metals that my grandfather was using to build tugboats, barges, and other vessels.

To get to North Inlet you head out from Georgetown down the Sampit River and into Winyah Bay which is where the Black, Pee Dee, Sampit, and Waccamaw Rivers all come together. We would sail straight across the ship channel and then go past the wreck of the Harvest Moon, a ship that was sunk during the civil war. Then we cut through a deep channel and crossed Muddy Bay.

Muddy Bay should have been named Shallow Water Bay because while it was wide it was only 5 feet deep at low tide. Because it was exposed, when the wind blew southwest and the tide was falling the bay was rough as heck. The houseboat bobbed up and down while the small flotilla of boats we towed behind were jerked side to side.

We sailed across the bay and then turned into a creek I simply called "North Inlet Creek". This ran the length of North Island and meandered back and forth. I was always amazed that my Dad could steer even his deep-draft sportfishing boat through time unmarked waterway and not run aground. For the water here is brown. You cannot see the bottom looming up at you so you just have to memorize which portions of the creek are deep and navigable.

Often Henry Chandler would be in our wake following with his cabin cruiser. Henry was some kind of lobbyist for the Republican Party. He would always be blasting loud country music from his stereo as his made his way to North Inlet.

Another one of our pastimes at North Inlet was catching stone crabs. There are two ways to do this. One is to put crab traps into deep water. The other was to find an exposed mud bank that was pockmarked with holes. Then we would stick a steel hook inside and drag the unsuspecting crab out from the back. Then we would snap off one of the large, dangerous claws and toss the crab back.

My grandmother went to North Inlet with us a few times. She liked to stand on the beach in her big floppy hat and catch bottom fish just like my brother and I. She would do that while my brother and I fished for crabs using a crab net and chicken necks tied to a piece of string.

Finally, we had an annual event at North Inlet where we elected a figure-head mayor. Lilo Crayton painted an elaborate crown that the mayor was obliged to wear. We had a parade too. As the years went by more and more people learned of this so boats would come from Georgetown to join our fun. The last mayor elected that I know was Sam Williams. He is my age. His brother David and I were in the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at The University of South Carolina.

I often reflect with whimsy on the days when the South Carolina beaches were empty and the highways deserted. When I first learned to drive I could drive from USC to Greenville, where my mother lived, with my lights on high-beam and not see a car for many minutes. The photos I have of the house where I lived as a baby at Litchfield Beach show that the beach was largely deserted. Now the highways are overcrowded, the beach is chock-a-block with houses, and King Mackerel fisherman actually bump into each other when they fish in tournaments. We should have put erected a high steel fence in 1861 and posted a sign saying "modernity keep out" because it has ruined all that was pleasant in my youth. I have not been to North Inlet in many years but I am sure it, like Cape Romain, is overrun with expatriate retirees and their noisy pleasure craft.


Cassie Maynard Smith said...

Thank you for your article. I love it. It brought back so many wonderful memories. I was one of those few who swam across from Pawleys to Debordieu once losing my car keys! North Inlet will always hold a huge place in my heart. It was a large part of my courtship in then 70's with my husband , Jeff Smith.( He uses his middle name now, Baydon.) I can still feel that boat crossing Muddy Bay. We have been married almost 45 years so North Inlet was definitely magical to us as well. Cassie Maynard Smith

Michael Williams said...

Great story. I was born and raised in georgetown and am stil an avid fishman of the area living in murrells inlet. I could total appreciate ever word. I have even worked on the tug walrow. Its in port jefferson long island NY now. Im still looking for an opportunity to purchase a houseboat for the very same reason. To enjoy gods gods country.

Jim S said...

Thanks Walker. We moved to Debidue when I was 14 in 1975. Most of the year I had no friends except my dog Ollie to hang out with so dad got me a jon boat and I spent most of my days exploring the creeks and hanging out at the inlet. I remember someone living out there in an unpowered house boat. Was that Dickie Crayton? Later on me and my high school buds Tim and Saki would camp out at the inlet or up on Yawkeys North Island property. It was a special time. I feel blessed to have lived in Debidue before it got so populated. The same goes for the entire grand strand. Too crowded now.
I miss going out to N Inlet on school nights and being the only one out there.
I miss the crazy July 4ths we had.
Jim Schroer