Keenan and Daria aboard the USS Yorktown, a WWII-era aircraft carrier now a floating museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Pictured with the kids is Rev. Harold Syfrett, the Yorktown’s first electrician (responsible for the ship’s inter-deck telephone systems).

Before departing Georgia for South Carolina, we checked our oil (and a few other engine room items), planned route, weather, tides, and places we might anchor or tie-up upon arrival at our destination or any plan B stops. We also made sure to collect our half-dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, courtesy of the marina where we stayed the previous night, to make sure the crew was well fed and well…oiled. We also checked one of our favorite ICW websites, the Salty Southeast Cruisers Net to learn of any near real-time problem spots reported on the waterway. Running on the ICW through Georgia and South Carolina requires careful observation of the strong currents, and the potential low-water spots, that accompany the large tidal swings. Sure enough, we saw reports of a few of shoaling sections along our planned route.

And just as sure as the tides themselves, we found those muddy spots with the bottom of our keel! Lucky for us our keel runs just about the entire length of the bottom-side of our hull so we were able to glide through the mud to deep water in one case and in another case back off the soft muck. In that second instance, we had to return to a sound and slowly circle for an hour in the deep water while the tide continued to flood and raise the water level at the shoaled channel entrance.

Like the entire Georgia coast, the southern South Carolina coastline winds through beautiful marshes and estuaries, and we enjoyed miles at a stretch without seeing any signs of civilization other than the occasional channel marker. No cell phone access and not much radio contact. We did cross paths with a boat from Maine, so I radioed to say hello and ask about anything ahead we might watch for. The boat had a crew member from Bangor, the city where my dad’s from. They knew exactly the house where he grew up, and in the spirit of downeast Maine humor they let us know they were looking forward to the Maine summer this year…all two weeks of it. Ayup!

We also held our first homeschool class up top on the flybridge. Kind of like class out on the lawn, though the lawn moves. While the kids continue to keep pace with Math and Science through Florida Virtual School, we’ve focused most our attention on American History among the other subjects (History, Geography, Grammar, Literature, Composition) we teach ourselves onboard. (See our February 19, 2011 blog post for more on homeschooling.) There’s so much to learn here on the east coast, especially since the ICW was the inter-colony and inter-state highway for so much of early American history. From exploration to music to military strategy, the waterways have shaped America. They still do today. We’re quickly building a formidable library of maps, guides, and books about each town and region and do our best to digest what we can before we move to the next town.

By late afternoon we arrived at our next port of call, Beaufort, South Carolina, a lovely historic town with a beautiful waterfront park and scores of elegantly maintained antebellum homes. The heart of the low-country. We found a vibrant art scene, and we stumbled across a neat upstairs studio where a number of artists work and display their art. While Keenan and I checked-out the town visitor center, Jennifer and Daria chatted with a local artist in the studio who agreed to give Daria a class in oil painting the next day (check the May photos for Daria at work in the studio and also for a shot of the final product, a pelican).

We decided to stay an extra day in Beaufort, and we put the dinghy down and ran over to Port Royal to buy some much-needed fresh produce at the local farmer’s market. Seems we got there late, and Jennifer declared that nearly all the good stuff, like organic eggs, was gone. The kids and I thought otherwise since the French lady making crepes (she was from Provence, really) and the local farmer making fried dough were still on hand. So we had strawberry crepes and washed them down with some fried dough with sugar. Organic cane sugar no doubt. Free range and line caught too! We also listened to some bluegrass from a group of local musicians, including some sweet-sounding slide guitar played on an authentic Dobro resonator.

Port Royal is also home to Parris Island, the training base for newly enlisted Marines. Not surprisingly, it’s also home to a number of retired military personnel, and through active engagement by the kids with the various pets on leashes at the farmer’s market, we met a number of retired Marine Corps members who were most interested in our watery adventures. We also listened to lots of their stories. It’s been such a blessing to have the time to listen, learn, and share. It’s all out there for all of us we’d wager, but we so rarely take the time to slow down and listen to, or tell, stories.

Since we didn’t get everything we needed at the farmer’s market, Jennifer suggested we do some historic touring on our bikes and some…urban foraging! I thought she meant skate-boarding, but she meant finding food growing in town. Nifty idea. Economical. I liked it. We tested some honeysuckle, ummmm good! But kinda’ hard to gather and bring onboard in any volume. Then, we discovered a plentiful and fragrant supply of rosemary right under our noses in the newly renovated waterfront park. I had thoughts of flatbread, strong cheeses, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil and our hand-picked herbs. We not-so-subtly plucked a bunch of the rosemary out of the nice Beaufort landscaping. With our hands full, Daria casually noted that all the rosemary was right in the middle of doggie firing range. If you know what she means. Hmmm, wonder if that washes off… Probably not, so we made the leaves into organic fertilizer and returned them to Mother Earth.

Now we’re batting .000. But, Jennifer still has an at-bat, and she discovers multiple loquat trees full of the delicious little fruit. What we didn’t eat on the spot, we stuffed into our pockets and brought back to the boat. Were it not for our fear of armed locals, we would have collected more of these orange treasures. I let Jennifer know that a .333 batting average would get you into Cooperstown, so we done pretty good.

We liked Beaufort so much, we stayed longer than originally planned. That keeps happening on the Great Loop. Next stop is the big city of Charleston so we made plans to stick around for a few days. We decided to tie up at the Charleston Maritime Center (the city owned and run marina), which is just a short walk from the heart of Charleston. (We’d regret that – or better said, learn from it – later.) We walked the town and loved the history, beauty, and charm of each neighborhood. This is a city where the history – the wondrous and the tragic – seems so alive in the buildings and on streets. We’re already plotting out return to Charleston, whether by land or by sea.

We also visited the Fort Sumter museum and read about that fateful day in April 1861 that marked the beginning of a horrible and formative internal conflict in American history. With South Carolina as the first state to secede from the Union, we also found it interesting to observe the various interpretations, even in public venues, of the Civil War, its cause, the conduct of the war, and its lasting implications. More material for discussion with the kids.

We took a water taxi across the river and visited the USS Yorktown (CV-10), the 10th carrier built in the U.S. fleet. This mammoth vessel was constructed in a mere eighteen months during WWII. Remarkable engineering and construction feats but not surprising given the urgency and the stakes. Stretching nearly 900 feet (less than half the size of some of today’s carriers), it’s a wee bit imposing when you approach it. It’s now a floating museum. What a magnificent place to learn.

We actually had to hold the kids back, they were so anxious to run and explore the ship. Yes, even Daria. We took the advice of a veteran (all the volunteers aboard are former servicemen) and followed the self-guided tour. We spent nearly three hours walking the ship’s corridors, visiting each deck, including the flight deck and hanger decks. The carrier has onboard one of each type of plane that’s taken off from its deck. The kids were thoroughly impressed with the size and complexity of the ship, including the fact that a regular meal might include baking 10,000 chocolate chip cookies!

We were also fortunate to stumble upon an elementary school class that was meeting with the Yorktown’s original ship’s telephone engineer. Born in 1923, Rev. Harold Syfrett has a razor sharp memory for dates and ship detail. He described the ship’s short shake-down period and its journey into combat. It was an honor to meet a real-life Navy veteran from the Greatest Generation.

On our final night in town, we met extended family member Amit Singh (whose brother is married to one of Jennifer’s sisters) and played some guitar, bass, and harmonica together. Keenan has been teaching himself bass guitar, and since Amit moonlights in a band when he’s not busy as an anesthesiologist, he gave Keenan some practical tips and advice on learning and playing bass. More about music onboard Muddy Waters in a future blog post.

Our departure from Charleston the following day, with a ripping current and tons of wind in Charleston Harbor, was a, um, thriller. For us and for all the spectators. We’ve heard pilots say that every landing is really just a controlled crash. We’re starting to think the same about docking. And undocking. Here are just a few factors that might make it challenging to park or exit: wind, current, dock-hand experience, line handling, slip placement, marina configuration, position and type of other boats, wakes, type of dock, and most importantly operator/captain error. In Charleston, we had every one of those factors working against us, with the exception of dock-hand inexperience. Had we waited for the dock-master to arrive at 8:30 am we would have received the good advice to sit and wait for slack tide. But, we were in a hurry to push-off in anticipation of a long day on the water, with forecasts of building winds (on top of the steady 20 knots we already had, with gusts up to 30 knots), and we thought we could use spring lines and our bow thruster to counter the wind and current.

About three seconds off the dock, I said to Jennifer: We’re in trouble. We learned that a 25hp hydraulic bow thruster doesn’t give much punch against a two knot current, and since our boat is shaped like a sailboat underneath the water, we were much more at the mercy of the current than we anticipated. Operator error, the captain’s fault, no excuse. As Daria says in recounting our attempted departure, We almost made a 44 foot sailboat into a 42 foot sailboat. We got sideways to the swift current and our exit path quickly disappeared, leaving us pinned to the stern of a neighboring sailboat. Fortunately for us, their rubber dinghy was raised on its davit and acted as a bumper (in addition to the muscle of Jennifer and the three crew on the sailboat, plus Keenan and Daria’s rush to action in holding our own fenders), allowing us to pivot into a slip that had just been vacated by a twin-engined trawler.

Through a small maritime miracle, there was no damage to our neighbor’s boat, nor to ours. We all sat for a few minutes in silence, then Jennifer noted that through it all (maybe 10 or 15 seconds), we didn’t raise our voices, yell, or even curse. Not once. Everyone just went to work quickly as a team. A good lesson. We’ll soon have a collective Ph.D. in the field of rapid-fire lesson-learning! It’s no fun while you’re learning, but the knowledge goes a long way because the next chance to get in trouble is waiting right around the corner. And it’ll punch you in the nose. (See our March 21, 2011 post for background on a place in Eleuthera called The Current.)

With the ripping current and an approaching storm, we decided Charleston was a nice place to stay put for two more days. We made plans for the kids to play games with a neighboring sailboat, Tambora, with a 10-year old daughter onboard. We said we’d have coffee with another neighbor who’d just helped us, Rock Chalk. Jennifer and Daria also went out and bought muffins and pastries for all the kind sailors who helped us get into our new slip at the same marina. I went to inform the dock master that we’d be staying two more days, and he promptly told me: Ain’t no space, we’s all booked up, you’ll have to go. Uh oh.

Back at the boat I passed along the news. We all agreed there was no use in complaining, so we regrouped, waited an hour for slack tide, used our lines pull in our bow and point our stern in the right direction and were on our way to Georgetown, South Carolina. We turned on our stabilizers (bless them) for the mile or so rough run through Charleston Harbor (with Fort Sumpter directly in front of us) and then turned north onto the ICW. It was like being beamed to another place. Not a wave in sight, the wind at our backs, and soon enough a flood tide carrying us forward.

We arrived into Georgetown, South Carolina that evening, tied-up at Harborwalk Marina, and Jennifer scouted-out the town on one of her long runs. No storms here, but lots and lots of wind. In fact, these were the few days when the southeastern United States experienced those devastating storms. We thought about the deadly impact of the weather on the neighboring states’ citizens and reminded ourselves of the power of Mother Nature over people, whether at sea or on land. This is one reason we spend so much time thinking about weather while aboard Muddy Waters. We’re grateful to have such a sturdy and sea-worthy vessel when the seas and skies turns rotten.

The following morning, we took a terrific town tour, lead by a retired Methodist minister and master story teller. We also visited Georgetown’s Bethel AME church, founded as a congregation in 1863 shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation. The church bought the property itself in 1865 immediately after the Civil War. Michelle Obama’s great great grandfather was a slave on a plantation just two miles from the church. While the Robinson family eventually moved north to Chicago, the First Lady’s grandparents retired to Georgetown so Michelle and her brother spent summers in Georgetown and also worshipped at this church. Quite an American story. Here’s a newspaper article on the Robinson journey.

We also visited the town’s marine museum, saw what’s reputedly the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi River (a Yoda-like 700 year old live oak tree) and visited a rice museum. Did you know that at one point Georgetown was one of the leading rice growers and exporters in the world, second only to Calcutta, India? It’s true; well, at least according to our tour guide. They called rice Carolina Gold since it made many a Georgetown plantation owner exceedingly rich. That wealth was due not only to a cash crop in high demand globally but also to the fact that the labor producing it was slave labor. We also learned that with development and the eventual encroachment of salt water into the once freshwater-only paddies, the rice industry’s demise was inevitable. Once again we easily could have stuck around this town. Yet another place we’d like to visit again on the Great Loop. Deep history, kind and hospitable people, a charming main street…

We departed Georgetown and passed through the Waccamaw River and some of the most beautiful landscapes and scenery we’ve seen so far along the coast. It’s sort of a bayou-like swamp feel, with beautiful cypress along a chocolate colored river. We passed a few quiet fishing communities and saw a few anglers alone with their thoughts on skiffs on the river’s edge. What a pretty sight.

We left the Waccamaw river and headed up a straight-away, affectionately known as the Ditch (as the entire ICW is sometimes called), on our way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. There we met-up with cousin Shannon. What a treat for us to have her onboard! A former Hollywood film producer person, she relocated to North Carolina to help with her family’s furniture business. Shannon stayed onboard with us for two nights and brought a bounty of Carolina treats like pecan coffee, local fruit wine, nuts, and jam.

On a Saturday evening everyone indulged me and went over to an outdoor venue at the House of Blues to listen to some live music. Then Jennifer, with help from Shannon and Daria, whipped up a delicious Persian meal of stuffed grape leaves, saffron rice, and yogurt – all followed by a homemade red velvet birthday cake. Ummm good. Keenan played happy birthday, blues style to my ear, on the bass. Phat. We also had a lovely visit from friends Jonathan and Christine, aboard the sailboat Calypso, whom we’d met in the Exumas earlier this year. Family, friends, the water, the blues, and good food – all the ingredients for a memorable birthday.

We enjoyed every stop in South Carolina and hope to return and spend more time next round. We’d especially like to explore some of the quieter areas and anchorages; there’s so much natural beauty in South Carolina. Next stop is Southport, North Carolina where we’ll meet up with more extended family (Chuck, married to one of Jennifer’s sisters, and their oldest son Trevor) and share a little more of our adventure again.