When you grow up on a Lowcountry sea island, the salt water flows through your veins and pluff mud eternally stuck between your toes and expands in the formation of webbed feet. Being on the water is inherent, a primal rekindling of swimming in our mother’s womb.
With so much water around us, boats drift into the economic status of necessity. I now realize the term boating must have existed as a noun during my childhood, but I swear — years passed before I ever heard the word; it likely was a word uttered by people who also said guys. We were always “going out in the boat.” Of course, this phrase is not an especially efficient use of words, but I think it’s revealing: going emphasizes the journey, albeit a familiar journey, but a voyage that always presents the opportunity for discovery—and self-discovery, when we are fortunate. Out also reminds us that we are getting out of doors and embracing the natural world of our own backyard.
The creeks and rivers bridge us to the past and every voyage on the boat or in the water is a spiritual communion with those who came before us. My own grandfather was in his 20s before a bridge connected John’s Island to the mainland. The weekly ferry to town came to the Abbapoola Creek, docking at different points, depending on the tide. When people from off heard my grandfather’s brogue and asked from where he hailed, he customarily replied: “I am from the coast, between Beaufort and Charleston.” I have always loved the haunting vagueness of such a watery and enigmatic location.
Though Charleston unfortunately now seems all-to-close to my beloved island, it was another world in the days when rivers were the only means of navigation. Suggesting a providential relationship, one of my father’s doctors reminds him of the days of house calls: “My grandfather used to come by boat to John’s Island to treat your grandfather,” the good doctor remarks.
When I was a boy, being on the water in the summertime brought forth a convergence of smells — pluff mud, salt air, gasoline and two-cycle oil, beer and fried chicken. I suspect the scent of beer became stronger as it warmed in the hot sun, likely because of the inefficiency of old styrofoam koozies, if any were even on the boat. On one occasion, an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken fell overboard and we consumed it anyway and because, for some reason, being on the water makes you ravenous. I have not tried soggy chicken since, but I like to imagine that the memorable mishap gave new meaning to the concept of “Original Recipe.”
If we didn’t actually have a watermelon on the boat but nonetheless caught whiff of the sweet fruit, Daddy always told us his daddy said the unmistakable aroma was a sure sign that sharks were swimming in the waters beneath us. Of course, the superstition wasn’t meant to deter us from swimming, just to remind us that we never swim in isolated waters.
In 1975, my father took our family out in the boat to watch them bring in the Yorktown. At the time, a sea of pleasure boats loaded with local spectators crowded Charleston Harbor, but that was a time of fewer boats, and people. Once the aircraft carrier was opened to tours, we visited the ship from the hill. When I recently spent the night on the old ship with a group of Boy Scouts, I couldn’t help but think of my three-year-old self in a cumbersome cotton life preserver some four decades prior.
Being on the water brings forth such connections and memories.
Joseph Conrad describes traveling up the Congo River on a steamer: “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. …There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes.” Going out in the boat, whether for work, travel, or pleasure, is not merely a ride; it’s an experience.
A young Langston Hughes declared: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” aptly reminding us that the history of African Americans was to a great extent composed by rivers, which revive the soul and illuminate ancient memories. The water is enlightening, humbling, and welcoming, even when it compels us to dredge up old wounds.
Besides my summers working on the farm, I spent a number of summers working at Cherry Point Seafood, a shrimp dock in Rockville. One of my tasks included bagging shrimp orders, loading them into buckets, and delivering them daily by john-boat to the ship store at Bohicket Marina. The short boat ride is much more sensible than the long automobile ride between the two locations and it reminded me that paved roads are sometimes misleading. At times, I almost felt guilty getting paid to go out in the boat.
In a reflective moment, Micah LaRoche, the proprietor of Cherry Point, once grabbed a framed photo from the wall in the dock office. The picture showed a group of distinguished, early 20th century islanders on the Mary Draper, an old steam ferry that was later converted into a diesel-powered shrimp boat. Micah encouraged me to stare deeply at the photo before he rhetorically asked: “Wouldn’t you love to get on that boat and just go off with those people?!”
The eternal optimist, Micah was hardly seeking a desperate retreat into the past. Instead, he was offering a wonderful glimpse into what heaven must be like, a world free of worldly restrictions, and a place sure to include infinite opportunities on the water with loved ones.
As much as our saltwater roads connect us to the past, twice a day the redemptive tides provide hope for the future. Our regrets and mistakes go out with the tide, and even if we are stuck on a sand bar, in time, the tide is sure to come. The ebb and flow of our tidal waters is a passionate ritual. This natural phenomenon affects the inhabitants along the banks. We are a passionate people. And sometimes, we even grow passionate about the wrong things. We love hard, perhaps too hard, so we grieve deeply, but in the end, we cling desperately and indeed stubbornly to the beautiful hope the flood tide is sure to bring.
A stone’s throw from the marriage of Church Creek and the Bohicket River, I was baptized with water from the Jordan River, which the Reverend Edward Guerry had brought home from a recent trip to the Holy Land. The experience, which I cannot recall from my infancy — yet somehow I do remember — is yet another link to our ancient forbears and their relationship with rivers.
When the wise poet declares in the spiritual that he possesses “Peace Like a River,” he not appreciates great contrast, he understands the complexity of the human condition. A river, of course, is never at peace, even on a calm day, at least not in the sense that a placid body of standing water is tranquil. Like our rivers, we too are restless. We go out in the boat seeking peace and new adventures on the water, returning to the same place, but always a bit different. We realize that peace is not stagnant; it is on-the-move, changing, growing, constant, restless, and salty.