May/June 2012The Water Way by T. Edward Nickens, photos by Michael Foster

For a wet and wild vacation, think about leaving the car at the dock and taking a slow boat to Charleston via the Intracoastal Waterway.

I have watched this scene untold numbers of times, and hope I see it many more: Julie kicks back on the bow deck, feet propped up on the cooler seat, Jack's head on one shoulder, Markie's on the other. They smile in their sleep as I steer. There is wind in our hair, salt on our lips and a silvery lane of water in front of the boat.

For the moment, it doesn't much matter where that glinting corridor of possibility leads, although I have the charts stowed in the console. We're headed down the winding Waccamaw River, across the wide Winyah Bay, into the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and straight on to Charleston, one of the great waterfronts of the South. Over the next hours and days we'll travel them all, our twenty-foot center console boat trailing a wake of unforgettable moments and memories like a comet's tail.

For our family, getting there by boat is more than half the fun. For years I've been amazed at how accessible, how easy and just how much fun it is to take a small boat and a willing family along on one of the great secret adventures of South Carolina: touring coastal rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway in any craft large enough to pull a water skier. My family of four has cruised the entire Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway - from Norfolk to Florida - in our twenty-foot boat and made the run to Charleston a half-dozen times. One of our favorite routes is the 104-mile run from Conway to the Battery, a route that ferries us through untrammeled wild cypress woods and endless salt marsh, past tiny little waterway villages whose skylines are scored with shrimp trawlers, and on to the historic cityscape of Charleston herself.

Each trip is different, but each begins the same way.

"Hey, Jack," I call from the mossy slope of Conway's municipal boat ramp. "Drop the motor, buddy."

And we're off.

Jack and Julie and I are behind the console with all the toys - GPS, VHF radio, binoculars, two marine charts. The girls - my fifteen-year-old daughter Markie, and her pal, Sarah Kiley Watson - are reclined like the mermaid bowsprits of colonial vessels on the "sun palace," a.k.a. the boat's bow deck. They won't move for hours. They won't have to. But for the moment, they're missing some of the prettiest country you can find with a 150-horsepower outboard.

The Waccamaw River at Conway is black water turning to tidal estuary, cypress trees mirrored in the dark surface. We run the curves like a slalom course, the riverbanks pocked with houses - old houses, new houses, new houses built to look like old houses. There is every kind of watercraft imaginable: sparkly bass boats, pontoon boats, ski boats, jet boats, jet skis, canoes, kayaks, houseboats and dinghies. But the farther south we go, the fewer riverside homes we see, until the land falls away and the forest closes in. There are historic landings, most no longer much of anything other than a name on the marine chart - Peachtree and Enterprise along this stretch, Mulberry and Wachesaw to come - but a few sporting new docks and pilings and even a restaurant or two, evidence of the growing popularity of cruising. At Bucksport, near the confluence of the Waccamaw and the Intracoastal Waterway, we pull in for lunch, giant shrimp sandwiches under live oaks. Sitting in chairs on the firm foundation of a wooden dining deck, I can still feel the lift and swell of the water underfoot. For the moment, I don't want to be off the boat long enough to lose my sea legs.

For long, long miles we rarely say a word, awestruck by the wild country around us. At 3,500 rpm and 24 mph, we're moving slowly enough to get to know a few trees personally. I've always thought it odd that one of the great pleasures of a boat trip here is to study the trees, not the water. There are huge ancient pines with shadowed trunks dark as onyx, maples and sweetgums bearing bright green leaves like firebursts against the darker conifers. And my favorite, the massive, towering cypress trees. Some of these specimens are giants, with trunks four feet across and storm-shattered crowns. And some are impossible to pass by without closer inspection.

"Forced nature moment!" I shout as we near one towering cypress. "All right, everyone, get up and marvel at the wildlife!" The girls begrudgingly rise from the boat deck. Up ahead a cypress rises over the water, its roots sunk in the river, ringed with cypress knees that seem to form their own island. The tree is pocked with woodpecker holes and draped with Spanish moss; so large I have to crane my neck to see its crown. That's where there's an osprey nest perched over the water with a pair of feathered chicks peering over the edge of the aerie. They have a view envied by the human owners of high-dollar waterfront lots - and it's theirs for the asking.

Big Water

Everything changes at Winyah Bay. Nosing down the Waccamaw River, the horizon falls farther and farther away as salt marsh replaces cypress swamp. Here the waters of four rivers - Waccamaw, Great Pee Dee, Black and Sampit - join the Intracoastal Waterway in the wide estuary at Georgetown. There's a northeast wind coming off Waccamaw Neck, and for a few miles we crash through the chop until we make the western channel beyond the marsh islands. The seas settle, and at channel marker two we make the southwest turn into the man-made canal that cuts across the Santee Swamp.

From here to Charleston we'll follow the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), a protected shipping channel that sneaks just inland of the coastline from Norfolk to Miami. (That's the Atlantic portion; a similar channel continues both north and south, making it possible to cruise from Boston to Brownsville, Texas.) In places a dredged canal through dense forest, elsewhere a marked channel crossing vast sounds and ducking behind barrier islands, or even a tidal river flowing past industrialized waterfronts, it is the watery Route One of eastern America. Built for commercial shipping traffic, the waterway these days is just as likely to be plied by shrimp trawlers, sailboats, power yachts or even sea kayaks.

Santee Delta and Bulls Bay

If there's any stretch of our watery road that sends my imagination reeling, it's the run from Winyah Bay across Santee Swamp. It's a massive river delta of salt marsh and scrub brush uplands, tens of thousands of acres of open country, and here we're retracing the route of a nearly forgotten ancient mariner. Three days after Christmas in the year 1700, six Englishmen, four American Indian guides and an unnamed spaniel piled into a massive dugout canoe and pushed off the Charleston waterfront. Standing in the dugout was the expedition's leader, a twenty-six-year-old Londoner named John Lawson. For the next two months, Lawson paddled and walked for 550 miles through a land unknown to Europeans. His party hunted now-extinct passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. They witnessed flocks of wild turkeys that numbered in the hundreds. They huddled around burning embers as wolves howled beyond the firelight. Right here, just south of Winyah Bay, they turned away from the coast and headed up the Santee River, exploring a wilderness interior peopled with long-vanished Indian tribes.

Much remains the same, but much has changed, of course. The skyline at McClellanville is serrated with the trawl masts of the shrimping fleet. We putt-putt by the boats, waving at the watermen, until biting flies drive us back to open water. Headed south, we skirt the open Bulls Bay, visible as winks of blue water in the occasional break of a saltmarsh creek, past Cape Romain and Caper's and Dewees and Sullivans islands, and across Charleston Harbor in a stiff chop, Fort Sumter to port.


As if a dolphin's-eye-view of the South Carolina Lowcountry isn't its own reward, there's a payoff for the bumpy Winyah Bay crossing, the seven hours of blazing sun and the horseflies: Two nights at the posh Charleston Harbor Resort and two days of bumming through one of the world's most intriguing cities. Julie likes to tell folks she's visited Charleston five times - but never driven there. With 104 miles of open water crossing under our feet, we shift into total tourist mode: horse-drawn carriage rides; sweetgrass basket shopping; shrimp and crab for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We even buy the T-shirts.

But this journey is always about more than the destination, so two days later finds us up and early at 'em. It's time to turn the bow north and head for home. The breeze-whipped waters that greeted us two days earlier are now placid as a sleeping baby, mirroring puffy white clouds. Long days in Charleston have the kids wiped out, lolling about the front deck like harbor seals. Pulling out of the marina, we pass a massive yacht, easily 120 feet long. Idling slowly, we peek in the windows and catch glimpses of varnished wooden furniture, plush pillows and crystal glassware. Julie slips her hand in mine and whispers, "In my next life, I know what I want to be: a trophy wife on a whopping yacht."

I laugh. But to tell the truth, many of our favorite family memories have taken place on our meager twenty feet of fiberglass and stainless steel. The long miles, close quarters and stunning scenery seem to draw us closer together. I open up the throttle and the bow rises over the waters of Charleston Harbor. We're headed for home and open to whatever the water brings.


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