How we experience our environments depends not just on who and where we are, but on how we get there, where we’re coming from, whom we’re with and what that relationship is. When one alumnus visited the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to register a boat he’d acquired 20 years earlier, he couldn’t help but think back on how he found the boat, where it came from, what it would come to mean to him and how it would shape his experiences on the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry.
by Anton Dumars ’99
When I first heard mention of Rita Lou, I hadn’t yet learned her name. Frank, my Folly Beach neighbor, told me about her. Rita Lou sat on the mountainside just down from Frank’s house in Brevard, N.C. Frank’s friend Ronnie owned Rita Lou. Ronnie, only once, took her out for a cruise in a mountain lake. That cruise found her aground against a boulder, a hole gouged into the bow. After that, Ronnie parked her, indefinitely. “He’d probably give it to you, Anton,” Frank told me. “Bring a boat trailer up to the mountains this December.”
Frank was a master carpenter who had no tolerance for bosses. Before I met Frank, he captained the Hey Bubba, a shrimp boat. Hey Bubba met her demise one frigid winter afternoon. Frank noticed smoke coming from down below as he entered the Stono Inlet. By the time Frank ran her aground on Kiawah, the fire burned out of control.
December rolled around. I hitched a tandem trailer to the Ford F250 and aimed it north on I-26. The four-hour drive allowed my mind to wander. I thought about Lickety Split, the 19-foot wooden boat I already owned. She sat poised in my Folly driveway, ready for action.
Lickety Split, a 1959 Simmons Sea Skiff, came from working-class roots. These North Carolina–built craft evolved from beach-launched rowboats used to set gill nets. This particular Simmons, a low-sided short 20, came to me in 1984 and soon after became my obsession. I stripped the hull down to bare frames and then put her back together with stainless screws and epoxy glue, making her stouter than new. A fresh Evinrude 70 pushed her along better than 30 knots.
From Botany Bay Island north to the Santee Delta, wave and tide energy share equal status along the South Carolina coast. This wave-tide mixed-energy coastline builds large shoals, known as ebb-tidal deltas, just outside each inlet. Charts label most of these inlets as “local knowledge only.” Here, the Simmons Sea Skiff thrived.
Inside the inlet looking out, these shoals appear as large, impenetrable walls of surf. To run one of these inlets, you find a calm opening in the chaotic surf. This marks the channel. Sometimes two or three openings in the surf catch your eye, but you choose only one and lay your bet on the table. With hair-raising vigilance and a hint of cowboy attitude, I’d guide the Simmons past the breakers out into open water.
Unlike exiting an inlet, entering from offshore offers little forgiveness. Breaking waves, viewed from behind, reveal little of their intentions. Sharp eyes scan the scene, looking hawk-like for an opening. Pathways open, then close. Confidence crashes. Fear ensues. All at once, waves break left, right, in front and behind. Trapped in this sea of breakers, the mind shuts out stray thoughts and directs all energy to the present. Waves instantly break, creating a new incident to reckon with. You surf and dance, finessing the throttle, staying just ahead of the next breaking wave, always keeping the boat up on a plane. One wave to the next, one moment to the next, you move forward. Then, as quickly as it starts, it ends. You’re on the other side, safe within the inlet. The Simmons always got me through.
The sign said 40 miles to Brevard. Frank lived on the other side. Four lanes to two lanes, paved to unpaved, sweeping curves to hairpin turns. Arriving in the dark, unable to negotiate Frank’s steep driveway, I hoofed the final 50 yards to the mountain house. Snow stomped from my boots, the big wooden door opened. I entered. The massive door closed with precision. Across a slate floor to the kitchen table, I met Ronnie.
Ronnie, middle-aged, short and a little plump, was a biker. His tightly braided hair reached halfway down his back. He wore a leather vest. His wallet, attached to a chain, stuck out of his right rear pocket. Keys jingled from his belt. Ronnie spoke in heavy mountain talk, almost requiring a translator. “How much do you want for that boat?” I asked. With little deliberation, Ronnie answered, “I’d tike three hunnert fer it.” By the end of a night of eating, drinking and laughing, Ronnie said, “You kin jest have at boat.”
The next morning after bacon and eggs, we made our way back down the driveway. There, covered with leaves, perched on a rusty trailer, sat Rita Lou. After one look I knew she was coming back to Folly with me. With no special fanfare, we slid her across icy bunks from one trailer to the other and secured her tightly with ropes. Rita Lou and I made our way back to the Lowcountry.
Rita Lou is a 1958 Barbour Silver Clipper. At 19 feet, she has room enough for a family. Mahogany back-to-back seats, port and starboard, accommodate four. The mahogany bench across the stern seats three more. Mahogany lapstrake planks, attached to oak frames, terminate at the bow, forming a traditional up-swooped sheer line. The covered bow section in front of a large wraparound wooden windshield sports a Claxton horn and a siren. Unlike the Simmons, she was built fancy. Still, both boats, built in coastal North Carolina, shared the bones necessary to take on those “local knowledge only” inlets.
Pre-mountains, and by sheer coincidence, the Barbour Silver Clipper lived on James Island. Melvin Knisely owned her. In 1974, Dr. Knisely, a former MUSC president and Nobel Prize nominee, sold the boat to Rita and Louis Calloway of Transylvania County, N.C., for $350 as-was. Melvin died the following year. Ronnie bought Rita Lou (presumed namesake of Rita and Louis) in 1978. I trailered her back to the Lowcountry in 1992.
Her starboard-chine log rot required sistering, maybe the addition of a structural spray rail. A new transom made of marine plywood and epoxy would replace old mahogany transom. I’d hang the old transom on the wall as art. Planks needed refastening. The list went on.
Rita Lou, at 53, was born the year before me. Since then, she spent some time with a few nice families, but she’d had little opportunity to feel her oats. Mostly, she waited patiently on a mountainside for her life to continue. Then I came along and adopted her. We’ve both aged a bit. We both have a few bumps and bruises here and there. With some work, she’d take up life anew. With hers, so would mine. Just like Lickety Split, I’d make her stouter than new. Just as with the Simmons, we’d together soon run wild through “local knowledge only” inlets.
– Anton DuMars ’99 is an adjunct faculty member in the College’s Department of Geology and Geosciences and the owner of Tideline Tours, leading educational, off-the-beaten-path boating adventures aboard his 23-foot Carolina skiff, Tideline.
Photos by Reese Moore