Fair weather and mild winters bring yachts to the waters of Hilton Head Island.
It’s a rite of passage that occurs each spring and fall, those times of transition in weather highlighted by the slow, stately approach of yachts to the waters of Hilton Head Island.
“It’s a natural place to take a break,” said George Barr, captain of Camaraderie, a sleek 52-foot Tayana cutter-rigged ketch. “After sailing on the open ocean for eight or ten hours, you really want to get off the boat for a while and have dinner at a good restaurant.”
A few years ago, Barr retired as an IT specialist for a national electronics firm. Shortly after his last day at work, he and his wife Janet finally realized their dream of living and traveling aboard their sailboat, which they had painstakingly refitted. On their first extended passage, they set sail from their home port in North Carolina and headed south along the Eastern Seaboard for the Caribbean. Hurricane season had run its course, and it was finally safe to untie the dock lines.
On their way south, the Barrs either sailed the Inter-Coastal Waterway (ICW) or, when weather permitted, went “outside” on the open Atlantic. Their itinerary along the coast of South Carolina provided for stops in Georgetown and Charleston before continuing south on the open Atlantic. Ten hours after passing Fort Sumter, the beaches of Hilton Head Island finally came into view. They fired up the engine, doused the sails, and headed for Calibogue Sound with the assistance of a flooding tide. A few minutes later they were slowly coasting past the lighthouse at the Harbour Town Yacht Basin. It had been a beautiful but long day of sailing. By the time Camaraderie was secured to the marina’s floating concrete docks, the couple was ready to kick back.
“Life aboard is wonderful,” Barr said, “but it can also be exhausting. Hilton Head has great protected harbors, which allow you a chance to relax and let your guard down for a little while.”
The following morning, the Barrs rented bicycles in Sea Pines and rode several miles on the very beaches they had seen from the cockpit of their boat the day before. Dolphins were swimming close to shore, parallel to their course. That night Janet made this log entry: “The dolphins [were] right there, so close you felt as though you could touch them. [There are] no words to describe how stunning... the smell of gardenias is everywhere.”
Camaraderie and her skippers are part of a vast, biannual phenomenon. Every autumn, thousands of yachts arrive from the north to escape the chilly winds of the Chesapeake and points north, eventually passing the marker indicating the shallows of the Parris Island Spit. In the spring, the migration is reversed. Cruisers and sport fishing boats come from the south in advance of hurricane season, rounding Haig Point off Daufuskie Island. Hilton Head offers three basic things sailors and fishermen cherish most during their time landside: refuge, provisions and some fun.
The island also offers a spectacular location along the ICW. Among the salty set, it’s widely understood that the most beautiful and historic stretch of the entire ICW lies between Charleston and Savannah. The two cities of course serve as bookends of the Civil War, and two points where sailors mark on their itinerary to go ashore to reprovision and see the sights. In between, of course, lies Hilton Head Island.
UNTYING THE DOCK LINES
The biannual migration has been taking place for decades, and has developed its own cadence and rhythm. “We tend to see the sport fishing boats first,” said Harbour Town Yacht Basin Harbourmaster Nancy Cappelmann. “Then come the motor yachts, the trawlers, and finally the sailboats. The sailboats are of course slower, and their captains want to take their time.”
The Harbor Town Yacht Basin is an island landmark, with the lighthouse presiding over a ring of boats of every variety. The staff sees a steady stream of traffic during the migration simply because of where the marina sits – adjacent to Haig Point and the ICW, and just a few minutes sail to and from the open Atlantic Ocean.
Skull Creek Marina, which is situated on the north end of the island, enjoys the same steady business during the migration season for the very same reasons. Like the yacht basin, it too sits on the ICW; Port Royal Sound, which provides access to the Atlantic, is only a mile away.
“We actually keep count of the boats coming through here,” said Josh Keating, one of the marina’s two harbormasters. “At the height of the migration, we’ll see 35 boats pass through a day. Three or four will probably stop at our dock for the night on any given afternoon.”
The move north is already well underway.
“Everyone has cleared out of the Bahamas by now,” said Keating. Palmetto Bay Marina, which lies up Broad Creek, doesn’t see the overnight traffic that Harbour Town or Skull Creek Marinas do, but they’ve seen an increase in long-term slip rentals since the record hurricane seasons of 2005 and 2006. “We’ve had a good year,” said Palmetto Bay Marina harbormaster Chris Wimmer. “Some insurance polices are now requiring policy holders to keep their boats north of Florida during hurricane season, or in some cases, north of the Savannah River.” If they want to stay further south, their policies will be considerably more expensive. Keating has seen evidence of the same phenomenon at Skull Creek Marina.
“Insurance companies like it where it’s quiet,” Keating said. “If a storm rolls through and damages or destroys your boat south of a particular point after a date specified on your policy, then you might as well not have insurance.” Sport fishermen, on the other hand, began arriving in the area late April for other reasons.
“The cobia began showing up in the local waters,” Keating explained. “And we’re one of only two spawning grounds on the entire East Coast.”
From the beaches of Hilton Head, one can often make out the silhouettes of sailboats on the eastern horizon, imperceptibly moving south or north. Some of the boats are day-sailors, out for just a few hours on the water. But some are in the midst of a much longer passages that could be hundreds of miles and many days or even weeks in the making. When the barometric pressure falls and the marine forecast turns gloomy, the search is on for an inlet leading to protected waters.
When off the coast of Hilton Head at such times, these coastal and “bluewater” cruisers either duck in from the open Atlantic Ocean by way of Port Royal Sound, or by Tybee Roads Channel, which leads them to the confluence of Calibogue Sound and the Savannah River. Once the weather passes, skippers and their crews can be underway on the open ocean in short order, heading for their intended port of call.
A STOPOVER IN PARADISE
“We try to give every boat that comes down the ICW a reason to stop,” said Cappelmann.
Anyone who has been down to the Harbour Town Yacht Basin can see that they try very hard indeed. So do the island’s other ten marinas, all of which are staffed by men and women who know and care deeply about what they are doing. As all experienced mariners know, this knowledge base is an exception and definitely not the rule when navigating the backwaters of the ICW, and today Hilton Head Island enjoys a reputation as a boater’s paradise with a flourishing maritime culture. It’s a reputation that has definitely had an amplifying effect on the local economy over time.
One aspect of cruising that George and Janet Barr have come to appreciate is the time they’ve been able to spend with their three grown children in their various exotic locales over the last few years.
“It’s easy to get the kids to come visit Mom and Dad in paradise,” George said. “It’s not so easy to get them to visit Mom and Dad at home.”
Here is an observation that will ring true with any parent of adult children. It’s also an observation that underscores what it is that motivates people to come to a place like Hilton Head Island in the first place, whether they drive, fly, or sail: people everywhere are looking to do what they love with the people they love in a place that they love. From the deck of a boat, as from anywhere else, Hilton Head Island looks a lot like paradise.