Even before we could see the stranger, we could hear the drone of his outboard. It wound through tidal channels that slithered among the hundreds of square miles of salt-hay savannah in coastal Georgia. Having just anchored our family's schooner Sarah Abbot for the night in the cove behind a wilderness island of live oak, my wife, 10-year-old son and I waited for the stranger to approach. A flock of swans stirred. Their wings turned scarlet as they beat east in the late-afternoon sun of April. The south wind carried a hint of magnolia from the ruined plantation on the island.
"I'm not spying . . . or nothin'," the stranger said when his skiff sidled up alongside Sarah Abbot. "Just one of the local lookouts." At his feet, bushel baskets mounded with blue crabs bespoke the waterman's livelihood.
"Boats come pokin' round here," the lookout expanded. "Yankee boats like you. Foreign boats. They check us out . . . we check them out. Just in case someone needs to know. It's a world of watchin'. Get my meanin'?"
Did I ever. Sarah Abbot's crew had become accustomed to watching and being watched during our schooner's round trip down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to Miami and return. After Sarah Abbot's deep-sea passage from our home in Boston to the Chesapeake, my father-in-law and a gang of cronies sailed the Sarah south from Baltimore along the Intracoastal Waterway during the fall.
When we met them in Florida they yarned to my wife, son and me about encounters with a legion of these local scouts. So when we took a sabbatical to sail Sarah Abbot back north on the Intracoastal Waterway in March, April and May, we kept an expectant eye out for the curious natives.
Such mutual curiosity between traveler and native has been a pastime along this coast at least since 1540, when Spaniards strode into the villages of coastal Indians. In that year, Hernando de Soto visited America's southeast coast in search of El Dorado and came away with baskets of pearls -- gifts from Creek Indians.
"You might want to watch you don't tangle up that pretty boat in some of my trap lines on the next turn of the tide; a mess like that could ruin both our days," the crabber cautioned. He motioned to a host of crab-trap floats dotting our anchorage, then he handed up a bucket of crabs to my son.
Like the Indians' gift of pearls to DeSoto, the gift of crabs spoke their message clearly: "Pass this way gently and with respect, and so shall you be treated."
The Intracoastal Waterway begins in New England and stretches to Brownsville, Texas, but the heart of the system runs 1,400 miles from the head of the Chesapeake Bay to Key West, Fla. During the first half of this century, the Army Corps of Engineers built the waterway to provide a sheltered route -- mostly behind barrier islands -- up and down the East Coast for commercial fishermen, tugs and tows.
In 1987 Sarah Abbot followed the waterway down the Chesapeake, through North Carolina's sounds, among the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia and along the Indian River between the orange groves and beach resorts of Florida. Our schooner wasn't alone with the commercial traffic. Starting in September, a migration of sailboats and yachts starts south on the waterway in pursuit of warmer weather. The parade dwindles by mid-December, then surges northward in the spring.
For some of the 8,000 to 10,000 boats that transit the Intracoastal Waterway each year, "the Ditch" may be just a watery interstate leading to or from a marina resort in south Florida. But it is "the Waterway" -- the mother lode itself -- for nature lovers and anyone ever intrigued by Ponce de Leon's quest for the fountain of youth, the mysterious disappearance of Virginia Dare's Roanoke colony, the exploits of the Revolutionary hero Francis Marion ("The Swamp Fox") or the Confederacy's battles for secession.
On the waterway, the nation's heritage comes alive through the lifestyles of watermen and planters as well as historical sites like St. Augustine, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga. Every backwater has its links to Indian wars, Blackbeard and his brigands, or the rise and fall of "King Cotton."
Porpoises patrol the sounds and sport in the wakes of passing boats. Manatee graze on the water lilies. Shrimp thrive in such quantities that they often set up a chatter like crickets heard through the hull of a boat. Raccoon, deer and fox roam the thickets of barrier islands and cypress swamps. On the Intracoastal Waterway, wading birds and waterfowl are as common as taxis in Manhattan.
Sarah Abbot's trip from the Chesapeake Bay to Florida included more than 10 hitchhikers, all over 60. The cook for the entire trip was 81. He won his shipmates' favor with a flair for serenading in the anchorages and a penchant for serving "elevensies" -- snacks and a beer -- every morning the wind blew.