Under the direction of my father-in-law, known to shipmates as "the Bloody Skipper," the Sarah Abbot's crew spent more than five weeks meandering south toward Florida and developing a reputation for themselves in the coastal villages of six states as -- the "ancient mariners."
The inspiration of adventuring into our country's past along the waterway came to my wife, son and me from a literary encounter with its geography. Some years ago, we had stumbled over a remarkable travel narrative called "The Boy, Me and the Cat." Now in print again, the book by Massachusetts insurance man Henry Plummer tells the story of his journey down "the inside route to Florida" with a teen-age son and a cat aboard a 24-foot sailboat in 1912.
The book is a primer for backyard adventuring. Its sensitivity to the natural environment, self-reliance and dry wit appeal to anyone who ever considered dropping out for awhile to discover backwater America. Once digested, "The Boy, Me and the Cat" fueled our wanderlust until we found a way to break loose from shore life and follow the water.
During our travels on the waterway we read "The Boy, Me and the Cat" aloud while under way and found ourselves continually amazed by the way the book's descriptions still capture coastal Dixie. Plummer's words caught the scene in the South Carolina-Georgia coastal "low country":
Spent a truly delightful morning twisting in and out of the narrow waterway leading through the most gigantic piece of salt marsh I have ever seen. . . . We had alternate bright sunlight and dark clouds and the colors were wonderful. The brightest of blues and emerald greens, bright yellow and pearl grays. The distance always framed by the dark line of heavy pine and fore ground by cafe au lait oyster bars . . .
The enduring truth of Plummer's description struck us as we sailed behind the barrier island of Daufuskie, S.C., just a few miles north of Savannah, and we decided to drop anchor and linger in this place of timeless springs. After the demise of cotton plantations near the turn of the century, Daufuskie became an all-but-forgotten place to everyone except a few black islanders who remained on the island as hunters, shellfishermen and gardeners. The pillars of their community were former slaves, and without the intrusion of the 20th century, successive generations followed their ancestors' example of speaking Gullah (a patois of West African languages and English) and explaining the gains and sorrows in life with African folklore that outsiders mislabel as voodoo.
Curiosity urged us to step ashore for a look at Daufuskie before it changes with the resort development slated for the island. Hardly had we passed through the doors of the general store asking where we could buy some of the island's locally famous devil crabs than we were adopted by a handful of residents who whisked us off down a dusty jungle road in a Land Rover.
What followed was an odyssey of island-combing that lasted well into the night. We stopped at a dozen neat, Caribbean-style bungalows. At each one the residents exchanged the news of the day, and at each one we came away with a prize like deviled crabs, watermelon, oysters, fresh pork, game birds and homemade plum wine. The evening culminated around a bonfire on the beach where a dozen folks gathered to feast, strain their voices to the bluegrass tunes of a guitar, and watch the moon and the tide turn the salt marsh into a sea of silver.
Some days later Sarah Abbot sailed, just as Henry Plummer wrote, "into Charleston Harbor where we passed close to Fort Sumter." The fort's guns still loom from the breastwork where once they proclaimed the rise of the Confederate States of America and forever cast a sense of urgent hedonism over this prosperous seaport.
We found Charleston as Plummer had left it -- "really more wide open than any town I had ever seen." The entire peninsula city -- an unbroken web of antebellum buildings -- has a "backstreet" feel. Referring to the city's pleasure seekers, Plummer wrote, "The blind tigers are running with wide open eyes at every corner." Even in the late 1980s we had little trouble imagining the face of Capt. Rhett Butler amid the laughter of ladies that echoed through the alleyways.
Peeping through wrought-iron gates between Colonial houses near the old slave market, we found a Dixieland quartet bopping through the riffs of "Sweet Georgia Brown" while listeners lounged on the rim of a fountain and slapped their thighs. Two young women in ruffled formal shirts and black ties catered glasses of champagne -- perhaps illegally -- from a cooler discreetly tucked in a flower garden.
"Poor man's Paris," said one of the spirits purveyors in explanation, when she spotted us poised tentatively on the edge of the courtyard. "Y'all come right on down by the fountain."
We did, and accepted her offer of beverage. The champagne arrived, and the hostess disarmed me again when I asked how much I owed her.