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SAILING IN SOUTHERN SURROUNDINGS The Intracoastal Waterway gives boaters an intimate look at local life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

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.

She shrugged and gave a coy smile, "Whatever you wish. Money's just a formality."

Such hospitality conjured images of the generosity we had encountered along the waterway. In my mind I saw again the woman on Key Biscayne, Fla., who had volunteered her house as a mail drop, and the diesel mechanic in Stuart, Fla., who had slaved for days over Sarah Abbot's sick engine for little more than coffee and conversation. I recalled dozens of free rides offered to faraway shopping centers, more presents of shrimp and fish than we could eat, invitations to dinner and once -- at Hilton Head, S.C. -- a cinnamon cake delivered hot by a local sailor to Sarah Abbot's breakfast table one foggy morning.

No wonder waves of Spanish, French and English sailors lingered here. No surprise that this coast and these people inspired the Swamp Fox and his guerrillas to liberate the land from King George's tyranny. Little question why a Yankee Union would hate to lose this bountiful shoreline . . . or why normally gentle citizens might start a civil war to preserve their cavalier traditions.

On this night in Charleston, when the band played the inevitable chorus of "Dixie," I could think of plenty of good reasons for a Yankee to get to his feet -- with other visitors and residents alike -- and sing.

If you go . . .

The simplest way to see the Intracoastal Waterway is to take your own boat, but exploring this wilderness no longer requires it. Over the last five years a waterway cruise industry has blossomed. Witnessing the success of riverboat cruises on the Mississippi, several cruise lines have adapted the Mississippi model to the Intracoastal Waterway and come up with what they like to call "luxury yacht cruises."

Depending upon how much time travelers have, they can choose to cruise the entire southeast coast from Maryland to Florida aboard 200-foot ships, or they can pick shorter cruises embarking from Savannah, Ga., or Jacksonville, Fla. Cruises include such ports of call as Beaufort, N.C.; Charleston and Hilton Head Island, S.C.; and St. Augustine, Fla.

Cruise lines limit daylight travel to the prettiest sections of the waterway and lap long miles after dark in order to give passengers more time ashore. Some cruises even offer a daily golf package. Two-week cruises can cost between $1,100 and $5,000 per person.

American Cruise Line: (800) 243-6755.

American-Canadian Cruise Line: (800) 556-7450.

Clipper Cruise Line: (800) 325-0010.

Another way to see the waterway is by chartering a boat. With thousands of private boats heading north and south each year, owners and captains often are looking for passengers to share expenses in exchange for a cruise. Charterers can hire motor vessels from 48 feet to 100 feet. Prices range from $2,500 to $20,000 a week for the boat and crew (about half of what it would cost to charter the same boat to cruise around Florida). Fuel, dockage, provisions and tips are extra.

Joe Bliss Inc.: (305) 522-0611.

Lenore Muncie Charters: (305) 527-1667. Both are in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For adventurers with a desire to "hitchhike" the Intracoastal Waterway as working crew, not knowing someone with a boat is no handicap. If you have boating, cooking or housekeeping skills, two agencies in Fort Lauderdale will link you with a boat in search of crew for a waterway trip.

Crew Finders: (305) 522-2739.

Crews Unlimited: (305) 581-7477.

Three books are must-reads for the waterway-bound traveler.

"The Waterway Guide -- Mid-Atlantic Section" contains precise navigation advice as well as a historical perspective and list of services along the Intracoastal Waterway. Telephone (212) 717-2600.

"The Boy, Me and the Cat," by Henry Plummer (Cyrus Chandler Co., Rye, N.H.), is a spellbinding travelogue of a small-boat trip on the waterway in the early 20th century.

"The Prince of Tides," by Pat Conroy, is a best-selling novel about the Carolina-Georgia low country that evokes the rich character of the place and its people.

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