7 June - Exploring Charleston, South Carolina
[First off, an apology. The boat computer has ‘upgraded’ itself and now my Adobe Photoshop doesn’t work. So for the time being the photos might not be quite as interesting as we would like. Normal service may be restored at some stage…]
I sailed from Brunswick around lunchtime on 31 May on the ebb tide with a full tank of fuel, plenty of propane in a working bottle and enough fresh water to cross the Atlantic. In no time we were sluiced out of the river and turning left towards Charleston. There was a shrimper at the harbour entrance being boarded by the Coastguard and I half expected them to take some interest in Escapade – but they left us alone.
An ebb tide, channel buoy, pelicans and the Brunswick River bridge
With the wind on the beam and a favourable tide, we made good progress. By late afternoon, thunderstorms had taken up residence over the land, some fifteen miles to the west and the wind had shifted into the south. I poled out the headsail, made a beef stew in my pressure cooker (note to self: needs a new seal) and settled back to watch the light show. Fortunately, it did not come any closer and by midnight we were off Savannah, dodging merchant ships bound for the large commercial port there.
Overnight I stayed on deck. I had an egg timer which I set to go off every 20 minutes and in between-times dozed next to the wheel. I was woken every few minutes by a variety of almost unintelligible US Coastguard radio calls, mostly about blocked bridges on the Intracoastal Waterway, or diving operations in a harbour somewhere. They are read out at breakneck speed by a poorly trained operator who has clearly never listened to a VHF radio or grasped the first thing about being at sea in a ship. Never mind the fact that most professional mariners in those ships off Savannah would not have English or American English as their first language… They made the current generation of UK Coastguard operators in the Solent and the south coast of England sound quite professional – and I’ve moaned about their lack of understanding of the maritime environment often enough.
Dawn was as spectacular as it always is at sea and soon after breakfast I was off the entrance to Charleston, following a tug towing a huge dredging rig with ‘Great Lakes Towing and Dredging’ emblazoned on the side. They were a long way from home; I heard later that the port has a major contract out to deepen the main harbour to 52 feet, presumably to accommodate larger container ships and make Charleston the biggest port on the east coast of the US.
I don’t always photograph dredgers, but this one came all the way from the Great Lakes
It’s a pretty broad expanse of water anyway. The north side of the entrance reminded me of Stokes Bay, with a rather English-looking church spire and some nice-looking houses on the waterfront. Inside, the harbour offers two options: keep right for the huge suspension bridge, the aircraft carrier USS YORKTOWN, the commercial port and the Cooper River. Turn left towards downtown Charleston and the Intracoastal Waterway. I turned left. There were some really fine properties away to the left near Fort Sumpter, but when I looked at the chart the depth of water at their ‘slips’ was less than a metre. No good, then!
Alverstoke? No, Sullivan Island, Charleston harbour entrance
The left channel took us to the west of the main town, along a classic Colonial waterfront with wonderful townhouses and an aura of wealth, authority and self-confidence. The City Municipal Marina is just by a clutch of bridges and, unusually in my experience so far, a decent anchorage with good holding and plenty of swinging room, even in the tidal streams that run at about two knots. I dropped the pick in about 7m, texted the girls to let them know we were safe and got my head down for a few hours. I also got in touch with our friends Andrew and Kate Mullock in WILDSIDE (last seen in the BVIs) who were holed up in a marina in the Cooper River, about half an hour away in a taxi. We arranged to meet the following day.
After lunch I went ashore. They have an equivalent of the Boris Bike here, so I took full advantage of it. The downtown area is delightful: laid out on the usual American grid system, its easy to navigate across town through a network of tree-lined streets and avenues full of eighteenth and nineteenth century classic Colonial townhouses, each prettier than the last. It was like cycling though a movie set or a Tennessee Williams play. Boutique coffee shops, art galleries abound, but its not ‘in your face’ commercialism – that self confidence that I saw from the water is reflected in the citizens, who seem relaxed, respectful and happy to be living in such a beautiful place.
It’s known as the Holy City, apparently because of the multitude of churches of every denomination. Certainly, there is usually a white painted spire somewhere in your line of sight and more variations in Baptistry, Pentecostal and Methodist orthodoxies than Mr Heinz ever conceived with his baked beans. At one stage in my stay I took a taxi driven by a 60-year-old Palestinian who had lived here for 30 years. I asked him about the local attitude to the Muslim faith and he was surprisingly positive. I’d come to think of America as rather intolerant and Islamophobic, but this chap, who had managed a chain of convenient stores in a former life, was more relaxed. The conversation quickly turned to politics, The Donald and Middle Eastern affairs and again, I was quite encouraged by his attitude. However, he did eventually tell me that there was something in the Bible suggesting that Israel would disappear in a puff of smoke in 2022, so I rapidly changed the subject to the joys of sailing around the North Atlantic!
‘But Officer, God told me to park here…’
Charleston is home to the annual Spoleto USA Festival, broadly equivalent to the Edinburgh Festival and I was in luck as it was running during my visit. It claims to be the largest festival of its kind in the US, but I would observe that it pales into insignificance alongside the Edinburgh offerings. There, every nook and cranny seems to be filled with activities organised by either the main Festival or the Fringe and you cannot avoid it. Spoleto, and the Fringe equivalent ‘Piccolo Spoleto’ is low key by comparison. However, you can’t fault the quality of what’s on offer, much of it from UK. There were shows from the Edinburgh Festival, the Bristol Old Vic, the Westminster Choir, the National Theatre of Scotland… plus a host of International artists offering classical music, jazz, Country (and Western!), ballet, opera. The only bit of Piccolo Spoleto that I found was a large arts and crafts fair in a city centre park. I enjoyed an afternoon wandering around the dozens of exhibits by local artists (all apparently affluent, middle class, white American ladies of a certain age), sampling the local fast food (more than a hundred things you can do with a small pig) and watching a multicultural break dancing ensemble who were quite inspirational.
Images of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival
One evening I donned my rather dusty Thespian’s Cloak and took myself to see a Charleston jazz/gospel group called Ranky Tanky (a Gullah language phrase meaning ‘get down’… man). It was outside under a wonderful dense canopy of oaks in the gardens of Charleston College, just an hour or so after a major thunderstorm had flooded the place. The audience was middle aged and affluent, but I sat next to a black family who knew some of the performers. The music was good, the atmosphere very positive (the band had hit stardom unexpectedly and were returning to play their ‘home crowd’ for the first time since reaching No1 on the Billboard) but it was a surprisingly serious occasion. Americans are quite enthusiastic about this kind of thing and you could feel the goodwill amongst both crowd and musicians, but decorum was maintained throughout and the event did not quite take off. I can’t really explain it, except to wonder if a different audience in a nightclub might have responded differently? I think I’d rather have watched the Rolling Stones at St Mary’s Stadium recently, even if that would have meant entering Southampton after dark… but Ranky Tanky were a bargain at $30!
The Gullah culture is quite interesting. Reminiscent of the attempts to preserve Gaelic traditions in parts of UK, its encompasses the language, art and lifestyle of the descendants of African slaves. The art is vivid, a bit like Gaugin in a way and there’s clearly a market for anything ‘Gullah’ amongst all sections of US society here in the South. I also saw at first hand the legacy of the Confederate side in the Civil War: we have heard in the media about attempts to remove monuments that are no longer considered ‘politically correct). We get awfully indignant about the appalling destruction of ancient ruins in the Middle East and Afghanistan, yet at the same time some bright spark notes that Horatio Nelson wasn’t averse to employing slaves and calls for his statue to be removed from Trafalgar Square. What strange times we live in… Well, around Charleston, you’d almost think that the Confederates had won the Civil War. I wondered if their 19th century approach to race relations still predominates, but it’s not a subject that I’ve found many Americans are willing to discuss!
Confederate Memorial, Charleston
Charleston is well known for its food and I enjoyed a couple of excellent meals out on East Bay Street with Andrew and Kate. There is a huge range of mid-priced restaurants and plenty of high-end dining opportunities too. Everywhere was busy, but it wasn’t impossible to get a table anywhere and I thought the quality and prices compared well with London. On balance, I think the cost of living is quite high here compared to England – perhaps this is a gradual change over the years as I had always thought the US was cheaper, or is it simply a reflection of the relative strengths of our currencies?
Old Charleston. Chichester on a huge scale?
Andrew and Kate returned to England for a few weeks on Monday, but on Tuesday 5th June Escapade was joined in the anchorage by Lyra Magna, bringing my Cape Hatteras crew Paul Watkins to immediate notice. We hadn’t really met much before, so I enjoyed a fine ‘getting to know you’ run ashore with Paul and Babs that evening. We decided to wait until Thursday to depart as we waited for a weak front to pass over the area that would bring northerly winds to the Outer Banks – something to avoid if possible… nothing whatsoever to do with sore heads on Wednesday morning!
Back in Europe, there was progress too. Julie’s mother had made sufficient progress over the weekend to be allowed to fly back from Milan to Edinburgh, where she was now in the Royal Infirmary (again) awaiting an operation…