I approached Hilton Head with some curiosity. I have visited parts of the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, The Low Country so called, but had yet to see this particular piece, this fabled retreat tucked into the live oaks and creeks of a marshy indented coastline.
The purpose was to visit my sailing friend Webb Chiles who is in the middle of his sixth circumnavigation of the planet on a small boat, as we shall see. He set my mind to pondering when he suggested that like Key West, Hilton Head is heading toward that awkward place where the people who keep the place operating can't afford to live there, thus creating an insurmountable labor shortage. Well, perhaps it isn't surmountable but so far the increasing gap between the wealthy and the workers seems to defy solution. Which is what makes it interesting.
I arrived Thursday evening and left Friday after lunch so I got see the barest minimum of a place that merits a return visit and who knows, a vacation. Rusty and I took our hour long stroll in the early morning along the main drag and we saw a place that is clean tidy and full of instructions on how to manage oneself. We dutifully stopped at the stop signs and looked both ways before walking. We slowed for sharp curves as instructed. We saw no trash, no bums, no crumbing sidewalks. The air was fresh, not with the scent of stale beer bit of woodlands and dew and pine needles. It was lovely.
I have seen other communities where neon is banned, Carmel California springs to mind, and so it is here. There are discreet shopping centers tucked out of sight in woodland groves and copses, banal shops like Publix and T J Maxx all that a small island community might need. There are numerous restaurants and because Webb is an upstanding guy he had checked for places that accept dogs and every single one with a deck was happy to accommodate Rusty. And motels too, as Webb's apartment is lacking amenity at the moment with everything torn up.
So Thursday night we girded up our loins to eat and drink and talk. At least I did, Rusty followed along gamely.
Naturally Rusty was perfect, sitting silently at my feet, no trouble at all. I dined on delicious crab bisque and shell fish cakes on grits, all of which was superb. Webb had a fresh colorful bouillabaisse that was too enormous to finish, especially after that crab bisque. I am made of sterner stuff as it were and scraped my plate clean. The best was yet to come so we repaired to the apartment which is under reconstruction and made ourselves homely on patio furniture with tumblers and a bottle. Rusty watched. I had taken him for a long woodland hike the day before in the mountains and he was ready for a rest. He sat on Webb's deck watching the tidal marsh below with some interest, while I presented the man with a bottle of his particular stuff.
Webb Chiles has written seven books about his monumental journeys under sail and he keeps a web (!) page (Link Here) which looks at life, love, music and poetry and death with an unflinching gaze. When I was a young sailor Webb was one of three sailing writers whom I classified in my first rank of writing travelers. I have come out of a tradition where the author gives not much of himself, just initials and vague references to peripheral matters (fear, marriage and emotions) not related to the journey itself. So when I read Webb Chiles, Frank Mulville and George Millar and their emotional sailing roller coasters I was hooked. I used to sit on my boat in the Santa Cruz harbor and turn the pages dreaming of travel. In summer I did travel by sail up and down the rugged coast of California, my adventures fed by the generation that went before and figured out this strange business of small boat voyaging for the rest of us. In winter I turned up the heat and kept reading under the glow of my 12 volt reading light above my bunk.
One thing about Webb is his ability to live on next to nothing. He is spartan, no doubt about it, but then he has his weakness and its pretty much unpronounceable. Laphroaig (Laff-roy-gg) is a scotch whisky of rare pedigree from a place unpronounceable, the Island of Islay ( the ess is silent more or less for some obscure reason) and he laps it up like mother's milk at sea or ashore. I exaggerate but the end of the day ashore or at sea is contemplated by the sailing philosopher with a plastic (tumbler) of nectar. Because he is a spartan character, one tumbler drunk and with that Webb puts he bottle away. I was quite prepared to not like the stuff but I was determined to share this much read about routine with the Master. He gave me the crystal tumbler so I got the full treatment and I tasted it with trepidation.
To my astonishment what seemed like a quirk became a thing understood even by me who has no real understanding of whisky. The aroma in the glass is incredibly evocative of peat and those swirling black tannic thick waters of a Scottish bog and the taste seems bound to be a little intimidating when finally you put the stuff in your mouth. Instead the whisky tastes crisp and clear and even carries a slight fizz in the mouth which was weird but spread the flavor of the drink right across my tongue. I found myself getting lost in it. Webb watched me grinning. Some people advocate adding a splash of water he said, but clearly for Webb Chiles that amounts to heresy. We spoke no more of water and drank Laphroaig unadulterated. It really was bliss. I was astonished but I liked it a lot. I want more but that is my not-so-spartan nature...
The next morning I wanted to see how Gannet was doing in this South Carolina marina and so we three walked to the water on a lovely sunny morning. I wasn't at all sure how Rusty would do in this alien environment but I guess he has learned to trust me because he walked down the ramp to docks without a qualm.
An air pump running nosily on the dock for a diver cleaning hulls put him off so I swooped him up in my arms and carried him past the offending engine. He seemed as interested as I in the 24 foot circumnavigating Moore ultralight sailboat.
This is where Webb is at home and he sleeps in the tiny cabin of his very functional Gannet. How he enjoys the truly tiny cabin I don't know but if you check Webb Chiles on YouTube you will find a series of videos made on the high seas that illustrate better than anything the reality of being on a passage in a small boat. And then imagine crossing the Indian Ocean doing that day after day for weeks on end...He loves it.
Gannet looked to my eyes to be perfectly set up and ready to go, with everything in its place. Of course Webb sees this and that which needs improving but the boat looks trim and ready for the final leg of his sixth circumnavigation, from here to San Diego after hurricane season. He likes to sail so he uses a Torqueedo electric outboard to get in and out of harbors, 900 watts of raw thrust from a battery charged by solar panels. Independent living:
All that was left was to walk the trails of Hilton Head one last time wearing Rusty out for the long drive home, lunch on another delightful deck with my dog watching the world go by, a manly good bye till next time and off we went. It was good and I was sorry to be heading back to work, trading this:
My own Gannet...