Friends with Boats

Cashing in on her editorial privilege, Annabelle Carr takes the turn-key approach to life on the water. Photos by Izzy Hudgins. 

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“Red, right, return,” Tom McCarthy urges, as we skim across gunmetal stretches of smooth water in a picture-perfect 22-foot bowrider.

It’s sounds like an ill-conceived slogan for the 2016 elections, or perhaps some very basic Dance Dance Revolution instructions—but for generations of Savannahians, “red, right, return” is the motto that gets us safely home.

“Keep the red markers on your right side when returning from sea,” Tom illustrates, and that’s what we do.  “The green markers should stay to our left, and the space in between is deep enough for boats to pass through.  Of course, now we have the GPS to show us exactly what shallows and bumps the markers are protecting us from, but red, right, return is the law of the sea.  Disregard it, and you’ll end up grounded.  Nobody likes to have to call Sea Tow on a beautiful boating day.”

Of course, the Intracoastal Waterway runs parallel to the shore, so the rule for that is “red, right, south.”  Combine these directives with some handy information about 9-foot tides, no-wake zones, safety and signage—and we’re off, surging into the sea-spiced air.

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Sending Out an $O$

After years of using Savannah magazine’s Life on the Water issue as a license to bum rides on other people’s boats, I’m finally taking the wheel in my own hands—and actually learning what to do with it.

Sure, I grew up around sailing uncles, so I already know how to duck quickly, hold on for dear life and fumble busily with knots until an expert gets frustrated and takes over.

But there’s just no excuse for being a Savannahian who can’t operate a boat.  Not with the Freedom Boat Club offering to take care of the repairs.

“The average cost of boat ownership for a 20-foot bowrider, including amortized purchase, maintenance, insurance, storage and cleaning—is roughly $10,000 per year,” Steve Sherman, Freedom’s marketing director, tells me.  “But for a membership fee and monthly cost that’s less than most car payments, we’ll just toss you the keys to any boat you choose to reserve for the day.”

Don’t get Steve wrong.  Piloting a boat is a big responsibility, and no one takes it more seriously than owner Tom, a former insurance claims investigator who used to own and operate a Sea Tow franchise in Charleston.  He is a thorough and attentive teacher, and he doesn’t rest until each client is the right mix of cautious and confident.

All Freedom Boat Club members receive the same one-on-one training I’m getting.  They have access to all the amenities of the Morningstar Bahia Bleu Marina, along with an attentive concierge to get them on their way.  None of the bilge pumping, refueling, schlepping, cleaning and grumpy, costly repairs I remember from childhood.  There are even fishing seminars—and a fully-equipped fish-cleaning house that allows members to head home with ready-to-cook catch.

Even better, there are guys like Evan Parker: concierges who get your reservation ready to go, help you shove off—and answer any nagging nautical questions you might have.  Radio ahead and the Evans of the world will be waiting on the dock to catch and secure your lines.

But the best part of the club happens when you leave the club behind; when you’re on your own and in control, headed into the wind.  Savannah opens up to you in a way it couldn’t before.  Suddenly, a beach day involves a pristine expanse of a barrier refuge.  Lunch is devil crab and an earful of gossip on remote Daufuskie.  Souvenirs are 16-million-year-old megalodon teeth from a stretch most commonly known as Shark Tooth Island.  Your nearest neighbors are wild boar, gators and dolphin.  And help is just a phone call away.

 
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The Tides That Bind

All in all, the way to freedom is pretty simple.

“I tell people, ‘Turn right for nature: Ossabaw, Wassaw.   Turn left for shopping, golfing and dining: Hilton Head, Daufuskie,” Steve narrates as we circle back around to retrieve his lucky Dawgs cap from the water.  Today, the marina flags are standing out straight from their poles, so we steer clear of the choppy waters of the open sea. “When the flags are like that, it’s too windy—a good day for the Intracoastal.”

We meander the inland waters for hours, taking in some of the city’s finest real estate and viewing familiar scenes from unfamiliar vantage points.  I’m awed by the shimmering arcs of dolphin and the flashing white of egrets in flight.  I’m lulled by the warming sun and the rise and fall of the waves.  I’m astounded that there’s a house even bigger than Paula Deen’s, located right next door.  I’m disgusted by clusters of sun-bleached plastic, detritus that must have blown in from landlocked places—for what boater would defile such staggering beauty?

It’s like I’ve had blinders on.  Each time I take to the water, I’m amazed at how aquatic this city truly is.  I’ve been suffering from the landlubbers’ curse: so much of my life spent fooled into thinking I live on solid ground.

When I first arrived in Savannah, my friends joked that, in lieu of an uncle, I needed an FWB: a Friend With a Boat.  As it turns out, I’d rather be that friend.

There will always be uncles out there: true salts who like to tinker with their machines and learn their lessons the hard way.  But for the rest of us, who just want to get as far from our nine-to-fives as fast as possible and finally feel alive—there’s Freedom.

As for me, I’m saving up for my membership fee, practicing my cleat hitch, and entertaining any invitations that may come my way.

In the meantime, FWBs: red, right, return.

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