From rumored pirates to encounters with a great white, hear local captains spin stories as long as the Savannah River and as deep as the ocean it flows to. Andrea Goto gets on board.
Photography by Teresa Earnest
I have always lived within walking distance of water, and yet I’ve lived a landlubber life. I fear the unseen—the seaweed that tickles my legs, the flounder that wants to nibble my toe, the river monster that wants to swallow me whole. And while ignorance might be bliss, I can’t help but wonder what remarkable experiences, sights and stories I am missing out on by not dipping my proverbial toe in the ocean.
Every weekender boat buff sings the praises of Savannah’s “salt life,” but for a more authentic look at life on the water, I went straight to the source: the captains who navigate our waterways each and every day.
We gathered in the dining room aboard the grand Savannah River Queen on River Street. The bright white, three-deck structure is the Forsyth Fountain of the waterfront—a Savannah staple. There, executive chef Kevin Nape served us a sampling of their daily Southern-inspired buffet—creamy shrimp and grits, tender short ribs and plump crab cakes—all before the 7 o’clock Sunset Dinner Cruise launched. Together, this well-fed seafaring bunch shared their concerns not only about the future of our coastline and the fate of the uninformed boater, but also intriguing stories only the sea could bring in.
Meet Our Guests
Derek Brown is the owner of Captain Derek’s Dolphin Adventure and Reel ‘Em N Deep, a private fishing charter. The Savannah native is also a commercial spear fisherman.
Jonathan Claughton is the owner and captain of Savannah Riverboat Cruises, which offers daily lunch and dinner cruises along the waterfront. He has lived in Savannah for 25 years.
Judy Helmey is a Wilmington Island native and the owner of Miss Judy Charters. She has guided inshore and offshore fishing tours for more than 50 years.
Rob King moved to Savannah in 1994 to begin his apprenticeship as a pilot. Today he is one of less than two dozen pilots who escort ships in and out of the Savannah River.
Savannah Magazine: I know we’re docked, but who wants to bet I’ll get seasick?
Derek: I’ve actually never had anybody seasick up here by River Street, but on Tybee we’ve had a couple doing the dolphin tours. Yeah, it’s a little bit awkward when you’re sick in front of 40 strangers.
SM: Is it something that just doesn’t affect you after a while?
John: On the river it’s pretty smooth. You don’t have a lot of motion. But just because you‘ve never been seasick … Your time’s coming.
Derek: I almost got sick the other day. I had six people offshore and all of them were sick, and then the captain I was training, he got sick, and I tried to read the newspaper, and I started getting queasy. I had to put that paper down. (Laughter)
SM: I’m starting to think it’s too dangerous to be on the water.
Rob: You think about this boat having 600 lives aboard, which is different than having 4,800 containers. They’re carrying people, and the whole reason they hire [river pilots] is to protect the property and the lives of the people of Savannah; it’s not because they don’t trust the captains they have. We have a vested interest in this area. But our stuff is just machinery. They (points to Judy, Jonathan and Derek) have lives on board.
Derek: I try not to think about it too much, the 30 or 40 people … their lives and the little Girls Scouts.
Rob: Right! Captains understand that things can get rough. But if, like he said, you’ve got Girl Scouts, now you have to start thinking, we can’t get too rough—
Derek: And how you can’t get too close to the jetties, and the motor may fail—
Rob: And it’s all on them (points to Judy, Jonathan and Derek). Whereas we’ve got tugs, big anchors and thrusters for the ships.
Derek: So when you see a tugboat tied up behind an inbound, are they trying to slow them down?
Rob: Yes, because typically the only ships that get escorts are ships that are greater than 142 feet wide. The bigger the ship, the less room there is in the river for it, which means that water has to go somewhere. So it pushes that water out, and we’ve gotten ships in here that are 158 feet wide. I’ve seen a ship go by another ship only making 2.3 knots and part lines.
SM: What does that mean?
Rob: It means that the lines break. That water has to go somewhere, and any vessel that’s sitting in the water will rise and lower.
Judy: I asked very nicely and sternly all at the same time that my guys not go to the jetties. I asked them very nicely not to go because if they’re not watching what they’re doing, the four feet of water that’s coming and the four feet of water that’s going after the ship passes, will throw everybody out of the boat. It’s a very critical situation. It can push you across the jetty, and then it’ll pull you back.
SM: What are some of the most incredible stories from the sea?
Judy: I wish I still had that video on my phone. (To Derek) Remember the video of the great white you sent me?
Derek: That was circling my boat?
Derek: (To the group) I shot a big grouper, and it would’ve been a Florida and Georgia state record for a rod and reel. And getting into the boat, I look down, and it’s a great big white, right there at my platform, and he circled us for about 20 minutes, I guess wanting that grouper.
SM: Where were you?
Derek: Just off Brunswick. I’ve had five encounters with great whites. I was attacked by one.
Derek: I was! He got the short end of the stick.
SM: Tell me more.
Derek: I can’t say anymore. (Awkward silence)
Judy: Mary Lee came right down the side of my boat. She scared our customers so bad, they said we’ve got to go home.
Derek: My first white shark was about the same size—a 15-footer—and it might have been her. At about 140-feet deep, it turned around and was coming at me.
Judy: She’s the biggest shark I’ve ever seen in my life.
Derek: It turned, and it was just a cool encounter, but I got out of there. But the size of the black eye? It was something to see. That’s the King of the Sea right there!
Judy: When you see one, you know exactly what it is. There was a 300- or 400-hundred- pound dolphin, and she was fixin’ to eat the dolphin! And when she saw me coming, she started at my boat. Just curious I guess.
Derek: They’re totally fearless!
Judy: And they just eat everything. And that’s what they come here for—to eat dolphin. And the stingrays. Don’t mess with Mary Lee. She will swallow you tanks and all.
Derek: Did you know that since they tagged her, she’s travelled 30,000 miles? I don’t know if that’s 10 times around the world or what.
SM: Do you ever see happy, fun things?
Judy: One day there was a bunch of baby turtles—little loggerheads—they were laying asleep. And when they’re asleep, they tuck their little fins up behind their back so they don’t look like something a fish or bird would want to eat. But if you don’t tell people about it, they wouldn’t know it was there. They wouldn’t know about the jellyfish or about the flying fish.
Derek: There are the right whales. The other day we pulled up to our fishing spot, and I hit reverse … and then the momma and the baby played behind the boat for like an hour.
SM: What really irks you when you’re on the water?
Rob: I know it’s bad, but one of my favorite things is to watch the snowbirds who have no idea what they’re doing, who think that sailing vessels that are under power have the right of way over the ships.
Derek: You see a big ship, and it might be doing 12 knots or greater, but from a distance it looks like it’s almost at a standstill.
Rob: They usually don’t get in the way until they are right there at Elba Island/Fields Cut—
Derek: Because they probably don’t listen to the radio.
Rob: They don’t. But they hear that whistle. And once you blow that whistle on them a few times, they start turning, but they don’t realize they can’t just go anywhere you see water. Especially if you turn and you see birds standing up, you probably shouldn’t take your boat there. (Laughter)
Judy: But that’s where they head.
Rob: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a guy in some couple-hundred- thousand-dollar yacht flipping me off as he’s turning his boat then all of a sudden “tch-tch-tch-tch” (the sound of running aground). If you are on the highway, you don’t run out in front of a semi because you think you have the right of way. But that’s what they do. And boats don’t have brakes.
Jonathan: Numerous times we’ve been coming up river and have a boat right off the dock not even look over their shoulder and cut right across our bow. Often alcohol is involved.
Judy: [Some boaters] don’t know left or right. Sometimes they think I can go right down the middle of the creek, but I can’t—
Derek and Judy: (In unison) There’s no water there!
Judy: But they keep pushing, and I tell my partner, “Get on the bow and tell these people what’s going on because I’m going to be aground here in a minute.” So that’s my biggest problem. I call them the “weekenders.”
Derek: At my dock, we have the kayaks and the jet skis, and that’s a cluster. Sometimes they’re holding onto your dock—where you want to be!
Judy: I try to get as far away from them as I can, but if I go by one, and they fall over or hurt themselves or drown—it’s on me. So, sometimes it takes me over an hour to get where I need to get just so I can power up. You don’t want to turn any of these folks over.
Derek: When I’m at the wheel, I hate being talked to because I feel like I have to look at you to discuss, and it’s like, I’m working here, I’m looking for debris, I’m looking at my gauges—I’m really tuned into my motor and how it sounds. That’s my biggest pet peeve operating a boat; I don’t want to be talked to.
SM: But don’t people want to talk to you because you’re the captain?
Derek: I lock the cabin.
SM: Derek, no one is ever going to talk to you again after they read this.
Derek: Fine. Put it in there! (Laughter)
Rob: They deal with the people who are actually in boats, but the most unnerving for us are the people who go up on Long Island with the shark teeth. They’ll put their boat right up on the beach, and they’ve got kids, and the kids are running around. But as slow as I can go, the ship still displaces water. The water goes up, and it runs away. After it runs away, it’s got to go back. And those kids will start running after the water, and the parents don’t know, so they just let them go. So I have to make sure that I start slowing down miles in advance.
We try to get the Coast Guard to put signs up, but they say that’s not their department. I just know somebody’s got to put something up that says “Watch the surge.”
SM: What kinds of expectations do customers have when they book a charter?
Derek: A lot of people come with high expectations. They’re like, I know we booked the shortest 4-hour trip you offer, but where are the grouper? And the dolphin?
Judy: And the marlin! And the tuna! That’s a 14-hour trip. That’s why we interview our customers. I have to ask them what they expect to catch. I’ve said more than once that I’m not a good fit for you because I don’t think you’re going to like me and my company. So I’ll give them the number of somebody else.
Derek: Oh, sure, give ‘em to me! (Laughter)
Judy: I had one guy who came on the boat and says, “Ma’am, I don’t go out with lady pilots.” I said, “Well, sir, your company paid for me to take you fishing, so if you don’t want to ride, I don’t care because I’m going to get my money, so what do you want to do?” He said, “Alright, we’ll ride a little while.” So we rode out, and we didn’t even get to Wassaw. He said, “Stop right here.” I said, “There’s absolutely nothing here to catch.” But we anchored the boat, and we just sat there and talked for five hours. I got paid the same, and all I did was talk to him all day long.
Derek: (Shaking his head) I don’t know how you do it.
SM: How has the coast changed over the years?
Judy: Everything has changed because we used to catch red snapper at the blackfish banks, which are only 10 miles off shore. You used to go out only 10 miles to catch all the black sea bass you ever wanted.
We also used to take people on tow. But now, unless it’s one of my boats, I hesitate because once you take that tow line, now it’s your responsibility. I’m not going to leave anybody out there, but I won’t even hardly let somebody come on my dock that I don’t know.
Rob: We don’t do any kind of rescue or salvage just because of liability. It’s like legal touch-and-go. The things that you would normally do just out of courtesy, now you get in trouble.
Derek: I came to Miss Judy one time when she had some engine vibration, and I had to get in my underwear and jump in the water.
Judy: He did! (Laughing) I didn’t want to lose that $3,000 wheel, and he just come running over there, and he says, “I’m gonna go down and look at it, but I’m just gonna be in my underwear.”
Rob: People who fish, they’re close.
Judy: Yes. You need it, I’m there. I’ll bring it to you.
Sitting down with these captains reaffirmed my two fears: that I’m missing out on the salt life and that river monsters are real. I not only gained a profound appreciation for the work that these captains do each day, but also a boatload of respect for the dangers they encounter (mostly at the hands of would-be boaters such as myself). Will I go out and buy a boat? Definitely not. But I’ll get on their decks any day.