The Summer of 2023 was one of a major milestone for my family. I’m not talking about passing the last test to obtain my six-pack captain’s license or my 18-year-old daughter’s freshman year as a University of South Carolina Gamecock. I’m not even referring to my 14-year-old son Fritz’s launch as a James Island Charter High School Trojan. No, as a boating parent, something more daunting—and arguably more significant—happened. For this was the summer that my wife and I stood on our dock and waved as both of our kids cast off and drove our 21-foot Hydra-Sports center console away with their friends—solo.
Parenthood is, by definition, a litany of milestones and firsts: crawls, words, steps, school days and hopefully, training-wheel-free bike rides. Ours have also included: plays, talent shows, dance recitals, fish landings, surf contests and for Lucy, proms, that first solo trek behind the wheel of a car and the first supervised sips of beer. What no one really tells you though, is how nerve wracking, and fraught, some of these milestones actually, and unexpectedly, are. Navigating booze and a car? The issues around those two will pretty be much par for the course. But driving the boat? That one wasn’t.
For a long time while the kids were growing up, I thought the decision to let the kids cast off would be easy. We live on a tidal creek and our kids have pretty much grown up living the “Pogue” life here in Charleston, though unlike the salt-soaked teen heroes on their favorite Netflix show, Outer Banks (literally filmed in our backyard), the only buried treasure they’ve found are Civil War artillery shells. Because they could drown in our backyard, the swimming milestone was paramount before they even learned to walk. They’ve since spent their summers diving for and smearing pluff mud on their faces (folks pay big bucks for inferior muck at spas), getting tased by jellyfish, pinched by crabs, cut by oysters, dragged by currents, crushed by waves, chased by lightning storms and waiting out on Morris Island for Sea Tow. All this has led to what I’d call above average teenage wisdom on the myriad of ways our coastal waters are willing to kill or maim them for free.
Statistically, of course, boating is safer than driving. Still, when it came time to let the kids loose, solo, aboard a boat that has been in my family for 40 years, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve probably had more trepidation than most dads. I’d like to think it’s not so much the “helicopter” syndrome as it is simply to my own exposure to bad shit on the water. I worked as a beach lifeguard as a teen. I’ve nearly drowned surfing and have friends who have drowned surfing. As a writer, I’ve simply heard an inordinate number of harrowing stories. Indeed, when I authored a book called The Ocean, the Ultimate Handbook of Nautical Knowledge, my whole purpose was to glean wisdom from folks who knew lots more than me. I thus interviewed Steven Callahan, author of Adrift—Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, hypothermia expert and Essentials of Sea Survival author Dr. Michael Tipton, and USCG Rescue Swimmer Shannon Scaff (featured in our January story “So Others May Live.”). When I worked as an editor at Charleston City Paper, we covered South Carolina’s Murdaugh murder saga. Two years before being shotgunned by his dad Alex, Paul Murdaugh’s boat actually launched the downfall of this family dynasty when Paul drunkenly plowed a 17-foot Sea Hunt filled with friends into a bridge—killing a girl named Mallory Beach. Then last year, I interviewed a local heroine named Morgan Kiser. A sunset cruise collision with a drunk boater killed Kiser’s father and took the leg of her mother. Kiser narrowly escaped injury, but she was terribly traumatized-—and so was I after the interview. Thanks in part to her relentless lobbying, our governor finally signed a law making boater safety training mandatory in South Carolina for those born after July 1, 2007. (It still misses scores of first time and often booze-fueled middle-aged boaters who proliferate on our waters, but it’s a start.)
When it comes to letting my own kids drive the boat, I’ve let them take the helm—supervised—since they could see over the center console and they, of course, have loved it. I mostly learned to boat with my granddad on Georgia’s placid Lake Oconee, but here, I’ve tried to pass along experiential knowledge. Is the lanyard on your wrist? Which way is the tidal current rushing past that dock? What will that current be doing an hour from now? What is that pod of dolphins doing? Which way is that storm moving? Where are the oyster beds and sand shoals and how can you tell where others might lurk? What is the intention of the boat off our bow? And of course, which boat has the right of way?
Like most teens though, by the time our kids became teens, they were certain they had accrued way more knowledge than they actually had, and boating was no exception. As the 2023 Spring rolled into Summer, the entreaties to solo became harder and harder to ignore. Lucy was 18. She was heading off to college at the end of the summer. She knew what to do. Could she please take it out with her friends—even just out to a nearby dock on Folly Creek? Fritz’s best friends Harley and Hampton had a 14-foot Whaler they restored with their dad, my good buddy Tim Pickett. Like us, Tim and his wife Bebe, have long recognized what a boat, particularly one amidst the maze of rivers, creeks and hundreds of islands in the Lowcountry means to a teenager: Freedom. Our kids were crying freedom. And that, I guess, is where the milestone that responsible parents have to reach comes in too: knowing when to let go.
So, here was the deal. We rounded up with the Picketts and the parents of several other neighborhood kids who would be boating with our kids. The parents all agreed, our kids were basically ready, but they all had to pass the day-long boating course at the state DNR. This was before the new state law was officially passed, so those know-it-all teenagers eye-rolled and bitched. Lucy argued that it was already mid-summer and she was about to go off to college, so why should she have waste a valuable summer day on the course when she had such a short window of time? I answered, well, you’re going to be home all of next Summer and so are your friends. And of course, knowledge is power. So off to the DNR they went. Quinn and I weren’t terribly surprised when they passed with flying colors, but we were pleasantly surprised, when from life jacket logic to rights-of-way, to situational awareness to booze on the water, the kids actually admitted that they learned some valuable lessons too.
Your job as a parent is to shield your kids from harm. But by God, it’s also to teach them to take risks and enjoy life. Ultimately, just as we did, our kids are morphing into young adults. My wife and I can only hope we’ve sheltered them just enough—but not too much—that they’ll be able to navigate not only our near-shore waters, but life. It’s tough to let go, but we have to give them the freedom to endure sandbar strandings, breakups and breakdowns along the way. I don’t know if we’ve passed on everything the kids need to know out there, but damned if we haven’t tried. Which is why, over the last few weeks of summer, we’ve chosen to stand by, watch and wave as our kids—with their own groups of friends—run through the checklists, fire up the outboard, cast off the lines and slowly motor out of our tiny creek—and out into the wide world.
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