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Pawleys Island: Small sailboat fights rough seas to find safe harbor

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

When Morris Richardson bought his 26-foot sailboat last year, he asked the seller to keep the flotation device on the stern that bore the boat’s name. Richardson didn’t even want to know the name.

“It’s bad luck to change the name on a boat,” he said.

Richardson’s luck held Saturday evening as his unnamed boat found a safe harbor in Pawleys Creek as he struggled with steep seas that forced him to abandon a trip from Georgetown to Little River.

Midway Fire and Rescue stood by as Richardson motored into Midway Inlet around 7:45 p.m. “That’s the first sailboat I’ve had,” said Battalion Chief Jason Dennis. “You really don’t see many in distress off the beach.”

Catamarans are a different story.

“We get a lot of calls for catamarans,” said Dennis, who has been with Midway for 10 years. “Most of the time they don’t want any rescue, they just want you to help them flip it upright.”

It was a different scenario that unfolded on Pawleys Island this time.

Richardson’s 1984 Hunter bumped once on a sandbar, but was pushed clear by a breaking wave. “I was lucky,” he said. “I kept it straight the entire time.”

Midway had two Jet Skis in the inlet and another crew on the beach at North Litchfield in case Richardson continued north.

“The sand bars actually move around,” Dennis said. “You only have a small channel.”

If the boat had stuck on the bar and broached, Midway was ready to pull Richardson from the water.

“We would have had someone to him in less than 30 seconds,” Dennis said.

That feeling of security was priceless to Richardson after a harrowing trip that saw his boat come perilously close to capsizing half a dozen times. “Midway was awesome,” he said. Until he reached Pawleys Island, “I felt like I was alone and if I flipped I’d be out there a long time.”

Richardson began his trip around 6:15 a.m. from Conway. He motored down the Waccamaw River to Winyah Bay and cleared the jetties around 5 p.m. The 42-year-old contractor started sailing when he was 16, and it was his early experience taking a small boat into ocean from Withers Swash in Myrtle Beach that helped him bring his larger boat to safety, Richardson said.

He planned to take a couple of days off from work and had 200 feet of anchor rode on board so he could anchor off Myrtle Beach for the night. The forecast called for southerly winds at 5 to 10 knots and he expected to take his time sailing to Little River, then returning home by the Intracoastal Waterway.

But the wind shifted in the afternoon, and was blowing from the east. The waves that were 2 to 3 feet when Richardson reached the ocean quickly doubled in size. He said he was about 3 miles offshore when the waves kicked up.

In hindsight, Richardson said he should have checked the forecast again before leaving the bay. “That’s where I messed up,” he said. “I should have watched the weather.”

He was off DeBordieu when he realized he was in trouble. Richardson, who was wearing a life jacket, phoned his wife to say he was heading for Murrells Inlet.

He dropped the sails and started the engine to move closer to shore.

“I could either go out or go in,” Richardson said. “I didn’t want to go in and beach the boat. I was too scared to go out.”

The Hunter was built with a tiller, but a steering wheel was added on a pedestal in the aft end of the cockpit. That location made it hard for Richardson to leave the helm to tend the sails and he couldn’t lower them all the way.

Another lesson he brought home from the trip was that “I should have had someone with me,” he said.

As Richardson motored toward Murrells Inlet the waves rolled the boat. The top of the 36-foot mast came within 6 to 10 feet of the water, he said.

The antenna for the boat’s VHF radio was mounted on the stern railing. It snapped when Richardson grabbed onto it during a roll. He was able to call the Coast Guard with his cellphone.

He was encouraged when he got closer to the beach and saw people on Pawleys Island flashing their lights at him. Someone staying in a house called Midway, Dennis said.

When Richardson spotted Midway Inlet at the north end of Pawleys Island, he decided against trying to reach Murrells Inlet.

“I didn’t know you had an inlet there,” Richardson said. “I saw that inlet and said I’m going for it. I’d rather flip in the inlet than in the ocean.”

Dennis watched Richardson’s progress and organized the water teams from Pawleys Pier. “The seas were rough. It looked like he was having some trouble,” Dennis said.

“I’m a bit of a daredevil, so for me to be scared is saying something,” Richardson said. “I was so scared.”

He’s been far offshore in fishing boats, but that didn’t prepare him for the steep and confused seas he found Saturday. “That’s the first time I’ve been in that situation,” Richardson said.

With one hand on the wheel and the other holding his cellphone so he could talk with the Coast Guard, Richardson steered for the inlet. The Coast Guard couldn’t tell him the depth of the inlet. “I hung up the phone and told them I was going in,” he said.

The rescue crew didn’t know what Richardson planned, but had launched its craft from the Third Street landing. “I had my eyes on him,” Dennis said.

Richardson knew from sailing out of Withers Swash that the channel wouldn’t be in the center of Midway Inlet, but he didn’t know where the bar was. The Hunter draws 4-1/2 feet of water. He looked for water where the waves weren’t breaking.

He saw fishermen along the island’s north jetty trying to direct him, but mostly he was focused on the water.

“It was hard,” Richardson said. “After the turn, I focused on the horizon and tried to steer.”

“He was struggling,” Dennis said. “If he had hit that sandbar he would have gone over.”

Richardson came in about half an hour before the high tide. He felt the keel hit bottom. “A wave picked me up and carried me over the bar,” he said.

The Midway crew confirmed that he was alone on the boat and helped him tie up at the dock at the Keller house on the south side of the Tom Crocker Landing on Third Street.

He said he met the family the next day and was told he could keep the boat there until he is ready to resume his journey.

Richardson isn’t sure when that will be. “I’m so sore from fighting that wheel,” he said earlier this week.

He figures he covered about 70 miles on Saturday, and spent the last hour fighting the rough sea.

“I won’t put myself in that situation again,” Richardson said. “If I hadn’t been so dead set on Little River, I should have turned back.”

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