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Sandy Island: Panel set to review all options for transit to island

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The car ferry favored by Sandy Island residents is just one option before a committee scheduled to meet next week to start looking for safer ways to get residents across the Waccamaw River. “We will be exploring every possible solution,” Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

County Council’s decision last week to study improved access to Sandy Island followed the death of three residents who drowned in February when their small boat sank during a storm.

Residents want a car ferry, an option first proposed in the 1970s. A bill in the state legislature would allow the state-owned school boat that serves the island to add trips for residents.

That’s seen as a temporary measure, but Georgetown County School Superintendent Randy Dozier said the school boat, built in 1968, may need to be replaced, which raises other options for a passenger ferry.

Three years ago, “the boat was down for three months for engine repair,” Dozier said. “There aren’t a lot of years left in that boat.”

The school boat, Prince Washington, was used to carry family and friends of the drowning victims in the days following the accident. The current law allows additional trips if the school district pays for them.

Funding questions have delayed the bill that would expand use of the Prince Washington. The school district agreed to act as the “fiscal agent” as long as it doesn’t have to pay for expanded service.

State Sen. Ray Cleary recalled the bill from committee this week, and he expects it to pass with new language that makes it clear that Georgetown County will fund any new trips.

Whether those funds are forthcoming hinges on the results of the county committee’s work, Hemingway said.

He believes the first step will be to get an accurate picture of the needs of the Sandy Island residents. “We need to learn everything we can from the residents about their needs,” he said.

The state Department of Education estimates it would cost $15,000 a year to add two trips to the two that the Prince Washington already makes to carry students. The boat can carry 35, and averaged 13 students a trip last year.

Hemingway said the logistics “are a problem,” since the school boat needs to be at the right place to pick up students. The Department of Education says the captain, Timothy Tucker, isn’t interested in taking on extra runs, so another licensed captain would be needed.

“I’ve got 1,600 employees. Only three of them are boat captains,” Dozier said.

“There are so many unanswered questions about that,” Hemingway said.

But he agreed that there may be merit to working with the state on a replacement to the school boat that could also serve as a passenger ferry.

“If there was any consideration for a people ferry that would be run on a consistent basis, then transportation for students could be a part of it,” he said. “I think the issue long-term is we need to identify the most practical solution.”

The investigation into the Feb. 18 sinking that renewed the access debate is nearing completion, said Lt. Robert McCullough, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.

The 15-foot boat was raised from the river last week.

The boat operator, who was wearing a “float coat,” and her young daughter survived the sinking along with an infant who remains at the Medical University of S.C.

The investigator, Sgt. Robin Camlin, will present her report to the solicitor’s office, standard practice when a boating accident results in a death.

“Ultimately, it’s the investigator’s decision” on whether there will be any charges filed, McCullough said.

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