Saturday afternoons in Beaufort is a perfect time to ride out to St. Helena Island to purchase shrimp and blue crab fresh from the rickety weathered docks at Gay Seafood Company. Here is a place of billowing marsh grass, shorebirds, and silent currents. It’s a place of quiet beauty, oyster beds and rugged sea-battered boats. A fish house stands proud, constructed by men from an era when men were as strong and steadfast as the underpinnings of the cinder blocks and stone in their buildings. Ancient live oaks stand guard over the earth, providing shade and solace for all who enter this place.
If you park under the sprawling live oak overlooking the river, you’ll be able to watch the shrimp boats, draped with their sea-green nets, come and go. Breathe deeply and inhale the briny aroma of this great salt marsh, the place where all sea life originates.
As the years passed, the view from beneath the oak tree on the banks of the river revealed fewer traditional shrimp boats. Shrimping vessels have trawled South Carolina waters from Beaufort to Little River since the 1920s but of late have faced growing challenges. Local shrimpers have been hit hard with a downturn in the demand for domestic shrimp. There’s tough competition from foreign markets. Spawned by overseas shrimp farms and an uneducated public as to the difference in quality, boats and buildings are often left now to sink or rot.
Among the wreckage of a once-glorious fleet, there are still those brave souls with the dignity and strength to keep the local industry alive, laboring each day largely unnoticed by passersby.
Restoring sunken boats and repairing existing vessels, these men are among a vanishing kinship of shrimp boat captains. Theirs is a brotherhood of fishermen from all over the world. Theirs is a life characterized by hard work and fierce competition. They work long, arduous hours, and are a proud and independent people. Fourth-generation river picker, Craig Reaves of Sea Eagle Market says, “Nets must be checked each day, searching for any tears then mended with net needles and twine. Chains, ropes and winches are all checked daily and prepared for the day ahead.”
Craig recently expanded his market after purchasing the former Dopson Seafood House on Factory Creek, St. Helena Island. His new business, known as Sea Eagle At Village Creek, will include seafood processing, a retail operation and event space. “We’re going to preserve working waterfront for future generations,” Reaves said. “It gives us security in the Beaufort area.”
On any given day the quiet solitude of the creek and surrounding marsh are quickly shattered as the FV Gracie Belle’s engines start up. Craig’s brother, Cameron Reaves, runs the Carolina Pride. Each morning during shrimp season they make their way before dawn through dark waterways to the open sea, diesel fumes and the pungent smells of salt and strong, fresh-brewed coffee fill the air.
Once arriving at their fishing grounds, outriggers are let down, spreading out from the boat like the giant wings of a great blue heron. Rusted, creaking winches are brought to life as the waterlogged, wooden trawl doors are set out.
The sea rolls black and eerie as the nets are tossed over the sides. With the breaking dawn, nets are lowered to the bottom, the drag slowing the boat to a near halt.
“A captain a lot of times will keep a snag book,” says Craig, “to remind him where there might be ancient anchors or remains of sunken ships that might snag the nets. Years of notes tell us treacherous bottoms to avoid.”
Anticipation is huge as the nets are finally pulled from the sea and contents spilled onto the deck. Immediately workers, called strikers, pull up on small wooden stools to begin culling and heading the shrimp. It’s a sight to behold as seagulls swarm above screeching and feasting. Nets are dropped several times over the course of the day. The aroma of frying bacon, sausage and shrimp burgers is ever-present as the crew prepares its mid-day meal. As evening approaches, nets are dropped and hauled one last time with the captain and crew hopeful for that one big catch.
Trailed by the ever-present flock of sea gulls, in late afternoon outriggers are folded up as the boats head back home. The very next day the call of the sea and the shrimp will beckon once again.