July 2020

How to Get on the Water: Your guide to boating in the Lowcountry

Author: Mandy Matney and David Moses

If you’ve been in the Lowcountry for any length of time, you’ve probably been aboard one, been tugged behind one, driven one, or at the very least seen one from afar and wondered how to get on it. There is no better time than now to explore our vast waterways by boat.

Boating is the perfect activity in this COVID-19 world. And summer is the best season to get out on the cool water exploring the many islands, channels, creeks, and views you can’t experience from land.

“People are really looking for the romance of family time that they remembered as kids growing up,” said Grant Kaple, general manager of the Hilton Head Boathouse. “Whether it’s skiing or tubing or dolphin watching, people are really looking for something to do with their kids, now more than ever.”

From the historically rich landscape of Daufuskie to the mysterious Morgan Island populated by elusive monkeys, your options for adventure are endless when you boat in Beaufort County.

On top of the magical destinations, the Lowcountry offers many varied solutions to get you on the water. Maybe you’re a first-timer or newcomer and need the help of a charter captain to guide you through the tides. Maybe you’re experienced enough to rent a boat and explore our waters on your own. Maybe you’d prefer the convenience and variety offered by boat club membership. Or maybe, you’re ready to commit to the lifestyle and buy a boat of your own. This guide will help you weigh your options and make the decision that’s right for you.

Charter captains, guided tours and rentals
Boating in Beaufort County is harder than it looks. That was the consensus of virtually every boating enthusiast we spoke to for this article. There are many factors at play that make the area particularly unique including tides, currents, and sandbars (oh my!) that can quickly turn a boat trip sour.

“It happens more often than you think,” said Chip Michalove, veteran charter captain at Outcast Sport Fishing and well-known shark whisperer. “It’s very common for a once-a-year boating guy, or first-timer to rent a boat and find themselves stuck on a sandbar.”

Michalove said he’s had to help dozens of people who’ve run into trouble on their first time out in our waters. “I think a lot of these people are used to lakes where all you have to worry about is not hitting another boat or the dam,” he said. “But we’ve got sandbars, and some of these sandbars are literally just a few inches above the ground. Unfortunately, we all find out the hard way.”

Twenty years ago, on his first charter trip ever, Michalove found himself stuck on a sandbar offshore. He said even though depth machines and nautical charts help, it takes a lot of experience to learn how to navigate them, especially considering that sandbars shift every winter.

On top of learning how to avoid the sandbars, boaters in the Lowcountry have to learn the tides, channel markers, currents—and parallel parking a boat is no easy task.

Speaking of tough, fishing in the Lowcountry is also much harder than it looks. According to Michalove, the first-time fisherman is much better off booking a charter captain. “There’s no doubt that if you’re here to fish and you’re not familiar with the waters, you have a better chance of catching fish on the beach than you do on a boat,” he said. “I mean you have to learn where the ledges are and know where the artificial reefs are. There’s just too much to learn for the new boater or to come down here and have a successful day if they plan on fishing.”

Michalove said fishing charter captains cost between $400 and $2,500 a day. Not limited to fishing, chartered boats can last between one and eight hours and can cost anywhere between $200-$2,500, depending on time of year, length of cruise and type of activity. But a guided tour would likely be your best bet when you combine the added value of safety and local knowledge.

At Outside Hilton Head, for example, an incredible emphasis is placed on tailoring each moment into lasting memories for every guest. This passion for enriching lives started in 1979 when CEO Mike Overton started a windsurfing school on the beaches of Sea Pines. Since then, Outside has grown to offer a variety of guided tours and other activities including private charters, shark tooth hunting, fishing adventures, excursions to private islands, kayaking, paddle boarding, leisurely rides to Daufuskie, boat rentals, of course, and much more.

Setting Outside apart, Overton said, is the qualifications of their guides, known as interpreters, who are required to complete an extensive, multi-tiered 150-hour training program designed to make each extremely knowledgeable about the area and adept at building trust with guests. Their 31 licensed Coast Guard captains, including 37-year veteran Captain Boo Herald, make it their daily mission to connect people with exceptional places, products, and experiences.

“If you wanna connect people to the outdoors, it’s all about tides,” Overton said he learned during a conversation with Sea Pines Founder Charles Fraser. And for the next 35 years, Outside has been crafting smiles for countless thousands of residents and visitors, all while making our community a better place.

For the DIY boating adventurer, Outside Hilton Head is one of a few companies on the island that offers boat rentals. Outside offers pontoon and deck boat rentals that can last between two to eight hours and cost between $245 to $705, depending on the kind of boat and the length of time you wish to rent it.

Boat clubs
On our mission to learn more about boating in the Lowcountry, we explored an interesting alternative to charters, rental and ownership: boat membership.

For the last 15 years, Steve Sherman has made it his mission as regional membership director for Freedom Boat Club to share all the varied forms and joys of boating—from inshore and offshore fishing to tubing and leisurely party-boat adventures to Daufuskie.

According to Freedom Boat Club’s research, the average boat owner only uses their boat 10 times a year. “If you own a boat and it just sits there a lot of the time—like other recreational vehicles—when they sit, they break.

Plastic dries and rubber cracks. And all that must be factored into repair and maintenance costs,” Sherman said.
For those of us who don’t have the armada of vessels and committed time required to accomplish all tasks but still want to enjoy everything our magnificent waterways have to offer, Sherman recommends the convenience and versatility of Freedom Boat Club.

Joining a boat club essentially provides access to boats that are shared among a “home club” membership base—and each club or “franchise” could have boats at multiple marinas nearby.

By joining the Freedom Boat Club on Hilton Head Island, members have unlimited access to boat reservations at Palmetto Bay Marina, Port Royal, and Skull Creek Marina. On top of that, members can reserve boats at Freedom Boat Club’s 230 locations around the world, up to four times per location.

Each fleet at different locations varies, depending on the region, but usually consists of bow riders, deck boats, pontoons, and center console fishing boats—all name brands under two years old.

Islanders now have two options for joining a boat club since Carefree Boat Club at Palmetto Bay Marina just opened this summer under the leadership of Patrick Coughlin.

Coughlin highlights that entry fees of joining the boat club are significantly less than you would spend on buying a boat, and monthly membership fees are less than you would spend storing your boat at a wet-slip or dry-dock.

The convenience of a boat club is easy to recognize as members choose to go fishing, tubing, or head to a restaurant with friends. When they are finished, they just bring the boat back and pay for the fuel. The club handles cleaning, storing, insurance, maintenance, expected repairs, unexpected repairs, renewing and growing the fleet, and every other reason you’ve heard that the “best two days of owning a boat are the day you buy it, and the day you sell it.”

“People who have owned boats before immediately understand the benefits of opting for membership,” Coughlin said.

Like Freedom Boat Club, Carefree members have unlimited access to reservations at their home clubs. But at Carefree, members have up to three reservations a year at Carefree’s 90 locations around the United States and Canada.

Carefree is currently offering half-off membership rates, Coughlin said, adding that now is the time to join because the member-to-boat ratio is low.

Oh, and if you’re worried about hitting a sandbar, don’t. Both Freedom Boat Club and Carefree offer classes to members.

Buying a boat
For the dedicated, experienced, enthusiastic boater ready to own their vessel, Grant Kaple at the Hilton Head Boathouse has you covered. First, Kaple said potential boat owners should consider how you’re going to use the boat. His most popular boat is a 21-foot Sea Hunt Ultra, which he described as “the combination of a pickup and a minivan,” with both excessive seating and speed for families to enjoy.

However, there are expenses to consider with boat ownership. Marina storage can cost about $4,000 a year; maintaining a motor can cost between $800 and $1,600; and other maintenance fees can add up.
Yet there are many benefits of owning your own boat compared to joining a boat club. “It’s like renting a home vs. buying a home: you can customize it to make it your own,” Kaple said.

For the serious fisherman heading offshore, boat ownership is the best option as clubs don’t allow their boats to head way offshore, Kaple pointed out. Boat owners also enjoy the spontaneity of being able to take their boat out whenever they please without reservation. “For that early fisherman wanting to get the first bite of the morning, you can’t get that with a boat club,” he said.

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