Quintessentially Lowcountry: Sandbars make for high times at low tide

June 25, 2010 

  • You won't find restrooms, concession stands or other amenities at county sandbars, and they aren't wired for the Internet. Just the same, you can visit the popular hang-outs in cyberspace, even if you can't make it out to the water.

    On the friends search in Facebook, enter "May River sandbar" to find a fan page with about 1,300 followers. Search for "Beaufort River sandbar" to find a Facebook page calling all party-goers to the popular venue now through July 10 for weekend parties.
  • Although none of them is visited frequently enough to be referred to as the sandbar, other sandy havens pop up from Beaufort County waters during low tide, in addition to the best-known hang-outs on the Beaufort and May rivers. In northern Beaufort County: • A second Beaufort River sandbar, north of the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge, is within site of Pigeon Point to the west and Marsh Harbor Marina to the east. • A sandbar near Morgan Island sometimes draws those looking for a more private beach experience. In southern Beaufort County: • A sandbar visible from the S.C. 170 bridge over the Chechessee River is a popular anchoring spot for weekend boaters. • A second May River sandbar, upriver from of the more-visited sandbar, attracts crowds, too.

(Editor's note: An error in this story was corrected June 27, 2010.)

Robert Anderson spends his workweek swinging a hammer in Palmetto Bluff, peering across the May River and longing for the weekend, when he can motor over to the strip near the opposite bank that teases him whenever the tide lets down its guard and shows a little sand.

Like many Lowcountry residents in communities surrounded by inshore waters, Anderson doesn't need to drive to the beach to have a day at one. Nearly every weekend, he, his family and several neighbors load up a boat and make a short jaunt from the landing at the Bluffton Oyster Factory to a sandbar in the May River.

They often spend both Saturday and Sunday there, lounging in the sun, grilling over a pit in the sand and watching their kids cast a net or fish for flounder.

"People have gotten to where they don't even ask what we're doing on the weekends anymore," said Anderson, who does interior trim work in homes in Palmetto Bluff, the vast Bluffton development with shoreline directly across from the popular sandbar.

Northern Beaufort County has its version of the sandbar, too, near a bend in the Beaufort River. Within view are Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge.

"It's the camaraderie of family and friends," said Beaufortonian Ralph Altaille, explaining the draw of Beaufort's sandbar.

On this particular Saturday, Altaille has loaded a grill and a cooler of marinated chicken and hot dogs on his pontoon boat.

"We'll just set up a buffet and relax and swim and eat," said Altaille, a career counselor with the Beaufort County School District.

"It's like a neighborhood bar -- you don't really need to make plans," explains Roger Talmage, who Altaille refers to as the sandbar's "social director." "You just show up and you know you're going to see someone you know."

And there's no telling what they'll be up to when you bump into them.

Talmage said he once pulled up to the Beaufort River sandbar to discover a full-fledged slow-pitch softball game.

"On any given Saturday, you're going to see horseshoes or bocce ball," said Talmage, a retired accountant and software developer who retired to Beaufort nine years ago. "You might see a volleyball court set up. There's so much room here, there are a lot of things you can do."

And so many things you're allowed to do.

Altaille said hanging out at the sandbar is better than going to most of the county's public beaches because you can bring along your dog and your beer.

"You're just a little more free to enjoy yourself," he said.

Of course, the combination of alcohol and a beating sun can lead to rowdiness, accidents and even fights.

"It kind of had a bad reputation," said Anderson's wife, Susie Edmonds, noting friends from Hilton Head Island usually decline invitations to the May River sandbar because they don't want to hang out with troublemakers."But it really has a pretty good atmosphere."

Anderson said the sandbar's reputation once was well-deserved, "but I think a lot of people who grew up coming here have kids now and have calmed down. ... It's really a good place for the family. If it wasn't, I wouldn't bring mine here."

And many come well-equipped.

Four years ago, Talmage bought a pontoon boat, equipped with a 40-horsepower Mariner motor, to be used almost exclusively for his sandbar trips. In fact, he said he can count on one hand the number of times the boat has been outside the mile-and-a-half section of river between the Woods and J.E. McTeer bridges.

The boat has a top to provide shade and a stereo system that wafts a classic-rock soundtrack across one of the county's great social gathering spots.

"You can meet all sorts of people here," Altaille said. "You might meet a lawyer or a construction worker or a schoolteacher. There's a great mix."

Although sandbars know no class, they offer a bit of exclusivity, Altaille said -- you need access to a boat to get there and a bit of coordination to plan a trip, since sandbars are covered and exposed at the moon's whim. Revelers typically can enjoy about six hours per tide cycle on dry land.

But in return for the effort, those who frequent sandbars gain entry to a fellowship of improvisation, where there is communal pride in making something fun out of what Mother Nature provides. Lifelong residents grow up partying there, and newcomers with an affinity for the water soon discover them.

"This kind of takes you back to the old days in Bluffton, when everyone knew everyone and there weren't as many people around," Mitch Brown said during a recent trip to the May River sandbar. "There are a lot of new faces now on the sandbar. That's not a bad thing, just different.

"It's part of living in Bluffton these days."

Brown sits on a cooler full of drinks and food as he talks about his mid-week excursions to the sandbar, when the place isn't so crowded. His father, Bill Brown of Columbia, relaxes in a lawn chair, along with family friend Jon Wood, who recently moved to Bluffton but has been visiting the sandbar for nine or 10 years.

Brown's niece, Emma McCracken, a rising sophomore at Bluffton High School, tans in the sun, and his children, Arden, 3, and Ella Mae, 2, frolic near the water's edge.

"They already have a concept of the sandbar," Brown said as he keeps watch over his two youngest. "They want to know what day it is and how much longer until we go to the sandbar.

"They're going to be sandbar kids."

In these parts, that puts them in good company.

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