Everyone was pulling for the Lady Bernice to make it.
Hurricane Matthew was hard on the 73-foot shrimp trawler. The Category 2 storm flung the ship some 200 yards from where she was anchored, knocked her into a dock and wedged her deep into the pluff mud of Hilton Head Island’s Skull Creek.
All with her captain, Charles Abner, onboard. Abner refused to abandon his Lady when the storm neared.
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“You don’t leave your vessel,” he said.
Lady Bernice is one of the few working shrimp trawlers keeping the Lowcountry seafood industry alive. And Abner is one of the few captains. Now in his 60s, he has been shrimping since he was in sixth grade.
The captain slept through most of the storm, so when he realized the boat was loose from her pilings, it was too late to save the Lady Bernice. She was already stuck, with 50-foot pilings from Hilton Head’s Benny Hudson Seafood dock still tied to the boat.
And there she stayed until this Monday morning, just over a week after the storm.
Will the Lady move?
Capt. Abner stands on the deck of the Lady Bernice, one foot on the side of the boat and a concerned expression on his face. There is a small window of high tide when the team of volunteers can work to get the trawler free.
Two boats from Sea Tow, a Savannah boat towing company, slowly rock the trawler, moving it inch-by-inch. A tugboat from Steadfast Marine Construction works to cut a path for the Lady in the mud. Both vessels volunteered their time.
Soon onlookers from the neighborhood gather to watch, hoping this small piece of Lowcountry culture will make it through.
Members of the Hilton Head Fire Department stand on the dock to help with the unconventional rescue.
The night before, the firefighters, including Deputy Fire Chief Ed Boring and his son and fellow firefighter Ben Boring, spent hours in the mud with chainsaws securing the dock and cutting the 50-foot pilings off the Lady Bernice to prepare for the rescue effort.
They help secure the rigging.
The tow boats pull.
The tugboat cuts into the mud.
And the Lady Bernice slowly rocks.
More than an hour passes and the trawler is just about two feet from where she started.
Soon, it’s 10 minutes before the tide is about to go out and any chance of releasing the trawler will be gone.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s now or never,” says Ed Boring.
It was now.
Slowly, the Lady Bernice starts to move.
A member of the rescue team loudly claps his hands. Small celebrations break out from the crowd.
The Lady Bernice is free.
‘Grateful to everyone’
For the rescue team, the trawler is a symbol of recovery in the aftermath of the hurricane that left widespread destruction on their island.
Between the worry about Matthew’s approach and the destruction once it got here, “it’s been a long two weeks,” said an emotional Ed Boring just after the trawler glided out past the dock. “To me this is a big victory.”
The trawler was loosened solely by the small team of volunteers. The last time a trawler was stuck on Hilton Head in Jarvis Creek, it cost the town $175,000 to remove.
To Abner, the success means he can continue to make a living the way he has for decades.
Minutes after the Lady got free and pulled back to the Benny Hudson Seafood dock, Abner was already at work, calmly cleaning up the boat.
The hurricane was just the latest obstacle in the long, tumultuous career of a shrimper.
Abner has seen three trawler fires, one trip where he lost steering and power and required a Coast Guard rescue, and last summer, he had a car he drove melted in a fire at the Port Royal Seafood Dock.
Perhaps that is why Abner casually cleans his newly free boat, not stopping too long to soak in the fanfare.
Abner hopes to take the Lady Bernice out shrimping again. “As soon as I get things cleaned up,” he said. “Tomorrow or the day after, definitely not today.”
“Have to,” he said. “I’m grateful to everyone that I can.”