Captain Billy North died Monday at a nursing home in Thunderbolt, Ga.
His face — with rakish mustache and big, super-blue eyes that made him such a charmer — by then had lines sketched by the stiff winds and hot sun from 70 years on the water.
“Captain Billy North put his boots on the dock and shut the engine off today,” came the news from Captain Woody Collins of Sheldon. “He was with family and left with no pain ... thought you would want to know.”
His sister Kathy said Billy’s life is told in the words of Jimmy Buffet’s song, “A Pirate Looks at 40”:
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“Mother, mother ocean
I have heard you call
I wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all
You’ve seen it all.”
He never owned a home. He was married three times, once to a former Playboy bunny who was beautiful inside and out.
Friends say he sometimes had a drinking problem, and smoked too many cigarettes, but the ladies loved him.
He looked like he just stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. He was a great storyteller who had friends from coast to coast. And he always had a dog, usually a Boykin spaniel.
William Clifton North III was a child of Beaufort, growing up in the creeks of the Bob’s Point area of Lady’s Island when it was dirt roads and tomato fields.
His father was the fire chief at the Beaufort Naval Hospital, but he also planted 20 acres of tomatoes and cucumbers and had a bait shop called Joe’s Hole at the foot of the swing-span bridge to Beaufort.
Billy left Beaufort High in his senior year in 1964 and lived off the water till just a few years ago when he moved to Georgia after his mother passed away.
He ran charter boats and commercial fishing boats, from 85-footers on down.
He was a pioneer in backwater charter fishing on Hilton Head, running a boat called Reel Time out of Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks. He captained charter boats from Long Island to Central America, and won his share of reel and rod tournaments.
He ran shrimp trawlers from here to Texas, including the Devil Fish and the Credit for Jerry Baldwin of Bennetts Point, the Tidal Wave for Bubba von Harten of Beaufort, and the Crimson Tide for Dan Cooler of Bluffton.
He hunted duck, quail, dove and deer, and would sometimes come back from a duck hunt with a couple of big spot tail bass he shot in the flats. He was a great shot. He said he killed 50 deer in one season when he was in high school.
He once caught so many shrimp he sank his boat off South Beach.
For many years, he was known as the guy with the dog who docked every afternoon at South Beach Marina, where people walked up to buy fresh shrimp.
Billy was ahead of the curve on the demand for soft shell crab, heading north in a station wagon to bring them home for lucrative sales.
He had a Beaufort soul mate in the late charter captain Stratty Pollitzer. They could be together on a snapper boat for three weeks, and Billy could tell a joke every day that no one had heard before.
Friends like to think of Billy joining Stratty and “Cowboy” Bob Coleman and Mike Taylor in the great beyond, telling Lowcountry stories.
Like the time Capt. Billy hitchhiked from Shem Creek to Beaufort and the guy who gave him a lift managed to hit a cow in the road in broad daylight. Or the time Billy was working at Captain Woody’s seafood market at Coligny Plaza and sold everything in the store but the knives and scales to a man who wanted to take it all home on his airplane.
His last fishing gig was in a small, diesel-drenched boat called the PIF. He ran it out of Palmetto Bay Marina and sold the shrimp he caught to David Martin at the Piggly Wiggly.
Billy’s siblings said he had recently lost his dog, Prawn Boy. The dog was cremated and its remains had been riding around in the car with Billy.
They say ashes of Capt. Billy North and Prawn Boy will soon sail together again upon the waters of Calibogue Sound.