David Lauderdale

Hilton Head charter boat captain heads for the hills

Captain Bill Parker raises a barracuda aboard the Runaway, the charter fishing boat he operated for 32 years from Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Captain Bill Parker raises a barracuda aboard the Runaway, the charter fishing boat he operated for 32 years from Hilton Head Island, S.C. Submitted

An old critter has left the waterways.

Captain Bill Parker made his last charter boat trip from Hilton Head Island this week.

For 32 years, Parker has cranked his sleek yellow boat, the Runaway, 150 to 180 times a year to ease out of Skull Creek into the good life on the big water beyond.

His office walls were fickle clouds.

His payola were the sharks, cobia, red snapper, black sea bass, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, red fish, grouper, triple tale, trigger fish, barracuda — each in its own season, and within ever-changing regulations to protect the species.

By taking up to six clients at a time, he's handled a collective party of some 30,000 people over the salty waves of Port Royal Sound, the Broad River and the Atlantic Ocean.

"I still love to take people fishing," he said.

But at 73, he was the old man on the sea. His wife, Brenda, just retired from 31 years of nursing at Hilton Head Hospital.

And so they've done what they did every year when the fishing died down. They've headed for the hills.

But this time, they're not coming back to a place they called home for 48 years and three months. They moved to Seneca, a small town in the quiet foothills of Upstate South Carolina. Their son, "miracle baby" Scott born two months before their 20th anniversary, and his wife Rena also plans to move to the Upstate.

"I grew up in Charleston," Parker said. "I've got plenty of pluff mud between my toes. I hope this mountain thing works out, but we've always loved the mountains."

Flood tide

Hilton Head's population was 3,700 when Parker arrived in 1970.

He was hired as an engineer by the late Fred C. Hack at the Hilton Head Co., the island's first development company.

"It was like moving to the country," Parker said.

They bought a home for $20,000, steps from the beach in Folly Field. Even on the weekends, they had the beach to themselves.

"There was no tourism," he said. "We sold lots to retirees."

He supervised survey crews and helped design the roads of Port Royal and Shipyard plantations.

In 1974, he founded Hilton Head Signs, which is still in business.

And in 1986, he bit on an old lure and plunged into the charter boat business.

He said there were seven boats working Hilton Head at the time. Today, he guesses it's about 50.

"It was a beautiful place," he said. "It was bound to take off."

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"We do have a different type of fisherman come to Hilton Head Island," he said. "A majority of the time, they want to get out on the water to relax and have a good time."

He saw himself as a teacher of the environment. He's been an activist himself in protecting the fisheries, and he leaves the dock saying it's in good shape. "There's plenty of business," he said.

He credits Al Stokes at the Waddell Mariculture Center, who himself is about to retire, for carrying a big load in keeping the fishing industry healthy. He also introduces people to the work of the Port Royal Sound Foundation.

The future of his 31-foot Custom Carolina sport fisher is bright, Parker said.

It's now owned and operated by Jackson Larson, who got his captain's license on the day he turned 18 and graduated from Hilton Head Island High School on Thursday night.

"He's worked for me for three summers and some in the winters," Parker said. "He knows it well."

The Runaway is part of the North End Charter Fleet docked behind the Skull Creek Dockside Restaurant on Squire Pope Road.

Parker was at one time a commissioner with the old Hilton Head No. 1 Public Service District, where he said he spoke against piping treated wastewater into Port Royal Sound.

He leaves town with another distinction that's close to my heart.

He drew the editorial-page cartoon for the first edition of The Island Packet on July 9, 1970.

His office at the Hilton Head Co. was next to Ralph Hilton's office, an energetic older man who was the Packet's founding editor.

"Ralph Hilton came into my office and asked me to do a cartoon that would incorporate the drawing of the Packet logo boat," Parker said.

And he delivered.

"A New Critter On The Waterway!" said his cartoon, complete with jumping mullet and a beach crawling with critters.

Now we've got a critter overboard.

Fair winds, and following seas, Captain Bill.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale