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Cruising South Carolina Off The Beaten Path

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You might wonder how two accomplished Minnesota sailors wound up in one of the swampier areas, cruising South Carolina aboard a 42-foot Hatteras. The story is as interesting as Chuck and Claria Gorgen are.

The Gorgens were serious small sailboat racers for over 25 years, even winning two national championships in their O’Day. One summer in the ‘80’s, after George had retired, the couple spotted a gathering of cruising boats in Ontario, Canada while they were at a regatta. The idea of converting from the racing life to the cruising life intrigued them so much that they moved from Wayzata, Minn., to Beaufort, S.C., to have access to the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). They bought Odyssee, a 42’ Hatteras, and went about fixing it up themselves specifically to cruise the Great Loop.

The Great Loop goes from the Atlantic seaboard into New York’s Hudson River, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals, the inland rivers from the lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf ICW. They joined America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association (AGCLA) and completed the whole circuit. But of course as soon as they’d finished, the Gorgens craved more adventure and decided to take on the Downeast Loop. That starts by heading west on the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario then down the St. Lawrence River passing Montreal and Quebec City to the Atlantic Ocean, and finally turning south to follow the East Coast of New England back to New York.

They went home to Beaufort for three months to make the necessary improvements for the journey, then they took off again. That trip took two years, mostly because an engine threw a rod in Quebec. “It took us a while to find a replacement for a 39-year old engine,” Chuck recalls.

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Photography by Claire Gorgen
Photography by Claire Gorgen

“We just like to do crazy stuff,” Chuck admits. “We’ve also been up the Virginia inside passage between the outer islands and the mainland, between Cape Charles and Lewes, Del. We got as far as Ocean City, Md., only running aground three times, but then we had to go outside there.”

Once back at home again in Beaufort, Chuck started looking into exploring areas closer to them. His research led him to the Old Santee Canal, one of the oldest canals in the country. He found that they could cruise from Charleston almost to Columbia, S.C., using the Santee Cooper Lake system, a 162-mile marked waterway.

Photography by Claire Gorgen
Photography by Claire Gorgen

The trip from Charleston goes up the Cooper River to where the Tail Race Canal connects to Lake Moultrie.

Crossing Lake Moultrie, boats enter the Diversion Canal into Lake Marion. There the channel follows the bed of the Santee River, ending at the convergence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers.

Chuck did a lot of research and recommends getting in touch with Santee Cooper, the electric cooperative that oversees the lakes. “They have charts and are anxious for the area to be used. They couldn’t have been nicer,” Chuck said. In addition, he found a topographical map of the area that shows all the old channels before the lakes were created.

Chuck asked through the AGLCA network if anyone else wanted to join him on this adventure. Several people were interested, but only Glen and Brenda Young on Young at Heart, a 41’ DeFever, actually agreed to do it.

In October 2012, the Gorgens brought Odyssee to Charleston, staying overnight at the Maritime Center on the Cooper River. In the morning, they rendezvoused with Young at Heart, and headed upriver. They reached the first railroad bridge that had to be opened for them 35 miles up the river.

Chuck advises, “You must call to request an opening six hours before arrival, then again as you get close.” Apparently the same bridge tender operates two bridges 10 miles apart and has to drive to each one. He also notes, “These bridges and lock have no VHF radios so all communication is by cell phone.”

Ten miles further, they tied up at Gilligan’s dock in Moncks Corner on the Tail Race Canal to spend the night. “If you eat dinner there, your dockage and power are free,” Chuck hints.

The next morning, they had the second railroad bridge opened, just before reaching the Pinopolis Dam and chamber lock into Lake Moultrie. The lock has a floating dock secured to the bollards so Odyssee tied up with Young at Heart  rafting to it, which Chuck said was a fascinating experience, with very little turbulence. The only difficulty was that apparently no one monitors boats entering the lock. Upon leaving, the lock operator asked when they would be returning, so he could be ready.

Once on the lake, Chuck reports, “there is a six-mile buoyed straight channel that takes you to the Diversion Canal (7.5 miles long) connecting Lake Moultrie with Lake Marion.” Not only are parts of Lake Moultrie over 90’ deep, but it’s actually man-made, intentionally flooding over roads, bridges and towns that now lie deep below. The oval-shaped lake is also up to 14 miles wide and can develop large waves during high winds so check for weather advisories.

Once through the Diversion Canal, you are on Lake Marion, the largest lake in the state, and another man-made construct, created by the Santee Dam.

This lake is much shallower with swamps and blackwater ponds, and was never completely cleared of trees and stumps. Chuck warns that here, “It’s important to stay in the buoyed channel.”

The two boats anchored for the night behind the Santee National Wildlife Refuge on the northeast corner of the lake, enjoying the fascinating wildlife, especially the birds. The next morning, they continued up the lake “with the intention to get to Santee State Park. About halfway up the lake, we go under Interstate 95.”

“The lake was getting shallower,” Chuck recalls, “except for the old Santee River bed which winds all over between the trees.” At the far end of the lake “we ran into an area that really looked shallow, almost like a delta had formed with lots of plants. We were still in six feet of water so we went on,” and finally found that the river opened again to 16-18 foot depths.

“A little further upstream, the Wateree River goes off to the north and the Congaree goes to the west towards Columbia.” After crossing under a railroad bridge with a reported clearance of 18-feet, they soon found a second bridge with a new span under construction. “About three miles further up the river, we came to the third bridge with an 18’ clearance. It was also under construction but there was a temporary span with only 15’ clearance. We could make it under but Young at Heart couldn’t.” Disappointed, they turned around at Cedar Creek. “At that point, we were only 23 miles from the heart of downtown Columbia!”

Both going up the river and returning, they spent the night at the Santee State Park, enjoying the facilities and the 7.5 mile bike trail. Chuck recommends the fishing shack restaurant there, noting they went for breakfast and returned for dinner.

The return trip was uneventful except for a damaged prop on a submerged log. Ever resilient, Chuck dove in and changed props. Back at Gilligan’s, they took the dinghy down to the Old Santee Canal Park. “The Heritage Center at the park presents the history of the early canal systems used in South Carolina back before the Civil War.”

While the Great Loop provides a larger look at the waterway systems, Chuck says, “We learn so much of our country’s history traveling the waterways, particularly of the times before locks and dams were built.”

Now the Odyssee is for sale as the Gorgens set their sights further afield. Chuck is already researching renting charter boats to explore the rivers in Europe. Bon Voyage again!

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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