Wooden Ships on Winyah Bay

by Becky Billingsley

Shipwrecks, spoils of war and other fascinating research are parts of a new book detailing Georgetown’s wooden boat heritage.

With impeccable timing two months in advance of Georgetown’s 22nd Annual Wooden Boat Show, History Press in Charleston has published “Wooden Ships on Winyah Bay” written by area resident, historian and boater Robert “Mac” McAlister.

McAlister was born in Charlotte, N.C., and raised in Columbia. He attended college and graduated from Georgia Tech, then was in the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps stationed at the Beaufort Marine Air Station. In 1960 he moved back to Pawleys Island and worked for International Paper, and that same year he met and married his wife, Mary, at Prince George Episcopal Church.

His career as a contractor and project manager took Mac and Mary, and eventually their three sons, throughout the United States and the world to Wilmington, Chapel Hill and Greensboro in North Carolina, back to Columbia, up to Boston, over to Greece, back to Mt. Pleasant and then, finally back to Georgetown to the Belle Isle community McAlister constructed from 1973-76 with two partners.

Belle Isle has an 80-slip marina on the Intracoastal Waterway, and after the project was completed Mac and Mary bought their first sailboat.

“In 1976 I bought an old wooden boat,” McAlister says. “It was a sailboat in Southport, North Carolina, that didn’t even have an engine. We towed it to Georgetown, and Dickie Crayton and I put a new engine in it. In February of 1976 we had three young sons – they were 11, 9 and 6 at the time. We took them out of school, where Mary was teaching at Winyah Academy, and we sailed down to the Bahamas for six months. It was written up in the Charleston paper; people thought it was unusual.”

The family continued sailing, and in 1988 they took a 38-foot Hans Christian “heavy- duty” sailboat through the Caribbean to Venezuela. After they returned to Mt. Pleasant from that trip in 1989, Hurricane Hugo damaged their house and boat. The boat was repaired, but the family had to put off a planned sail to Europe while McAlister helped repair his community’s hurricane damage.

But in 1991, with two of their sons who by then were in their 20s, they set sail to Bermuda, the Azores and Spain.

”Then we sailed around France and went to England and wintered in Cornwall,” McAlister says. In ’92 we sailed in southwest Ireland, went back to England and across to LaHavre, then up the Seine to Paris. We spent the winter of ’92-“93 in Paris, in a marina in the middle of the city. The weather was lousy, but we had a great time.”

The next spring they sailed through canals and emerged on the Mediterranean Sea. They continued to Barcelona and Majorca, then traveled to Gibraltar.

“That’s when we were caught in a storm, that was our worst weather. We lost our mainsail and lost use of the engine and were blown back 100 miles. But we got there okay to the [Canary Islands], got a new mainsail and sailed from there to Barbados in 19 days. Then we went up through the Caribbean and back to Charleston, and got back home 3 years to the day after we left.”

That boat was sold the next year, but it wasn’t long before wanderlust struck again. The McAlisters and another couple shared expenses to buy and maintain a century-old iron barge, located in France, that had been a sailboat but was converted to a motorized pleasure barge. For the next 12 summers they traveled to France and cruised its waterways until the craft was sold in 2008.

“We didn’t have a boat then for about six months, but we wanted one,” McAlister says. “We bought an old 1962 30-foot wooden sailboat that was built in Seattle.”

Called Exodus, the boat was named by its Washington State builder who intended to live on it but had to change plans. The next owner sailed it through the Panama Canal to Long Island, New York, where it was docked and well-maintained for 30 years. The McAlisters sailed it in Long Island Sound for a month before they brought it home to Georgetown in Oct. 2009, and the Exodus remains their current boat.

How McAlister came to write a book about the history of wooden boats in the Georgetown area started from old black and white wooden boat photographs taken in the early 1900s he found in the Georgetown Library. He had copies blown up and displayed at Belle Isle, where over the years as he looked at them and was inspired to learn more about their history and the heritage of other wooden boats used in Winyah Bay.

In “Wooden Ships on Winyah Bay,” McAlister tells of specific ships that sailed there in the Lumber Period of 1890-1920.

“I researched the Internet and newspaper articles about their trips and their sinkings,” he says. “A lot ended up wrecked on Cape Hatteras or the New Jersey Coast. Mary’s cousin is of the Georgetown Kaminski family. The Kaminski family owned a schooner, and I had photos of that and a lot of other yachts and boats the family owned.”

McAlister also talked to “old-timers” in the Georgetown area who told him stories about the fishing industry and its boats, plus some funny fishing stories from the late fish house owner Rene Cathou and Capt. Sammy Crayton. His research also extends back to 1730, which is when the oldest wooden vessel ever found in the United States was built. That 50-foot boat was discovered in 1973 in Georgetown County’s Black River, and today it’s housed on Front Street in the upper level of the Prevost Gallery.

The book includes information about the French Marquis de Lafayette who sailed into Winyah Bay in 1777 and landed on North Island, and the Frigate South Carolina that was part of the South Carolina Navy during the Revolutionary War.

“It had a crew of 500 and was the biggest ship in all of the Revolutionary War that was on the American side,” he says, “but it was never tied up in a South Carolina port. It had a sad life. In Amsterdam Commodore Gillan leased it in only 16 feet of water, and it drew 21 feet. They had to put it on its side and tow it 70 miles to sea, which cost him a lot of money and time. He had leased the ship from The Count of Luxembourg, and there were problems with the payment. In 1792 Commodore Gillan sailed into Philadelphia, and the count’s lawyers were there. They said, ‘You violated the lease, and now we’re going to put you in jail’.”

Soon after the South Carolina was captured by the British and never heard from again.

In 1800, the Santee Canal was completed. Today much of it is obscured by Lake Moultrie, but some of its locks remain near the Santee River. Back in the days of wooden boats, the canal was used to transport rice and cotton from the Santee River to the Cooper River, and then on to Charleston. McAlister also wrote of native wooden pirogues and bateaus used for seafood harvests, plus the steamboats that transported goods and passengers to and from Winyah Bay via the area’s many rivers.

Members of the Wooden Boat Show board are delighted to have McAlister’s thorough book available for people who want to know more about Georgetown’s wooden boat history.

You can purchase “Wooden Ships on Winyah Bay”, by Robert McAlister at:

  • The South Carolina Maritime Museum Gift Shop, 729 Front Street, Georgetown, SC 843-520-0111