Clepsydra

(This column was first published in the July 7, 1997 Buffalo News.)

A clepsydra is a water clock, an ancient device for measuring time. However, the derivation of the word -- klepto means thief and siderial star time -- suggests stolen days. This latter meaning makes Clepsydra the perfect name for the boat I boarded last week for a 200 mile cruise up the Carolinas from Charleston to Wrightsville Beach.

Those were indeed four stolen days. The weather, as the song goes, could not be finer: the skies cloudless, the sun hot but the breeze off the ocean strong enough to keep us comfortable. We raised our sails occasionally but most of the time our outboard engine chugged us along at three to seven knots, the variation dependent on tides and stream currents. I was with Tom Shroeder, his son David, and his step-father Art Hirtreiter in their 26 foot sloop. Although our roles were not strictly defined, Tom was clearly skipper, Art cook and David deck hand, leaving me a job my U. S. Navy experience easily qualified me for -- dishwasher.

We followed the Intracoastal Waterway, the remarkable passage that takes commercial ships and pleasure boats up and down the east coast between Florida and Massachusetts, all except a few miles along New Jersey through waters separated from the open Atlantic. Our route, for example, took us across Charleston Harbor, with Fort Sumter looming on the horizon, behind Sullivan's Island (the scene of Poe's The Gold Bug), up Price Creek and through a cut to Harbor River and Five Fathom Creek, by canal across branches of the Santee River, then up Winyah Bay and the Waccamaw River past abandoned rice fields, along the canal parallel to Myrtle Beach, around Cape Fear behind Smith and Bald Head Islands, up the Cape Fear River, and finally through Myrtle Grove and Masonboro Sounds to Wrightsville.

You need only examine a map of our East Coast to see how extensive sections of the Intracoastal Waterway are protected by narrow lines of islands. Evidence suggests that these calmer waters were navigated by coastal Indians before Europeans came to these shores: an early improvement to this natural waterway, a 1643 canal connecting Ipswich and Gloucester Bays, apparently deepened an earlier Indian passage. Other connecting cuts followed with their engineers often charging tolls. But the federal government began to fund waterway improvement in 1828 and our United States Corps of Engineers has now taken full charge of maintenance and improvement of the entire route. There have been no tolls since the 1930s.

Each day brought new scenery. First we sailed through broad marshes, then past the woodlands of the Francis Marion National Forest, next along canals past lovely homes and expansive condominiums, and finally across wide bays swept by ocean-generated whitecaps. Charts failed us that day and we had to ask a passing Coast Guard crew for assistance. They informed us that our newly purchased charts were already outdated, the buoy numbers off by four. That may have been what led another boat to run aground a half mile ahead of us.

I joined the crew too late to see the alligators observed farther south, but one dolphin surfaced briefly just yards away from where I relaxed on deck. The most striking thing about the birdlife was the predominance of white. We saw many great, snowy and cattle egrets, white ibises and wood storks, oystercatchers and skimmers, laughing gulls and least and royal terns.

One benefit of this waterway was brought home to me in 1944 when from Wrightsville Beach I watched one of our ships burn out in the Atlantic, the victim of a German submarine torpedo. More benign values were communicated by our delightful excursion last week.