As a whistle buoy proved the meaning of its name mid-afternoon on July 25, outside the Murrells Inlet jetties, about one mile from the coastline, a brown pelican dove for a meal, something fishy for sure.
About 12 miles of visible shore stretched northward into Myrtle Beach. The guided Jet Ski journey from Captain Channing’s Watersports & Rentals in Murrells Inlet to this scenic, serene spot afforded views of jellyfish dangling from the top of the water, and dark circles on the surface, actually, schools of menhaden, said Channing Strickland, calling the fish by their nickname, a pogy.
Jetting around on personal watercraft such as a Jet Ski, or engaging in other sports such as surfing, parasailing, kayaking, paddleboarding and boating, bring great ways to enjoy the water that lines and crosses the Grand Strand.
The other guide, riding in the back of our single-file line, paused and looked seaward to the south, acknowledging the power a Jet Ski has locked on his life for leisure and love of a marine lifestyle.
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“Ever since high school,” said Rodney Grambo, “I tried to quit a few times, but I always came back.”
The ride back to the marina came with other aquatic scenes, including pelicans and cormorants resting atop buoys, as well as mullet swimming, tarpon taking flips out of the water for a second, and scores of fiddler crabs on the move along marsh edges.
Since welcoming this rookie on a personal watercraft for this group excursion, Strickland asked kindly on the way out if my pace could be picked up a tad past 30 mph, so the vessel – a triple-seat, 10.5-foot-long, Yamaha VX Deluxe – could ski on the water as it’s meant to do once reaching that speed. With patience from the guides, confidence gained, and steady, sure seating and footing, that benchmark wasn’t a hurdle to pass. On the return route, on flat water inside the jetties, the speedometer climbed to 43 mph.
The accelerator on the personal watercraft resembled a bicycle hand brake lever, and an index finger did all the duty to manage the speed. The need to adjust position remained constant, especially in waves generated from shifts from the ocean tide, and the faster the ride, the larger and longer the rooster-tail stream of water spewing from the vessel’s rear.
Long before this ride rolled out, and the green button was pressed to start the motor, Strickland stressed repeatedly the adherence to safety on the water that must never fail. Among five generations of captains to work his family business in the past 40 years in Murrells Inlet, he said this time of summer marks the prime time of the year for personal watercraft use in the ocean and in local waterways.
“You have to be on your toes, more than ever,” Strickland said. “It’s not just what you do, but what other people are doing.”
He stressed the never-ending need on any type of watercraft to scan the scene ahead, to “constantly pay attention” not just for the rider’s safety, but for everyone on the water, much like sharing the pavement and abiding by rules of the road with respect for all people in transit.
With a kill-switch lanyard connecting each driver with the key in the ignition, all of us idled past the no-wake line, and without brakes on a personal watercraft, everyone kept at least 50 feet in distance from one another, and Strickland gave another reminder to “always be scanning, offensively and defensively.” Wearing a personal flotation device, or life jacket, went without saying.
Back inside Captain Channing’s new home base, a hut decorated in an “old school” beach look, across from Creek Ratz restaurant, Kimberly Johnson, manager and co-owner, said having grown up with an equestrian pastime in Virginia, she learned that on a personal watercraft, some instinctive body reaction needs to take an opposite course: Jumping when in the saddle demands a lean forward, but in encountering a wave on a Jet Ski, the lean needs to go back with arms extended and the body adjusted accordingly.
Johnson said toward the tail of the water-sports season, for which personal watercraft use ends after September, but surfing and boating extend later into autumn, “baby boomers” make up a bigger part of clientele, but that the allure of the marine setting goes year round, such as with fishing to carry through the winter.
Wowed by wildlife
Many people might like Jet Skiing into the ocean for wildlife observation. A female manatee gave Johnson her greatest memory from an excursion and that dolphins are “like children” in a playful nature. Other Captain Channing’s staff members chimed in on their favorite moments from a personal watercraft. Clint Johnson can’t forget seeing a ray with a 5-foot span jump from the water, Grambo recounted a 12-foot-tall ocean sunfish, and Brittany Ozment said since taking her post in April, she’s felt at home pretty quickly on the water.
Four friends on vacation from south-central Ohio returned from an afternoon in the inlet, but on kayaks. Nancy Hamman said they don’t encounter waves in Deer Creek State Park up north, but the inlet gives them a wider waterway, with marsh views instead of woods and trees, and they appreciated this change of setting.
“It was fun,” said Peggy Corcoran, as Cathy Hamman and Mary Beth Lightle also joined in their packing up their car. “We had a great time.”
Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at Huntington Beach State Park, said its “Coastal Kayaking” program for two hours on Monday mornings from April through October has stayed popular since its inception in the 1990s. This system lets beginners try their hand at paddling in a calm, saltwater marsh.
“From the vantage point of a kayak,” Walker said, “you’ll see things that you won’t from a bike, from walking or in your car.”
A kayak gets people closer to marsh life for “great views” of wading birds and with frequent bald eagle sightings of late.”
Bottlenose dolphins and a manatee have even made uncommon appearances, he said.
Walker also said the tour guides and coordinators, Black River Outfitters of Pawleys Island, has been “phenomenal” with this program, donating use of equipment and time, and with park campouts and beach cleanup efforts as well.
With increases in the numbers of youth taking up paddles in “Coastal Kayaking” the past years, children 7 and younger gain free admission with a paying parent, for whom the fee is only $35, even more “cost effective” for families to take in such an outing, Walker said.
Also, in warm weather, groups might get to hop out of the kayaks for a break to help pull a seine net to show “a lot of the marine life that you’re paddling on top of and that you’re probably not going to see otherwise.”
For the small children who join in these excursions, Walker said “we try to catch some fiddler crabs” for an entertaining observation of these salt-marsh denizens.
Walker said outings this year “have been filling up ahead of time,” so make reservations – which are due by 4 p.m. on the Sunday before an outing – “as early as you can.”