Myrtle Beach Middle School seventh-grader Jaheem Aliou geared up to tackle the flat water of the Waccamaw River on a stand-up paddleboard one recent Saturday afternoon.
At 13, Aliou left behind his skateboard at home to hop on a paddleboard for the day.
Launching from Peachtree Landing in Socastee, he had a front-row seat to the wonder of the Waccamaw, including sightings of heron, egret and osprey interspersed with passing boaters, most of whom had the good sense to slow down to reduce their wakes.
Aliou was on hand for the recently launched Junior Waterman program, a component of The Carolina Waterman Inc., a company formed by Trent Ventura and Meghan Douty in 2017.
“You get to learn a lot when you are out there in the water, and first they took me through the basic things. I like skateboarding and stuff, so this just came naturally,” Aliou said.
Ventura and Douty are passionate about teaching others about our local waters, including their right to access these public areas.
On the second Saturday of every month through October, local middle school students have the opportunity to meet up with the couple in the Myrtle Beach area to learn about water safety, recreation and stewardship.
The organization also offers programs for the general public, including paddleboarding lessons, surfing lessons and eco tours along the Waccamaw River. By doing this, they hope to fund their efforts with local youth.
Ventura served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and moved to Hawaii for three years. His experience there opened his eyes to the value of environmental stewardship.
“In Hawaiian culture, they did not own the land. They borrowed it while they were here, and it’s the same way for Native Americans. The land was not something to be owned, but something to be taken care of. That’s what influenced me the most,” he said.
Ventura also learned all about stand-up paddleboarding while in Hawaii when he worked for a company called Surftech, which makes surfboards and paddleboards. When he returned to the Grand Strand in 2012, he found that the trend had not yet taken hold here.
He went around to local surf shops, offering his services as a paddleboard instructor, but said nobody wanted anything to do with it.
Undaunted, he started his own business, Carolina Paddle Company, in 2012. He enjoyed his most successful year in 2014. By the next year, it seemed like every water-related business wanted a piece of the pie.
“Almost anywhere you looked around town, you could rent boards,” he said, adding that competition had become so widespread that he was forced to slash his rates.
“I was ready to just sell every board I had and quit,” he said, but he pressed on.
Douty met Ventura in 2016 after booking a paddleboard tour for herself, her visiting brother and his wife. Originally from St. Louis, Douty moved to the Grand Strand in 2015 from Santa Rosa, California.
Ventura and Douty struck up a conversation that day, with Ventura telling her all about the Waccamaw River. He invited her on subsequent tours. These outings sparked a relationship.
“He paddled right in and stole my heart,” she said.
Douty, 34, holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The onslaught of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 forced Ventura to end his season early, and a sailboat he owned and was planning to use for the business was destroyed in Florida. The couple went back and forth for months, agonizing about how to move forward.
In January 2017, Ventura and Douty founded The Carolina Waterman Inc., “dedicated to improving the aquatic environment of Myrtle Beach by providing a variety of free opportunities for the local youth of Horry County to experience and learn about their public waters.”
The Junior Waterman program curriculum offers free and comprehensive on-the-water training, including paddleboard lessons, surf lessons, U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules, CPR, first aid and the rules and regulations governing public waters.
Middle-schooler Aliou paddled past patches of yellow pond lily and floating water hyacinth, a non-indigenous and potentially unruly species. The Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge was just beyond the tree line.
“All of your wildlife and all of that stuff is very important, because without the wildlife there would be no life,” he said.