El Derf...A Little Story on the Waterway
by Don Maxwell


We first began to notice El Derf after we left Beaufort, North Carolina, on our journey down the Intra Coastal Waterway. She was a sloop, maybe a bit bigger than our 30-footer, Saraswati. She anchored in Mile Hammock Bay, at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina the night we were there. In the morning, she cut the corner going out into the Intra Coastal Waterway channel and ran aground. Jim, the goodhearted skipper of our companion boat Tiger, wouldn't leave until El Derf was pulled off by a friendly power boater who took a halyard out to heel the boat and ease her off.
El Derf went aground once or twice more that day. Not that going aground in the Intra Coastal is worthy of note. Some say if you haven't been aground in the Waterway, you haven't done the Waterway. Later in the trip, Tiger managed it right in the middle of the channel near Isle of Palms, South Carolina. It's fun to watch the boat traffic there. The boats all proceed in their stately straight-line travel until they near that spot; then there is the wildest kind of zigzagging as depth sounder alarms go off, the readings head for zero, and helmspeople desperately try to find deeper water.
But El Derf had been a little out of channel when she grounded, and we were concerned about her. As we circled with a fleet of boats waiting for the Wrightsville bridge to open, El Derf came quite near, so we asked about the derivation of the name. "Oh," said the skipper, "it stands for Ellen and Fred backward; but I'm not Fred and she's not Ellen." The boat carried a Canadian flag and a Lake Ontario home port. The crew were middle aged or so and quite friendly.
The bridge opened and we negotiated the (notorious) Mott's Channel out to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. On the way, Saraswati, Tiger and Therapy all managed to go aground at least once. We all were able to get ourselves free, Therapy did so by means of some skillful hanging out on the boom by her crew. That evening we saw the El Derf crew moving around in the anchorage, visiting with some larger Canadian boats. We breathed a little sigh of relief to think El Derf would have some company.
We spent a nice day ashore at Wrightsville Beach, then came back to the dinghy dock to learn what shells on the tie-up wall can do to an inflatable dinghy, In our case it was an eight-inch gash. Kind souls had laid the poor dinghy out on the dock, and another kind soul took us and the remains out to Saraswati. We had bought this PVC dinghy for its inflated floor, which indeed kept it dry, and its light weight which let even this older skipper wrestle the thing over the lifelines. But light weight and PVC are no match for molluscs.
Next morning we headed south with Tiger for anchorages in Calabash Creek and then Prince Creek off the Waccamaw River. The Waccamaw is an interesting dark black, brackish river in the Intra Coastal. It begins in Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina and empties into Winyah Bay in Georgetown, South Carolina.
There Shirley learned a lot about currents in these tidal waters. She is used to bathing off the stern boarding ladder in our clean, quiet home waters in Lake Superior. A quick plunge, then stand on the ladder to soap up, then a plunge to rinse off while kick floating. Here in these clean but mahogany waters, she found herself floating away faster than she could swim back to the ladder. She arrived down current at Tiger, sans clothes, to be wrapped in a big towel by Tiger's mate. "What are you doing swimming here?" asked Jim. "Don't you know why some of these waters are called 'Alligator River' and 'Alligator Creek'?
We traveled on to Georgetown, South Carolina, anchored, installed a throw rope on the stern rail, in case Shirley decided to go swimming again, and spent the next day as a layday in that charming town. Jim provided expert help in repairing the dinghy - his patch held until we got professional repairs in Charleston, South Carolina.
Tropical storm Gordon was making waves by then. That evening, we listened to some Coast Guard radio traffic. We could hear only the shore end of the traffic. There was heavy weather offshore. A container ship was standing by a sailboat which had run out of fuel and reported that "their sail was broken." The seas were too rough for the ship to approach the sailboat. A Coast Guard helicopter had been on scene and dropped a rescue swimmer into the water; he had not boarded the sailboat and had trouble getting the name of the vessel. Seemed like an Arabic name, he reported.
An Arabic name? As in El something? "Oh, no, it couldn't be El Derf, could it? How could they possibly have gone offshore?" Later radio traffic indicated a second helicopter was enroute after the first returned for fuel. Late that night, Charleston Coast Guard issued a Safety Notice to Mariners: "The sailing vessel El Derf is unmanned and adrift 40 miles east of Charleston. Mariners are advised to maintain a sharp lookout when traversing the area."
We made our way on to McClellanville and then Charleston. Safely snugged up in the new Ashley River Marina, we spent an enjoyable week visiting the fine old city while Gordon, a hurricane by then, danced around the ocean and finally dissipated. One morning we walked to the Charleston Coast Guard office and inquired about El Derf. The crew, a man and a woman, were removed and briefly hospitalized, reported the Coast Guard case officer. The boat was recovered by a salvor.
We breathed another sigh of relief that El Derf's crew were safe, but thought how sad an ending to a grand adventure. How had El Derf gotten outside, anyway? Remember the notorious Mott's Channel at Wrightsville Beach? Mott's Channel has two branches: one that returns to the ICW, and another that leads to the open sea and is a favored jumping-off spot for offshore boats heading for the Bahamas or beyond. El Derf could have followed one of the big boats out that branch. She then would have found herself at sea in a no-return situation in the throes of Tropical Storm Gordon. Could have been us, but for a few turns of luck.

Don and Shirley Maxwell are the busiest retired couple I know. They sail small boats on Medicine Lake. Saraswati was sold after health problems interrupted their Bahamain adventures. They are getting back to sailing Lake Superior on their first big boat, Parvati, a Westerly 25.