To help

Supporters of acquiring a private boat/ferry for Sandy Island have registered as a charitable group with the S.C. Secretary of State’s office. They can be reached by mail at:The Sandy Island Transportation ProjectC/O Charles PyattP.O. Box 75Murrells Inlet, SC 29576

SANDY ISLAND — Beulah Pyatt wears a snug life preserver and a heavy-weather overcoat during the 10-minute ride to the mainland.

While memories of the three islanders who tragically drowned nearby have made her extra cautious, she’s equally anxious that nearly four years later, locals still don’t have a steady craft or a regular ferry service of their own.

“You pray to God he brings us over safely and back again,” Pyatt said last week after stepping out of the johnboat that carried her in.

Ever since the February 2009 loss of a mother, daughter and another local young man, various efforts have come and gone to bring the islanders a safe alternative for making the 5,000-foot run to terra firma.

The latest attempt is through the creation of a nonprofit charity to help raise the thousands of dollars needed for a sustainable ferry-type boat system. Charles Pyatt, chief executive officer of the Sandy Island Project, said about $23,000 has been raised so far toward the $34,000 price tag to secure a covered pontoon boat about 25-feet in length that could safely seat 16 adults.

But Pyatt admits thousands more dollars are needed to cover annual insurance, gas and a long-term schedule to help transport the island’s 75 deep-rooted inhabitants, especially the aging ones.

“It’s hard for them to step into a small boat or get in and get out when you’re older and your balance is not as good,” Pyatt, 59, brother-in-law of Beulah Pyatt, said last week.

Sandy Island is one of the more isolated yet still inhabited parts of the state. Located just outside the Litchfield Beach area and about 3 miles west of U.S. Highway 17 in Georgetown County, its heavily wooded 12,000 acres are surrounded by the Waccamaw and Great Pee Dee rivers and accessible only by boat.

For decades the island and its 20 families were mostly a quiet novelty (electricity didn’t come until 1964; municipal water even later) until the night of Feb. 18, 2009, when a 15-foot boat capsized in stormy and chilly conditions about 10 yards from shore. Drowned in the accident were Lou Ann Robinson, 47; her daughter, Shaquatia Robinson, 19; and high school senior Rishard Pyatt, 18. None was wearing a life jacket.

Three others who’d been on the craft survived, including Shaquatia Robinson’s 11-month-old son. He was found floating on a boat cushion.

Since the accident various efforts to secure reliable transportation have routinely fallen through. The most recent came last year when a deal for a 90-foot, vehicle-carrying ferry boat from Alabama fell through. Reasons included the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have cost to transport the vessel to South Carolina, the expense of making it Coast Guard-certified operational, and questions over whether the ferry was just too big to navigate the tricky shallow channel from the island to the mainland.

Today, residents still make the trip to shore using their flotilla of private boats of all shapes and sizes, some in worn fiberglass and dating to the early 1970s or so. Many of the crafts seem to function OK but still show years of weathering, exposure and heavy repairs, with some featuring two-by-fours modeled into replacement seats. For the island’s school-age children, though, there is a day-time ferry available.

Charles Pyatt said the immediate goal is to secure a boat that would be crewed and piloted by volunteers. He doesn’t envision the vessel, when acquired, following a regular ferry schedule but said it would be geared more toward getting older residents to medical and other appointments on shore.

It would also be run by the island’s homeowners’ association, which means it would not need special licensing or be made available to day-trippers wishing to catch a glimpse of island life. “No tourists, just locals,” Pyatt said.

Until then, Beulah Pyatt is preaching caution and hope. “We need it in every way,” she said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.