The Hailey Marie is one of those iconic Lowcountry shrimp boats, often photographed at its Crosby's Seafood dock. Lately, that's mostly where it stays.
The Stono Inlet doesn't let boats in or out anymore. No hull with any real draft can move from the Stono or Folly river channels into the channel where they converge, except on a dare at the highest tides. That's the prime way Crosby's gets its local shrimp. The Stono is the only inlet the Hailey Marie and any number of commercial boats can use to get to sea.
The virtual loss of the inlet to sand buildup is an overlooked consequence of erosion on Folly Beach, particularly the Charleston County park that ends at its bank, and of the controversy over fixing it.
The shifting, shoaling inlet channels have always been a chancy trip. The Army Corps of Engineers quit maintenance dredging years ago, because of federal budget cuts. Since erosion from recent tropical cyclones tore up the beach and closed the county park, the problems have worsened dramatically.
Oddly enough, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission has the money and plan to do a short-term fix, as part of a $3 million groin project to save the once-popular, now critically eroding park.
But that plan might be dead in the water, because environmental groups are opposing the use of the groin.
The standoff might be the end of the inlet as well as the park.
“Larger boats are really in problems, but even the smaller outboard (motor) boats are getting stuck,” said Chris Kleinhans, dockmaster for Sunset Cay Marina, which has been losing business because of the shoaling inlet.
Neal Cooksey has run the Hailey Marie from Folly Creek since 1980 and has never seen it this bad, he said. The boat recently struck bottom in heaving surf at high tide and nearly lost its hull. “The whole river is filling up,” Cooksey said.
The bigger boats that tie up at St. Johns Yacht Harbor on the Stono on Johns Island won't dare use the inlet any longer. They come around through Charleston Harbor and Wappoo Creek, said dockhand Beau Anderson.
To run the inlet, “you have to stay in the middle and you don't really know where the middle is. You almost have to hug the beach and then shoot for the ocean.”
Eroded sands have deposited a huge shoal, or sandbar, across the channel that connected the two rivers to become the channel out to sea, said Tim Kana, of Coastal Science and Engineering, the leading renourishment engineer in the Lowcountry. Sand to replenish the park beach would be pulled from the blocking shoal, said Kana, who worked on the project.
“A secondary benefit, no question, would be restoration of navigation (of the inlet), at least for a period of time,” he said.
The Coastal Conservation League is leading a group of environmental advocates opposing a permit for the groin, a rock or wood barrier run like a wall into the ocean to partly dam the sand flow in the current along the shore. The league is concerned that sand flow stopped at the groin would rob sand from Bird Key Stono and Skimmer Flats in the Stono River, important as a shorebird rookery and feeding ground, respectively. Because the park is disappearing so rapidly, a strung-out fight over the groin permit could doom it.
If that happens, Kana said, “the channel will stay shoaled up.”