Whenever I eat or shop in Old Town, I always finish my visit with a trip to the south end of Calhoun Street. It’s essential for me to take a minute to soak in the serenity of the May River, a moment perfectly framed by the beauty of the Church of the Cross and its magnificently manicured grounds.
It would be reductive to simply say the water drew me to Bluffton. The people, the hospitality, the vibe, it’s all part of it. The May River is the bow that majestically ties it all together. And if you’re lucky enough to own a boat or be part of a boat club, you know a particular part of the May is the quintessential Bluffton experience.
The Sandbar has been the place to see and be seen in Bluffton for decades. It is Mother Nature’s speakeasy, a spot that reveals itself and disappears with the tides.
There are many sandbars along the Carolina coast. The exact location of THE sandbar has shifted through the years as storms, encroaching spartina grass and good ol’ time have reshaped the shores. Some speak of catching the tide at the right time on a noodle and floating from the Martins’ dock to the pluff mud oasis. Others know the spot has shifted but are leery to advertise its exact location these days.
You’ll see “IYKYK” (“If you know, you know”) thrown out on social media plenty when talking about The Sandbar, and it is the truth. A number of Facebook fan pages have been created, and even a play written about it. But if you believe just one thing I say in this space, just know that words or pictures don’t do it justice.
You don’t forget the moment you’re guided through the gentle water by a dolphin weaving above and below the surface. DeAnna Byrd shared a remembrance on “You Know You’re From Bluffton When …” that mirrored my ah-ha moment – a day when I was lucky enough to be out just as the dolphins were in a feeding frenzy and one of them jumped out of the water and wedged itself into the low-tide sandbar mud to plop another fish score in its pile of tasty snacks.
There is a camaraderie among the boaters that is as intoxicating as the suitcases of beer you will see far and wide on a summer weekend. It’s a spot for the long-timers to get caught up on town gossip, for instant friendships to be forged in the shared understanding of the nirvana in which we revel.
It’s far more crowded than it used to be, even on a Wednesday afternoon these days. Yes, a far cry from the times where, as Annelore Harrell put it, there were “so few people on the river we could skinny dip at the sandbar.”
Northern transplants equate it to Coney Island or a 1960s summer retreat to the Catskills. I get that; I’ve witnessed both marvels of humanity. But it’s different here.
Maybe it’s the finite window that we’re given that magnifies the true appreciation of the resource. You can always pick out the newbies being initiated into the club. They get caught up in conversation, turn their back to the tide, and end up chasing down their now-waterlogged coolers and beach towels. Or worse, they anchored too far inland too soon and their vessel bottom becomes one with The Sandbar (aka, the rookie that needs to be dug out).
The veterans know just when to plant their volleyball nets in the mud. Whether it was the boombox in the ’80s or the iPhone and Bluetooth speakers blaring Spotify now, they always know where to land to keep their tech the driest.
It’s not as easy to get a primo nature-made boat slip as it used to be 15 years ago, to be sure. But there is still an avid group of long-time locals that police the party and keep the chill alive. How do you achieve that amid a building volume of chatter, every genre of music playing, half-rubber balls and frisbees giving you a haircut as they zoom by?
Again, IYKYK. I once told a far-flung friend, “Imagine you’re at the wildest Ibiza foam party ever. Now replace that chaos with relaxation. That’s The Sandbar.”
They didn’t get it.
I don’t blame you if you’re reading this and want to get it. Here are a few tips to get you prepped.
• Check the tide charts to maximize your window between low and high tide. To be clear, low tide is your friend, high tide is your foe. The tide span is important too. Time it right at a new moon and you’ll be able to walk out to the channel markers with ease. If you don’t know what tide span is, that’s a sign you need to watch more YouTube Boating 101 videos before utilizing that boat club membership.
• Treat it as a day at the beach. You’ll need all the same accessories – sunscreen, water, cold drinks, chairs and a litany of snacks. The bravest will bring a grill and an array of marinated meats and brats to cook up. Bring plenty extra to share with new friends.
• For the most part, it’s like a classic Outback commercial – no rules, just right. Dogs are allowed, in-laws even. The nastiest of the latter have been known to be transformed forever by a day at The Sandbar.
• That said, the waters are patrolled by the SCDNR and the county and Bluffton police, so your boat better be permitted and up to safety code.
• It would be criminal for me to share a photo of a Sandbar sunset. You should experience that on your own. Getting the timing just right on your own will make it so much more of a life-altering moment.
• And just remember three words: When in Rome …. Don’t try to be the life of the party there. Just let the party wash off over you.
There are plenty of friends I’ve known since the early 2000s who are just not up for the party anymore. It’s too this or that for them these days. And for them, there is another scene developing – one that’s a bit more G than PG-13, more suitable for young families with little ones. I’ve been told it’s perfect for crabbing and finding shark teeth.
But I’ve already divulged enough insider secrets in one column to lose my Sandbar Club card. If that’s your speed, you’ll need to find that crowd on your own.
Whatever sandbar you find, just be one with it. Don’t be freaked out by the rays or skates scooting by your feet. After all, it was their Redneck Riviera long before it was ours.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.