The shoreline at Palmetto Bluff has been eroded by about 10 to 15 feet by Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Irma. Property owners are not allowed to build seawalls for environmental reasons. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

A boat ride around the May River gives a different perspective on Bluffton’s personality. Filled with smooth cordgrass, sand bars and the odd abandoned boat or three, the tidal river is a dead end lined with cottages, elegant homes and memories forged on the water.

Over the centuries, the community’s shoreline has been affected the river’s tides, stormy weather and, in recent years, wakes from recreational boaters. 

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Boating Safety staff marked two no-wake zones around the Oyster Factory Park boat landing and the Calhoun Street public dock on May 4, 2018, ahead of the Memorial Day weekend that generally kicks off the region’s boating season.

The increased use of the water by visitors as well as locals became a safety issue, and the regulations created no-wake zones from the riverbank with a 75-yard buffer around the boat ramp and a 50-yard buffer around the public dock. 

Native Blufftonian Amber Keuhn, who has a Master Captain’s license, a Master’s Degree in marine biology, and owns Spartina Marine Education Charters, remembers what fun she had growing up on the river.

“Thinking back on all the fun things we did as kids – skiing and everything – you can’t have a no-wake rule,” she said. “The problem is the people moving here who don’t know how to handle a boat.”

Boats entering the no-wake zones must be at idle speed – the minimum speed to maintain steerage. Boaters are also advised to pass through from the middle of the zone to the farthest extent away from the ramp or dock, something Keuhn said does not happen.

“The problem with boat wake is if you aren’t familiar with the water, you need to go slow. But new people stay very close to the docks because they feel safe, and that sends more wake onto the shore,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are unfamiliar with boats. Do you offer a lot of training or do you shut it down and make it a no-wake zone? Who is going to enforce it? If you try to educate the public, would you be able to reach that amount of people and teach them boating etiquette?”

Knowing how to drive the boat and at what speed to minimize the wake is important. 

“When a boat is ‘on plane’ – which is flat – it is going down the river either very slow or very fast. That does not cause a large wake,” said Keuhn. “When people slow down to mid-speed, which they think is doing a favor, they’re at a 45-degree angle, and they actually double the wake. It is actually doing more damage.”

The size of the boats now on the water has also had an impact on safety and marine traffic, Keuhn said.

“When I was growing up on the river, there were boats probably no bigger than 21- to 25-foot, but we’re starting to get boats with more engines on the back, massive sterns, and more massive boats than that body of water can handle,” she said. “You have to be respectful that other people might be on that waterway. If you have a boat that big, you need to go idle down that waterway. You can’t regulate the size of the boat, so I’d like to remind people that the May River is a small body of water with a dead end. Stay in the Calibogue or the mouth of the May.”

Then there is weather – one form for which we should begin preparations: hurricanes. Keuhn said after either Hurricane Mathew or Irma, Palmetto Bluff lost 10 to 15 feet of their riverbank. 

“That’s not boat traffic. Palmetto Bluff is not allowed to have breakwalls for environmental reasons. They’re not allowed to cut down the maritime forest because the roots absorb the fresh water runoff from rain that we want to keep out of the salt water in the May,” said Keuhn. 

That leaves the shoreline open to Mother Nature as well as human activity.

The five trees species that primarily comprise the maritime forest are pine, live oak, palmetto, Southern red cedar and magnolia, as well as the scrub brush and wax myrtle. 

“The roots hold the sand together and stabilize the bluff,” she added. “The tide is responsible for some erosion along the bluff, maybe not on the marsh side. That’s why it’s hard to get a dock permit. The only thing that marsh grass can’t take is shade, so everywhere there is a break in the marsh system is because of the docks.”

Other challenges with building docks is that the lumber is treated and leaches chemicals, and oils sometimes leak from the boats. 

“Docks aren’t very environmental but it’s kind of grandfathered and is a big part of our boating culture, so I wouldn’t get rid of our docks,” Keuhn said. “Our immediate problem is the influx of activity and lack of boating etiquette from people who don’t know better.”

Bud Mingledorff, who grew up visiting relatives in Bluffton and now lives along the river, also says new residents are impacting the environment and life on the water, and knowing that the river is both tidal and a dead end would make their boating safer and better for everyone. 

Slowly cruising along the riverbank in Old Town on a recent boating trip, he pointed out how homeowners, developers and the community on the Old Town side are dealing with the changes caused by the May River’s tides, boaters and the weather. 

Mingledorff would like to see Palmetto Bluff allow bulkheads to protect the properties before the bluff itself is washed or blown away. The fallen trees and vegetation below the bluff provide perches for birds of all kinds.

In Old Town, some properties have new or aging bulkheads. Some have a few tons of rip-rap – a layering of large stones intended to protect soil from erosion where there is high or concentrated flowing water. An alternate effort similar to that was a load of recycled concrete construction debris. Other properties had a cover of heavy vegetation or chose to let a natural grass cover serve as erosion control.

“The problem with vegetation,” said Mingledorff, “is one good storm and the heavy bushes will pull out and take a portion of the bluff with it. And the trees on the edge are in just as much danger when you can see the exposed roots.” 

For those with bulkheads, also called sea walls, their lawns are protected for the life of the wall, but the lack of one next door can affect the neighbors.

“What happens when your neighbor gets a bulkhead is it puts extra stress on your property. The water will pass by the wall and then break on the next shore,” Keuhn said. “You’d think it would be better but it isn’t. The more that people stabilize their bluff, it’s a trickle effect down the line. It’s the path of least resistance for the tide pushing into the land. It happens regularly even without boats.”

Eventually, the changes along the May River will impact property owners.

Mingledorff said the geology that is happening on the high bluffs is like what happened to the Grand Canyon. 

“The Colorado River was just a creek,” he said. “This is simply real life happening before your eyes.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.