As Hurricane Matthew wailed on the Brunswick waterfront the night of Oct. 7, shrimper Bobby Ray Bennet stood in calf-deep water on the City Market docks off of Bay Street and held onto a pylon to steady himself.
Bennett was among several shrimpers who stood watch over the small shrimping fleet on Brunswick’s East River, hoping to safeguard the boats during the destructive forces of the Category 2 hurricane that passed 50 miles offshore of Glynn County.
“It was scary, I’ll guarantee you,” the lifelong shrimper said. “I just put my trust in the Lord and hung on.”
But when the sun came up Saturday morning, the only shrimp boat casualty in the area was the 63-foot Three Girls, which sank off the docks at the city’s Mary Ross Park. On Tuesday the long inactive shrimp boat’s tie lines remained secured to the dock, dipping taut into the water at the bow and stern, its trawler booms sticking above the surface in between.
The Three Girls was the only remaining shrimp boat docked at Mary Ross Park, and likely will be the last. Brunswick officials have plans for turning the park into an entertainment and social venue as part of efforts to revitalize the city.
The Three Girls is listed as belonging to Janice Hillery of Brunswick and was insured for damage, liability and sinking, Brunswick code enforcement officer Len Schmauch said. The city also has a contract with a cruise ship that docks at the park on a regular basis, so space is at a premium there.
“We’ve pretty much allowed the Three Girls there, but unless there was some sort of emergency, they probably would not allow another vessel to dock there,” Schmauch said. “The park is really more or less in the midst of revamping.”
Just down the river at the City Market and other docks, shrimping remains a thriving business. Bennett was among more than half a dozen shrimpers who stuck around to ensure its survival there. Rising waters from Matthew crested at nearly a foot above the dock planks, but did not reach the adjacent processing building.
“Those old salty dogs, you couldn’t run them off for nothing,” said Frank “Little Red” Owens, owner of the City Market docks, as well as the seafood market on Gloucester in Brunswick.
Bennett fishes with his brother, Capt. Johnny Ray Bennett, who recently invested in buying the 84-foot Flying Cloud, formerly docked in Darien. Add to that the need to safeguard Capt. Bennett’s old standby, the 65-foot Dora F, and Bobby Ray Bennett had no intention of letting Matthew run him off.
“My brother has worked hard to get that boat ready,” Bennett said of the Flying Cloud. “I didn’t want to see him lose it. But I’ll tell you, that water got up to where it was just under my knees.”
Poteet’s Seafood Company near Blythe Island reported no damage from the storm. Poteet’s operator John Wallace said his colleagues in Darien fared well also.
“We got real lucky — everybody did,” Wallace said. “Except the Three Girls, nobody’s had any considerable damage.”
Although a good storm will often jumpstart shrimping activity by stirring up onshore and inland beds, the fishing has been slow in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Johnny Ray Bennett said the storm has left a lot of debris in the waters, keeping the daily hauls low.
“We all rode it out good, but there’s so much marsh grass and tree limbs out there it beats everything up,” Bennett said. “We went yesterday and I think we got 100 pounds. Drag four hours, you get 100 pounds; that’s 25 pounds an hour. That’s no good.”
But Bennett and City Market’s other shrimpers are still bringing in enough shrimp to supply the seafood market as well as the company’s restaurant customers with wild Georgia shrimp, Owens said. Wallace said some are reporting better luck farther offshore, as far as 7 to 8 miles out. Georgia waters extend to 3 miles out.
The fall equinox’s seasonally high “king tides” have been running as high as 9 feet, on top of which a strong and steady east wind has blown in Matthew’s aftermath. Once these conditions settle down, shrimpers might get a chance to enjoy that post-storm boost they are counting on, Owens said.
“A storm like this usually stirs it up pretty good, but I tell you it’s been slow,” Owens said. “It’s still early, but I think after these big tides we’ll see a change.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Coast Guard officials are monitoring the sunken Three Girls to make sure it is not polluting nearby waters with leaking fuel or slipping into the channel. The owner will be liable at this point for having the boat removed, said Coast Guard Chief Bo Lisenby.
“We’ve got a crew down there,” said Lisenby, stationed in Savannah. “We noticed some (fuel sheening) immediately after the storm, but I haven’t had any reported recently. We haven’t established a time frame, per se, but it needs to be moved as quickly as possible.”