The Littlest Shrimp Boat

by Julie Gyselinck

 

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Far toward the end of the dock, bobbing in her end slip, is a curious boat, unusual in her shape and profile and generous in her size. At 30 feet long and 10 feet wide, she is the Miss Ellen. The quirky profile of Miss Ellen might draw some confused looks at first, but Miss Ellen, bold in her unique physique, quickly reveals her true self after more than just a glance. She is a shrimp boat! And while she is minute in size compared to the commercial shrimp boats, she is big on adventure and education.

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Just how did the littlest shrimp boat come to be? Well, it’s a curious story, you see, and one that came from necessity. All aboard, but beware: fun and tall tales are involved in the story of the littlest shrimp boat Edisto has ever had.

Shrimping was big business on Edisto, in the Lowcountry, up and down the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and on into the Gulf of Mexico well into the 1990s, give or take some years, depending on who you ask. In the prime days of the local seafood industry, where the Bay Creek Park now sits, was once Bell Bouy Seafood Market. Tied to those docks and up and down the Big Bay Creek were upward of 20 shrimp boats.

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The Bell Family worked in their seafood house and ran shrimp boats. Their son, Jimmy Bell, now old and tottering around, found himself just off the prime of his youth with a neck injury. The doctors advised him to stay off the big boats and give his neck a much-needed rest or he would suffer serious and lifelong injuries. The shrimper had been bested by his shrimp boat. That was not acceptable to Jimmy Bell. If he couldn't captain the largest shrimp boat around, he’d captain the smallest!

Jimmy is a joyful fellow full of stories and a lifetime of adventure that he was not quite ready to end in 2000. So he set out to design a tiny shrimp boat, one he could captain and operate on his own, or with one other deckhand. The Sweet Polly was christened and launched, sporting custom double outriggers Jimmy built himself and pulling forty-foot nets. In the busy summer season, the Sweet Polly and Captain Jimmy took tourists on shrimping adventures out into the creeks and seas. Guests aboard the little boat pulled nets and sorted through the sea life brought up, learning about the ecology and life in the waters surrounding Edisto and getting the tiniest glimpse of a shrimper’s life while on the Sweet Polly.

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Jimmy’s accidental foray into tour-boat charters turned into a full-time gig. The shrimping industry itself was suffering from competition brought by farm-raised shrimp, and the shrimp-boat tours were booming. Edisto itself was growing and changing. The family seafood market had closed, and Jimmy moved the Sweet Polly to the Marina at Edisto Beach.

Things were changing, not just on Edisto, but for Jimmy and Sweet Polly too. The original Sweet Polly was a wonderful work of engineering. Jimmy had created a tiny shrimp boat that was a workhorse—he even commercially shrimped off her after the tourist season just for his own enjoyment. The more tours that Jimmy ran revealed that his Sweet Polly had one downfall; she needed a bathroom for guests. This is when the boat we know today as Miss Ellen arrived. (Don’t worry, the original Sweet Polly is rumored to still be afloat in North Carolina.)

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Custom built in Tampa, Florida, around 2006, the little shrimp boat is built on a catamaran hull that is widely used in the Caribbean for water taxis. Jimmy chose this boat for its width and stability in the waters; it also came with a full upright bathroom. The new Sweet Polly was outfitted with different rigging. This time she received just one boom that swings around to the back and drags a 12-foot net. The net is drawn up by a noisy little motor bolted to the floor of the boat. Jimmy and Sweet Polly worked together for six years, touring families around the waterways and filling their coolers with fresh shrimp. The work was fun and fulfilling, but Jimmy isn’t the type to stay focused on one thing forever. Sweet Polly needed a new captain . . . .

Captain Clif took over the shrimp-boat charter business from his good friend Jimmy in 2012 and renamed the boat Miss Ellen after his mother. The Miss Ellen still tugs along, dragging her 12-foot net behind her. Clif, though quieter than Jimmy, gives a wonderfully informative tour, working his boat in the summer with his two sons. Miss Ellen’s twelve-foot net is handmade in Beaufort, South Carolina, just south of Edisto. Clif mends it himself, and when you hear him talk about the creatures the Miss Ellen has pulled up from the deep, you quickly understand how she gets holes in her nets!

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Once an ancient sturgeon made a surprise visit and offered an amazing look at a fish that is listed on the endangered-species list and can reach weights of up to 800 pounds. (You’re gonna need a bigger boat!) There is so much more than shrimp and crab you will see upon Miss Ellen; there was once even a 15-foot—by Clif’s account—manta ray that came up beside the boat. The dolphins know the sound of Miss Ellen’s net motor and come around for picture time and to see if they can snag an easy meal from the net.

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Local rainfall affects the salinity in the ocean and can push away or draw in the shrimp to the shore. That’s why sometimes you see the commercial shrimp boats far off on the horizon or almost onshore. Guests aboard the Miss Ellen get to keep what shrimp they catch, help with sorting from the net, do a little fishing, and watch animals as the sea comes to life around them. They get adventure and an ecology lesson from Captain Clif, who says the best part is showing people who have never even been on a boat in the ocean all about the shrimping process, sea life, ecology, and waterways around Edisto. The Miss Ellen might not be a heavyweight when it comes to shrimping, but she is a small remaining tie to a cherished part of Edisto’s past, and a big part in helping the future generations remember it.

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