SC

Daufuskie Ferry: A Storm Of Controversy

“The Manatee II was struggling in the significant waves that pushed against the boat …”

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Midway through the 2024 tourism season, South Carolina’s picturesque Daufuskie Island is facing a dramatic decline in tourism revenue. This coincides with mounting concerns from residents about the safety, compliance, and seaworthiness of the vessel operated by Lowcountry Ferry LLC, the company awarded the ferry service contract in January.

In a meeting of Beaufort County council last month, Stewart Yarborough – owner of Daufuskie Transit – said his business has seen an 80 percent decrease in visitor traffic (and revenues). Yarborough said he believes the low tourism numbers are related to the new ferry service.

Daufuskie’s ferry is as essential as a bridge or highway – providing the only means of access for those who work or live on this 5,000-acre scenic island. While an estimated 200 residents rely on the ferry throughout the year, last summer’s tourist season delivered more than 70,000 visitors to the island.

Despite numerous complaints from taxpayers, Beaufort County officials have remained largely silent on the issue. Reports from passengers refer to multiple injuries, challenges for elderly or disabled individuals attempting to board the ferry and heightened concerns over alleged safety deficiencies which witnesses say were accentuated after a rapidly forming storm hit the island over Memorial Day weekend. 

Meanwhile, the new ferry operator – Neil Turner – is under investigation by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) for failing to report a personal watercraft accident resulting in injury last month involving jet skis rented from another one of his businesses, a development first reported by The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet.

Residents are pleading with county officials to address these issues “before a tragic event occurs.”

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THE STORM

As passengers boarded the Daufuskie ferry on the afternoon of May 24, 2024, the sun was shining. Clouds were visible in the distance, but they did not appear to pose an imminent threat. According to Bobbi Schlichting, who posted about this “very frightening experience” on social media, once the vessel was in open waters, “the storm quickly overtook” it. 

“The Manatee II was struggling in the significant waves that pushed against the boat,” Schlichting recalled. “The passengers had to crowd into the cabin, showing obvious distress and concern. Meanwhile, some of the passengers’ belongings were outside, not protected by any sort of container. The crew placed thin covers over each luggage wagon, but ours blew off and went overboard along with some of our groceries. Several of our remaining items were ruined.”

“Our suitcases were completely drenched inside as well,” she continued. “These are inconveniences that we survived, what is most concerning is the seaworthiness of the vessels that Lowcountry Ferry is using, with the lives of passengers at stake. I am not being dramatic when I say that it was an extremely frightening experience to be in that boat under those conditions.”

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According to Schlichting, the issues experienced during the Memorial Day storm by the Lowcountry Ferry vessel were far more severe than those experienced by vessels operated by the prior provider.

“I can speak from experience regarding the vessels that were in previous use by Daufuskie Island Ferry (DIF), as my husband and I lived on the island for years before moving to Bluffton and rode that ferry a couple of times a week,” she said. “Never, under similar weather conditions did we feel unsafe, nor ever have our belongings been exposed to water (or go overboard), as DIF provided waterproof cargo containers. Additionally, DIF made regular announcements as to the locations of life jackets, which on the previous ferry provider were located underneath our seats. On this trip, there was no announcement of the location of life jackets and no way to safely retrieve the lifejackets stowed upstairs and outside, in the weather that we encountered. I only knew of their location, as I have been previously informed by current island residents.”

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‘ARBITRARY CLAIMS …’

Our media outlet reached out to Turner for his perspective, but he declined to address specific issues directly. 

“Unfortunately to speak directly about your questions, we would not be able to respond to arbitrary claims or statements, and even more so without knowing what was claimed,” Turner said. 

In follow-up correspondence, FITSNews asked the Lowcountry Ferry owner to address specific resident complaints alleging non-compliance with ADA standards, outdated Coast Guard certification, his company’s reported operation of only one vessel (instead of the contractually required two) and various safety concerns including the vessel’s suitability for navigating dangerous storms. 

Turner has yet to respond to that request. Assuming he does, we will be more than happy to provide that information to our audience – or hand over our open microphone to him to address the questions in more detail.

Regarding the jet ski accident, sources reached out to us about a May 29, 2024 incident involving a personal watercraft that resulted in injuries for at least one minor who was transported from the scene in the back of a pickup truck – an incident now under investigation by SCDNR. 

The two jet-skis involved in the accident were rented by Sea Monkey Watersports – another Turner-owned enterprise.

“They own a Jet-Ski rental business that had someone severely injured and did not report it to SCDNR,” a source told us. ”They would not call an ambulance because it would cause negative press.” 

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According to sources who witnessed the events, the injured minor was loaded into the back of a pickup truck and taken from the scene. The aftermath was caught on video and shared with FITSNews.

“SCDNR has charged the company that rented the personal watercraft for failure to report an accident with injuries,” said Greg Lucas, SCDNR public information officer. “If found guilty, it carries a fine of $100-$500 and suspension of boating privileges for a year. The investigation into the accident is still ongoing.”

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SOUNDS OF SILENCE

As our media outlet previously reported, beginning on January 15, 2024, Beaufort County officials awarded the ferry contract for Daufuskie Island to Turner’s company. The new deal involved a very low annual contract for services – and a questionable property transfer.

County officials have stated that the new contract for ferry service is “identical” to the former contract, but residents say the service they are receiving could not be more different. 

Bids were submitted in October. As we reported in March, the bid from Lowcountry Ferry was substantially lower than that of the former provider and included a land deal. In exchange for the lower contract amount, the county agreed to give a portion of Jenkins Road to Turner.  

According to county records obtained under FOIA, in December 2023 – roughly two weeks before the new contract was to begin with Lowcountry Ferry – Turner and county officials were negotiating changes to the contract. At least one county official raised doubts about the ability of the contractor to fulfill the terms. 

On December 27, 2023, county procurement services director David Thomas alerted county officials in an email.

“I just had a chance to review the attached comments and changes to the contract sent my Mr. Turner and do not agree with a lot of his changes,” Thomas said in his message (.pdf) . “I think we need to talk about his request and just send him a final contract based on what we can live with and give him a call to discuss the final document and put him on notice that he needs to sign our final contract or we will move on.”

Despite these concerns, the new contract went into effect as scheduled.

In February, as an initial wave of complaints came in, interim county administrator John Robinson planned a meeting on the ferry situation to be scheduled in March. 

Fundamental to the terms of the contract, the ferry service is required to operate two vessels. Lowcountry Ferry started the service with one boat – the Manatee II – that formerly served as a sightseeing vessel in Florida. As part of his bid and contract, Turner told county officials that another, larger vessel known as the Trader would be arriving to serve as the second required vessel.

Per the contract …

“I do believe the only two issues the DI residents have at this point is the length of travel time and cargo, both related to the vessel itself,” Robinson wrote in an email (.pdf). “By the time this meeting happens Neil should possess the Trader. If he intends to operate it as his primary, these issues will go away.”

In the same email, Robinson addressed county attorney Brittany Ward.

“Brittany: I believe he has and continues to operate in compliance with our contract,” Robinson wrote. “I think we can ask him to operate the Trader, but I don’t think we can make him. Do you agree?”

No response was documented in the files we received under FOIA.

Four months later, the Trader has yet to be put into service as a ferry to and from Daufuskie Island.

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MOUNTING FRUSTRATIONS …

Daufuskie Island residents continue to express frustration with the ferry situation. For them, the ferry is not a pleasure cruise or sightseeing excursion. It is a vital part of the infrastructure involved with island living. There is no road to Daufuskie. It is only accessible by water.  

Since the contract began, residents have sent dozens of emails to county officials, pleading for them to reconsider their decision. FITSNews obtained more than 40 such emails through a FOIA request. The senders’ names were redacted from the documents.

The following are excerpts from four of those emails. …

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The ongoing issues – and lack of responsiveness from Lowcountry Ferry and county officials – have left Daufuskie residents concerned for their safety and the future of their essential ferry service. And in light of the unreported jet-ski accident last month involving another one of Turner’s businesses, the safety of the ferry has become the predominant concern.

“When does it stop?” one long-time resident asked. “I am not comfortable with any transportation the Turner family provides.”

FITSNews continues to follow this developing story. If you have information or concerns about the ferry service or other issues on Daufuskie Island, connect with us by emailing research@fitsnews.com.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Callie Lyons (provided)

Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher and author. Her 2007 book ‘Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal’ was the first to cover forever chemicals and their impact on communities – a story later told in the movie ‘Dark Waters’. Her investigative work has been featured in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world. Lyons also appears in ‘Citizen Sleuth’ – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.

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6 comments

Avatar photo
The Colonel Top fan June 6, 2024 at 6:01 pm

USCG can hammer their ass into the ground if half the allegations are true – as can (and should) S.C.DHEC, SCLLR, SCDNR, state inspector general…

Reply
River Top fan June 7, 2024 at 9:56 am

Inflation caused the county to go with the lower bidder. Daufuskie residents can thank uncle Joe. Also, there’s always the option of buying a 100k boat at 9% interest if you don’t like your ferry situation.

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Alex, Not Murdaugh Top fan June 7, 2024 at 11:04 pm

After living there for a year and experiencing what was left of the Gullah culture, the land acquisitions, the catch basin for societal rejects and overall backstabbing, I can only hope it reverts back to its roots. Yes, there are some decent, creative and decent folks but the majority just reek of greed and an unfriendliness that would rival a NYC alley with a scooter gang. Beautiful place, not so beautiful people. Lose the ferry. If you want to live there, factor in a private boat.

Reply
Low Country Golfer June 10, 2024 at 8:40 am

Someone replied to a Nextdoor post I think nails the motivation of the current ferry provider’s low ball bid. The county included wording in the contract to prevent any other commercial boat from using the docks where residents park their cars. So residents have few options to the public ferry. Below is copied from the Nextdoor post response.

“Because he doesn’t need to make money on Daufuskie residents. All he is doing is using the ferry to offset his costs for running a tourist business. And in the process he has secured free leases on both HH and Daufuskie. That’s why he doesn’t need the county #s to make sense.
He would be paying 15% of everything to any normal landlord. Now he gets the locations on both sides and boxes out all the competition and the ferry subsidizes the whole thing”

Reply
Average Joe June 13, 2024 at 5:17 pm

So in a nutshell, the residents want a luxury ferry service and not have to pay for it. Full expectation that it be subsidized by the rest of Beaufort County taxpayers? What is the total revenue the county collects from Daufuskie Island (would have nice to include that in this article)? Perhaps lobby the county to place a special tax district on Daufuskie Island so the residents have to pay for what they’re actually demanding?

Reply
John Smith June 16, 2024 at 11:08 am

There is so much corruption surrounding the ferry and a bigger plan for real estate development and land grabs. The corruption runs deep to include Beaufort County Council and the Sheriffs department. The Turner’s are narcissistic people that can not be trusted. I think they are being backed by Whitestone, Island Head, JW Corporation, corrupt attorneys, just to name a few. SLED and the Governor need to open their eyes to what is going on here.

Reply

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