May 2010

Amazing Grace at Palmetto Bluff

Author: Roslyn Farhi | Photographer: Mark Staff

Her name is Grace and she celebrated her 97th birthday this April; she’s still sleek, strong and distinguished. She doesn’t work every day, but on the days she does, she holds her own to gals half her age. She’s been known as the darling of a millionaire, but she’ll never scorn the admiration of ordinary folks. She’s Grace, the elegant yacht, captained by George York, moored at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff’s Wilson Landing, freshly renovated and ready to provide pleasure to 25 passengers, for several hours each week, on the May River.

Grace comes from the world of 1913, when our flag had 48 stars, the 16th Amendment was ratified allowing the Federal government to tax our incomes, and Woodrow Wilson stepped up to the presidential podium, succeeding William Howard Taft. Henry Ford had perfected his assembly line production and Americans were traveling the Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road across the United States. Although the storm clouds of World War I were gathering over Europe, the United States was at peace, and millionaires such as Mr. Joseph B. Cousins of the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club had their “touring cars” for long distance land journeys and their yachts for family outings on Long Island Sound and the Hudson and East Rivers. Grace sailed those rivers until the late 1970s, but later was abandoned in a backwoods boatyard; it wasn’t until 2004 that Palmetto Bluff acquired Grace and put her through extensive renovations to produce the beautiful yacht she is today.

As you step aboard Grace, knowing her remarkable restoration and history, you feel transported to a world where life, for the privileged at least, was a bit more leisurely and luxurious. (The original Grace, for whom the yacht Grace was named, was indeed, one of the privileged few: married to Cornelius Vanderbilt III, society hostess in New York and Newport, sister of R.T. Wilson, the wealthy New Yorker who purchased the 18,000 acres of Palmetto Bluff in 1902.)

The ruddy-complected, barrel-chested, very fit looking captain, George York, welcomes us aboard Grace on this sunny, breezy, Saturday afternoon. York tells us about his background. “I’ve been sailing since I was nine years old, something kids who grew up off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, normally do. I pretty much lived and worked in New England all of my working life,” he said. “My first real job was with NCR Corporation where I rose to the position of district manager—a position I held in three cities in New England. I owned a Hallmark gift store in New Hampshire for 20 years, and then I moved to Bluffton in 2003 where I started a Hunter Douglas window covering business. All this time, I continued boating from Cape Cod to the Caribbean, but I never had a captain’s license. In the fall of 2007, I decided I wanted to work for Palmetto Bluff and captain Grace, but I didn’t have a captain’s license. I went to Sea School to secure a six pack license which would allow me to carry six paying passengers. Next, came five Coast Guard exams and then a long stint of studying for the masters course. I now have a hundred ton license which allows me to pilot Grace. York goes on to tell us that the Coast Guard also required him to have 900 documented days on the water before they would issue him a license. Rightfully so, he is very proud of his navigational skills and doubly proud to be working for Palmetto Bluff, a five-star resort.

A good-sized group is waiting to board Grace at Wilson’s Landing this Saturday afternoon. Some of the passengers are local residents, but two couples are visiting from out of town.

Erik Olson, York’s mate, explains our route by opening a big map of the area on the upper deck of Grace. “Here’s where we are now at Wilson’s Landing, and next you’ll see Myrtle’s Island. There are about 77 homes on the island, many of them built 60-70 years ago, way before Hilton Head Island was developed. A bit further on, we’ll be passing downtown Bluffton; look for the Church of the Cross and then the Oyster Factory.”

York becomes highly animated when the Oyster Factory is mentioned. “We have the best local oysters. They’re smaller and sweeter than ones you find elsewhere and 95 percent of them are consumed locally,” he said.

“It’s quiet today on the May River,” York continues, “but sometimes I see as many as 200 boats out there. And the May River is not truly a river—it’s more of an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean; the water is salty because it’s coming in from the Atlantic Ocean.”

“How far are we from the Atlantic?” the visitor from Alabama asks.

“Probably no more than six or seven miles, as the crow flies,” responds Olson.

“Not as the crow flies,” quips one of the passengers. “Better to say as the loon flies, or maybe the pelican.”

Everyone aboard gets into a discussion about the variety of birds they can see and identify, but we learn it is the dolphins that have captured York’s heart.

“Those dolphins love to escort Grace everywhere,” he says with a grin. “They let us do all the work and they just sail along with us.”

The local ladies, Martha McCarthy, Cheryl McCarthy and Gerry McDonagh say the Bluffton area looks so different from their perspective on the May River. “It’s so peaceful, so relaxing, to be out here for an hour and a half. We’ve lived in the area for over five years, yet it’s only recently that we learned the Inn at Palmetto Bluff had an excursion boat traveling on the May River,” said Martha.

“Go below, ladies and gentlemen, to see how Grace is outfitted,” the captain calls out. “The area below reflects 1913, but Grace was rebuilt in 1996 and her current restoration started in 2004.”

We descend the narrow steps to see two comfortable beds, an elegant library, and a restroom. The cabinets contain books, charts and wine glasses—a relaxing place for reading, resting and eating below deck, a place reminiscent of luxury yachting a century ago. We learn that the upper deck is new to the ship, specifically designed for day outings, sunset cruises and charter sailings.

“Did you enjoy the afternoon?” York asks the group as Grace smoothly maneuvers into her berth at Wilson’s Landing.

“Very much,” we say.

“Well then, come back for a sunset cruise. We serve hors d’oeuvres, beer and wine for that outing. The cost for the sunset cruise is $60 per person, double the price of what you just paid for this cruise at 2:30 p.m., but well worth it; and we can also handle charter parties if you give us some advance notice.”

We thank York and Olson for a lovely afternoon on the May River. Relaxed and refreshed from the serene views we’ve enjoyed, we move on to our evening plans in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.

Grace is available for tours and private charter throughout the year. For reservations, call (843) 706-2757. For more information, visit or call (843) 706-6500.

  1. Sounds great- sign me up for the sunset tour!

    — Debby St.Clair Zion    May 4, 01:08 pm   

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