A Captain's Tale
The The unlikely journey of Haig Point's newest captain
Robert Levis was not necessarily born a mariner. The sixth generation resident of Daufuskie Island fondly remembers growing up on the island, running around outside barefoot, climbing trees, playing with snakes and lizards and enjoying visits with extended family, especially on Daufuskie Day, but he never exactly had sea-worthy aspirations. Robert was born in Beaufort Memorial Hospital but has lived on Daufuskie his entire life. He enjoys travelling and exploring the world outside of the island, but Daufuskie is ultimately home. His first experience with the daily boat commute was riding the Haig Point ferry to school in the 8th grade. He recalls attending the Mary Fields school (famously portrayed in Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide) for one year before moving to the newly constructed Daufuskie Island Elementary School. From 8th grade until high school graduation, Robert adopted the daily boat commute over to Hilton Head.
After graduation, Robert found employment on his home island. He worked at Bloody Point for three years in the Food and Beverage Department. He then worked for the Melrose Resort for about a year in almost every role in the F&B department: serving, bartending, bussing and whatever else was needed. When Melrose shutdown, Robert found himself out of a job. A conversation with Al Smith led to the suggestion that Robert speak with the Haig Point Director of Marine Transportation, Richard Inglis, about an available position. So began Robert’s career on the water.
Robert began his employment with Haig Point as a part-time valet and apart-time boat mate. Much of a boat mate’s education is on the job. Robert began studying lines and learning knots.Any downtime was spent reading the rule books aboard each specific boat and learning the ins and outs of the vessel. He then moved onto electronic equipment manuals and was soon able to assist captains with troubleshooting and repairing the onboard electronics.The first to notice his affinity for the position was Captain Ray Morris. “Robert, you have a knack for this,you’re good at this, you need to do this. I’m going to train you to be my successor.” Even after the huge vote of confidence, Robert wasn’t convinced. He enjoyed being a mate and was hesitant of taking on the responsibility of a captain and being in charge of a vessel the size of the ferries. Then the accident happened.
To this day, Robert still does not know what happened. In early March of 2017,Robert was driving his ATV around dusk and woke up on his back in the brush by the side of the road. Robert sustained serious injuries and was rushed to the hospital. About two or three months after the accident he returned to work,reassigned to administrative work for the Marine Department. It was then Robert decided it was time to grow up, be serious, and plan for his future. This is also when he began thinking of ways to giveback to the island that had supported him after his accident. People he had never met had contributed to his recovery by sending messages or contributing to an online fundraiser. He ultimately decided that running for and eventually obtaining a seat on the Daufuskie Island Council was the best way to say “thank you” and to help out the entire island that had stood behind him.
Still not fully embracing the possibility of becoming a captain, Robert returned to the water with a renewed commitment to his position as mate. The position was now full-time and Robert was eager to learn. The mate is a very important role on a vessel, if something were to happen to the captain, it is the mate’s responsibility to successfully drive and safely dock the boat. The mate is also in charge of any issues in the boat’s engine room, leaving the captain open to safely get the boat to its destination.
Robert remembers about two months of being a full-time mate that on the 9:30 PM run from Embarkation to Haig Point on the HP II an alarm went off in the wheelhouse. Robert moved briskly, one never runs, through the cabin as to not disturb the passengers, proceeded to the back deck and opened the hatch to the engine room. The fitting on the raw water exhaust on the starboard side had come loose and was pouring gallons and gallons of water into the engine room. After the initial shock wore off, his training and mechanical experience kicked in.Captain Bob Pollack constantly trained Robert on pumps. Robert immediately activated the bilge pump and water began pumping out. He then realized, through years of repairing his own vehicles, that vibrations had caused the fitting to come loose and that a simple tightening with a screwdriver would fix the problem. He was able to correct the issue while in transport. Maybe he could be a captain after all.
Last September, he began Sea School in Bluffton to start his training. Then came the 100 ton certification in Charleston,days of intensive education followed by testing. Then the TWIC in Savannah, similar to a passport, it allows captains to enter any port and verifies their identity.Then he submitted the paperwork for his license. The Coast Guard did yet another round of vetting very similar to what pilots go through. Then, almost two years to the day of his accident, Robert received notification that he was officially Captain Robert Levis.
The morning run on the HP I on Memorial Day of 2019 was his first solo shift.Previously he had been making the runs with fellow captains, the same ones that had trained and encouraged him, as his mates. Although he has a new title and responsibilities, the learning has not stopped. Richard Inglis continues educating his staff through different challenges involving fixing radar, driving a blind course, and testing the captain’s knowledge of specifics of each boat. Robert himself admits that he learns every day. “Every single docking, every single time is different. It is never the same. You have to judge by wind, the tide and the boat itself. You rely on your education and experience and you have to solve the problem every time.”