Save Gracie Belle

Psalm 107:23- 31
“Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

As told by Captain Craig Reaves....

So, this is an overview of the life and times of the shrimp boat “Gracie Belle”. I will start from the very beginning.

“Gracie Belle” is really the boat’s second name. The 80 foot shrimp boat was built at Holden Beach, NC (where the Reaves family is from) in 1973 and named “Backman Elizabeth” after its original owner’s family member. The Backman family are legends in the seafood industry with a fleet of five vessels in the “glory days” of the industry; but as with so many others the late 90’s and early 2000’s were very difficult and the whole seafood industry struggled to keep their businesses and boats going.
So, in 2000, Dad, “Laten Reaves” received a call from Mr. Junior Backman asking for help with the Backman Elizabeth; which had sunk at the dock after it’s captain had gotten it aground on “Opening Day of the 2000 shrimp season” and then brought it to the dock where it sank overnight. Mr. Backman and his crew tried to raise the boat for three weeks to no avail. After the phone call Dad assembled a crew consisting of himself, nephew Jeff Gunther and me (Craig) to help the Backman’s get the boat floating again. It was a daunting task, but the crew was able to patch and repair the boat and got it floating again within 7 low water tides. The boat had been sunk for 21 days total. After resurrecting the boat from the bottom of the river, Dad bought the boat and re-named her, “Gracie Belle” after my grandmothers (Gracie Reaves, and Ina Belle Fulford). We restored Gracie Belle to working condition in time for the 45th Annual Beaufort Water festival.

Through the next 5,10,15 years we, the Reaves family, renovated the Gracie Belle a little along doing projects like fiber glassing the hull, replacing all the original rigging, mast, boom, out riggers, and the final renovation was of the cabin.
Over the years the Gracie Belle has transformed from being the Reaves family shrimp boat to Beaufort’s Iconic shrimp boat. We’ve taken her to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park numerous times for shrimp boat tours. It’s used for the Rotary Club’s Shrimp Race in October and Crab Race in April. The Beaufort Senior Leadership group have done multiple educational tours. It was used for the Mondavi Home Reveal and dinner cruise. We even had our son’s wedding performed on the roof of the boat. There are so many memories and so many photos. We even met a couple that told us they named their daughter Gracie Belle and come to take pictures of her with the boat each year at the seawall. We love our Gracie Belle; and Beaufort has shown us they love Gracie Belle too.

Now for the story that has brought Gracie Belle to the front pages of the Beaufort Gazette this past week. I can’t tell this part of the story without letting you know of how this particular day was part of one of the worst weeks in East Coast shrimping history. News of the sinking of shrimp boat Lady Vanessa on May 18th off the coast of GA travels through the fleet. On May 23rd, boats up and down the East Coast prepared for “Opening Day of the 2017 shrimp season”. Captain’s listen to the weather report and anticipate a stormy evening of weather like they had seen many times before. It was wrong. This was a storm that no one in the fleet was ready for. As the storm front hits the east coast it takes the Miss Debbie down with its three crew off the coast of Tybee Island, GA. The Gracie Belle’s crew was removed by Coast Guard helicopter, the Miss Carol Ann broke both of its outriggers and was washed way up on the beach near the NC/SC border. Not to mention all the other boats that had difficulties as a result of the weather. Needless to say, this is one “Season Opening “, no one will forget for a long time to come.
The captain of the Gracie Belle had the boat on location anchored and waiting for the 8am start of the 2017 season. I was awakened at 3am by my brother Cameron stating there was a problem with the Gracie Belle. He was on his boat Palmetto Pride anchored a short distance away from Gracie Belle. So, I called the captain and asked what was going on. He proceeded to tell me the tip of the mast had broken and an outrigger was in the water and he was afraid all the rigging would come down. At this time, the sea state was 5 to 7 feet with SW winds of 20 to 30mph. Ultimately, Gracie Belle’s captain had to decide what he felt was best for he and the crew.

Afraid for their lives, the captain called the US Coast Guard and within a short amount of time the captain and three crew men were all air lifted by helicopter and flown to Savannah. At this point, all we could do was wait. At approximately 7am Cameron was able to pull anchor and circle around Gracie Belle and assess the situation. He took some pictures of the boat with the broken mast and one outrigger in the water like the captain has told us several hours earlier. After carefully looking at the pictures I felt a little bit better and was somewhat confident we could save Gracie Belle “IF” I could get to her. So, Cameron headed his boat Palmetto Pride into Trenchard Inlet for calmer waters and anchored and waited for me. I began a search for someone brave enough to take me out in these rough conditions to Gracie Belle. Finally, Captain Billy of Beaufort Search and Rescue said he would give it his best effort. Captain Billy and I left Station Creek boat landing around 9:30am. Our first stop was at Palmetto Pride to pick up Cameron and Billy Barrett (Monkey). We only had a small weather window to transfer three people from Captain Billy’s 22-foot rescue boat to the 80 foot Gracie Belle. This was no easy task.

As we arrived at her position about a mile and a half off Pritchard’s Island, we saw the boom and ladder had fallen as well as the second outrigger was broken and stuck in the ocean floor. Now with adrenaline running in our veins it felt like we jumped from boat to boat and with chop saw in hand we began removing anything and everything attached to the outriggers which had fallen to the sea floor. Within an hour, we were ready to buoy the anchor and bring Gracie Belle home.

Not so fast now, the weather window had now closed and the winds were picking up again along with the seas ever growing as we headed to St. Helena Sound. When we were about five miles off Fripp Island the seas had grown from 5 to 7 feet to 10 to 12 feet with a wind squall of 50+ mph that seemed to last for an eternity. With no way to stabilize the boat we were being tossed and thrown around on the sea. We had no choice; we had to turn around and head back to Trenchard Inlet. We were amongst several other boats that found themselves escaping the weather instead of fishing the “big opening”.

By 3pm we were finally in the calm waters of the Story River where Cameron and Monkey could return to the Palmetto Pride. The Reaves fleet was headed to the dock. After traveling the waterway through the Harbor River Bridge into St. Helena Sound and up to Village Creek we finally arrived at our dock about 8pm.

My ability to tell the story or take pictures cannot begin to really explain what we went through to keep from losing Gracie Belle that day. In my thirty years on the ocean I haven’t seen a day like that one. We experienced a true emotional roller coaster that day. From thinking we were going to lose Gracie Belle and at some point, possibly our lives, to the elation of being safe at the dock with everyone and Gracie Belle in one piece. I do know this; a lot of people were praying and God saw us through. It was an incredible day. One the Reaves family will never forget.


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Organizer and beneficiary

Craig Reaves 
Beaufort, SC
Jana Reaves 
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