No Southern lady since when Scarlett O’Hara appeared in Gone with the Wind has received as much attention as a half-submerged shrimp boat near Holden Beach. “Southern Lady, Varnamtown, N.C.” was visible at its stern when it was moored on the mainland side of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Over the years, it has gradually descended and arisen but refuses to eternally disappear. Residents and visitors alike have differing opinions on this landmark, labeling it either an eye sore, photographic icon, or an artifact worth keeping. Artists have recreated it in watercolors, pencil sketches and photographs that hang in art galleries all over the country.
When did Southern Lady, which is seen from the Holden Beach bridge, become part of the landscape? Rumors circulate that the owner has died and a lawsuit is pending – is this true? If so, who has brought a lawsuit? Who owns the boat? First, it helps to understand some background on the old shrimp boat.
The boat, which measures nearly 64 feet long and weighs 68 tons, has generated enough controversy that the town of Holden Beach, Brunswick County Commissioners, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers respond to queries as a matter of routine. Rumors of its removal or its destruction gained momentum in 2014, but the scenario on the Intracoastal Waterway hasn’t changed.
Holden Beach mayor, Alan Holden, says the boat is not in the Holden Beach town limits, thus is governed by the County. He adds that the town attempted to get help through the County, state and federal agencies “to remove this dangerous hazard,” but hasn’t had success. He does share that there is not a lawsuit against the town pending.
Amanda Hutcheson, public information officer for Brunswick County, says that in 2014 the county applied for funding from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to remove Southern Lady, but the application was denied. No money has been appropriated from the County budget and the County is not named in any lawsuit concerning this issue either, she says.
Lt. Eunice James, chief of the Waterway Management Division, Coast Guard sector in Wilmington, explains that the Coast Guard has no jurisdiction. “We have no plans to remove it,” she says. “It’s not a pollution threat and not a hazard to navigation. It’s not in the federal navigational channel. It’s not a federal issue.” She adds that the Coast Guard does not do salvage work.
Hank Heusinkveld in public affairs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington says its office has a file on Southern Lady. “We are aware of it, but it is not in our navigational channel,” he says. “It is out of our jurisdiction.”
So when did this saga begin? Jeffrey Simmons of Ash has some answers.
He says his grandfather, Rev. Norman Bellamy, a native of Brunswick County and now deceased, bought land sometime in the 1950’s along the Intracoastal Waterway. He was an all-around craftsman, fisherman and builder of boats. Simmons worked with him during the summers and bought many of the man’s assets in the mid-1990’s, including the land adjacent to the Intracoastal with two houses and a shed, the docks, the welding and carpentry equipment, an ice machine and “everything you needed to build or to shrimp,” he says. Simmons moved the two houses about two miles from the shore where they were and sold, scrapped, kept or gave away the equipment. He didn’t leave any boat in the water.
In 2006, Simmons sold the property to developers from Wrightsville Beach, who planned to build condos on it. “I sold at the peak (of the economic boom), but they couldn’t get financing to build the condos,” Simmons says. “There was no one to bail them out.” He believes a bank still owns the property.
Simmons says that in 2008 a shrimper named Johnny Combs pulled up to the dock and moored Southern Lady where Simmons had previously owned the land.
“Who was going to stop him?” Simmons asks. “I would never have let him stay there.”
It seems Combs was having a difficult time making a living and wasn’t able to maintain Southern Lady. “[Combs] was hanging around the docks,” Simmons says. Eventually, Combs wasn’t taking the boat out. “It sank a few times and was brought up,” Jeffrey says. “You can’t let a wood boat sit. It rots. It has a spongy bottom.”
Tax records do not show a Johnny Combs owning property in Varnamtown. A call to the town hall reveals that there is no record of Johnny Combs being a resident, but it’s possible he rents property.
Despite rumors that Combs has died, Simmons disputes that and believes Combs is somewhere around Varnamtown and Southern Lady has a few years before it disappears. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “It would make more of a mess if you tried to get it up now.”
Artists, photographers and sightseers still have an opportunity to make Southern Lady immortal artistically before it sinks out of sight forever.