Cruising To School

Every morning at 5:30 a.m., eight children begin their school routine, which includes a rather unusual five-mile boat ride. Marci Shore meets the Dewees Island school children. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.

Kate Fairchild, Erin O’Leary, 13, and Erin’s brother Declan, 8, catch the school boat from Dewees Island.

Kate Fairchild, Erin O’Leary, 13, and Erin’s brother Declan, 8, catch the school boat from Dewees Island.

As the bald eagle flies, which it does quite frequently here, it’s around five miles from Dewees Island to the dock at the Isle of Palms Marina. During the 20-minute ferry trip from the island, real estate agent Judy Fairchild usually sets down her phone, sits back and enjoys the natural peacefulness of her commute across the Intracoastal Waterway.


On the other hand, the eight students who board the 6:30 a.m. “School Boat” each weekday have precious little time before their phones must be silenced for the school day. Despite it still being dark on the morning ferry ride, “They’re all on their phones with headphones on the entire time,” Captain Shawn Marsh said.

Up at 5:30 a.m. to dress, eat breakfast and hop on the golf cart to the ferry dock, these students have a unique journey to school, but not as unique as home itself. A private island just north east of Isle of Palms, Dewees has only 15 full-time resident households.

“When people hear we live on a private island, some people think we actually own the island and have it all to ourselves,” Erin O’Leary, 13, and a student at Laing Middle School, said.

One of three O’Leary children, Erin sometimes tries to go back to sleep once she gets on the ferry, but finds it difficult. Living on a private island sounds like a luxurious paradise to many adults—and while Erin has no com - plaints, she does sometimes wish it was easier to get back and forth from home. Forgetting your homework has a whole new level of complications.


There are 150 total lots on Dewees’ 1,200 acres and, thanks to strict covenants, there can never be more. A new community, the Dewees Island Association was formed in the 1990s in direct response to the changing blueprint of nearby barrier islands as development boomed following Hurricane Hugo.

 Judy Fairchild, who has two children that ride the school boat, Kate and Ted, calls the ferry captain each morning to confirm number of people who will need a ride, so he can determine which boat to bring.

Kate, a junior at Wando High, has been taking the ferry to and from school for five years now. Depending on how late the bus is running in the afternoon, they take the 4:30 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. ferry home.

“If it wasn’t for the ferry ride, I don’t know when I’d get my homework done,” Kate said, making a beeline for “her” seat.

“We all have ‘our’ seats,” she said. “This is my corner.”

“This is ‘my’ seat,” declares Erin as she settles in for the ride. Her younger brother, Declan, 8, gets out his iPad. There are no cars on Dewees, transportation is by bike or golf cart.

Declan gets around the island on his bicycle until he turns 11 and he can get his golf cart driving permit.

Due to a highly unusual concept for Dewees children—traffic—they sometimes have to wait at the marina for the afternoon ferry. It’s no terrible inconvenience though, since the store is fully stocked with “Cheez-Its and milkshakes,” Declan said. The frequent customers are “good kids” said Tommy Young, who works at store. He sees them most days for snacks before their afternoon cruise.


Erin and Declan’s parents, Pat and Liz O’Leary, chose to live full time on Dewees for the unparalleled experience it offers their children. And while getting on and off the island may require a little more effort, that experience more than makes up for this minor inconvenience.

“We wanted to move to a place where the kids could experience a level of independence and an interaction with nature that they just couldn’t get somewhere else,” Pat O’Leary said.

 It’s really not such an inconvenience for them, they say, to live on the Island’s time, and in harmony with nature.

Payoffs are plentiful with nature’s bounty proving them with daily blessings of beauty.

“I don’t think of the ferry as an inconvenience,” Judy Fairchild said. “Every day, twice a day, we get to do what people in other areas wait 51 weeks a year to do for a week. We have a chance to visit with neighbors, read the paper, surf the web, and chat with friends. We have to plan a little in advance, but as soon as you step on the ferry, you can take a deep breath and be surrounded by the wonders and the peace of the Lowcountry waters.”