Employee left seafaring life for quiet canal

Six years ago, Marketing Director for the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area Rebecca Rogers was working to publicize the launch of the now-iconic Petersburg boat tours.

Bill Davidson was curious about this new boat venture, and strolled down to the canal to check out the preparations.

“It really was serendipity,” Rogers said. “But there he was, right when we needed a boat captain.”

Davidson, Pest Control Coordinator for Facilities Management, had something pretty unusual for the area: a Merchant Marine Master 100-ton License.

“You have to go through the Coast Guard and go through ‘Sea School,’” Davidson explained. “Generally it takes about four years of offshore boating before you can be licensed.”

“Bill was one of the very first captains that we hired. There aren’t that many, I came to find out, in the Augusta area that hold a master’s license,” said Dayton Sherrouse, Executive Director of the Augusta Canal Authority.

Davidson had left behind a 12-year career in Florida as a commercial charter boat captain shortly before his mother sold her business. The sale agreement specified that he couldn’t compete against the buyers for 10 years. So Davidson and his wife returned to Augusta.

“I kind of hated to get out of it, but back then, replacing a boat cost $1 million. Our fuel bill would be $10,000 a month. It took a lot of revenue. You didn’t make much profit,” he said.

So for six years, he’s piloted the 48-passenger electric boats. Driving tourists up and down the canal in an historic replica isn’t quite the same as hauling in marlins atop rolling ocean waves, but Davidson finds his own satisfaction in it.

“It beats sitting on your porch or working in the yard,” he said.

Sherrouse said that it’s easy to underestimate the challenges in Davidson’s work, because he does it so well.

“You almost take it for granted the job he does. But it’s a big responsibility when you’ve got a boat load of people, and he takes that responsibility very seriously,” Sherrouse said.

Davidson regularly squeezes the 10-ton boats through a bulkhead that gives him only a 12-inch leeway on each side. He navigates a current much stronger than it appears – the river drops 52 feet between the Savannah Rapids Pavilion and downtown Augusta, so it runs downhill quickly. And sometimes he saves lives.

“We had a father and son go out on Father’s Day. The father stood up in their boat to take a photo of the Petersburg boat. Their canoe flipped and we wound up pulling them out of the water. We were able to get them out of the canal and back to safety,” Davidson said.

But mostly, Davidson says, he just has fun showing Augusta to people from all over the world. Some riders want to hear about the area’s history, like the Confederate Powderworks and the textile mills. Others want to look for wildlife, such as heron, otter and alligators.

“It’s really about showing people a good time,” he said.

And Sherrouse said Davidson does just that. “He takes a lot of pride in the boats and in making sure that people have a good experience in the boats. I don’t know what we would do without him.”

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