It’s not quite as spellbinding as that one time when his buddy “Gilligan” went over the railing after a feisty shark on the line, but Crab Man has a new fish tale to tell down at the St. Simons Island Pier.
Besides, this one is mostly true.
It is a man-versus-the-sea saga that could unfold only in the 21st Century. It is the story of Crab Man and the Drone.
Crab Man’s good standing among the cast of characters down at the pier goes back more than 20 years. Those hovering drones are a fairly new phenomenon there.
But with the growing popularity of drones among hobbyists and various tradesmen alike, these oversized remote control dragonflies are becoming nearly as common an overhead sight as seagulls.
In case you have not guessed already, Crab Man crabs. Down at the pier. Almost daily.
You could address him as Gregory Roberts, but Crab Man probably would not respond. He has been tending traps at the pier since July 1, 1995, when a disgruntled crab woman left her traps in his care. “She said, ‘Take ‘em,’” Crab Man once told The News. “I’ve been the Crab Man ever since.”
He has seen a lot interesting creatures landed at the pier in his time, even suffered a nasty gash a couple of years back trying to help with a shark that was thrashing around on the deck. Crab Man thought he had seen it all, until early Monday afternoon.
But that fancy drone captured the attention of most every one on the pier. It was hovering just a few feet above the water’s rolling surface as tides swelled toward the Johnson Rocks along the adjoining Neptune Park oceanfront. The drone went up, then down. Then up, then ...
“They had it up high over the pier, flying it around,” said Crab Man, who by now has seen his share of drones. “But when it came down to the water, they let it touch the water a little bit. It jumped up and went back down, into the water.”
The drone’s pilots were standing on the far end of the waterfront, near the St. Simons Island Lighthouse, Crab Man said. For whatever reason, he said, the two jumped into a golf cart and drove away.
To Crab Man, however, this drone in the drink was just another crafty crustacean. So he took off his boots, rolled up his pants legs and went to work.
“I walked out there knee-high and grabbed it and pulled it out of there,” said Crab Man, an army veteran and long-time islander.
Roy, a pier regular who mainly fishes for sheepshead, was impressed.
“The Crab Man immediately went into the low water to retrieve it,” Roy said. “He brought it up to the pier while it was still smoking.”
The challenge Crab Man faced now was returning the drone to its rightful owners. One bystander offered that it probably belonged to Glynn County workers, who are presently busy with a lot of projects down in the Pier Village. However, nothing panned out. Both Crab Man and Roy contacted The News for assistance, even texting a photo of the orphaned drone.
Meanwhile, Crab Man strapped the drone to the rack on the back of his bicycle and pedaled it home for safe keeping.
Hoping to shed light on the mystery, The News on Wednesday contacted John Centeno, an FAA-certified drone pilot with the county’s GIS Department. He did not know of a missing county drone, but said he would be glad to take a look at the drone Crab Man fished out of the water. So The News forwarded the texted photo to him.
“Wow,” was Centeno’s first texted response.
This was not some entry-level hobbyist’s drone, he assured The News. “That looks like a nice one.”
It was, in fact, an RTK drone, a brand most often used by aerial surveyors, Centeno said. Centeno estimated it could be worth up to $20,000; a quick Google search revealed RTK drones advertised for between $7,500 and $9,000.
But by the time The News got back to him, the canny Crab Man and his pier peers had already figured this out. With the drone still strapped to his bicycle, Crab Man was waiting later Wednesday afternoon to hand it over to Rick Sawyer, Vice President of Arc Surveying & Mapping out of Jacksonville.
The group was conducting surveys of the Johnson Rocks along the Neptune Park waterfront for the county. It is preliminary work in conjunction with the $2.5 million OneGeorgia grant awarded Glynn County for beach improvements, said county spokesman Matthew Kent.
An “programming glitch” initiated an in-flight software update, which caused to drone to ditch in the water, Sawyer explained. The company’s drone pilots wrote it off as lost in the surf, he said.
“We went to look for it, but people told us it was sunk,” Sawyer said. “Then we received a call from this gentleman. He recovered it for us.”
Unfortunately, drone technology and saltwater are a bad mix, so the costly craft is pretty much a loss. But Arc officials were able to retrieve the data recorded by the drone; its frame and some other parts may be salvaged.
Still, Sawyer was no less appreciative of Crab Man’s efforts to return the drone to its owners. “Absolutely, it was very nice of him,” Sawyer said. “It was pretty much a loss, but we were able to get the data off of it, so that’s good. And we should still be able to utilize the chassis and other things.”
Said Crab Man: “I just wanted to get it back to whoever it belonged to, that’s all.”