Everyone faces obstacles in life, some greater than others. Often, overcoming them is a matter of having the passion to do or achieve something in spite of the difficulties. The bigger the obstacle, the more passion required to surmount it.
The term “passionate” is frequently used to describe someone who spends lots of his or her time and resources in pursuit of something; that can include hunting, fishing or a combination of both. But is that really passion or just opportunity?
Surely, passion is an ambiguous term at times, but not when it comes to describing Rhett Connelley of Orangeburg, who frequently heads to the coast for long days and nights casting a net for shrimp.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time throwing a cast net knows it takes a little drive to do it routinely, and what sets Connelley apart from the average, die-hard shrimper is his sight — or rather his lack thereof. He was diagnosed in his teens with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition, and has since lost most of his sight, but he gets around with the aid of his seeing-eye dog, Ned.
Connelley got his start shrimping with his father, Charles.
“We bought cast nets when Rhett was small, and he learned to throw as time went by,” said Judy Connelley, Rhett’s mother.
The family regularly stayed at Hunting Island State Park and went shrimping together, including Connelley’s brother and sister.
“Sometimes, when the right tide was late at night or early in the morning, Rhett, his brother, and sister would sleep in the bow of the boat,” Judy Connelley said. “That is a time in our lives that I really treasure and feel like it was one of the best things we did with the children.”
Connelley now shrimps with his lifelong friend, Trey Boan.
“This is our first season shrimping together, but Rhett had told me for years ‘I can throw that net!’” said Boan, who admitted being nervous at first. “I had that ‘What-if?’ question: What if something happened to him or something happened to me? But we both know God is in control, and He is with us wherever we go.”
Connelley and Boan do their shrimping from a 14-foot john boat, which is not the easiest task — even in broad daylight with 20/20 vision. Connelley stands in the center of the boat, and Boan steers and gives instructions, including how far to cast and in what direction.
“You know, he can throw the net, and he is pretty good at it,” Boan said. “We go, and we come home with shrimp in the cooler.”
Connelley does not limit his shrimping to just casting the net; just like any other fisherman, he is involved with every aspect of it: fixing shrimp poles, making bait balls, loading the boat and peeling shrimp afterwards.
Connelley’s passion for the outdoors does not end with shrimping — far from it.
“Rhett is really amazing; blindness has not stopped his love of nature,” Boan said. “If Ned is not with us, he can place his hand on my shoulder, and we can go camping, fishing (and) shrimping or just hang out and be friends, having good times — times we will one day tell our grandchildren about.”
There is no doubt that Connelley is determined and driven. He also benefits from a very supportive family. He and his wife, Patty, have two girls, Katie, 11, and Brysen, 9.
“I don’t mind if Rhett goes shrimping,” Patty Connelley said. “I always tell him to go have fun and be careful, and I stay home with the girls.”
She also recognizes her husband’s drive.
“Rhett is one very determined and strong-willed man; you tell him he can’t do something, and he will do it or bust — he will prove you wrong,” she said.
Connelley’s drive and passion are evident when he gives advice on what others who may face obstacles when pursuing their own passions.
“You have to get out there and enjoy yourself. And don’t let anyone tell you, ‘Don’t do it.’ You have to make your own mind up,” he said.
Sometimes things manage to get in the way of what we enjoy: fishing trips canceled because the tide was not just right, wind was out of the wrong direction, or it a little too hot or cold. These excuses pale in comparison to the absence of sight; it takes little passion to overcome them and do something instead of holding down the couch. Also, our determination can have a lasting impact on our children.
“I do what it takes, because since I was little, that’s how my Daddy taught me; if you want something work hard for it” Rhett Connelley said.