In America, just about every small community has its own hometown festival. Beaufort may be small, but the Beaufort Water Festival is anything but little and quaint. This hugely popular event, held every year during the heat of July, is a way for people to get out and celebrate that sparkly blue that cools us down and gives us culture in the Lowcountry.
The 53rd annual Beaufort Water Festival will be held July 11-20, and organizers estimate that as many as 60,000 people-some from as far away as the Northeast and the Midwest-will find their way to one or more of the attractions. With music, dancing, sporting events, boat races and art shows, there is enough going on to keep every one of those 60,000 people entertained.
"The purpose of the Water Festival is to provide a family environment with all different varieties of entertainment," said Jack Little, public relations and marketing coordinator for the festival. "The community spirit and the small town atmosphere in Beaufort make it a great place for this type of event."
In keeping with the nautical theme of the festival, there have always been sailing regattas and boat races. But over the years, the lineup has expanded to include not only other waterborne activities, but a plethora of land-based sporting events as well. This year the Beaufort River will be the scene of raft races, Coast Guard cutter tours, jets ski demos, "boat bingo," the children's toad-fishing tournament, a sailing regatta, the blessing of the fleet and a display of shrimp boats. Meanwhile, landlubbers can engage in bocce, badminton and croquet tournaments, or the surprisingly popular "bed races" on Bay Street. For the not so athletically inclined, there is an antique show, a craft market and an art expo.
One of the most attractive aspects of the festival, according to Little, is the minimal cost of participation. "Our sponsors enable us to have so many free and low-cost events," said Little, who particularly emphasized the volunteer work of the military and the City of Beaufort. "The opening ceremony with fireworks, the water and air shows on the weekends and Children's Day are all free."
Little went on to highlight some of the Water Festival's big attractions, including a performance by country music star Blake Shelton from 8 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, July 12th at Waterfront Park. July 14th is Motown Monday with a concert by Golden Touch, and then comes Tropical Tuesday with Jimmy Buffett tribute band the Landsharks. Little seemed particularly excited about Talent Night, to be held on Wednesday, July 16th, which he said is an extremely popular event for visitors and Beaufort families alike. Locals of all ages-from toddlers to senior citizens-have the opportunity to showcase their musical skills with homegrown performances of singing, dancing and musical instrument playing. Other festivities to be held in the evenings at Waterfront Park include the Teen Dance, River Dance, Lowcountry Supper, Commodore's Ball and the concluding Air Show.
While the Commodore's Ball is held to celebrate this year's commodore, respected leader and coordinator of everything Water Festival, Little stressed that this is not a formal event. In fact, it goes in keeping with the dress code for the entire festival: shorts and flip-flops. The 2008 commodore is Les Brediger, who feels honored to spearhead the 53rd Water Festival.
"It's a culmination of about 20 years' worth of work," said Brediger of his long-time involvement with this event. "Being commodore is something we all aspire to and it's really a privilege to lead such a talented group of people."
Brediger stated that he has been working to plan this year's festival since August 2007, along with 10 coordinators, 25 directors and hundreds of other volunteers. No one, not even the commodore, receives anything more than an official T-shirt as payment for all their hard work, making this one of the largest all-volunteer festivals on the East Coast. The fact that people like Brediger keep coming back is a testament to how much the Water Festival means to many people in the community.
"I like to consider it the kick-off of the summer down here," said Brediger. "We try to provide 10 days of fun and excitement for the whole family, and it's a tradition that people who've been in Beaufort their whole lives look forward to."
Last year's commodore, Erin Dean, is one of just two female commodore's in the history of the festival (the other being Mrs. Mazie Terhune, commodore of 1959). Like Brediger, Dean considered it a privilege to have this leadership role after years of working her way up through the volunteer ranks. Though she is not sure why there have been so few lady commodores, she does not doubt that women have played an important role in the festival's success.
"The men who have been commodores always have wives," Dean pointed out. "And these first ladies work hand-in-hand with their spouses to ensure that the festival is done in a first-rate manner. There have always been women involved and they are just as much the face of the Water Festival."
After so much hard work in the past, Dean decided to take a break for the first time in 13 years and is looking forward to attending the 2008 festival as a guest rather than an organizer. She can't wait to see Blake Shelton and kick back during her favorite night, Tropical Tuesday.
The oldest surviving commodore is Sammy Gray, who presided over the third annual Water Festival in 1958. He still remembers how he and a handful of other Beaufortonians came up with the idea the first year.
"A group of us fellows used to meet and have coffee down at Al's Steak House," said Gray. "Someone said, you know, we have sailboat races, we ought to have a festival to compliment them in the summertime. We never anticipated it would grow this big, but I'm thankful it did."
The year Gray was commodore, he had a budget of about $5,000 and maybe 10 or 12 workers helping him. Now he says the budget has to be closer to $500,000 and there are around 400 volunteers who put the festival together. Waterfront Park didn't exist yet in '58, just a small park with a canopy, and people brought their own chairs and beverage coolers to the events. A good street dance could attract a couple hundred people, whereas now they have to cut it off at 5,000.
Back in Gray's day, the big attraction was a beauty pageant to crown the Queen of the Sea Islands. The queen would then act as traveling dignitary at all the other hometown festivals in the area, such as the peach, watermelon and tobacco festivals, while those towns' queens would come to the Water Festival. This seems to be a bygone era however, as the Queen of the Sea Islands beauty pageant was discontinued when they began to have a hard time recruiting participants.
Queen or no queen, people still love the Water Festival and Gray thinks it's only going to get better in years to come.
"It's very popular and it's very well organized," he said. "I guess in the summertime people just like to get casual and go out and have a good time."