Beaufort Water Festival a constant in the shifting sands of Lowcountry life

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 12, 2012 

Tim Cieplowski, left, of Beaufort and Brian Matthew Exum, right, of Beaufort set up fences around the center area of Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in preparation for the Beaufort Water Festival on Wednesday afternoon.


Beaufort's first Water Festival got off to a harmonious start on a hot Friday the 13th, much as it will do today for the 57th time.

This long voyage started on July 13, 1956, with the 80-voice Beaufort Choral Society performing the folk musical drama "Down in the Valley" in the city parking lot on Bay Street.

The next morning, a parade through downtown featured waving beauties from hamlets all over the state. They got off the floats and competed in evening wear and swimsuits for the Queen of the Sea Islands crown.

The winner, Janice Suber, a Holly Hill native representing Columbia, was crowned that evening by state legislator Jimmy Waddell during the Festival Ball. A sudden thunderstorm on that Saturday night made it necessary to move the ball from the city parking lot to the Community Club. Since the Water Festival never experiences rain, let's say it was the heavy humidity that forced the Buddy Shaw Orchestra to take cover.

Sailboat races organized by Brantley Harvey Jr. drew 35 boats to the Beaufort River on Saturday, with Charleston skippers heading north with most of the hardware.

A water-skiing exhibition Saturday morning whetted the appetite for the main local event: a ski competition late in the afternoon. The competition was so hot that 16-year-old Chris Christensen fractured his jaw Friday afternoon just practicing. Doctors said he might have lost his teeth if they hadn't been clamped together with braces.

Sunday afternoon's roaring festival finale was provided by what The Beaufort Gazette called "60 dare-devil throttle jockeys" in outboard motorboat races. A crowd of about 5,000 was surely thrilled when one of the daredevils was thrown from his boat, pulled from the water in dazed condition and taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital. His empty boat plowed into two other boats.

Now that was a Water Festival.

But in 1956, publicity from the festival was a drop in the bucket compared to what happened on the day after the throttle jockeys left town. Scores of journalists from as far away as London came to report the trial of a Marine drill instructor who had marched his platoon into Ribbon Creek on Parris Island that April, resulting in pandemonium in the moonlight and six drowned recruits. Not only was the sergeant on trial, but so, too, were the methods of making Marines, and those methods were forever changed after the incident.

Dredging was under way for the Port of Port Royal, the Marine Corps Air Station was bulking up to become headquarters for a full air wing, the area's solicitor was under indictment but later acquitted on federal liquor law charges, and the Gazette had a special little section inside called "News of Particular Interest to the Colored Community."

Beaufort is better off than it was 56 years ago today, that's for sure. But we still need the Water Festival to help us take a load off, enjoy the scenery and appreciate the flow of life.

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