After a year of planning, the 59th Beaufort Water Festival starts with a bang Friday in Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
Gates open at 6 p.m., and admission on opening night is free. The opening ceremony kicks off at 7 p.m., which Republican congressman Mark Sanford is scheduled to attend. The Parris Island Marine Band will perform, and there will be a fireworks display at dusk.
The 10-day festival will continue this weekend with events "on both land and sea," Commodore Brandy Gray said, counting off activities that range from raft races on the Beaufort River to the Saturday night concert by country artist Craig Morgan.
Friday also brings the start of the arts and crafts market on the promenade by the Beaufort Downtown Marina, which will run every day of the festival. There are 50 vendors in the market this year.
Opening ceremonies will be a little bittersweet, Gray said, as organizers plan to honor three past commodores who died in the past year.
They are Gray's great-uncle, third Commodore Sammy Gray; ninth Commodore Ray Kearns; and 57th Commodore John Gentry.
"It's a very close (festival) family, and we've been through a tough year," Gray said. "But I know they're smiling at us in heaven, chuckling at all the volunteers running around getting ready."
Festival attendees will have a new option for getting downtown, where parking is expected to be scarce during peak hours.
Free shuttle service has been expanded to two locations this year, with the addition of a stop at the gazebo in Beaufort Town Center on Boundary Street. Shuttles also will service the Beaufort County government complex at the corner of Ribaut Road and Boundary Street, as in the past.
Shuttles will run about every 15 minutes at night. A full schedule is available at www.bftwaterfestival.com.
ARTworks managing director Laura Maxey is thrilled about the new shuttle, which will stop in front of the nonprofit community art center, theater and gallery in Beaufort that's run by the Arts Council of Beaufort County.
"This is an opportunity for businesses off the main corridor of the festival to participate in the action, as well," she said. "We have a ton of parking out here at Beaufort Town Center, and this is a great way for people to stop and park and beat the heat and traffic."
ARTworks will have a craft station set up for kids, and Maxey is encouraging other Town Center businesses to run Water Festival specials and activities.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.