Beaufort Water Festival stage set-up in less than 30 seconds
In August of 1969, hundreds of thousands gathered on a large farm in New York for a now-famous three-day music festival.
A month earlier, however, right around the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, a slightly smaller-scale Water Festival took place in downtown Beaufort.
In that 14th iteration of a festival started in 1956, Commodore Elrid Moody had something new to unveil that would be one of the most recognizable part of all future festivals — the Pirettes.
Now celebrating their 50th anniversary as part of the 64th Annual Beaufort Water Festival July 12-21, the Pirettes have evolved with the continuously-growing festival. Though their cultural impact may not be quite on the same scale as Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock or the Apollo 11 mission to space, the Pirettes remain the most visible aspect of the Beaufort Water Festival – and a desirable calling for young women in the community.
“I’m still proud today to say I was a Pirette,” said Beth Brittman, a Pirette in the 1972 Water Festival.
“To be in Beaufort and a Pirette at that time was an honor.”
Brittman recalled being called to the principal’s office at Beaufort High School to be told she had been accepted into her role as Water Festival mascot. While the festival crowds are now arguably larger, the prestige attached to the title remains.
“Growing up, the Pirettes were who you looked up to,” said Meredith Keene, a Pirette in 1993 and 1994.
In fact, so important was the title that Keene didn’t receive an automatic spot despite her dad, Lowell, being the 1993 festival Commodore.
“He told the committee to only let me on based on merit, and to judge me the same as the other applicants,” she said.
And while Pirettes have always gone through rigorous reference checks and have been upheld to certain standards, the outfits have changed with the times.
Anyone wishing to complain about today’s 21st century outfits should know that the donations from the old Garland Knitting Mills on Highway 21 once more closely resembled actual Pirate uniforms, albeit showing slightly more skin.
Another change is the end of the overnight trips for the Pirettes to the Myrtle Beach Sun Fun festival parade — a highlight for almost any Pirette who served before the early 2000s.
Still, the parade here on the second Saturday of Water Festival is a chance for local float fame, a moment to soak up the celebrity atmosphere from Boundary to Bay.
Of course, it’s not all simple smiling and waving. Though there definitely were once charm classes to attend and proper manners to learn, there was also the responsibility of being an ambassador of the tourism industry’s summer highlight.
“Community service is such a prevalent aspect,” said Julie Schott, a Pirette in 1974 and later First Lady of the 2009 Water Festival. “We did more than just show up.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Keene.
“Being a Pirette was a good way to plug-in and volunteer and help put on the festival,” she said.
Thankfully, in the last 50 years, the festival has gone on with the help of literally hundreds more with that same sense of duty.
Even today, you may not know a former Pirette by any telling feature except the pride they show in recalling their teenage summers.
As Brittman said, it’s become like a sorority.
“We were close-knit, and it was a wonderful part of growing up in Beaufort.”