Beaufort Water Festival

Commodore Little’s credo: ‘Hang in there’

Three simple words of advice have helped 2010 Beaufort Water Festival Commodore Sheri Little manage the stress, sleep deprivation, excitement and bittersweet emotions that come with leading the 10-day event: Hang in there.

“This one is attributed to (former Commodore) Mike Yoakum. He said, ‘It’s your job to push the boulder up the hill, and once it gets up to the top, you have to let it go,’ ” said Little, 48. “It’s going to roll downhill one way or the other.”

Her boulder begins its descent today as spectators gather for the opening ceremony of the 55th Water Festival at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. But for Little — the third female commodore — it already feels like the end of an era.

Little reflected on her journey to Beaufort and what eventually led her to “humbly accept” the honor and pressure of leading Beaufort’s largest festival.

It began in 1989 when Little’s family of four left San Diego and headed east to Beaufort. Her husband, Russ, had been stationed at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island as a range officer.

“I remember coming across the Whale Branch bridge, when it was only two lanes wide, at low tide and thinking, ‘What the hell is that smell?’ ” Little said. “It was a huge culture shock.”

The family stayed in Beaufort until 1992 and returned in 1995, where Russ finished out his final three years in the Marine Corps, Little said. By then, Little had fallen in love with Beaufort.

Her journey with the festival began in 2001 when a friend asked her to organize the antique show. “That was back when we had a boat and enjoyed the Water Festival from the river, like so many people do,” Little said.

In her life outside the festival, Little works as a loan officer for New South Mortgage. But business has suffered lately, she said.

She scaled back on her workload throughout the past 12 months to juggle festival planning and she quit accepting loan applications a couple of weeks ago to clear her schedule for the next 10 days, Little said.

“I keep saying I need to go back to work to supplement my volunteer time,” she said.

Little worked her way up the Water Festival organization, through director and coordinator positions. Then, last year, Commodore Wilmot Schott asked her to be his program coordinator.

In the Water Festival chain of command, the coordinator typically serves as the commodore’s “right-hand man” and is considered next in line for the top post. But the festival’s executive board makes the final call, Little said.

“You have to have worked your butt off, be seen working your butt off, and you have to have some level of business acumen and political savvy,” Little said.

As commodore, Little serves as the public face of the festival and oversees all planning and a crew of more than 400 volunteers, which she compares to a “big, dysfunctional, loving family.”

Still, after almost 11 months of preparation, Little found herself having a minor meltdown a few weeks ago, she said.

“I did have a little crying spurt I had to get out of the way because it’s very bittersweet, the thought of leaving this family,” Little said. (Volunteers who reach the commodore post effectively retire once they’ve served their year and stay out of any day-to-day planning for future festivals.)

“I just had a moment where I was thinking about the crew and all the people I’ve worked with and how much love you really do develop for one another.”

Once her reign ends, Little said she will serve on the festival’s executive board, as is customary, and for four years as a Water Festival Whistler — a costumed dancing act performed by the past four outgoing commodores on Lowcountry Supper night.

She also will turn attention to another organization: Little is on the city of Beaufort’s Tricentennial Committee and will help plan the city’s 300th birthday celebration in 2011.

Other than that, Little said she plans to decompress.

“I’m looking forward to going back to work. Or I may just move to Key West and become and juggler at Mallory Square. That’s my favorite escape fantasy,” she said. “I’d need to learn to juggle first.”