David Lauderdale

Water Festival holds on to the joys of a tough life

Beaufort water-skiers from the era of the first Beaufort Water Festival, from left, Skip VonHarten, Willard Outlaw and Steve Bishop.
Beaufort water-skiers from the era of the first Beaufort Water Festival, from left, Skip VonHarten, Willard Outlaw and Steve Bishop. Special to the Packet and Gazette

The seed that planted the Beaufort Water Festival's name may have been a watermelon seed.

Carl "Skip" Von Harten Jr. says he remembers the day the notion of the festival now running for the 56th time was first aired.

"We had a water ski club," says the Beaufort native who turned 80 in February. "We had more than 100 people in it. We had military officers in it and everything."

In the mid-1950s, a water ski club meeting was taking place in the Chrysler-Plymouth car dealership Von Harten's family owned on Carteret Street.

"Willard Outlaw -- a fantastic skier -- said, 'Hampton has a Watermelon Festival. We should have a Water Festival.' That's where the name came from."

The Water Festival still showcases Beaufort as a place where people like to go down the river to camp, go to the river to fish, go down to the river to get baptized, dive into the river to cool off, race sailboats in the river for bragging rights or simply gaze at the river to relax.

But when the festival was born, Beaufort also was known as a haven for water skiing.

In their spare time, people like Von Harten and Outlaw practiced year-round for the glory of dazzling everybody in town at the Water Festival. They'd rather win the water skiing competition than be named festival commodore.

"We had pyramids, mixed doubles, we had everything," Von Harten says.

They skipped over wakes on the slalom skis that made everything faster.

Fast was a relative term when Von Harten pulled four skiers with a 35-horsepower motor.

"We pulled them from the old oyster factory to town, water up to their knees," he said. "They were worn out when we got there. Of course, we didn't weigh as much as we do now."

They anchored a ski ramp in front of the town parking lot so everyone at the festival could see their daring tricks. They hosted out-of-town ski clubs. And they ventured to Cypress Gardens in Florida to learn about better equipment and techniques.

Skiing was a way to escape the grind of making a living in a small town off the beaten path.


The Von Harten Brothers Chrysler-Plymouth showroom where the ski club met is now buried in a dilapidated building.

Skip Von Harten's father and two brothers opened the business. They could fix anything and build anything. Skip's dad, Carl "Scoonie" Von Harten, was the car dealer; Clarence "Zoo" Von Harten was the mechanic; and Bill "Brassy" Von Harten ran the business and was a machinist. Between them, they kept the county running. Bill Von Harten even built a crab-picking machine for Sterling Harris that helped put his Blue Channel Corp. on the map.

The business eventually moved out to U.S. 21, and Von Harten said he sold it in the late 1970s. He continued to sell cars for O.C. Welch Ford Lincoln Mercury until last year.

The Von Hartens came to the Lowcountry in the late 1700s, and they've been on the water from the beginning. Skip's grandfather was a harbor pilot who captained ships into the Port of Port Royal. He bought a two-mast, 98-foot pilot schooner that drew 11 feet of water -- an industrial-sized investment that was eventually torn up on the bar off Bay Point. She was a far cry from the zippy Chris-Craft power boats that would later pull skiers through the same waterways for the sheer fun of it.


Skip Von Harten tells about Arthur O. Christensen, a surveyor who was skiing well into his late 80s.

"He was tough as damn nails," Von Harten said. "He fell off the roof of a two-story house, got up and dusted himself off."

One day the elderly gentleman pulled up at the car dealership and told Von Harten he wanted to ski in the Water Festival while holding aloft a snake.

Von Harten recalls the conversation that followed as he leaned against Christensen's truck.

"You know, Mr. Christensen, folks don't cater to snakes much."

"Why, it's a fine damn snake."

"What kind of snake are you talking about?"

"A rattlesnake."

"A rattlesnake? Where is he?"

"He's in the truck, right in front of your face."

Von Harten said he almost broke his shoulder getting his arm off the truck.

"It was lying up there in the truck just like it was dog.

"I had to tell Mr. Christensen that if he were to somehow drop the rattlesnake while he was skiing, we'd have to clear everybody out of the water and that wouldn't do.

"I said, 'If that snake gets away, there won't be anybody in the parking lot but you.' "

Maybe we're no longer as tough as Christensen, or Zoo or Scoonie. But showing off Beaufort's rivers is still easy as spitting a watermelon seed.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content

See The Beaufort Gazette's Water Festival coverage, including photo galleries


The official Water Festival site