On a June morning in 1996, two classic Hilton Head Island sights nearly clashed in the waters off South Beach.
In one spot near the beach, dozens of sailboats bobbed and swerved, their racing crews working feverishly to take final stock of their equipment and conditions. In this regatta, local and national athletes faced the best of more than 70 countries, who were using the race as a tune-up for the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics sailing events in Savannah that summer.
In another spot on the water, smack-dab in the middle of the race course, were the shrimp boats.
Their black nets spread wide like the soaked wings of a cormorant, each trawler could easily carry away a course marker or block a yacht’s path. And, as local sailors remember, the shrimpers weren’t always eager to move.
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“They were in the way, and someone from the race committee tried to beg them to please allow room for the sailboats in the race,” Tom Crews recalled this week, ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Games. “I guess there was kind of a not nice reply from one of the shrimp boats.”
That’s when the late Charlie Fraser, son and nephew of Sea Pines developers Joe B. Fraser Jr. and Charles Fraser, got on the radio.
He did the absolute best good ol’ boy Southern drawl request and begged those shrimp boys. ‘Please! This is our Olympic team out here practicing for America.’
Tom Crews remembering how Charlie Fraser begged with shrimp boat captains to get off their Olympic training course in 1996
“He did the absolute best good ol’ boy Southern drawl request and begged those shrimp boys. ‘Please! This is our Olympic team out here practicing for America,’” Crews pleaded, with a laugh. “ ‘Please make room for the sailors in the sailboat race, they’re the pride of America!’”
“It just adds a little local flair. They’re literally trying to catch their living, and we’re having a fun sailing regatta,” remembered Mike Overton, founder of Outside Hilton Head and a main organizer of the island’s 1996 events. “So you have a difference in priorities. It’s good we had Charlie Fraser there, because he was quite a diplomat.”
Luckily, the fishermen listened.
“Nobody ever came to fisticuffs,” adds local businessman Jim Vaughn, who was chairman of the Hilton Head Island Olympic Task Force.
The boats made way. The yachts were off. And the Lowcountry’s little Olympics were back on.
Showing off for the world
Twenty years ago, Hilton Head hosted two regattas ahead of the 1996 Games: the Sea Pines Single-Handed Spring Regatta in late March, and the main event, the Champagne MUMM Olympic Classes Beach Regatta, in late June.
That July, more than 300 athletes would compete about 10 miles down the coast, in the Wassaw Sound, and many of those who participated in the Hilton Head races regarded the early regattas as little more than warm-ups.
But that didn’t bother local sailing enthusiasts, who had a rare opportunity to rub elbows with Olympians and volunteer their boats and expertise in the Games.
“It was an island-wide thing, and it was terrific,” said Vaughn, chairman of the Hilton Head Island Olympic Task Force in 1996 and a deputy race official in Savannah. “The island came together.”
On Hilton Head, the Cross Island Parkway was still a construction site. The Disney Vacation Club Resort and its beach club in Palmetto Dunes, the June regatta’s staging site, was brand-new. And Palmetto Dunes and Sea Pines opened their gates to its national and international guests.
Sails bore signs of the times — with sponsor logos like Jelly Belly, Xerox and Red Bull, which wouldn’t hit American shelves for another year. The regatta secured its own sponsor, G.H. Mumm champagne, because the company’s president had a second home on Hilton Head, according to Vaughn.
And at the two big parties that week, “The Mumm was flowing,” Overton said.
Newspaper accounts describe sweltering heat, and maybe it seemed that way to competitors from mild-summered countries like Sweden and The Netherlands. But Crews, who was a skipper in one of the off-shore races, doesn’t remember it that way.
“When you’re on a sailboat and you’re on the water, hot doesn’t exist in the vocabulary,” he says.
As they finished one race, and steered their boats back toward South Beach, he remembers fighter jets breaking across the sky.
The pilots from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort noticed the regatta and decided to burn off some fuel with an impromptu air show.
Crews’ favorite sight came once the Olympics began.
While ferrying some spectators around on his 45-foot sailboat, Crews gave in to their repeated requests to get closer and closer to the race course.
“They insisted they were OK and we had the clearance,” he said. “We didn’t interfere with any of the racing, and nobody yelled at us.”
The view, he says, was “up close and personal.”
Brush with future gold medalist
Among those Vaughn met was Lee Lai-shan, a Mistral sailor, or windsurfer, from the British Hong Kong team.
“I really didn’t have her on my radar,” he says. “Really, the Hong Kong group didn’t seem like they were that competitive.”
The next month, she took home a gold medal. It was the first time Hong Kong medaled in the games, and still the region’s only gold.
“They ended up doing it,” Vaughn says, adding that he was impressed with all of the Olympians’ different levels of experience and capabilities. “We’re a bunch of lazy, old men down here compared to those guys.”
Vaughn didn’t even make it through the June regatta without a sports injury. During the start of a race, when he and other officials were waving flags and sounding horns, a wave rocked their boat in one direction as he moved in the other to watch the competitors.
“My knee moved with the boat, not with me,” he said. A fellow volunteer and past competitor was also a registered nurse and wrapped his leg at sea.
A few years later, the island hosted another world championship, and then stopped playing host to national regattas.
But to many locals, the 1996 regattas stand out — the camaraderie, the energy, the perfect sea breeze, and the uncrowded beaches with views that put fans right in the action.
“Every time I see people in travels that were involved in those days, there’s a lot of nostalgia,” Overton says. “... I think they enjoyed the island.”
A new sailing tradition
Offshore racing, defined as competitions held primarily in open water and requiring several hours to complete, has been largely absent from the Lowcountry’s yachting calendar for a generation.
But this Saturday, the island is debuting The Low Country Hook, named after the shape of the race route from Calibogue Sound to Savannah’s Skidaway Island.
The race is the highlight of a three-day schedule of festivities. Competing boats from Savannah will sail to Hilton Head Island on Friday for a skippers’ meeting and welcome party hosted by the YCHHI. The race follows at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Beachgoers on Hilton Head Island’s south side will be able to see competing boats start to spread out after the start. Boat owners also are invited to observe the race from the water.
Another party is set for Landings Harbor Marina after the race’s completion, open to all participants, sponsoring club members and guests. Sunday brings competitors together again for breakfast before the Hilton Head Island boats head home.