Pluff Mud Chronicles: The Rockville Races and parental nightmares
If you’re from Charleston, the words “Rockville Regatta” usually bring back a flood of youthful memories, chief among them being the melodious sounds of “You have the right to remain silent.”
I jest! I jest!
It’s more along the lines of, “This is the Coast Guard! Prepare to be boarded,” followed by the thunder of underage beer drinkers hurling themselves into the creek and swimming with the fervor usually reserved for crossing the Rio Grande.
Held on the first weekend of August, the Sea Island Yacht Club’s annual regatta, known affectionately as the Rockville Regatta or the Rockville Races, has been a part of the Lowcountry’s sailing landscape for almost 130 years. There the advent of the camera has resulted in the disqualification of hundreds of up-and-coming locals from ever holding public office. If you’ve ever wondered why the Upstate is so powerful politically, it’s because the Lowcountry’s best and brightest dare not throw their hat in the ring. “Someone, somewhere,” they think, “surely has a photo of that time at Rockville when ...” (As a result of the digital camera and Facebook, the only remaining person in the Lowcountry qualified to run for public office is a Mormon lad named Brigham, and he’s finishing up his mission gig next year. Let’s hope he stays.)
I’d like to say this famed regatta hasn’t always been thus — but who knows? If you gather a few hundred Charlestonians together at an event where Bloody Marys can reasonably be served with a late breakfast, anything can happen. I mean, even a century ago it must’ve taken courage to wear a “boater” cap with a straight face. Throw in the fact the poor ladies were dressed chin to ankle in the August heat, and you’ve got a big group of “we people” who seriously need to take off the edge — something they do quite naturally, thank you very much.
The racing of the famed scow-style Sea Island One Design sailboats is a signature event of the Rockville Regatta. The Sea Island One came into being in the 1940s when some local lad had a huge slab of concrete in his backyard, and thought, “I wonder how that would handle with a sail on it?” The Sea Island One sailed competitively for many years, then began to fade from favor, mostly because sailing one is like sailing, well, a slab of concrete. Most went to weather.
Then, thankfully, a handful of locals were standing around the docks one day when one declared, “You know, I wish I had a less responsive boat. Something slow and lumbering and exhausting to sail.”
Another chimed in, “And made out of wood, so the maintenance will be endless and expensive.”
“We’ve got an old boat in the backyard,” said a third. “My grandad said he sailed it, but I always thought he was joking. It would take a team of University of Alabama engineers to design a less sea-worthy structure.”
The old Sea Island Ones were winched from backyards and restored, and a few madmen built them anew. Before too long, they were once again launched into the Rockville Regatta — and to be aboard the first Sea Island One to drift backwards across the finish line is a very big deal indeed.
There are other sailboats in the regatta, but don’t worry — you won’t notice them. Sailing has as much to do with the regatta as the Washington Post has to do with reporting the news. The reality is the event is about Americans acting like soccer fans when Russia plays Ukraine.
Okay, that’s not true. The adults at the Regatta seem to be fairly “well behaved,” mostly because they are ensconced behind a layer of screen, sitting on the locals’ porches or sipping a rum drink high up on the breeze-catching tuna tower of a sport fishing boat. What actually goes on at the village is anyone’s guess, but the odds are good it isn’t, uh, good? These homeowners are very tolerant of the younger folks wandering across their lawn, but don’t make the mistake of wandering up on their porch. “Get off my lawn” is a proclamation of love compared to what you’ll hear if you if you start hoovering down their deviled eggs and Mrs. Hamby’s sandwiches. Don’t get me started on the potential mischief had on those fine motor yachts at anchor.
The true spectacle at the regatta takes place not on land, but among the under-30 crowd in the creek. The waterway is packed with (daddy’s) yachts, fishing boats, jon boats, sofa boats and vessels more apt to sink than a Sea Island One. There are youngsters floating on rafts, inflatables and a few clinging to flotsam. The mass of humanity looks like bath-day in the Ganges, not a Lowcountry creek — except of course, this mass of humanity is seated aboard tens of millions of dollars of fiberglass, and has more beer and food than all of New Delhi. AND, the ladies in pluff mud-stained bathing suits will be wearing as much jewelry as you might expect at a Baccarat table in Monte Carlo.
Many years ago, when Strom Thurmond roamed the earth, the aquatic insanity went unchecked.
One year, however, the cleanup crew found the graduating class of Porter-Gaud asleep in the marsh, and the decision was made to add a little adult supervision. As result, a few agencies stepped in to offer their assistance: DNR, the Coast Guard, Homeland Security, the Seabrook Police, the Charleston County Police, and the John’s Island Fourth Volunteer Duck Boat Navy. This fleet of aquatic enforcers is fairly understanding and focuses on safety as opposed to jack-booted rules enforcement; the primary safety guide is this: There are so many swilling Jacks and Dianes (John Mellencamp, forgive me) that anyone falling out of Dad’s yacht is apt to land in a safety boat.
Saturday night offers a Motown-filled raucous event at the Sea Island Yacht Club, designed mostly, I think, to keep the youngsters off the residents’ porches. The gathering is a lot of fun and a very bad idea to attend if you are a newcomer. For newbies at Rockville, the rule of thumb is to be at least three zip codes away when the sun goes down.
Despite the Mardi Gras atmosphere offered up by the Rockville Regatta, it is — of course — possible to participate in a family-fun way. A great many people pack sandwiches and bring the kids, and the kids just think everyone is happy, clumsy and a little hard of hearing. Parking is tough and will require a hike, but the locals take it all pleasantly in stride. The regatta existed before they moved into their quaint little village, and it will be there after they move to Bishop Gadsden.
So, fear not! Come and enjoy this local tradition! Stay safely on the land. Use sunscreen. Drink soft drinks. And don’t let some forlorn skipper talk you into crewing on his Sea Island One.
Now you have done it, Prioleau. How many Whaleys, Baileys, Townsends, Dotterers, Maybanks, Sosnowskis, Hutsons, Mikells and so forth will be seeking your severed head on the mast of a SIOD after they read these comments about their beloved craft? If you plan to visit the races, you better wear a paper bag with eye and mouth holes — just like your “Unknown Cheerleader” days at Porter-Gaud.
Seriously, let’s understand satire in sailing is no broad reach; however, my distinguished friend has a point. The reality is that a big and heavy scow in light winds is a bear to operate and moves at the speed of Faulkner finding a period. Nonetheless, when the wind is right, no true pluff mud-marinated gent could come up with a more lovely concept than to compete with your pals in a SIOD. Since most of the sea island gentry have laughed in ink with you, Prioleau, I fully expect that they will show you mercy.
Ah, mercy; it is hard to catch if you are an amateur or an atheist running hard at the Rockville Regatta. The truth is that the grace of the Lord is the only reason we have had so few serious accidents at these races. (It is no coincidence that the village has a Grace Chapel.) Nothing else could have saved so many souls. You cannot be filled with Jimmy Buffett bravado and hop amid moving boats, docks, tidal challenges and changes and oyster shells and do so three sheets to the wind without the odd mishap. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Rockville cowboys. If you end up invited on a substantial vessel with a responsible captain, grasp the opportunity. Subset parties are on every dock within five miles of the Sea Island Yacht Club; if you know the waterways, you will visit and visit some more. Many boatowners will come up from Charleston or Beaufort for the day and motor home in the evening.
Expect shenanigans at every turn, as the most honorable current mayor of Rockville will quietly acknowledge. Mayor Riley Bradham was once dunked in an offshore cooler filled with some beer and lots of cold water and ice. Someone had the presence of mind to take a photograph of the lad coming wide-eyed from the Arctic. It is possible that yours truly had a hand in this prank dating to the first Reagan administration, but I digress.
Some of us just like that village of Rockville and its timeless aura. The youth band together and do what they do best — chat, flirt and slug beer; if they care, they will get the race results from their I-phones. On the other hand, the mature spectators actually take a break from chatting and sipping rum to pick up binoculars for a viewing and go breathless when the colorful fleet heads toward the finish line as all hands on deck adjust the sails for maximum speed.
Some old salt at a local yacht club dared to dream that Don Rutledge might return to his former craft and write up the races as he did 50-plus years ago, and then we would have something worthy for the Sunday paper. Not even the ink-stained pride of the national yachting magazines could dare tell all that happens at the largest sea island cocktail party of the year; we have to keep a few secrets embedded in the deepest pluff mud, hidden amid the meteoric shrapnel from which the sweet village gets her name.
If you have a legend for the Pluff Mud team to uncover or a historical quirky point you wish for us to address, please send same to firstname.lastname@example.org.