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San Clemente's Ocean Festival
Story by Bill Thomas

Paris has its Bastille Day; Boston, its Marathon; New York, its Easter Parade; London, Guy Fawkes. What does San Clemente have to match these great celebrations? The Ocean Festival! The next one, time-wise, is right around the block.

Born in 1976 to founding mother Dorothy Fuller, credited for the Festival's unique title "The Greatest Show on Surf," the offspring has reached a state of regal ascent as an extraordinarily popular event. In that centennial year, the then-local Marine Safety Captain, Sheridan Bayerly, wanted to use athletic competition between and among lifeguards to make the public m

ore aware of the world of lifeguarding. Seeking Fuller's promotional help, little did Bayerly suspect that his hope to attract families and tourism to a modest ocean athletic contest would evolve into the gigantic ocean-oriented circus taking place July 21 and 22.

Like the changing, frothing, forms waves breaking on the San Clemente beach, each annual Ocean Festival is different. This year's celebration offers fun, frolic, fantasy, festivity, and physical challenge to all age groups and ability levels. Emphasizing total family immersion, there's something for everyone, and much for all. There are athletic events - swimming, racing, paddling, rowing - for energetic bodies; ocean paintings and photography for the creativity admirers; Woodies for the auto enthusiasts; face painting, story listening, clinics, and water games for children; a beach band for music lovers; food and drink for the famished; and for families, sand sculpturing, water frolicking, beach ball bouncing, people watching, and togetherness. Additionally, two thousand rubber ducks will be leaving their relatively safe bathtubs for the race from surf to shore with rewards for their winning owners.

The history of the Ocean Festival is 25 years of continuous growth from a small gathering of lifeguards to an event celebrating the beauty, uniqueness, recreation, and magnetism of an ocean setting, ocean athletes who challenge their limits and expand their boundaries, and a family outing. The many benefactors include not only local attendees and event participants, tourists, and the workers who make it happen, but especially the individuals and organizations receiving the scholarships and grants provided by the funds raised. It's a giving rather than taking event. It's become larger in activities and attendance, even while sand on the beach has diminished.

The athletic competition has expanded from lifeguards demonstrating physical prowess in their own ocean abilities and use of life-saving tools to swimmers, runners, paddle-boarders, and boat-rowers of all ages and professions. In the early days, star competitors moved upwards to the United States Lifesaving Association's National Championships. As the Festival gained popularity, lifeguards came from as far as Japan and Australia. The best lifeguards in the world tested their skills in local waters. Later, the competition included junior lifeguards. Now, Ironman and Ironwoman competition, swimming, paddling, rowing, and board and bodysurfing contests attract hundreds of water sport achievers.

The popular Dory Boat Races, 325-pound, fiberglass wood-rail rescue vessels, with fixed seats and oar locks, fight waves up to six feet, head to the same markers attempting to pass one another at every opportunity. The spills, thrills, and instantly reactive abilities of the athletes are crowd-pleasers. The Doheny Longboard Surfing Competition and Tandem Exhibition are described by athletic coordinator Barrett Tester as "...different, graceful, and romantic, providing a whole new story on sporting events involving those who train for and love the ocean."

One reshaped aspect of the Festival is the growing emphasis on children. Rather than only watch daddy compete, free clinics are offered in bodyboarding and bodysurfing. Bring only towels and bathing suits; the rest is supplied. There's also a fishing derby, and the rock wall will provide a challenging surface for climbing. Clowns, face painting, and storytelling are featured in the children's special pavilion, as well as gallivanting in the sand.

Over the years, the progressive focus on families has introduced the Saturday night beach barbeque dinner with musical groups, sand sculpting, and family games from Frisbee to football. Beachmaster Dave Peter, officiating an efficient athletic show over the past 21 years, described one special Festival Saturday night with his young family gathered around him watching a gorgeous San Clemente sunset. "It was like a dream," he reminisced. His kids, with many other San Clementians, grew up to become Festival competitors, and now many of them are helping to run "...the really big show."

"People make a place," said Mike Burke, who started in l979. From past to present, there has been a continuous and enthusiastic involvement of people from the early few to the 300 who will be volunteering for the 2001 version. "The Festival is people connecting together. The result is a recognition of how everybody can work hard together to make a success, be satisfied, and then turn around and make it happen the next year," said Registrar Shiela Martin, who first volunteered in 1992. Initiators Fuller, Sheridan, and Miki Wolf were joined by Boyd Ames, and, soon, by Mary Anna Anderson, who served as secretary, Board member, and president. Others who added their skills early on and still continue include former Marine Safety Captain Lynn Hughes, present Captain Bill Humpreys, food distributor Rick Aron, businessman Rick Anderson, Jo Ann Perkins, Mike Burke, Bob Novello, Rod Rodriquez, among numerous other talents whose names would fill volumes.

Peggy Vance is an example. Arriving from Phoenix seven years ago, she attended the festival, became a volunteer the following year, and joined the 20-person Board of Directors. Now she is the current Executive Director of the Ocean Festival. Her enthusiasm also centers on people, especially the many sponsors, the untiring efforts of willing volunteers, and the family focus. "We try to keep it (the Festival) where it was, desiring to maintain its high standards." She was quick to announce the newest additions, including the "Instant Replay" concert, the latest Bob Harlow T-shirt design, and the intent to raise $20,000 in grants and scholarships. Mary Anna Anderson, currently the volunteer coordinator, credits helpers with everything from setting up tables and tents to digging holes for electrical wiring, adding, "The Festival brings out volunteer power and family participation."

There have been changes. Fuller and Anderson have seen many added Festival features subtracted while some have remained. The pancake breakfasts concocted by San Clemente lifeguards has remained a winner. Fuller recalls joisting with pillow-tipped poles from sawhorses. "One fellow almost knocked off his future father-in-law's head with a too-tightly, wrapped weapon. I wonder if the wedding took place." That event was dropped. "We replaced the Polynesian dancing with Jazzercise thanks to Jeanie McPhee," she remembered. Fuller also reminisced about the short-lived chariot races, where two well-muscled lifeguard teams raced one another, each with a young woman atop their shoulders. "When one of the riders broke her leg, we dropped that," she admitted. She introduced jet skiing, featuring the Wavebusters. Sand sculpting, first a failure, later prevailed. Judging rules changed after the turbulence of a passing train destroyed the head of a sand-sculpted seal. Now judges appear immediately after a work of art is completed. Another Fuller-filler was skydiving, apparently a real crowd pleaser until several descendents landed elsewhere than the intended targets. Fuller also encouraged short-lived pre-Festival fundraisers such as D(Dad's)-Day at the Beach and a huge chess match using four-foot-tall paper mache' chess pieces. "Unfortunately, it rained," she admitted. Remaining in the Festival's agenda are King Neptune, parking area shuttle buses, ocean racing of rubber ducks, among many other Fuller legacies.

As to the continuing contribution of each succeeding set of Ocean Festival Boards of Directors who make the Festival happen, Fisherman Restaurant Manager Bob Novello, tenured from 1985, said, "Each Board improves it, like piling a new log on the ever-burning Festival fire."

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Copyright 2004 South Coast Magazine. No unauthorized duplication without written consent


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