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San Clemente's Ocean Festival

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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.

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 multitudes who will be volunteering for this years event. "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.

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