Meet Doyle Clifton of the Beaufort Water Search and Rescue: Beaufort Water Festival’s ‘safety net’ for boaters

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By Lanier Laney

Beaufort Water Search and Rescue (BWSAR) is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to assisting local boaters in distress. They have served boaters for 39 years and have been an essential “safety net” for the Beaufort Water Festival all those years.

One of the Beaufort Water Search and Rescue boats with its horizontal orange stripe.
One of the Beaufort Water Search and Rescue boats with its horizontal orange stripe.

The group’s primary mission is to assist and support federal, state and local emergency response agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and was formed in response to the realization that those agencies could not render assistance to boaters in distress in the vast water stretches of northern Beaufort County in all circumstances all the time.

Says 20 year BWSAR volunteer veteran Doyle Clifton, “I think our entire philosophy is to just help people.  Many of the 30 members are local boaters who have a very intimate knowledge of these waters, we use those skills and local knowledge to search and find boats in distress in the huge maze of rivers, creeks, marshes and mud flats that make up this area.”

He adds, “For the most part, we have five boats that belong to BWSAR, however, we also use personal boats owned by members, having a number of other sizes and types available.  We handle everything from deep water rescue to rivers, creeks, marsh and mud.  Even one time responded in a kayak and had to crawl through pluff mud and over oyster beds to reach stranded boaters.

“We also help with safety boat patrols and watch over participants in special events like the Beaufort River Swim, the Paddle Battle, Dragon Boat practices, Dragon Boat Races, Raft Races, etc.  There are large numbers of privately owned boats that participate in Water Festival activities every year, a few not too seaworthy, others have problems with motors and need tows (disabled), fuel issues, persons overboard — lots of alcohol-related issues, too.  After the day’s festivities are over we remain on standby to assist even after dark with festivalgoers who might have problems heading home.”

Originally from Allendale, SC, Doyle spent summers here growing up on the creeks with his family, moving here

Doyle Clifton of Beaufort Water Search and Rescue
Doyle Clifton of Beaufort Water Search and Rescue

permanently 34 years ago where he became an art teacher at Mossy Oaks Elementary.

Doyle is proud he met and married “a Beaufort girl.” He says with a smile, “Thirty years next month.” His lovely wife is Doris Barton Clifton, who works as an accountant for Waste Management. They have two grown children and three granddaughters.

Doyle holds his fellow volunteers  in high regard. “It takes a special kind of person to choose to belong to this kind of group — a special kind of attitude and mentality to leave a warm, safe and comfortable home and go out in probably the worst weather and sea conditions, almost always at night, to help those in need. Guess we ain’t wrapped too tight,” he says with a laugh.

Since the job is 24/7, Doyle says a lot of volunteers and their wives and families get disturbed, not only in the middle of the night, but also when they have just walked into a restaurant or are in the middle of all kinds of family events — like parties, church or even sitting in the dentist chair.  But Doyle says it’s worth it because of “the satisfaction we get knowing we have made a difference, that we can respond quickly to almost any situation from south end of Hilton Head to Edisto Island and inland all the way to Highway 17. We have a lot of what, at first, look like insignificant calls,  but we take every one seriously. Stranded boaters have no access to medical help, are at the mercy of the elements — lightning storms, rain. Simply aground on a sand bar can become a very dangerous situation.”

Doyle says that over his 20 years, he’s seen a lot of tragedy and sadness from families regarding losses to drownings and accidents. But he adds, “I’ve seen a lot of good, too, great feeling when you know you’ve made a difference and probably saved a life or two.”

In 2004, Doyle was awarded the highest award given to a citizen for services rendered to the State of South Carolina — The Order of the Silver Crescent — by the governor, for his efforts as skipper with BWSAR. Doyle is currently a beach master with the organization, coordinating information with the Coast Guard and other agencies and the rescue operation. He has high praise for current Skipper Dick Jennings and the other dedicated members of the team. He retired two years ago from teaching and now works part time as a tour guide on Parris Island.  As an avid kayaker, with 60 years of experience on the local waters he has a vast database stored in his head to continue to help with rescue operations in the future.

In reference to the type of volunteer work they do, Doyle says what has always surprised him are the number of members who join and last for only a short time.  “I’ve had people literally get out of one of our boats after a mission, walk by and say, “You people are crazy … I quit!’”

But for those who might like this kind of volunteer work that makes such a huge difference, they are always looking for new members.

Doyle credits Beaufort County for support with some funding, and encourages people to participate in the Annual St. Paddy’s Day Sea Rescue Golf Tournament fundraiser in March on Fripp Island. But he adds that the BWSAR is a nonprofit organization that mainly survives on donations.

Says Doyle “The donations we receive go to a number of needs. Obviously fuel is a huge expense right now with gas prices and these boats are not very fuel efficient.  Also, special equipment, navigation aids, wear and tear — these boats are almost always out in some of the harshest conditions — really takes a toll. If it weren’t for member Gary Bright — a former mechanic retired from Sea Island Marine — who literally keeps our boats running, Bobby Cooler at Sea Island Marine, and the good folks at Beaufort Boat and Dock Supply that help us out, not sure where we would be.”

To donate or volunteer, call 843-525-1969 or mail visit their office at: BWSAR, 817 Parris Avenue, Port Royal, SC, 29935.

Says Doyle, “To our Water Festival guests, have a great time, be patient, cooperate and work with the various Water Festival groups and enjoy yourselves. Make it your best Water Festival yet — just don’t make it the last for yourself or someone else.”

For more information, visit www.bwsar.org.

For those who need assistance at any time day or night from Beaufort Search and Rescue, during the Water Festival or after, contact them by simply dialing 911 or HAIL VHF 16.