Volunteers come together to make festival special

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By Kat Walsh

Does the magic of Water Festival simply attract committed volunteers? Or do the volunteers make up a good part of what gives the Water Festival its magic?

Talk with any volunteer, or just watch them working happily in teams in the brutal Southern heat of summer, and it soon becomes apparent that it’s the latter.

Two long-term volunteers, Tony Serrato, the fest’s director for parks, and Todd Stowe, administration coordinator, took a few moments from their 15-hour day recently to share some of their thoughts on what it’s like on the inside of Water Festival.

Growing up in Beaufort, Serrato also grew up with Water Festival, and said he always wanted to be part of it. In 2004, when then-Commodore Marvin Morrison asked Serrato if he ever thought of being part of Water Fest, he signed on and has been a volunteer ever since.

Todd Stowe – who describes his Water Festival role as “toter of heavy object and builder of things” – was asked to volunteer during his first year in Beaufort, in 1996. “I started on the fence crew and did a little bit more each year.”

Before earning their positions this year, both spent years as “staff volunteers” – committing at least a week’s worth of time – and now work during the entire festival.

“My commitment is about 14 days total,” said Serrato. And long days they are. “For example, today we started at 6 a.m. and we’ll probably leave at midnight. I’m back to work the 25th or 26th.”

That’s a significant time commitment – easily a year’s worth of vacation time, if you’re lucky.

Stowe, a teacher at Beaufort High, and Serrato, who owns Lowcountry Electronics, both realize they are fortunate to be able to commit to the Water Festival without sacrificing vacation hours.

“My hats are off to the people who use their vacation time,” said Stowe.

Whether it uses up vacation days or just takes days out of summer vacation, working at the Water Festival 15 or more hours a day also takes a supportive and patient family back at home.

“The biggest help of all was my wife staying home with the kids – especially when they were young,” said Stowe. “My daughter was 1-month-old for her first festival, back in the days when the volunteers were walking around listening to huge radios. She was wearing a Water Festival onesie, and we watched the fireworks from the Bluff and she threw up on me.”

On the topic of family, both agree that the Water Festival is a family. “A hugely dysfunctional family,” added Stowe. “But together we get the work done.”

“I’ve lived on Hilton Head for 15 years, and this gives me an opportunity to come back and see where I’m from,” said Serrato. “And at the end of the day, you get to see the fruit of your labors and enjoy the activities.”

“If you can stay awake for them,” said Stowe. “By show time, I’ve been on my feet for 12 hours already, and like a shark, I just sink.”

The Bed Races, an early afternoon family-oriented event, are Serrato’s favorite.

“It gives the volunteers an opportunity to remind our commodore how much we do for him,” he said.

Traditionally, the commodore competes in a hospital bed escorted by the Pirettes.

“At the finish line, we soak him, buckets of ice water, baby powder,” Serrato said. “This year it is unknown what our contribution will be, but it will be something very special.”

Speaking of soaking, what about rain at the Water Festival?

“That’s the infamous word around here,” said Serrato. “The ‘R’ word.”

“It does not rain at the Water Festival,” Stowe said. “We might have intense periods of humidity, but we do not say the ‘R’ word for the next 10 days.”

Top photo: Todd Stowe, left, and Tony Serrato put in long hours as volunteers at the Beaufort Water Festival. Photo by Bob Sofaly.