Few people feel Charleston’s change in seasons like the business owners in beach communities. While cooler weather means most of us may gather at oyster roasts and head home earlier in the evening, the small businesses on Folly Beach rely on locals who keep their doors open with a steady trickle of income between October and March. When April rolls around, they’re eager to roll out the welcome mat and invite visitors back to the island.
It’s that spirit that motivated the Folly Association of Business to begin hosting a spring festival in the early ’90s. Now in its 23rd iteration, the Sea and Sand Festival attracts as many as 15,000 visitors to Center Street for a weekend of food, music and fun, officially ushering in the season of bathing suits, flip-flops and easy living.
Held last year in late March, the festival has been moved to mid-April, in part to increase the chance of favorable weather.
“Sea and Sand has always been the kickoff to our season,” said D.J. Rich, co-owner of the island’s Planet Follywood restaurant. “March brings some spring breakers, but the day-trippers and real ‘beachy’ people don’t come until Sea and Sand. The name speaks for itself and the season.”
The event has grown into a multiday celebration of Folly culture, bringing together island residents with visitors to enjoy the best of the beach’s arts and culture. Events include free yoga classes and live music at Folly Friday, with the official festival kicking off with a 5K Fun Run and Walk on Saturday, followed by seven hours of bands performing on two stages, a surf competition, sand sculpture contest and wrap-up party on Sunday.
A festival is born
Bob Linville, who was mayor of Folly Beach in 1990, remembers when Sea and Sand first was suggested at a City Council meeting as a way to welcome visitors back to the beach in the spring.
“It started slow but gained momentum fast,” Linville recalls. “Sea and Sand quickly became a highly anticipated event. It brings us out of the winter doldrums, so to speak.”
Musician Rick Martinez is among those still around who have had a hand in nearly every year of the festival. His band, the Shakin’ Martinis, are consummate Sea and Sand performers, rejoining the lineup this year with their mix of beach music and old-time rock ’n’ roll.
“The first year we had it, it was kind of a cold afternoon, and there were probably only a couple hundred people hanging around,” said Martinez, who now gets the band together for extra practices before what’s become their biggest gig of the year. “It wasn’t anything like it is nowadays. We’re just so happy that they keep asking us to come back and play.”
Festival director Ben Bounds emphasizes that with so many musicians living and performing on Folly, it makes sense to keep the bands as local as possible.
“We try to mix in a couple of the old favorites from the island, as well as focusing on the up-and-coming bands that may be touring but are based on the beach,” Bounds said.
The Shakin’ Martinis are joined this year by headliners James Justin & Co., a bluegrass/Americana trio that formed on Folly Beach but relocated last year to Richmond, Va. Its latest album, “Places,” features the song “Our Little Island,” written as a love song for Folly. They recently released a video filmed on Folly for the song.
A more recent Folly resident, Fuller Condon (of the Two Man Gentleman Band), will perform with old-time ukulele band The V-Tones, in addition to local acts Sweet T ‘n A (a folk/humor duo), the Folly Beach Bluegrass Society (a collective of friends and pickers who meet weekly to practice their craft) and the Folly Beach Reggae All-Stars, who formed in 2012 as a side project for local musicians looking to relax and play island grooves.
“Sea and Sand is a true presentation of Folly’s people,” said “Rasta” Rick Stonecypher, a founding member of the Reggae All-Stars and a Folly resident since 2007. “A festival celebrating simple, happy times is exactly what people need. This festival inspires me to get out and get active. Neighbors get together and share plans for the future and start the great warm beach fun that Folly is famous for.”
That reputation dates back far beyond the days when the late Karen Stringer first organized Sea and Sand with the business association. When she died, friend and longtime volunteer Sharon Geiger took the reigns.
Geiger recalls one early motivation for Sea and Sand was the promotion of local potters, painters and jewelrymakers. Artists maintain a strong presence at the event today with the Folly River Park serving as the hub for displaying and vending their works.
“This is really a community project,” Geiger said. “It’s one of the first things to bring so many people to the beach in one day. Most of the residents enjoy it, and it’s important to the businesses.”
After ensuring that Sea and Sand reached its 20th anniversary in 2010, Geiger passed the torch to Bounds and his company, Follywood Productions.
“All of our festivals on Folly Beach are important for our local businesses, whether they’re tour companies, retail stores or restaurants and bars, because the events allow them to stay open 12 months of the year, and without them, we’d have a seasonally shuttered Center Street,” said Bounds, referencing other festivals like Follypalooza, Taste of Folly and Folly Gras.
“Sea and Sand is particularly important because it’s our longest-running festival on Folly.”
More than music
When he came on board, Bounds immediately sought to expand Sea and Sand into a weekend-long affair.
This year features the new Folly Friday with a live broadcast 3-7 p.m. by Mix 95.9 FM at the Grill on the Edge that includes drink specials. Next door, musician Eric Penrod will play at Woody’s Pizza until 7 p.m., when Bert’s Market and Folly Beach Massage will host a Namaste Folly free yoga class and potluck dinner at the Folly Beach library.
On Saturday, the festivities begin with the 5K Fun Run and Skate/Walk at 8 a.m., which starts at the Folly Beach Fishing Pier. Registration is available online at www.active.com or the morning of the race beginning at 7 a.m.
The second annual Kickoff Classic Surf Competition will begin concurrently at 8 a.m. at the pier, with competition in shortboard, longboard, bodyboard, “push ‘n surf” and stand-up paddleboarding for men, women and youths. That contest continues throughout the weekend, concluding at 5 p.m. Sunday.
In addition to the island’s best surfing talent, continuous live music at the bar at Blu includes DJ Wade and the Ben Fagan Duo.
Beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday and continuing until 5 p.m., several blocks of Center Street will be closed to vehicular traffic for the main event, accommodating the crowd and more than 100 food and art vendors — more than three times the vendors of any other Folly festival — as well as children’s activities.
An on-site silent auction will raise funds for island charities. Leashed pets are welcome at the festival, and there is no admission charge.
Sunday’s events have expanded to include the Mr. John’s Beach Store Coffin Island Sand Sculpting Contest, beginning at noon in front of the Tides Folly Beach Hotel. All types of sand sculpture are allowed, and entrants can join as a family (up to six participants) or as a group of up to four with a $10 registration fee per entrant to benefit the Folly Beach Park and Recreation Department.
Sculptures will be judged in the categories of most original, most Folly themed and best overall for a total of six awards, with judging occurring at 3 p.m. To pre-register, go to www.follybeachfestivals.com.
The weekend closes Sunday afternoon at Blu with the Sea and Sand after-party featuring music from the East Coast Party Band.
Bounds recommends arriving early Saturday morning to beat traffic or, better yet, booking a room or crashing with friends on the beach on Friday night.
“When you wake up on Folly Beach, you get the whole experience,” Bounds said. “Sea and Sand generates an atmosphere that sets the tone for summertime on Folly Beach. It’s the island’s biggest event, from every angle you look at it.”