Castles in the Sand

Families and friends create masterpieces for a day-and memories for a lifetime-on the North Carolina shore.
Text by Eleanor Lee Yates
A fire-breathing beast slumbers on the beach. Its imposing snout, long claws, and thick tail appear menacing. But passersby need not fear. This dragon's scales are sculpted out of sand.

For nearly 15 summers, vacationing families and friends from Ellicott City and Columbia, Maryland, have molded mythical monsters, marine creatures, and entire villages of castles-with steps, towers, arches, bridges, and domes-on the shore.

The group started small. Karen Koelbel, husband Steve Goodmuth, and cousins Dot and Jay Rockstroh vacationed in Sunset Beach, North Carolina, for the first time in the early 1990s. They returned subsequent summers, renting a cottage on the west end of the island. "We started building sand castles in 1995. Karen got a book from the library, very basic stuff," says Steve, a surveyor and cartographer for the state of Maryland.

Later, Steve and Karen invited others along-Bill and Rebecca Destler, Brian and Diane Slack, Jeff and Ellie Weisfeld, and their families-and they, too, participated in the sand projects. When the gatherings grew, the group rented additional houses, establishing a colony of sorts.

"As we've gotten older, we don't see each other as much," says 20-year-old Jake Goodmuth. "This is really like a reunion." He happily carries water in 5-gallon buckets from the ocean to the construction site on the beach. For a past project, he moved more than 300 gallons of water-one bucket at a time. Jake is joined by 23-year-old Rusty Rockstroh, best known for his skill in scoring bricks on sand buildings.

Creative talent abounds in the group, but most point to Luke Goodmuth, 23, as the master craftsman. Luke joins his father on the beach early each day, often before 8 a.m. They pull a cart loaded with sand-crafting tools such as plastic sheeting and cylinders for shaping, spray bottles for hydrating, PVC pipe for blowing away excess sand, and small brushes for tidying up. They even bring ladders to work on tall edifices.

The first step: Form a stable base. During this process, the crew adds water to the sand to keep it malleable. Once there's a solid foundation, they create a shape, be it animal or architecture. Next comes intricate work with tools, which separates this group from your average castle builders.

"My favorite [tool] is a pastry knife," Luke says, combing texture into the sand. Luke uses clay tools for work-intensive structures such as an Incan temple, castles with 100 steps, or a classic theater with lavish tragedy and comedy masks. One summer, the families built pyramids with spaces sculpted inside for lighted candles.

The group's work receives praise from beachgoers. Most walk gingerly around the creations, careful not to get too close. Accustomed to working before an audience, the builders patiently answer questions. Some preschoolers lean in closely to examine the dragon, but the architects and construction crew remain unfazed.

"When you work in sand, you know the end is near from the beginning," Luke says. He admits, though, that it's sad to arrive in the morning and discover the highest turrets have fallen. Sometimes the surf is the culprit. Occasionally, though, kids can't help but stomp on the creations after the adults leave. They usually run in hordes, leaving behind smashed ruins, Luke says. But, he adds with a grin, "It only takes one child to raze a village."