Families and friends create masterpieces for a day-and memories for a lifetime-on the North Carolina shore.

By Eleanor Lee Yates
June 05, 2008
Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

A fire-breathing beast slumbers on the beach. Its imposing snout,long claws, and thick tail appear menacing. But passersby need notfear. This dragon's scales are sculpted out of sand.

For nearly 15 summers, vacationing families and friends fromEllicott City and Columbia, Maryland, have molded mythicalmonsters, marine creatures, and entire villages of castles-withsteps, 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, NorthCarolina, for the first time in the early 1990s. They returnedsubsequent summers, renting a cottage on the west end of theisland. "We started building sand castles in 1995. Karen got a bookfrom the library, very basic stuff," says Steve, a surveyor andcartographer for the state of Maryland.

Later, Steve and Karen invited others along-Bill and RebeccaDestler, Brian and Diane Slack, Jeff and Ellie Weisfeld, and theirfamilies-and they, too, participated in the sand projects. When thegatherings grew, the group rented additional houses, establishing acolony of sorts.

"As we've gotten older, we don't see each other as much," says20-year-old Jake Goodmuth. "This is really like a reunion." Hehappily carries water in 5-gallon buckets from the ocean to theconstruction site on the beach. For a past project, he moved morethan 300 gallons of water-one bucket at a time. Jake is joined by23-year-old Rusty Rockstroh, best known for his skill in scoringbricks on sand buildings.

Creative talent abounds in the group, but most point to LukeGoodmuth, 23, as the master craftsman. Luke joins his father on thebeach early each day, often before 8 a.m. They pull a cart loadedwith sand-crafting tools such as plastic sheeting and cylinders forshaping, spray bottles for hydrating, PVC pipe for blowing awayexcess sand, and small brushes for tidying up. They even bringladders to work on tall edifices.

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

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

The group's work receives praise from beachgoers. Most walkgingerly around the creations, careful not to get too close.Accustomed to working before an audience, the builders patientlyanswer questions. Some preschoolers lean in closely to examine thedragon, but the architects and construction crew remainunfazed.

"When you work in sand, you know the end is near from thebeginning," Luke says. He admits, though, that it's sad to arrivein the morning and discover the highest turrets have fallen.Sometimes the surf is the culprit. Occasionally, though, kids can'thelp but stomp on the creations after the adults leave. Theyusually run in hordes, leaving behind smashed ruins, Luke says.But, he adds with a grin, "It only takes one child to raze avillage."