Rockville — It all started as a friendly competition between island families, a relaxing end to the summer harvest season.

In 118 years, it has become a reunion, a tradition, a legend. It is the last race of the sailing season, and the best party on South Carolina waters.

But if you look beyond the boat people rafting up on the far side of the creek, swilling enough beer to float a navy, you will find old Lowcountry culture preserved and thriving at the Rockville Regatta.

"Look out there," said Paul Andrews, commodore of the Sea Island Yacht Club. "You can go anywhere in the world and not see as pretty a picture as you can see right here."

It's hard to argue with him. Andrews is standing on the club's porch overlooking a panoramic view of the salt marsh, Bohicket Creek cutting a wide swath through it. A storm has passed, and a rainbow arches toward Seabrook Island.

Around Andrews, several hundred people pack into a clubhouse with exposed beams and a fireplace, eating boiled shrimp and catching up with their neighbors. Some walk around barefoot. The clubhouse is nearly a

century old itself, and still doesn't have air conditioning. Would take away from the character, Andrews notes.

Aside from people's clothes, this scene could be taking place on any first weekend of August. Ask any of these people how long they've been coming to the regatta and they'll tell you how old they are. That's how long they've been coming.

Every year, there is a traditional shrimp boil for yacht club members and guests on Friday, a live band dance on Saturday, races during the days. This event has changed little over the years. And in a place where folks would just as soon never be discovered by developers, strip malls or subdivisions, that suits the locals just fine.

"Many people come dressed up like farmers, because they are," said Dick McGillivray, the regatta's principle race officer. "We're trying to keep it rural. Some of these guys look like they came in on their tractors, but they didn't."

In the late 19th century, Rockville was the site of an annual reunion of Confederate veterans. The isolated village — built on the ground where Robert Sandford claimed "Carolina" in 1666 — had long been a summer getaway for plantation owners hoping to escape malaria, according to Lish Thompson, who wrote a book about her home.

As the years passed, the vets began to bring their children to Rockville, and the water was a perfect way to keep the kids entertained.

Bohicket Creek sports a fast current, perfect for racing. Legend has it that Indian tribes used it to race their canoes centuries before.

Although the first mention of a race on the creek dates back to 1842, according to Thompson, the first official Rockville Regatta came in the summer of 1890. Two cousins — John F. Sosnowski and Jenkins Mikell — competed for bragging rights.

Thompson's great-grandfather, James Clark Seabrook Jr., sailed on the Sosnowski boat, which he'd given to his nephew. Seabrook went on to compete at the same time every year for two decades, winning often. Soon, the regatta replaced the Confederate reunions as the summer event for island folks. The first week in August was chosen because the summer harvest was over and school had not started. Originally, the race ended on Saturday — blue laws wouldn't allow racing on Sunday.

It was never the biggest regatta, but is one of the few, if not the only, with its own boat. Back in 1947, Ollie Seabrook and Henry Scheel of Mystic, Conn., designed the Sea Island One just for the race. Seabrook, Thompson's grandfather, had won every race at Rockville but had his trophies taken away because the design of his boat was found to violate some race rule.

"He turned his disappointment into something that benefitted everyone," Thompson said.

Time was, nearly 300 boats raced in the regatta, but these days McGillivray says it's closer to 50 or 60. He can't explain the declining number of entrants but suspects it has something to do with personal water crafts and power boats. When kids can play on the water with those things, few bother to learn about halyards and gaff-rigs.

Even if the number of racers is down, the Rockville Regatta has managed to get more popular each year, if you go by the crowd it attracts.

"Every year I stand on the dock and think there are more people than there were last year," McGillivray said. "We can't really count them. I don't know what makes it so popular."

In the 1970s and '80s, the regatta had evolved into a wild party. Hundreds of boats began showing up every year, rafting together and letting the booze flow. Some locals say a few folks even died, most jumping off shrimp boats rather unsuccessfully.

"It was really rough," Thompson recalls.

Even though the flotilla can still resemble an episode of MTV Spring Break, the locals say the party has calmed considerably. Still, Andrews jokes that only about 1 percent of the people on the so-called "spectator boats" even notice the races.

"In the last 15 years, it's gone from being a zoo to a well-contained group of people," McGillivray said. "They still take up half the river."

Lt. Chisolm Frampton of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources law enforcement division calls the Rockville Regatta one of the busiest weekends for his boat patrol. He can remember wilder times at the regatta, when people hauled floating docks out into the creek. None of the partyers would have a life jacket, Frampton recalls, but they did have beer.

This year, DNR will be doing safety inspection and checking people for boating under the influence. Driving a boat is illegal at the same blood-alcohol content level as driving a car — .08. If some folks don't know that now, they will by tonight.

"We basically try to keep the peace, enforce the boating laws," Frampton said.

Nowadays, the yacht club hires its own police, DNR keeps watch on the water. But mostly the locals tolerate the party atmosphere. The floating party has become part of the tradition. And here, where people plan their lives around the first weekend in August, tradition is everything.

"Every job interview I've had, I tell them I can't take the job unless they can give me the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday in August off," Pattie Davis Rutland said.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.