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Faces: Life’s a Beach

Meet three locals with three different perspectives on the waters that define us.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

In all the ways that matter, the water is the Lowcountry. Without it, we have no white sandy beaches. We have no meandering tidal creeks that nourish our wildlife. In short, without the water the very soul of the Lowcountry ceases to exist.

To some, our waters are a delicate system that must be saved. To some, they are an idyllic backdrop to a day spent in paradise. To some, the water is the center of their spiritual world, their house of worship.

What does the water mean to you?…

As a diver, Michelle Meissen has an appreciation for our water and the many creatures that call our oceans home. She is CEO of Palmetto Ocean Conservancy.

Michelle Meissen

Guardian of the sea

To many of us, the beach is simply a stretch of paradise where the sand meets the sea. It’s here we slather on sunscreen, lay out our towel and soak in the oceanside tranquility. To Michelle Meissen, it’s something else.

“Everyone loves going to the beach because they love the serene visual of it,” she said. “But being able to see what’s beneath that surface level, that’s where I want to take people.”

Beneath that surface is an undersea ecosystem that Meissen has dedicated herself to preserving, inspired by her youth growing up in California, raised by naturalists to respect the land and sea. As CEO of Palmetto Ocean Conservancy Guardians of the Sea, she has been a force of nature locally in protecting Beaufort County’s waterways. Through her organization, she’s led classes that expose kids to the marine life that calls the Lowcountry home and warns them of the many dangers those creatures face.

“I want these kids to be inspired like I was as a kid. And the only way to do that is to show them what’s under the water,” she said. Her presentations through the Youth Ambassador Program immerse kids in the undersea world through diving videos and hands-on projects. When we spoke, her young conservationists were collecting bottle caps to be used in a mural by local artist Lauren Andeau.

Her work doesn’t end there. As an advocate, she lent her support to the Coastal Conservation League in its successful bid to ban plastic bags. And she was the driving force behind last summer’s “Strawless Summer,” which will change to an ongoing effort this year.

“This year, we’re changing it to just ‘Go Strawless,’” she said. “It’s just a matter of trying to let everyone know if you don’t need the straw, it’s not important.”

Her next goals? Encouraging the town to beef up its recycling efforts and finding a permanent home for Palmetto Ocean Conservancy, which currently hosts its workshops at the Roasting Room every other Sunday from 1-2 p.m. “Right now we’re living like gypsies,” she said with a laugh. “We’re always out in the community and trying to do things to inspire and get the message out… it’s coming along very well.”

Jim Lisenby has been serving his famous frozen concoctions on the beach for over 40 years.

Jim Lisenby

A beach guy with blenders

There is something about the beach that demands a frosty drink. That blessed convergence of 80-proof sweetness and soothingly smooth ice on your tongue, a light breeze tempering the sun’s heat on your face… it’s a multisensory experience that borders on the divine.

For decades, Jim “Pool Bar Jim” Lisenby has been that man behind that experience. His legendary drinks have earned him fame far and wide, with more stories to tell than most of us have had hot meals. We’d say he should write a book, but he already has. Two, in fact. It was his first book that brought him to Hilton Head Island.

Heading up the pool bar at the Myrtle Beach Hilton as a young man, he found himself multitasking – blending drinks while fielding phone calls from all over the country asking for his recipes. “This lady waited through three phone calls before she finally told me, ‘Jim, it’s none of my business but you need to write a book,’” he said. “But I had too many friends up in Myrtle Beach. I was young and single, so it kept coming down to going out and having fun or spending time at the typewriter. The typewriter always lost.”

So he made his way down to the then-sleepy Hilton Head, writing his first recipe book while helping set up the original Turtle Lane Beach Club. “I had two blenders hooked up to a light switch,” he said with a laugh. “And I did $1,800 a day on those two blenders, back when drinks were $2-3.”

Following stints as a nightclub owner (“Never again,” he said), he landed at Hilton Head Marriot Resort & Spa where his legend grew over 22 years on the beach at Pool Bar Jim’s. Such was his fame that when he amicably parted ways with the Marriott, it was front-page news. For a guy who had defined summer for thousands, maybe millions, of islanders and visitors, it was an opportunity for a well-deserved break.

“I took eight months off,” he said. “I mean, I hadn’t had a summer off in 22 years.”

And after his sabbatical, he found a new home at The Seacrest, on a beautifully renovated patio expanse that stretches along the pristine dunes of South Forest Beach. “Some of the opportunities I had when I left Marriott weren’t on the beach and I had to think long and hard about that,” he said. “I finally just said, ‘Nah, I’m a beach guy.’”

Possibly the consummate beach guy. For generations, his drinks have defined the beach experience. It’s perhaps a little ironic then, that Pool Bar Jim hardly ever gets to see the beach. “I hardly ever get to go down there… During the daytime we’re so busy,” he said. “But I do get a chance to appreciate it at sunset.”

We’ll just have to take a seat at Pool Bar Jim’s and enjoy the beach on his behalf.

Lifetime local
Born in Savannah (because there was no hospital on Hilton Head Island at that time), Byron Sewell grew up barefoot, covered in sand and salt.

Byron Sewell

Born and raised on the beach

It was a simple piece of plywood, dusted with white spray paint. But to those returning from their inland sanctuaries, unsure of the horrendous damage that awaited them after Hurricane Matthew, it was an inspiring message of community.

Even before he shot to fame as the creator of that iconic “Welcome Home” sign, Byron Sewell was a legend on Hilton Head Island. Baptized in the ocean, he’d been raised as a true child of the island in a Heron Street cottage with the waves as his playground.

“I grew up running around naked on this beach until I was 10 or 12. People would tell my mom, ‘You need to put clothes on your boy.’ I didn’t care – I was a beach boy,” he said. “It was a dream growing up here.”

His parents raised their only child in our waters. A champion surfer in the ’60s and ’70s, “Hurricane” Hampton Sewell taught Byron the intricacies of the sport, getting him on a board at age 12 and taking him to the U.S. Championships at 18. It’s a passion that has carried Byron all over the world, chasing swells from Costa Rica to Australia and Hawaii.

But his passion for our waterways owes an equal debt to his mom, Alyce. During the halcyon days of the island, the couple ran a Montessori-based kids program called Kindred Spirits. “That was a legendary school. It was magical,” he said. His mom’s field trips would take kids out on the water, collecting clams, examining the ecology of the folly and hunting for shark’s teeth.

It’s a passion for the island Byron is now cultivating in a new generation through his guided tour business Native Son Adventures. His experiential tours guide locals and visitors through surfing, catch-and-release fishing, paddleboarding, hunting for shark’s teeth – all the ways Byron explored his world as a kid on Hilton Head. “We decided the best way for people to see this place is what I call the fried combo platter. They get to surf with me and get a discount on a boat trip where they learn about the beach, do a little yoga, stand-up paddleboarding… the whole thing. That’s turned out to be the hit,” he said. “I’m better for what I’m doing to give back to the island, getting them out and letting them enjoy the island.”

He views Native Son Adventures as a way to pass on the torch, in the same way his parents passed it to him. When he’s not out chasing waves around the world, he’s continuing a legacy of reverence for the waters of Hilton Head.

“The ocean is the ultimate cleanser. After so many years of greeting the ocean, becoming one with the rhythm of the ocean… I finally have that relationship with the ocean that’s very personal,” he said. “The ocean is everything to me.”

(click on gallery thumbnail for larger photo)