Summers in South Carolina can be a real beach. Heading to the shore seems to be the best bet for beating some of the heat. But while most of you will spend your time with your toes buried in the sand, Tom Cattell will be building sandcastles. Lots and lots of sandcastles.
In the beginning, there was sand
Cattell, 53, a homeowner insurance claim manager, moved to the Midlands in 2005 with his family from Maryland. While vacationing at the Isle of Palms (IOP), he couldn’t help but notice a man who dug himself into a hole and formed a castle around it.
The man shared his secret: if you want to build a big drip sandcastle, you have to start by digging a hole. From that simple lesson each time Cattell would venture back to the beach, he would try different techniques he learned online. He raided his garage and packed up anything with a point. He found that a tool used to lace up baseball mitts is great for carving out bricks; large opening restaurant straws are ideal for blowing away sand on detail work. But his main tools are a flat shovel, a spade and five- gallon buckets. Cattell cuts the bottoms out of the buckets to t form a mold, but his main ingredients are water, sand and time.
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“I’m not someone to just sit in a chair in the sun,” he said. “The first thing I do is stake out my square and start digging a hole. Everyone else comes and goes as they choose. Nobody wants to help dig. But once they see something starting to take shape they want their corner. When people ask me when I’ll be done, I say when it’s time to leave. There’s always something else you can add.”
It takes a village to build a castle
Cattell’s castles range from the small scale one would expect as a way to kill time at the beach, to encompassing 500 square feet of beachfront. Over the years, he’s had the help of many hands: from his wife, Robin, and three children, to members of his church and even grandmothers passing by.
Chris Conley of East Lake Community Church has known Cattell for close to eight years where he serves as a counselor. He joined him one summer at the IOP and was blown away by Cattell’s talent. He remembers three years ago when he helped him create a tiered castle with multiple entrances, windows, doors and even a few motes.
“Love the creativity, detail and use of the water, sand and tools to bring about these incredible sand castles,” he said.
Denise Williams met Cattell around the same time as Conley. An elementary school teacher, her son and Cattell’s youngest were classmates. He invited her and her family to the beach for the day and they had no idea what was in store.
“As we were setting up chairs and towels, he was setting up buckets and started hauling water from the ocean. He worked so carefully to find just the right spot to start so that the tide would not ruin his art too soon. We relaxed and watched as he created. People are so amazed by his work. It just made you want to be a part of his masterpiece!”
Cattell’s eldest daughter, Miriam, has watched and helped her dad build countless castles over the years.
“One of the reasons he builds sandcastles I think is to build community. We have gotten to know a lot of people when they stop in to ask him questions about it,” she said. “It is a great de-stressor from the office and he is so creative! Everyone always asks him ‘Are you an architect?’ and he laughs and says, ‘No, I’m in insurance so I sit behind a desk.’ I love that it is an outlet for him. He is always so relaxed at the beach.”
The orange man cometh
At IOP, he’s built not only castles, but a bit of a following. Clad in his go-to orange T-shirt and matching shorts, he became known as “the orange man at the beach.” Cattell recalls a being on church trip to the beach when he met a precocious 6-year-old who helped build sandcastles the entire day.
“The next year as I’m walking down this kid runs up and hugs me. His mom says ‘You might not remember him but he worked with you last year when you were here and everyday he’d ask ‘Is the orange man going to be here?’’”
While making a 50-foot snake with a guy’s legs hanging out of its mouth, a passerby – who just happened to be a Canadian sculptor vacationing with his family – stopped to help form and define the legs to make them appear even more lifelike. His grandchildren went on to work with Cattell for the rest of their vacation.
Because Cattell’s specialty is drip castles, his creations are normally closer to the water. This can become problematic - and in some cases fun - with the tide.
“Kids on the beach come over to try to save them all the time,” he said. “They start digging trenches and making piles to make a ring. They throw their bodies in front of it. People bring down coolers to try to block it off. It’s hilarious.”
Even after years of practice and countless castles, he does not consider himself a professional by any means. In his eyes, he’s just another orange guy at the beach, who just so happens to really enjoy making sandcastles.
“The joke is, if I have sand and water I must build.”