On St. Simons, cracking down on UGA ‘Frat Beach’ party

Fully expecting to pass out drunk, young people with Sharpies scrawl the name of their hotel and room number on their arm, hoping it will help them find their way home. Then comes the booze and bikinis, the funnel drinking and hook-ups, the beer showers and, well, passing out.

Welcome to the annual “Frat Beach” party on St. Simons Island, a blockbuster late October ritual that combines the college fall break and the fiery football rivalry between the University of Georgia Bulldogs and the University of Florida Gators.

The beach party, which kicks off Friday, has attained a near legendary status in a culture of football tailgating that already revels in excess. But many fed-up island residents complain that the blow-out transforms their usually family friendly beach community into an out-of-control blend of Girls Gone Wild, Daytona Spring Break, a Halloween bash and a college football fanfest. Never mind the tons of trash left behind.

This year, St. Simons officials say they’re cracking down: zero tolerance for underage drinking, roadside sobriety checks and more police armed with breathalyzers. That’s created a giant buzz-kill among UGA students, alumni and other fans who make the annual pilgrimage to the island. They say the tough new tone will eventually kill a decades-old tradition that allowed them to cut loose without causing too much trouble. Already there are early signs that many may be taking a pass this year.

Hotel and condo rentals for the weekend, usually full by now, are down 30 percent, according to the local convention and visitors bureau. That might mean less trouble, but it also means less clanging of cash registers in this tourist haven.

St. Simons residents have decidedly mixed feelings about Frat Beach weekend, which can draw more than 5,000 people to their island of about 13,000. So far, the event has been largely without major incident, but many here say it’s just a matter of time before someone dies of alcohol poisoning, or an intoxicated young person falls from a balcony, or there’s news of a rape.

In short, they don't want to lose the big beach party, they want to control it.

“The county leadership needs to stop turning a blind eye to this event, or it’s going to create a real disaster,” said Cap Fendig, a lifelong islander who runs a trolley business.

The crackdown isn’t sitting well with students. Except for seniors, most are under the legal drinking age of 21.

“I don’t want to risk it,” said Tyler Ohnemus, a 20-year-old UGA junior. Last year he dropped about $300 there, without even attending the game. “It’s not going to be the same. It’s going to be more regulated. … It’s kind of sad.”

‘We don’t like it’

David Ray Dockery hates feeling like a grouch. He may be 63, but he’s got a long beard, runs to stay in shape and plays acoustic and electric mandolin in a band called The Stringrays.

He and wife Rosemary Griggs, an artist, live about a half mile from East Beach, the place where the kids all gather by the old Coast Guard station.

People here treat the beach as a kind of sanctuary, a place where residents love to walk their dogs, ride bicycles and golf carts, and revel in the quaint beauty of this tight-knit coastal enclave. St. Simons is a tourism magnet for many in metro Atlanta, as well as a retirement dream.

Fall is a quieter time of year there with fewer tourists. Locals enjoy the oysters that are in season and largely take back the beauty of a place with green salt marshes, moss-draped oaks and boatloads of great seafood restaurants.

Then comes the Georgia-Florida game, a Southern football phenomenon that is no stranger to drinking parties. The matchup is among the premier rivalries in college football, and the huge tailgating by the stadium in Jacksonville is called the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." Many at Frat Beach, after partying on Friday, take chartered buses down to the game.

For years in St. Simons, the shindig drew a good-natured mix of students, alumni and old-timers. But in recent years, the event exploded among young people, who form a giant hive of activity on the beach, leaving it covered in tons of trash. When the sun goes down, many spill into nearby neighborhoods. Residents rush out to clean the trash before the tide takes it out.

A good number of residents call the young people the mob or the horde or the drunken zombies. Some hire security to patrol their streets. But, in truth, people hate feeling this way. St. Simons is a laid-back place with a mix of artists, retirees, former hippies, the wealthy and people who love nature. They don’t like to see themselves cast as the Grinch who stole Christmas, or in this case, the Frat Beach party.

Many have roots at UGA. They dress in red and black on big football weekends, and when there’s a big score, you can hear cheers reverberating in the air across neighborhoods. At the intersection of Frederica and Demere, where seaside restaurants and taverns mesh with touristy stores, a bulldog statue sits on a big crate.

Frat Beach has them in a funk. Many remember partying on East Beach themselves. Now they find themselves participating in that tired exercise of old folks: complaining about kids these days.

Jim Renner, 54, a UGA graduate, said he's not about to fret about the underage drinking of 18-year-olds, as that was the legal age back in his day. But he takes the bad behavior as an insult to his community. The massive amount of trash left on the beach is "disgusting," he said. And it's not just the college kids who are the problem; he sees older people attending "to relive their college glory and puke on the beach."

Griggs and Dockery, who live in a funky beach bungalow, say the behavior they see is inexcusable. Griggs’ sculptures have been stolen off their front lawn. They see groups of 30 kids stumbling down the street like zombies, urinating on people’s lawns. Rental homes built to hold maybe a dozen people host scores of young people noisily running in and out through the night.

“I have seen underage drinking, public indecency, disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, sexual harassment,” Dockery said. “I almost hit a young lady (with my car) who was staggering into the street.”

They’re leaving town for the weekend; others do the same or hunker down, not venturing out to eat or to the beach, until the storm passes over.

“We don’t like it,” Griggs said.

The crackdown

The crackdown on the Frat Beach weekend started with one man's complaint. Cap Fendig, the trolley operator and former chairman of the Glynn County Commission, stood before the commissioners last winter and insisted something be done.

“Frat Beach weekend has a reputation where you can do anything you want, all kinds of drinking behavior with impunity,” he recalled telling the commissioners. He’s seen young people writing hotel room numbers on their arms. “It’s going to cause a real disaster, loss of life, a drug overdose, a head-on collision.”

A study committee was formed and crafted the outline of the crackdown, which was sent to UGA and other area colleges and high schools. The UGA student government association helped by emailing the missive to the entire 35,000 student body on Aug. 26, accompanied by its own reminder that students don't want to violate the school's code of conduct.

Many UGA students felt they had been disinvited to the biggest party of the season.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” said Kayla Morgan, who is 20 and therefore underage. She believes the beach party bashing is overblown.

“You walk out on the beach and there’s this huge mass of people,” she said, recalling the two she’s attended. “There’s a lot of people dressed up for Halloween. Some girls wear flower crowns, and have their faces painted. It’s like a festival, a non-official pep rally.”

She’ll be spending the weekend with a friend in Savannah. Other students say they’re going directly to Jacksonville to the big game.

While rentals remain down by a third, some of that may be attributable to the Bulldogs playing less than excellent ball, said Scott McQuade, president of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Aaron Little, manager of Gnats Landing, a rustic-looking seaside restaurant with a big patio and deck, said he welcomes the effort to better police the weekend. But he believes the warnings were too severe.

“I think, in a way, they overdid it,” Little said. “Taking away 30 percent of people’s business is a pretty big thing.”

This is one of the biggest revenue weekends of the off-season and some businesses depend on that money to carry them through the slower winter months. Moreover, most of the kids are pretty well-behaved, he said.

“Frat Beach is not a terrible thing,” he said.

Thousands still coming

Police Chief Matt Doering still expects several thousand revelers this weekend. And if anybody thinks he’s bluffing, he said they’ll be sorry.

“I don’t want to get into tactics, but suffice to say I will have more law enforcement looking into underage drinking, littering, public indecency, drugs and people drinking in public where they shouldn’t be,” the chief said.

More than 100 officers will be there, more than double last year. In prior years, the chief said the weekend ended with a dozen or two arrests. This year, expect less leniency.

His advice to young people: “Don’t lie to the police.”

For all that, Natalie Adams is still heading to St. Simons this weekend. The 21-year-old has rented a hotel room with some friends, and has a ticket to the big game.

She expects this year, her fourth there, will be a smaller, milder event.

Weeks ago, her UGA sorority held a show of hands as to who was going. Only about 30 of some 200 of the young women raised their hands.

“One day of partying is not worth messing up all we’ve worked for,” she said.