PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. – The bride wore white, her bridesmaids watermelon pink. The groom dressed in khaki pants and a casual white shirt.
And all went barefoot despite the risk of stepping on tar balls.
Rion and Gidget Bowers were determined to exchange vows with the backdrop of a soft, pink beach sunset and turquoise waters – even with the outer edges of the Gulf oil spill lurking just offshore.
It’s another ripple effect of the disaster: Fewer and fewer couples are willing to risk holding their weddings in this stretch of Panhandle sometimes called “the Las Vegas of beach weddings.”
Millions of dollars are at stake because the ceremonies bring thousands of visitors annually to the area. Some businesses say their bookings have been cut in half.
“It’s not just me hurting: it’s the DJs, caterers, photographers, everyone involved,” says wedding planner Darrin Land, who figures he’s lost $12,000 since news of the oil threat began in late April.
“Sixty percent of my beach weddings are canceling. This is worse than a hurricane because we don’t know what is going to happen.”
Adds June Watkins, a nondenominational minister: “It’s hurting everyone from the ministers to the people who put the chairs out on the beach.”
Watkins normally does 40 weddings a year, mostly in the summer and early fall. She has no reservations through July and none for the fall.
“They are talking about fisherman – and that’s huge – but our wedding business along the Gulf Coast has been growing for years,” she says.
It’s easy to see why couples from throughout the country get married on the Panhandle’s beaches. The powdery white sand, vivid turquoise water and pastel sunsets are breathtaking. The many quaint, beachfront homes for rent on crowd-free beaches are the perfect honeymoon getaway.
“I have a saying that it is God’s church when were are out there on the beach with the Gulf of Mexico in the background,” says Watkins. “Every time I go out on the beach I am struck by the beauty. You know it had to have been made by a creator.”
So far, workers have been able to quickly clean from the sand the tar balls and sheen that’s washed ashore.
But some couples still worry that their day will be ruined. Even when the ceremony isn’t canceled the spill can cause headaches for organizers.
Land held a beach wedding for a Mississippi couple and 40 guests in early June, but the bride waited until just two days before the event to make sure the beach would be tar-free. She had planned to move the wedding to a bayfront site away from the beach if the oil was a problem.
The last-minute setup is tricky.
“It’s nerve-racking – do you have all the guests in the right spot, how do you notify everyone if it changes at the last minute?” Land says. “Do you have enough time to secure a beach spot where there aren’t people in bikinis in the backdrop of the photos?”
An arched trellis on the sand overlooking the gulf? “Totally out of the question because there isn’t time to set them up,” he says.
But some couples are refusing to surrender to the spill.
Lindsay Catalano and Jon Lacey of Atlanta plan to marry Sept. 5 on a secluded beach between Destin and Panama City, no matter what.
She’ll wear Vera Wang and her seven bridesmaids will wear raspberry pink and orange gowns. A string quartet will play The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” as the couple walks the beach before exchanging vows.
Between 200 and 250 guests are expected, and the couple is asking them to donate money to help those hurt by the spill.
“The oil, it just adds to the meaning of it all,” says Catalano, who has vacationed in the area since she was a child and has long dreamed of having a beach wedding.
If the beach is too messy, the wedding will move to a grassy spot near the beach.
Pam Thompson, wedding manager for Carillon Beach resort, where the wedding will be held, cried when the couple e-mailed her their firm intentions. The resort normally hosts 40 weddings a year, but this year Thompson is expecting 20 because of the spill.
“If I could have reached through the phone and hugged them, I would have,” she says.
The Bowers were among those determined to stay the course. The Tucson, Ariz., couple love Pensacola Beach’s famous white sands, where they got engaged last September.
“There was a little bit of trepidation because we learned the beaches were possibly going to be covered with tar and oil,” Rion Bowers says.
But the rough surf that brought the first oil to the beach days earlier subsided and their dream ceremony went off without a hitch – or a single tar ball on anyone’s bare foot.
They now joke that the spill gave them a wedding to remember.
“My biggest concern was one hour before the wedding when I looked out on the beach and a hazmat crew had set up near our site,” Gidget says with a laugh. “I have pictures of our wedding trellis and the hazmat team.”