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Keeping history alive

2024 January 1

The Pacific Northwest community gathers each year to celebrate the culture and craft of wooden boats at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival

Chris (former owner of Pacifica) and Dale Frost join us as we walk the eight blocks from Doug and Deb’s historic Victorian home to the waterfront. Along the way, we stop at the local farmers market while a small group of deer make a salad bowl of a neighbor’s yard. Saturday brings a larger festival crowd, and everything is in full gear. There are lines for rides in rowing barges and sails on the bay. Kids are busy building miniature schooners and testing SUPs in a makeshift pond. Bobbi Nikles and Friends are knocking out bluegrass tunes from the bed of a Morris Minor truck next to a rack of handcrafted kayaks. The Northwest Marine Center is buzzing, festival merch is flying off the shelves, and corn is on the grill.

A host of displays and hands-on demonstrations are found inside the Northwest Maritime Center.
Mark Albertazzi photo 
I get to spend a few minutes with Capt. Emma Gunn Thomson, of the schooner Martha. Designed by B.B. Crowninshield, and built by W.F. Stone Boat Yard in 1907, the 84-foot schooner is named after San Francisco Yacht Club Commodore, J.R. Hanify’s wife, Martha. Emma pretty much grew up sailing Martha, working as a commercial deckhand and earning a 100-ton Merchant Mariner Credential. She has a passion for teaching. Today, she’s skippering Martha with a crew from the Schooner Martha Foundation youth training program. The foundation offers a number of opportunities for the community to experience time on the water through its sail, race, and vacation training programs.

At 2:30, nearly a dozen schooners, including three Bristol B.B. Crowninshield schooners, each more than 110 years old; Martha, Fame and Adventuress, assemble on a spectator lined race course that runs along the waterfront and beach of the festival. Then it’s back to the docks for an impromptu awards ceremony, where John and Ann Bailey’s 49-foot, Sir Issac, is declared the 2023 NW Schooner Cup winner, with Martha and Fame finishing second and third.

It feels like the whole town has come out Saturday night. There’s music and dancing under the big tent with Uncle Funk & the Dope 6 bringing down the house. Food trucks and waterfront restaurants are busy satisfying a hungry crowd. Back at Pacifica, we share rounds of dark and stormies with old sailing friends, and later that evening revel in a leisurely walk home.

Sunday morning, we try to squeeze in a few more boats and exhibits before heading out for a sail aboard Pacifica. Shelly and I make a loop through the arts and crafts show in the historic downtown district, and at the festival entrance we find a growing entourage of costumed musicians and raconteurs. Flanked by tubas, trombones, bass drums and a full complement of sword waving scallywags, we join the kid’s pirate parade for a lap around the festival grounds.

There are plenty of hands-on opportunities, including boat rides and model building, at the festival.
Mark Albertazzi photo 
A closer look at a wood-burning steam engine, hearing from participants in The Race to Alaska, spending time with maritime artist Phil Jones, and becoming steeped in nautical history with Michael “Tug” Buse, completes my list of things to see. In a blink its 2:30 and we’re pushing off aboard Pacifica, following Martha, Sir Issac and Fame down the fairway and out onto Port Townsend Bay for a festival fleet sail-by of the city front.

Finally, at that moment, when Pacifica’s engine shuts off, and the sound of wind, canvas, and rushing water fills the air, while we’re flanked by dozens of classic wood boats and cruising past hundreds of spectators lining the shore against a backdrop of the Olympic Mountains, could we step back and take a deep breath, fully appreciating what the past three days has brought to the surface. We admire the passion and dedication of the festival participants and the heart and soul of hundreds of boat owners, young sailors, skilled trades, and volunteers, who lovingly bring this annual gathering to life.

When you visit the Schooner Martha Foundation website you’ll see a written passage, and I think it’s just as fitting for all those who are a part of the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. 

“We do it for our own love of boats, in service to our community and maritime industry, but mostly because, regardless of the subject, the sea is the most powerful teacher we know.” 

Yes, all of this, and I mean “arms stretched out all of this,” was well worth the drive. 

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