Connecting with the divine at Wooden Boat Festival

Posted 9/11/19

A light drizzle began to fall as a crowd gathered around the marina basin at Point Hudson on Sept 8, the closing day of the 43rd Wooden Boat Festival.

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Connecting with the divine at Wooden Boat Festival

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A light drizzle began to fall as a crowd gathered around the marina basin at Point Hudson on Sept 8, the closing day of the 43rd Wooden Boat Festival.

It was silent—besides the crinkle of raincoat hoods going up and the distant sound of traditional Taiko drumming coming from the nearby beer garden—as a group of boat makers poured salt, sake, and lit sparks over their newly finished Japanese river boat, purifying it as it lay on the sand, ready for launching.

A crowd of nearly 100 people gathered at the traditional Shinto boat launching ceremony, sitting on nearby rocks, standing across the water on the docks, and huddling in the rain on Sunday, the third day of the 43rd Wooden Boat Festival. The ceremony was led by Douglas Brooks, a master of Japanese boat building techniques and author of the book “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding.”

The boat was built in a five-day workshop at the Northwest Maritime Center, led by Brooks, with a class of nine students. It is a Shinano river design—a flat-bottomed boat that back in the day was the main form of transportation for people living in that area, which was a large river delta. Several of the students attended the launch, to participate in the ceremony, which as Brooks explained, is not only to purify and bless the boat itself, but also the boat builders.

“You know it takes a lot to purify a boat builder,” he joked, as he explained the ritual they were about to do.

First, Brooks waved a stick with hanging strips of white paper over the boat builders and the boat. Then, one by one, each boat builder took their turns pouring salt, sake and striking sparks with a flint over the boat—a method of purification.

In the Shinto religion, every object contains what is called “kami,” which roughly translates to “spirit.”

“That is what gets us out of our egos and connects us with the divine,” Brooks said.

Next, each boat builder took some greenery and laid it on an altar, saying a prayer and clapping twice, while Brooks placed items—some Yen coins, a tea bag, rice, paper dolls—into a small alcove in the boat, creating a Shinto shrine within the boat itself.

Finally, after the silent portion of the ceremony was over, the celebration began. Clare Hess, a boat modeler, led the crowd in a call-and-response mast-raising song, called Hobashira Okoshi Ondo.

With that, the boat builders piled into the flat-bottomed river boat and Brooks took them for a traditional three spins around the marina basin, using the sculling oar for propulsion.

This boat launch not only drew the crowds’ attention on the rainy third day of the boat festival, but it also started what the Northwest Maritime Center hopes is a new tradition.

“We’re trying to build towards having one main cultural theme each year,” said Barb Trailer, director of the Wooden Boat Festival. “And each year we will build a boat for it.”

This year was one of the most well-attended festivals yet, organizers said, while still compiling their data. Past festivals have drawn about 30,000.

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Mike Loriz

Thanks for the good story. I thought it was a wonderful and heart-warming ceremony, and the festival was also just fantastic this year. Kudos to Barb Trailer and the entire NWMC staff and volunteers for bringing it off!

Wednesday, September 11