Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival turns 40: Still funky, yet serious

Patrick J. Sullivan The Leader
Posted 9/6/16

Forty years ago, there were no stoplights in Port Townsend, the Town Tavern served a schooner of beer for 25 cents, you could by a 1930s coffee pot at Aldrich's, and monthly rent for a room in an …

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Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival turns 40: Still funky, yet serious

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Forty years ago, there were no stoplights in Port Townsend, the Town Tavern served a schooner of beer for 25 cents, you could by a 1930s coffee pot at Aldrich's, and monthly rent for a room in an uptown Victorian was $70.

And, there were boats. Big boats, small boats, commercial boats, pleasure boats. Lots of boats, wooden and otherwise, and boatbuilders.

Today, the city has four stoplights, a glass of craft beer goes for $5, Aldrich's no longer sells appliances, and a monthly room uptown costs more like $750.

Yes, there are still boats, and even more boatbuilders. The overall marine trades talent and services available in Jefferson County, especially for wooden vessels but for all types of boats, is unparalleled on the West Coast, according to experts.

The marine trades here today traces back to the summer of 1977, when a synergy that had been growing was serendipitously channeled into a trend-setting, hands-on Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. This week (Sept. 9-11) marks the festival's 40th anniversary. Thursday, Sept. 8, people with connections to those early festivals are asked to gather at the Northwest Maritime Center for an informal "anniversary reunion,” after the 6 p.m. Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony concludes.

“The thing about the Wooden Boat Festival, it really is more about the community of wooden boats than anything else," said Bertram Levy, who moved to Port Townsend in 1976, 16-foot boat in tow. "It has captured the imagination of tourists, but people come back for the boats."

SUMMER OF 1977

In July of 1977, Levy helped Centrum, an arts-education entity new at Fort Worden State Park in 1973, launch the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. A month or so later, he took in the Point Hudson scene at the first boat festival.

"I really believe it’s got the soul of Port Townsend," said Levy, who built a 14-foot wherry inside his house for launch at the 1978 boat fest. "It’s still funky, which I think is part of its charm, and part of its realism."

Richard Walcome moved here in 1975 from California. As New Found Metals, he has been an exhibitor at each PT boat fest. He remembers well the energy of 1977, which included "Team Centipede." With little planning and almost no training, the group – about half of them shipwrights – won 32 straight matches and the 1977 world tug-of-war championships. The finals were staged at the Seattle Kingdome.

"We were all young," Walcome said of the late '70s in Port Townsend. "It was a special time."

Tim Snider wrote about Walcome's bronze work in the spring 1977 issue of WoodenBoat Magazine. Snider was a technical writer in Connecticut who began wooden boatbuilding as a child. In 1974, he helped John Wilson, a former sailing friend, start WoodenBoat Magazine. The magazine's initial goal was to provide step-by-step photos and instructions on boatwork, which otherwise was not available.

Interest quickly built among people who wanted more than lessons on paper; they sought something for their hands. Snider, the magazine's promotions manager, came up with the idea for a new type of gathering, more than a boat show where you could look but not touch.

In 1975 and 1976, he scouted East Coast locations, before his attention turned to the West Coast. Snider drove from San Francisco to Vancouver, Canada, scouting locations and talking about the magazine. On a trip to check out Anacortes in the spring of 1977, Snider received a pitch from Sam Connor about Port Townsend's possibilities.

Connor was trying to make a living as a boatbuilder at Point Hudson. Snider recognized the serious boatbuilding that was taking place in Port Townsend, and the venue's possibilities.

Snider began promoting the festival as the first of its type to focus on traditional boatbuilding skills. He wrote a curriculum, used his contacts to invite faculty, and wrote stories in WoodenBoat about Walcome and others.

"Nobody [on the national scene] had ever heard of Port Townsend," Snider said. "Once everyone heard of what the festival was going to be, that it wasn't just another boat show, there was a lot of interest. Serious boatbuilders got involved when they saw the caliber of [faculty] coming."

(Read a detailed boat festival history story in the 2016 Wooden Boat Festival Program.)

MARINE TRADES

The festival has evolved and changed, yet the essence is still the same – an opportunity for hands-on learning.

The festival's official sponsoring entity, the Wooden Boat Foundation, was created in 1978. The Wooden Boat Foundation evolved into the Northwest Maritime Center, which fully opened in 2010 as a regional cornerstone for maritime education for schoolchildren and adults, history and recreation.

The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding was formed here in 1979. Now located in Port Hadlock along Port Townsend Bay, the school turns out men and women highly qualified in traditional boatbuilding.

The Port of Port Townsend, where serious boatbuilders were working in 1977, is even more of a haven for skilled workers.

“The symbiotic relationship between the Wooden Boat Festival and the marine trades is likely what has kept them both so alive and strong in Port Townsend for 40 years," said Kaci Cronkhite, festival director from 2002-2011. "It was the ‘maritime trades’ people (young and old, men and women), with their skills, self-reliance, interdependent collaborative work, creative ingenuity and, of course, through the boats they built, pursuit of a life intimately connected to the sea, that drew people together and inspired the festival in the first place. It was those people, their mentors, boats and skills that infused the first festival with credibility and that celebratory air that continues to this day."

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