The lawless roots of the Wooden Boat Festival

Jake Beattie Maritime focus
Posted 8/29/17

It’s less than two weeks until the 41st Wooden Boat Festival, and this edition of the paper includes the festival guide, which is filled with the stories of this year: the fantastic boats, bands, …

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The lawless roots of the Wooden Boat Festival


It’s less than two weeks until the 41st Wooden Boat Festival, and this edition of the paper includes the festival guide, which is filled with the stories of this year: the fantastic boats, bands, presentations from experts near and far – even that guy who raced a paddleboard to Alaska will come to town to tell his story.

After 41 years, there are plenty of stories, and as Festival Fan Boy turned executive director, I’ve heard my share and have my favorites: There’s the origin story, whose cast of characters included a bunch of hippies, a bottle of wine and an idea to throw a party for their boat-loving friends. There are the epic races over the years in which current stewards of classic craft act out long held rivalries of boating history. And there’s that time when a guy named Ozzy strapped an outboard to a mass of cobbled-together driftwood and pallets, and motored through the harbor with his paint-stained Carhartts and his best parade wave.

For me, part of the magic of the festival is its blend of refined craftsmanship and good-natured rapscallionry.


Last week, I heard a story that captured that spirit: the birth of the beer garden.

Given the three days of wall-to-wall party of live music and revelry that the beer garden (or Bar Harbor, as it’s come to be known) has become in recent years, it’s hard to believe that the Wooden Boat Festival had made it 10 years without a place to drink beer.

But according to Michael Marrow, local Realtor and then board member of the Wooden Boat Foundation, it was 1986 or 1987 when it started. “It was the same year with the red T-shirt with the schooner.” The decision to sell beer wasn’t born out of a business calculation of how to increase revenue and better support the Wooden Boat Foundation’s recently started youth programs.

“It was hot, and a few of us thought it would be a good idea to get some cold beer and sell it,” Marrow explains.

So, they took an old leaky dinghy out of the festival and down to the fish dock, filled it with ice, then walked to Safeway and bought a bunch of six-packs (“I think I got Oly and Rainier,” Marrow says) and made it back to the festival with their cargo-laden boat, hand-scrawled a cardboard sign and started selling beer to passersby: $1 apiece – it was Rainier, after all.

Over the weekend, they did a brisk business and made several trips to resupply at the ice dock and grocery store, allegedly eclipsing T-shirts in sales and allowing the nascent foundation to make it through another year.

From the freewheeling and definitely illegal days of selling cheap beer to anyone willing to drink in violation of open container laws (“We didn’t get a permit, we just did it like renegades!”), the beer garden grew into what it is today, a pop-up outside bar, sponsored and supplied by Port Townsend Brewing Co. and Finnriver Cidery, that offers locals and visitors alike a chance to drink the liquid craftsmanship of our community while they revel in a celebration of our collective maritime skill and reputation.

These days, we have permits. We bring in kegs instead of rowing for sixers of Oly, and while the youth programs have grown by leaps and bounds, they are still supported in part by the beer sales, tickets, etc. of the Wooden Boat Festival. Drink beer at the Wooden Boat Festival and not only will you become a better dancer, you’ll support powerful experiences for young people.

The festival grounds are open to the public free of charge after 6 p.m., and the beer garden has live local music and libations until midnight, Thursday through Saturday.

Jake Beattie is executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend. He’s also a small-boat enthusiast and a founder of the Race to Alaska. His column on maritime concerns is published monthly in The Leader.


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