Photo by Bill Curtsinger

How our boat festival started…


If you think our wooden boat festival is just for tourists, it is worth learning about how it all started and who the founders were. This article from the PT Leader published in 2016 gives a pretty good history lesson.

(This story published in the 2016 Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival Program. >see link at the end of this post.)

It’s still a much sought-after dream, being able to outfit and sail your boat into the open ocean.

Never was the dream stronger than in the 1970s, when a convergence of factors led to the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in 1977, the first American gathering dedicated to hands-on learning.

The era was rich with a social free-spiritedness carried over from the late 1960s, with young people exercising their freedom for a simpler life: back to the land, and to the sea. When it comes to personal freedom, sailing can be as good as it gets, a mix of self-sufficiency and an intimacy with nature.

Port Townsend was a mill town – not a tourist town – in the 1970s, with a population of about 5,000. The marine trades were a tradition here in Washington state’s oldest waterfront settlement, and they were growing new roots with boat shops at the Port of Port Townsend and near Cape George.

“Port Townsend, at that time, was a cosmic home and refuge for those of us in our 20s who were looking for something more real than the path that was laid out for us,” says Carol Hasse, who arrived as a young sailmaker in 1975. “We wanted to do things, to make things,” instead of taking a suggested career path that went something like: go to college, get a job, get married, raise a family, “and then do something fun.

“I was really looking for something I could do and be part of and be proud of,” Hasse says. “It was a time in history, culturally, for a whole nation where anything became a possibility.”

COMMUNITY BOATS

The Olympic Peninsula had already attracted young people looking to get far away from such things as the Vietnam War. Some of them joined the marine trades, as novices or professionals.

Sam Connor was what he describes as “just another young hippie guy” when he fetched up in Port Townsend in the mid-1970s. He’d dreamed of sailing around the world, and had been involved in building the 40-foot Moclips, a communal boat project which was launched in Westport, Washington. The boat’s first port of call was Port Townsend – the boat needed rigging – and Connor and the crew tied up in Point Hudson, then a half-derelict, mostly empty marina.

George Rowley Sr. had been leasing Point Hudson from the Port of Port Townsend since about 1962. Designed to be a federal quarantine station, in 1934 it became a U.S. Coast Guard training center. Point Hudson was federal property until 1956, when it was acquired as surplus by the public port district.

Most of the buildings were empty, and Rowley welcomed tenants. Connor found work building kitchen cabinets in a shed near the present-day moorage office. He’d been reading the work of naval architect and maritime historian Howard Chapelle, and his boss let him use the shop tools to build a 12-foot lapstrake rowboat. He stored it out in front of the shop, and after a few weeks, “a guy off a Seattle yacht asked if I’d sell it for $900. This was 1975. I said yes.” Connor soon opened his own business, a boat shop, in the present-day Point Hudson Boat Shop.

MARINE TRADES

Marine trades were already busy in Port Townsend, mostly at the port. To start naming names from the time period is to leave someone out, but the list includes Mark Burn, Jim Lyons, Cecil Lange, David Thompson, Phil Lewis, Michael Aubin, Ernie Baird, Richard Walcome, Jim Bucklin, David King, Bruce Tipton and Jim Peacock.

Walcome visited PT in 1974 and bought the fiberglass plug (mould) from a Skookum 53. He moved here in 1975 to open New Found Metals, producing marine hardware. In PT, Ron Harrow had taken the plug for a Skookum 47-footer, turned it into a boat, and wanted to make his own rigging and sails. Walcome introduced Harrow to a sailmaker in Seattle. He also showed Harrow an empty building at Point Hudson, which the U.S. Army engineers had used as the armory building when landing craft mechanicals (LCMs) were stationed there, 1949-1952.

In 1976, Harrow, with the business backing of Tony Larson, who ran the chandlery at Radon Marine, opened a sail loft. Harrow hired Hasse, fresh from sailmaking experience in Seattle and Bellingham. Hasse had sailed in the South Pacific in her early 20s, met lots of people. (Hasse took over the sail loft from Harrow in 1978, with Nora Petrich as business partner.)

The stage was being set in Port Townsend for a marine trades renaissance.

OF WOODEN BOATS

The interest in wooden boats and offshore cruising had blossomed. The nationwide gas shortage caused by the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-1974 changed the automobile industry, and recreational boating – sailboat sales went way up.

Many old, wooden boats were available to people of simple means, many of the craft one plank away from the chain saw. Strip something down or build something up and finish it off yourself – that was the idea. However, there were few opportunities for novices to learn one of the world’s oldest professions.

In 1972, Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport offered traditional boatbuilding demonstrations with John Gardner, a noted author of wooden boat building. He then organized the Annual Small Boat workshop. There was a hunger for more.

“The craft of learning how to do boatwork is so complex, a skilled carpenter would take a year to get a sense of boatbuilding,” says Tim Snider, a technical writer in Connecticut who began wooden boatbuilding as a child, immersed in an artistic family of old-world craftsmanship. 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.

Interest quickly built in 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, Snider recalls, 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.

“The Steel Electric ferry docked by the Town Tavern [Quincy Street Dock], and Port Townsend looked like Nantucket on a hill when you came up,” Snider says. “I saw Point Hudson and thought, ‘This is the place.'”

Connor readily admits the reason he pushed for a boat festival in Port Townsend.

“I would love to say it was to save the trades, but really it was just because I was passionate and I needed to make money,” Connor says.

FIRST FESTIVAL

Connor promised to organize local craftspeople, and his partner, Marybelle Kern, knew community members and appealed to them for volunteering and other services. Snider took up “office” space at Point Hudson in what is today the Puget Sound Express office. Connor had a phone installed for festival development with the number of 385-3628 (the Northwest Maritime Center’s main line today). Snider used the phone, rented an IBM typewriter and wrote a curriculum. Using his personal and WoodenBoat contacts, he invited national experts to this new kind of event.

“Nobody [on the national scene] had ever heard of Port Townsend,” Snider says. “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.”

Postcards on hand-printed paper stock were distributed, with a drawing of Connor’s boatshop, which had appeared the previous year in Connor’s WoodenBoat ad. With dates chosen and the word spreading, Connor recalls, the thing “just kind of went over Niagara Falls.”

People started saying they’d help with projects large and small. Mike Neubauer, who had taken classes in Seattle from the already legendary Earl Wakefield, organized a security team. Ralph Belcher III, then building boats in Seattle, organized the first kids’ boatbuilding area, a tradition that continues. Bruce Tipton used his own initiative to produce T-shirts.

‘THE BACK FORTY’

Festival activities were centered under circus tents in what was known then (and now) as the “Back Forty,” the property’s western edge used now for vehicle parking. Seminars took place in the building today occupied by Shanghai restaurant. Point Hudson’s old docks sagged under the weight of people checking out boats.

“The first two [festivals] were pretty much a whole different kind of thing. It was the heyday of boatbuilding,” says Walcome, whose New Found Metals has been a vendor at every Festival. “Those first two years were more orientated toward building and actual crafts of building, down to plumbing, engines, electrical.”

Indeed, the Wooden Boat Festival was in conjunction with the Wooden Boat Symposium (which took place simultaneously the first year, and the week prior in 1978), staged in buildings at nearby Fort Worden State Park.

“It was the first event in history that offered hands-on demonstrations from famous people doing traditional boatbuilding things everyone wondered about,” Snider says.

FESTIVAL DRAW

People who came for the Festival often returned, to visit, to work and to live. Some were simply seeing their way of life squeezed out of waterfronts – San Francisco Bay, for example – and others wanted a change.

An early subscriber to WoodenBoat was Jim Blaiklock, who was building boats in Del Mar, California. Blaiklock rode his Triumph 750 Bonneville motorcycle 1,500 miles to attend the first Festival. Like many attendees, he camped in the “Back Forty” behind Cupola House. He draped a green army pup tent over his motorcycle and made himself comfortable. He kept coming back, eventually buying property, moving here and becoming a festival volunteer, and the Wooden Boat Foundation’s first paid boat shop manager.

That first year, Blaiklock remembers, there was music all weekend, a square dance on Saturday night, no gates and few vendors.

The first year, Snider recalls, “We expected 800 people, and 3,000 showed up. The next year, we expected 3,000, and 9,000 came.”

Although the symposium aspect did not immediately catch hold, the seeds were planted.

Snider wrote in WoodenBoat about the trades in Port Townsend before the 1977 Festival, and again after the event. “In the next two years, 200 boatbuilders moved here,” he notes.

The Festival’s official sponsoring entity, the Wooden Boat Foundation, was created in 1978. The Classic Boat Festival in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, started in 1978 as a direct offshoot of the Port Townsend event – a rich association remains between Canadians and boat people in PT.

The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding was formed here in 1979, now booming in Port Hadlock along Port Townsend Bay.

Today, the overall marine trades talent and services available in Jefferson County, especially for wooden vessels but for all types of boats, is unparallelled on the West Coast.

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.

“We envisioned back then, it would be a year-round thing,” says Hasse, who began her lengthy service to the foundation in 1978. “It’s a magical thing, a gift we’ve been able to give our region, instead of a place that is condominiumized with gates and key locks.” She has been in every harbor from Santa Cruz to Victoria, and “this is as good as it gets,” Hasse says of Point Hudson.

Naturally, the Festival has evolved and changed, facing financial and facility challenges. International economics have changed the boatbuilding world.

The dream is still the same.

“The dream market, and that’s what most all of us have been in – go out where there is still a measure of freedom in cruising a sailboat – is still alive today,” says Walcome, who operates an international business that manufactures portholes.

“There is still the dream, to get a boat, work on it yourself and sail away.”

(Patrick J. Sullivan is editor of the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader. Writers contributing to this story were Libby Wennstrom and Juliette Sterner.)

Permanent link to this article: https://ptmta.org/wp/news/2022/07/how-our-boat-festival-started/