Creativity and resilience brought a new vision for a well-loved event from idea to reality. And it was awesome.

It would be one big experiment. Never been done before. But, hey … why not? 

When the pandemic hit, it soon became clear that hosting a festival that brings 30,000 people from all over the country—globe, even—might not be a good idea. Left and right, event cancellations proliferated while cases spiked and the deadly risks of Covid-19 became evident.

Planning for the 44th annual Wooden Boat Festival (WBF) had been well underway. Hmmm. After dodging a bullet the year before with the uncertainty about the renovation of the docks at Port Hudson, Coronavirus presented a whole new level of challenge for this Northwest stalwart. As in, perhaps, “Forget it.” But we boaters are a hearty lot, and especially those of the Wooden Boat Festival variety. I mean, after all, we are known for beautifully varnished wooden boats, and if that is not the definition of insanity in Pacific Northwest weather, what is?

The Plan

Leave it to the brilliant creators of the wildly successful Race to Alaska (R2AK) to come up with innovative solutions. No doubt sparked by the crazy antics and clever ideas that flooded YouTube the first month of the pandemic lockdown, they thought, why not harness frustrated energy into a festival that captured the spirit and stories of a typical WBF in a fun format could be enjoyed from anywhere? I can hear the gears turning in their minds (perhaps after a beer or two): 

We’ve got all these ridiculously talented folks, proud of their boats to the point of insanity and driving themselves batty to get the varnish perfect so they can strut like peacocks for four days. Why don’t we funnel this unhealthy proclivity to fuel more potential insanity—like we’ve always done? We just need to do it with physical distancing.

The reply: 

Yeah! What could be a better method of physical distancing than to deliver direct to their eyeballs through their computer screens? After all, haven’t we already witnessed addiction to the race tracker?

More beers and more brainstorming followed; they threw down the dice and gave it a gamble.  

They issued a call to folks originally slotted to show their wooden masterpieces or do a demonstration or give a talk: “Submit a video of your boat shop! Host a Zoom Room! Submit a video of your quarantine boat project! Give us a tour of your boat!”

Recorded presentations from previous festivals, like this hilarious one by Nigel Calder gave a welcome, familiar flavor in this new format.
Recorded presentations from previous festivals, like this hilarious one by Nigel Calder gave a welcome, familiar flavor in this new format.

They dug through the archives of festivals past to feature highlights. They reached out to boat builders and museums all over the world devoted to the love of wooden boats and craftsmanship in search of contributions. Professional filmmakers, too. Through unbelievably hard work in a short amount of time, a short-handed staff amassed an admirable repertoire of content, and put out the word. They planned, they toiled, they built something special … and then they hoped. 

Like anyone who’s ever thrown a party, there’s always that panic moment when you wonder if anyone will come. No doubt, weather could affect attendance. Getting people to stare at computer screens on a sunny Pacific Northwest day could be a big ask. Yet, as my phone weather app updated and I saw overcast weather predicted for Saturday, I thought chances looked good that people might join what would ultimately be a screen-based festival about boats. And then the smoke rolled in. It was the perfect recipe for inviting people to park in front of their computers for a non-stop video marathon.

Festival Day

And come they did. Demand initially overwhelmed computer servers. Once logged in, it was a day of snacking in front of festival presentations, afraid to miss anything. What made the it all work was an abundance of content available “on-demand” as well as live. It didn’t matter when you joined the fun, there was always something interesting to enjoy. Just like the real festival. 

When you bring enthusiastic people together who share a love for wooden boats, boatbuilding, fine craftsmanship, and adventure, it’s hard to go wrong. I got caught up in it, posting reactions to many of the movies, videos, and sessions on the running festival website chat under the incognito handle of “Garth.” In very un-Garth-like language I gushed, “Wow! Amazing stories! Fascinating!” I even recorded my reactions on Facebook as I watched. It felt like a race against time to see as much as I could. I think I soaked up everything on the Boat Building and the COVID Builds Stages, and visited many boats “Around the Harbor.” Through it, I felt reconnected to my boating community. 

Boat tours, like this one of BC-based, Nanoose created the feeling of connection for which the Wooden Boat Festival is known.
Boat tours, like this one of BC-based Isle of Shoals Ketch, Nanoose, created the feeling of connection for which the Wooden Boat Festival is known.

Here were some of my festival favorites:

  • 48° North’s Joe Cline thoughtful interview with Adrift survivor and author, Steve Callahan.
  • Tours of Carol Hasse’s Lorraine and Kaci Cronkhite’s Pax as well as the many boat shop tours and instructional videos.
  • My husband Garth and I especially loved the video about the Cruising Smack Storm Bay, which featured impressive examples of seamanship and fishing, not to mention mouth-watering seafood feasts in Tasmania. It felt like we were out sailing alongside them.
  • Highlights from past festivals brought memories flooding back, including a hilarious talk by Nigel Calder, and one of the offshore women’s panels (which preceded a memorable dinner with my fellow participants).
  • The movies Hitchhiker’s Guide to Wooden Boats plus the R2AK and videos on Racers Alley called to my adventurous heart, as did the She Tells Sea Tales live storytelling from a group of amazing women and whet my appetite for more adventures.
  • Virtually I got to travel the globe—Croatia, Armenia, Scandinavia, and the UK—learning about traditional rope-making and forging and building classic craft from centuries past.

I’ve not yet been able to see everything on offer, since unfortunately this human had to stop for sleep before feeling satiated, but I’m relieved to have more time to catch up on things I missed. I watch a few each day. You, too, can enjoy most festival features until October 19th, and the organizers say they’re still selling new tickets every day. To find out more, visit: 

Whatever the future brings, I’d bet the Wooden Boat Festival will continue to feature online content to inspire and sustain another generation of wooden boat lovers around the globe.