Cronkhite caps wood boat festival career

Kaci Cronkhite directed the Wooden Boat Festival for 10 years. The 2011 festival broke attendance records. Now she’s looking for other challenges, and the Northwest Maritime Center is looking for a new events manager.Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader 09/28/2011, Page A11

Cronkhite caps wood boat festival career

NWMC wants full-time events director


By Scott Wilson of the Leader

In the immediate wake of what many are saying was the largest and most successful Wooden Boat Festival ever, festival organizer Kaci Cronkhite is sailing on to other adventures.

Cronkhite has skippered the festival since 2002. She also held the interim role of director of the Wooden Boat Foundation in 2004, during a difficult transition as that organization was merged with the Northwest Maritime Center (NWMC).

Cronkhite’s work at the most recent festival resulted in a 6 percent increase in gate receipts, brought in almost 600 local volunteers, filled the Point Hudson Marina with all sizes of wood en boats, and kept nine classrooms or stages busy with educational presentations and music for the three-day festival.

Those achievements mark her final festival.

New position created

Cronkhite’s change of course was prompted by the decision of Jake Beattie, NWMC director, to create a new fulltime events director position. In recent years, Cronkhite has been employed as a contractor. The new position would be in charge of not just the festival, but the spring boating symposium and new events that are being planned for the coming months.

That job was offered to Cronkhite, who turned 50 this week. With mixed feelings, she declined it.

“Jake wants to solidify a salaried position,” said Cronkhite this week. She said she was glad the new job is devoted to building programs, not fundraising or administration, but explained she does not want a fulltime events position. “ To me, the festival is not just an event, it’s a whole phenomenon. It’s yearround relationships that are very interdependent. Events are things that happen on weekends.”

Cronkhite said she will continue to live in Port Townsend, probably reestablish her office on her 28-foot wooden sailboat, Pax, at the Port Townsend Boat Haven, and be on hand to advise and assist in 2012 with the 36th festival, no matter who is named to replace her.

“ To do it right, you need vision, marketing, leadership and an incredible attention to detail,” she said. “ You’ll find people who are strong in one, but not the other. I hope whoever it is, they have a passion for wooden boats and for connections to the community.”

She added: “Most people know I’ll never leave the festival.”

‘Sea change’

Bidding farewell to Cronkhite is, Beattie said, “a sea change for us” at the NWMC.

“She’s been a steadfast hand at the wheel for a long time,” he said. “We’re not going to find another Kaci. We don’t have anyone in mind right now.” He credited Cronkhite with handling the festival so well that he, Beattie, as a new executive director, could focus his energies on other parts of the NWMC’s development.

“I could worry about everything but the festival,” said Beattie, who became NWMC director early this year. “I could put my back up against that. It will be much more difficult without her here.”

Shifting festival leadership from a contracted position to a salaried one with other eventplanning duties was part of the reorganization of NWMC that Beattie, as the new executive director, said he was hired to do.

“ The Maritime Center and the Wooden Boat Foundation are looking to grow,” Beattie said. “ This is a great opportunity for a person who can grow it.”

Besides the three-day boating symposium held March 18-20, Beattie is looking for additional events to bring boating workshops to the NWMC. Completion of the center’s pilot house with a full array of ship’s electronics and possible simulators may also lead to other programs, he said. “We can almost have people virtually navigate through the trickier passages of the Inside Passage” with the anticipated electronic equipment, he said.

Boating symposium courses may be expanded so that skippers can spend hours on the water in actual conditions, learning anchoring, docking or other skills.

Beattie is also looking at an academy for small-craft skills, for skippers of boats less than 20 feet, he said.

Circumnavigation

Cronkhite’s professional experience came from putting on events and handling public relations in a university environment. In 1995, she set off with a friend aboard the Tethys, a boat built in Port Townsend and filled with the work of Port Townsend craftspeople, and set off to see the world. For five years they circumnavigated the planet, arriving at Port Townsend in August 2011.

That September she attended her first Wooden Boat Festival, planning to leave right after the festival, but her itinerary was interrupted by the 9/11 attacks. She stayed, and soon after, volunteered to manage the festival after a previous director departed.

She’s been doing it ever since, and even when she hasn’t been doing it, she said, she’s been planning for it or making contacts that will play into a future festival.

“ It’s hard to tell when you’re not doing it,” she said. “I was always doing it.”

There are three festival improvements in which Cronkhite takes special pride. One is the festival’s increased focus on teaching.

There were four class venues in Cronkhite’s first year. This year, there were nine, and almost 150 different class or seminar sessions over the three days of the festival.

The festival also was enhanced by her ability to reach into distant boating communities, thanks in part to her own experience as a world sailor. She made a point of making connections far and wide, and trying to bring those she met to the festival in one fashion or another.

Another of Cronkhite’s key accomplishments was weaving the festival more deeply into the local community. Attracting 600 locals as volunteers represents 5 percent of the total population of Port Townsend. In a thank-you ad in the Leader running in this Sept. 28 issue, she lists close to 900 names.

“As a wooden boat event, it’s unparalleled,” she said. “But as a community building event, it is an incredibly special thing. That’s because so many people have done so many things for so many years.”

As for her self, Cronkhite plans to finish up a book she’s writing based on her own boat and travels, and she is looking at other opportunities.

“I’m not saying I want to slow down, but I’ve done some heavy lifting in organizational work over there for quite a while,” she said.

Regarding her replacement, Cronkhite noted she would be around to help if asked. She’s already working on getting some double-enders at the next festival. “Now I have to lobby the harbor master just like anyone else,” she joked.