Wooden Boat Festival, Down-Under is Up!

Every other year since 1994 wooden boat lovers - builders, sailors, rowers and racers - have sailed and rafted together in the wide and windy natural harbors of the Derwent River in Hobart, Tasmania for the Australian Wooden Boat Festival.  Friends, Cathy Hawkins, Ian Johnstone and Andy Gamlin teamed up to organize the first one after Andy came back from the Brest (France) Maritime Festival with a boat full of ideas and a sea of enthusiasm. 

Tasmania, with its rich maritime heritage, proximity to stands of magical Huon Pine, miles of accessible waterfront and a plethora of woodworking and boatbuilding artisans was a brilliant choice for the location. Over the years, the Festival became the top tourist attraction of Tasmania and one of the nation's top tourism draws - "the best of Australia in the heart of Tasmania."

I got to see the evolution first hand.  In 2007, I attended my first Wooden Boat Festival "down-under" with high expectations. Founding director, Andy Gamlin had planted the seed when he met with me in Port Townsend in 2002 while on a round-the-world tour of major wooden boat venues. Then, Port Townsend's Wooden Boat Foundation and Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats were his only west coast US destinations. I was then Director of the WBF.  By the time I finally booked a frequent flyer ticket to reciprocate his visit, the Australian event had outgrown grassroots management and the political and financial pressure of urban events was threatening. That year, there were 200 spectacular boats,true, but they were surrounded by blocks of chain link fences, one too many rude gate guards, almost no on-land boat exhibitors and an unimpressive, overly commercial array of tent vendors. 50,000 people attended. The Parade of Sail was so impressive though, I looked past the negatives. As a wooden boat enthusiast, I lusted after their amazing venue and wept at rumors of their demise. 

But the tears were for naught!  When I arrived at the Festival this year (February 2013), it was as a guest speaker. Excited to return and familiar with the venue, I headed for the harbor as soon as I dropped off my luggage. No chain link. No gates. No bland uniformed gatekeepers. Instead, there were twice as many wooden boat owners (400 this year!) and their families, at least a hundred cool wood and boatbuilding exhibitors, an enthusiastic crew of volunteers and a thousand people strolling the wharf's at Constitution Dock. The Festival hadn't even started! Tallships, a cruise ship and spectator boats plied the waters as far as I could see. It was spectacular! Even bigger than the still spectacular Parade of Sail.  

Over the weekend a crescendo of energy surged as 200,000 people attended the event. All took time under sunny skies to stroll the docks and wharf exhibits packing Sullivan's Cove, from the Henry Jones Hotel beyond Salmanaca Place. I caught up with legendary ocean sailors and friends, Lin & Larry Pardey, New Zealand small craft designer/builder John Welsford, designer/sailor/agitator Robert Ayliffe (Norwalk Island Sharpies), founding director, Andy Gamlin (who now owns the Australian Maritime Centre & boat school), prolific boating writer Kathy Mansfield from the UK, plus dozens of other friends from ocean cruising days, Port Townsend Festival and the Tassie 2009 trip. Everywhere I went I saw people I knew or who had been to one of my talks, or knew me from Port Townsend or shared my enthusiasm for whatever we were looking at. It was old home week, a reunion, even though I was at the opposite corner of the Pacific Ocean.

The Australian Wooden Boat Festival has undoubtedly moved to the top two of my list for wooden boat events worldwide. Of course, the Port Townsend Festival will always remain my first love, but the festival in Hobart has exponentially replicated (and by sheer volume therefore exceeded) it in spirit, boats, waterfront capacity, quality presentations and boat diversity. The fact that I get a second summer by heading down under, is a bonus.  The opposite should prove true for Aussies, South Pacific Islanders and Kiwis coming north!

It's impressive that the city/state/national entities of Australia have come together in such cooperation. Because of this, the Hobart festival is still growing. Port Townsend on the other hand, is near capacity - roads, harbors, hotels, marinas are full - and will likely remain smaller in boat and visitor attendance. Both events succeed (so far) due to a dense concentration of wooden boat passion despite their size differences. Both have managed, through challenging years of economic or political pressure, to retain the essence of what draws people to the events - spectacular boats & passionately authentic wooden boat people.  In that, I wish them both infinite success.

Above and beyond features of the 2013 Hobart Australian WBF included :

  • A Shipwrights' Village with arcane tools (back to Egyptians) cleverly demonstrated
  • An International "village" that changes every 2 years (this year, Indonesia)
  • Delicious, beautiful and entertaining demos by Tasmanian seafood, cider and crafts industries
  • Cool clusters of random boaty things - engines, surf boards, pine punters
  • Indoor toilets that remained clean through the weekend (honest!)

If I can afford both Festivals every two years, you can bet I'll attend both. Each is scheduled in the perfect season weather wise when summer cruising is over, but autumn has not quite arrived. September in the north, February in the south. 

Mark your calendars and send me a note. I'm hoping to present at both Festivals again in the coming years and of course to open PAX to visitors in Port Townsend.  I'll look forward to seeing you both places! Touch wood.

For another perspective, read Kathy Mansfield's article about the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in the March issue of UK's Watercraft Magazine.