When Ships Were Made of Wood; Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival

Spring, Summer and fall in the Pacific Northwest are full of festivals; music from blues to bluegrass, rodeos, pow wows, loggers’ fairs, hippy fairs, salmon bakes and more. But one of the more unique events is the annual Wooden Boat Festival held at the quaint Victorian seaside town of Port Townsend on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Even though we live just a couple hours away we’d never been, so this year we decided to go, and glad we did.

On a bright, sunny, September Saturday morning we drove onto the ferry from Mukilteo to the tiny town of Clinton at the southern tip of Whidbey Island just across Possession Sound from us. From there we drove the twenty miles to the center of the island where another ferry connects Coupeville on Whidbey Island to Port Townsend on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We parked our car on the side of the highway and walked onto the ferry; we’d be on foot from then on. From previous trips to Port Townsend we knew the ferry landed just south of the town and it’s far easier to walk around Port Townsend than to try to drive and find parking there.
The ferry ride from Coupeville to Port Townsend was magnificent as always, crossing Puget Sound which separates Whidbey Island from the Olympic Peninsula. As we crossed we could see Canada’s Vancouver Island to the north and the white, glaciated dome of Mt Rainier far off in the distance to the south. The glaciers of volcanic Mt Baker were shining over the mainland behind us to the east and the rugged Olympic Mountains rose sharply behind the harbor at Port Townsend to the west. As we slowed to land at Port Townsend, a harbor seal swam out of the way of the incoming ferry, eyeing us warily as we passed, while sleek double-masted schooners and small single-masted ketches sailed by, their white sails standing out sharply against the soaring Olympic Mountains behind them.

We disembarked and walked through the nineteenth century brick buildings lining the main street of downtown Port Townsend. Port Townsend was a prosperous place in the late 1800s, home to sea captains and their ships, but by the mid twentieth century it had fallen on hard times, the sea captains long gone and the turn-of-the-century buildings slipping into ruin. In the 1970s the Victorian neighborhoods and downtown city center attracted wealthy newcomers from Seattle and the deteriorating buildings were renovated. Today Port Townsend is one of the finest examples of a Victorian seaport town in the United States with its stately main street lined with three story Victorian brick buildings, Victorian homes covering the hillside neighborhoods above, and all dramatically set on Puget Sound surrounded by forests and mountains. It was then, and still is, a special place and today the harbor was full of sailboats, the town mobbed with tourists.

We walked through town past boutique stores in the old brick buildings and street musicians playing on the corners to the Center for Wooden Boats. Here wooden boats are hand-crafted. We paid our $15 entry fee and began admiring the sailboats, kayaks, skiffs and canoes while craftsmen hand-shaped wooden planks and decking. The display of boats was impressive and most of them were for sale at remarkably low prices for such handmade works of art. All were made entirely of wood with brass fittings and canvas sails. Even the oars and paddles for the kayaks and skiffs were hand carved.

But as impressive as these works of working art were, the big show was at Port Hudson Marina behind the Center for Wooden Boats. Here there were rows upon rows of wooden ships and boats tied to the wharves and moored together two and three deep. The marina looked like a forest with row upon row of tall masts rising above polished wooden hulls forming a tangle of rope and rigging with banners flying in the early afternoon breeze. There were graceful schooners, sloops, and daysailers. There were classic motor yachts and old fishing trawlers converted into luxury launches. Some were turn-of-the-century classics, others had been built recently. But all of them had one thing in common; they were built entirely of wood.

This was more than we expected and we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing aboard and walking through sleek schooners and luxurious power yachts, talking to the owners and skippers. One handsome power yacht had a formal living dining room, the dining table set with fine china and silver. A low-lying schooner shined with its teakwood decks and hand-carved bow sprit. Even the small boats were art works of hand-crafted wood, rope and rigging.

But my favorite was the Elmore; an old steam-powered tugboat built in 1890 and now converted into a no frills but comfortable home on the water. The decking and hull were well worn and beat up, the boat painted in the plain black and white of a working boat. The steam boilers had been replaced by an ancient 1940s diesel motor that had to be hand oiled every three hours when underway. But it sat in the water so solidly that the floating pier it was moored to moved slightly underfoot while the Elmore sat in the water like a rock, as if the boat was holding the pier in place rather than the reverse. For 1.2 million dollars we could buy the Elmore, but not having that amount on us we walked back into town for pizza and beer at our favorite bar, the Siren, a funky place with sofas and tables in an old brick building, its second-story porch overlooking the harbor below.

By then the hot sun had settled in the west and a cool sea breeze had sprung up. A large schooner drifted by under sail; it’s spinnaker full with the evening wind. Kayakers paddled through the swarm of sailboats moored offshore and the Olympic Mountains turned purple as the sun settled down behind them. Time to go home and we walked back to the ferry landing and onto the ferry for the ride back to Whidbey Island and our car.

As we approached the Coupeville ferry landing on Whidbey Island four sea lions frolicked nearby in the waves caused by a strong riptide cutting across the small bay, probably catching fish that the strong current was carrying past. We retrieved our car and drove from Coupeville back to Clinton and our last ferry ride for the day; home to Mukilteo. As the Mukilteo ferry left the Clinton landing we could see the fireworks shooting off above Lighthouse Park on the opposite shoreline at Mukilteo. It was the annual Lighthouse Park Festival and we had front row seats to the fireworks from the deck of the ferry as we cruised across Possession Sound; a perfect ending for the day.

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One thought on “When Ships Were Made of Wood; Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival

  1. Very enjoyable account of this unique festival. The Elmore looks great!

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