PORT TOWNSEND — There was a time, not so long ago, when Port Townsend was a festival capital. Spring, summer, fall — these were the seasons of beer gardens and live bands, tourists and locals, eating and dancing.
The mama of them all: the world-famous Wooden Boat Festival at and around the Northwest Maritime Center.
It has just set sail again, headed for Sept. 10-12.
“Hope is in the air,” Barb Trailer, director of the 44-year-old gathering, wrote in an announcement this week.
“We are not in the clear yet, but things are looking better and better. If the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, we’ll alter our course, but we are going to lead with optimism and community spirit,” she added, noting her vision includes boats big and small, demonstrations, children building toy boats, “longboats going out, sailboats coming in, races, music, food.”
And to go with it all, they are making COVID-era contingency plans, Trailer wrote. The director said she’s already “darn busy,” with a little more than five months to go.
“We are lucky that our festival is at the end of the summer season,” she said.
The Wooden Boat Festival, which in past years has drawn throngs of 30,000, is a logistical monster that needs careful taming in any year.
Meanwhile the website, woodenboat.org, makes it clear the plans are real. Online applications for participants — boaters, vendors, presenters — will open April 21. Information also is available from the Northwest Maritime Center at 360-385-3628, ext. 100.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in and around East Jefferson County is what gave Trailer and her colleagues at the maritime center this infusion of hope.
“We’ve been looking at it day by day for months,” she said.
“The decision was not made in isolation,” but instead in the wake of thousands of inoculations, the decreasing COVID case rates and continual conversations with public health officials.
The Wooden Boat Festival will mix outdoor activities on land and water with limited indoor events, virtual presentations and possibly some live-streamed content, Trailer hopes.
Due to a tighter festival budget, live music may have to be trimmed back, she said.
The prevailing currents of the virus — and its vaccines — will shape the festival; Trailer plans to build it according to what is allowed at the time.
“If masking and social distancing are still the rule, that’s what we’ll be doing,” she said.
Trailer is aware, too, that this festival may be relatively small, as many people won’t be ready to join gatherings — “and we absolutely understand and honor that.”
In 2020, the Wooden Boat Festival went all-virtual with a healthy turnout: 150 videos from presenters and some 3,350 viewers, according to Northwest Maritime Center spokeswoman Hallie Glynn.
“There’s a conversation about how some of (this year’s festival) would be virtual, to reach a more geographically diverse audience,” added Heidi Eisenhour, who served on the 2020 event’s production team.
But like Trailer, Eisenhour is looking fondly toward an in-person celebration.
Now a Jefferson County commissioner, Eisenhour was chief operations officer at the maritime center and has event planning in her background.
“I know they’re going into it with eyes wide open. In all my conversations with Barb Trailer,” she said, “prudence is on the front burner.
“The decision had to be made; the event takes so much planning,” from lining up all the tents to registering sloops, ketches, schooners and yawls.
On Friday, Sept. 10, Eisenhour added, she just might have her hands full.
She’s signed up to make 300 burritos for that morning’s traditional boaters’ breakfast.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]