by MaryRose Denton

We had been anticipating this day for weeks! On this Sunday, the second weekend in September, we found ourselves on our way to the 43rd annual Wooden Boat Festival, held in Port Townsend, WA. This event is sponsored by the NW Maritime Center and as avid sailing enthusiasts, we joined the other lovers of the sea for a day celebrating water and wood and sailing.

Rowboats at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Rowboats at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz

The festival features more than 250 wooden vessels many of which are handcrafted as well as indoor and outdoor presentations, demonstrations, and of course other mavens of the water, like us. There are small boat makers on one side of the center grounds, boat building contests on the other. There is music, food and craft vendors contributing to the cultural bounty of the day and always the smell of the sea on the breeze. Everything from building your own kayak to building a sailboat can be found at this little festival, come rain or shine, so bring your wellies and a raincoat and maybe pack some sunscreen for that intermittent showing of the sun between clouds.

Arriving through the mist, by ferry

With the whole day ahead of us and no particular timeline, we decided to catch the Coupeville ferry and ride into the harbor of Port Townsend. As the ferry chugged toward the dock, the boats anchored off shore became more visible through the mist, some sailboats, some cruisers, two tall ships all gathered along the waters inlet.

Waterfront Sailing at Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival
Sailboats appear as we approach Port Townsend by ferry. Photo by Richard Schmitz

This foggy morning, the 3rd day of the 3-day festival, we hopped off the ferry and hoofed it through the downtown streets of Port Townsend toward the NW Maritime Center, about half a mile from the ferry terminal.

Finding the The Bell Tolling

As we entered the Center grounds we happened upon a large group gathering for a remembrance ceremony to the 38 mariners who lost their lives during this past year. The Sunday service is called “The bell tolling” ceremony and consists of eight bells chiming the maritime signal signifying for a watch or shift change. A somber yet clearly moving tribute to honor those who have passed.

Mariner Remembrance at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Mariner Remembrance – photo by Richard Schmitz


Coffees in hand, warming our fingers, we watched the faces of loved ones, wet with tears, walk by us making their way to the dock. A slow stream of mourners, clutching flowers in their hands, moved past us as we stood silently witnessing the physical signs of their sadness. One by one they reached the end of the pier, leaned over, and released their flowers into the waves below. A touching sight to begin our day, the flowers floating on the water, and this public tribute to these lost mariners.

Learning about dragon boats and sailing around the world

With the crowd clearing we wove our way among several of the wooden canoes and racing dragon boats, displaying detail as well as craftsmanship. Upstairs in the NW Maritime building we found lectures and workshops on topics including Japanese boat building, Sailing to Alaska in a 26ft Sailboat, and sailing solo around the world.

Dragon Boat at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Dragon Boat at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz

Over the three days of the festival there are speakers, song (sea shanties of course), and endless viewing of boats from around the world as well as right here at home in the PNW. A festival celebrating wood and water for the novice as well as the most experienced sailor.

Boat building demonstration at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Boat building demonstration at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz

There is a takeaway for everyone from this genuine and open community of tinkering, independent thinking, and self-sustaining wanderers. There are many stories of the adventures at sea, told by the dreamers who lived them.

Being surrounded by 250+ wooden boats

Down on the docks we roamed between the vessels, all festooned with bouquets of flowers and decked out in their very best, poking our heads in a few and being invited aboard to have a look around. It is the passion for the sea and sail each of these individual people shared which caused me to fall in love with this little festival in the Point Hudson harbor of Port Townsend.

Folk boat at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Folk boat at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz

Stories recounting expeditions to Alaska lasting 78 days in total, or trips of a lifetime charted in places such as Denmark and New Zealand. No matter where the voyage took place the common theme amongst these sailors always rang of their love for the water and the pride in their boat.

Hearing sea shanties and tales of adventure

Leaving the Wooden Boat Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Leaving the Wooden Boat Festival – Photo by Richard Schmitz

As the evening drew to a close, crew members began swabbing the decks and readying themselves and their boat for the trip home. It was the close of the festival, at least for this year. A local quartet sang sea shanties as each boat departed from the dock and down the channel. Onlookers and fair goers gathered on the pier to thank them with a wave and wish them a good sail. Next year they will meet again in mid-September, here in beautiful Port Townsend, and carry on the tradition of the sea.

Until next year ….

The Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend happens every year in September. If you go, be sure to share your photos and stories! Tag us #daytripsinwa

See our Port Townsend Destination Page for things to do and see in Port Townsend, Washington.

MaryRose Denton

MaryRose Denton is a freelance writer, traveler, licensed massage therapist, yoga teacher, lifelong vegetarian, and most importantly a mother. She enjoys the mash up of these that life brings and writes about them with insight, humour, and wit. A native to the Pacific NW, MaryRose lived for a short duration in Canada before returning home to this richly beautiful area. She has traveled overseas, exploring and visiting friends in their native homes allowing herself a deeper and richer understanding of human nature. MaryRose writes the stories of the people and places she visits, hoping to expand her readers’ interest and touch their hearts. She is a current member of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance. Her stories can be found at maryrosedentonwriter.com or follow her on Instagram and FB, @maryrosedenton.
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