It’s a rare festival where you can board a luxury yacht, walk on water, ride a train, touch a sea urchin, build your own boat and clash a medieval sword all in one day, but the Tacoma Maritime Fest is one of them. This weekend, the Thea Foss Waterway will ring with the sounds of cannon and medieval gunfire, cruising boats and growling pirates at the 21st annual festival celebrating Tacoma’s maritime traditions — and it’s all free.
Of course, the favorites will be there: port tours, train rides, walk-on boats, live entertainment, the quick-and-dirty boat-building competition and watery fun for kids. But this year, the festival’s new director, Sue Schaeffer, is adding an emphasis on learning about maritime activities past and present.
“I noticed last year that Maritime Fest had gotten away from its roots and become more commercial,” says Schaeffer, a former teacher, boat captain and director of the Tacoma Waterfront Association. “(This year) I tried to make every booth maritime-themed ... and focus on the trades. If we don’t educate people about them and how important the economy of the port is, they’ll die.”
As a result, there will be an array of opportunities to learn about all things maritime. There will be a maritime surveyor, a boat builder (Eric Hvalsoe) and nautical-themed vendors, including one woman who makes tote bags out of sails. The Flagship Maritime School will offer seminars each day in earning a captain’s license, the art of sailboat cruising, and Puget Sound’s tall ships and tugboats, among others. For the kids, there will be the popular remote control boat pond and fishing pond, plus a touch tank with sea creatures brought up by divers, zorb balls that enclose you and let you walk on water, and toy boat building. The newly renovated Foss Waterway Seaport also offers family classes in how to become a marine biologist, oceanographer or environmental scientist, along with access to the inside touch tank.
The big part of Maritime Fest, though, is the boats — and this year’s lineup is stellar. The Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain tall ships will be docked, shooting off mock cannon battles Saturday afternoon. Other boats at the dock include the Talaria IV, the S/V Yankee Clipper, the R/V Plover and the M/V Thea Belle. All are available for walk-on tours.
A big highlight will be the M/V El Primero, a luxury yacht that first steamed into Tacoma 107 years ago. Newly renovated in Gold Rush-era style, the yacht was built in 1893 for Edward Hopkins and is the only West Coast vessel rated First Rank. More than 130 feet long with six staterooms and a fireplace, the yacht counted Tacoma’s Chester Thorne (of Thornewood Castle) as one of its owners, and has had U.S. Presidents William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover among its guests.
You also can ride on boats at Maritime Fest. In addition to the usual Sunday boat port tours, there will be Saturday tours by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) of Commencement Bay wildlife habitats, daily rides with the Sea Scouts on their training vessels, and small rowboat tours. There’ll also be hydrofoils zooming up and down the waterway both days, and a tugboat “ballet” Saturday.
A shuttle will run to Tacoma Rail on Saturday for the annual free train rides and open house. Live entertainment includes variety acts such as magicians, aerialists, a pirate comedian, clowns and breakdancers on the kids stage, plus bands such as Kim Archer, Passages, Battersea and John Sparrow on the main stage.
Back this year is Knights of Veritas, a historical reenactment and education organization that will host an interactive medieval history pavilion with original medieval artifacts such as buckles, armor and crossbows, and handle replicas. It will have a 30-inch model of the Mary Rose, an English warship and one of the first to fire broadside cannon, and the group will offer talks and demonstrations of replica medieval handguns.
“Smaller and more portable than a cannon, the ‘handgonne’ was likely the first kind of gunpowder weapon used aboard ships,” explains Eric Slyter, who runs Knights of Veritas.
Visitors 12 and older can participate in medieval “Swordplay for Sailors” classes (with safe wooden weapons), learning from 15th-century manuscript sources how to fight with the short, machete-like messer.
If it seems the focus is on battles, that’s not intentional, says Schaeffer.
“It’s history in general, and the most popular bit seems to be banging and gunfire,” she says. “But (education) is my push. I’m hoping people will walk away learning a bit more about the industry.”Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com