This year’s Maritime Fest doesn’t have a theme or a gimmick. In one sense, it’s the same popular festival that celebrates Tacoma’s waterfront heritage every year with boat tours, vessels to explore, art activities and performers, all centered around the newly-revamped Foss Waterway Seaport museum. But in another sense, the festival — on this weekend, with an art opening Thursday night — highlights the very different relationships we have to our water, whether cleaning it up, sailing on it or giving ourselves to it when we die.
“We’re pushing toward being family-friendly and having as many things free as possible,” says new director Luisa Lam. “There’s so much there on the waterfront, and we want people to know about it.”
This year, there’s even more than usual, partly thanks to a recent $20 million renovation of the Seaport building that allows wider spaces for art, performance and education. Inside the Seaport will be new exhibits on the 10-year Foss Waterway cleanup, a gray whale skull and — most dramatically in the entry space — “Böts,” a show of 31 sculptures by Seattle artist Steve Jensen. Combining found materials and his own Nordic carving, Jensen created small “vessels” that reference the Norse tradition of funerary boats in a very real way.
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“In 1998 my best friend died, and I made a boat for his ashes,” says Jensen, a Norwegian by birth. “I took it out to sea and sank it.”
When his father, ill with a spinal condition, committed suicide in 2000, Jensen did the same thing — and again for his mother, who died two years later, and for his long-term partner, who died two years after that and asked for the same burial.
Ever since then the artist has been obsessively making boat sculptures: twisted rusty iron frames holding a skull amid a sea of resin, carved driftwood holding dried desert mud, a Chinese junk filled with a net of coins for the dead.
It brings together my Scandinavian background and my journey of grief and loss.
Artist Steven Jensen on his boat sculpture
“I guess it’s my way of dealing with it,” says Jenson. “It brings together my Scandinavian background and my journey of grief and loss.”
Other art created for Maritime Fest includes a Tree of Life created with duct tape on the sidewalk by Dan Alcyone. An artist reception Thursday night also includes a performance by opera singer Teresa Lin in the resonant space created by the removal of the museum’s interior dividing wall during the renovation.
Festival-goers can also take part in art on the weekend: artist Glory Cancro heads up a community mural you can help paint on a 16-foot sail that will be displayed in the Seaport, and the Sixth Avenue Yarn Bomber (Kassie Mitchell) will help you add to the tentacles of a knitted sea creature on the esplanade.
Finally, the musical lineup on the festival stage includes Tacoma rapper and Grammy nominee Will Jordan, co-writer of the Nicky Minaj/Rihanna song “Fly,” plus folk duo Steve and Kristi Nebel, sea chanty duo Pint and Dale, Kat Ross Dance and more. Actors from Point Defiance Pirates will roam the festival, and a “mermaid” will tell stories at the Seaport. There will also be food trucks and a beer garden.
But Maritime Fest also celebrates life — especially the Puget Sound tradition of boat building. The Tacoma Community Boat Builders are hosting a two-day workshop for families or teams (three to four people) to build their very own 11-foot skiff from scratch: For $500 and the commitment of six to eight hours each day, boatbuilding newbies get materials and expert coaching — while festival-goers watch.
It’s a deliberate move to replace the Quick and Dirty Boat Building competition, formerly organized by a Boat Builders member, with something more environmentally friendly and community building, says Shannon Shea, executive director of the Boat Builders.
We’re building something that will last.
Shannon Shea, executive director of Tacoma Community Boat Builders
“Instead of something that would float for 10-15 minutes, then go in the trash, we’re building something that will last,” says Shea.
The four team slots are already filled: three with families, and one with youths from the young adult homeless shelter. It’s an extension of what the Boat Builders already do, offering boat building to at-risk and court-involved youth to strengthen community ties.
The Boat Builders will also host a craft station on the esplanade for kids to build toy boats.
If you’re not building your own boat, you can explore some others. As in past years, vessels of all types and periods will be docked at the Seaport marina and open for visitors to board. The boats include the My Girl, Commencement, Charles N. Curtis, Gallant Lady, Theo Belle, Endeavor, RW Confer, Chippewa, El Mistico, Belle, PBR 750 and police, fire and spill response boats.
You can also tour the Port of Tacoma by boat on Sunday (tours depart at 10 and 11:30 a.m., and 1, 2:30 and 4 p.m.), or Commencement Bay aboard My Girl and Commencement (tours alternate both days on the hour from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday). The Sea Scouts also are offering trips aboard their training sailboat (first come, first served) and hands-on training on the Charles N. Curtis. Kids get the chance to play with remote-controlled sailboats on a pond near Rock the Dock and try their container-shifting skills with a practice crane and logic games hosted by the Local 23 chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union inside the Seaport.
The other new way Maritime Fest is celebrating Tacoma’s waterfront this year is with a Critical Mass Paddle and Row. At 11 a.m. Sunday, Tacomans are invited to join in on kayak, paddleboard or rowboat to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Thea Foss Waterway cleanup, which took the waterway from toxic Superfund site to restored marine habitat. A stage presentation by Deputy Mayor Ryan Mello and others will follow at noon.
Why a Critical Mass Paddle?
Paddling on the Thea Foss is something you wouldn’t have thought of doing 10 years ago. The cleanup (changed) how people relate to the waterway.
Dean Burke, organizer of Critical Mass Paddle
“Paddling on the Thea Foss is something you wouldn’t have thought of doing 10 years ago,” explains Dean Burke, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Commission, and a keen year-round standup paddleboarder. “It was the fourth most polluted body of water in the nation — it was a cesspool, a mess. The consequences of the cleanup is how it changes how people related to their waterways, and that includes human-powered craft.”
The Critical Mass movement is usually associated with large numbers of cyclists moving peacefully down city streets at rush hour to demonstrate the environmental and human benefits of bikes. For Burke, this was a chance to do the same on the water.
“We thought, why not take back the waterway?” he says.
Join in the paddle by bringing your kayak, board or rowboat at 10 a.m. (launch at 11 a.m.) to Waterway Park, East D Street on the south end of the waterway, and paddle up to the festival at 705 Dock St. Craft will be available to rent on-site. More information at tacomasports.org/usa/criticalmass.
When: Art reception 5-8 p.m. Thursday; festival 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Foss Waterway Seaport and waterway, 705 Dock St., Tacoma.
Transport: Parking is difficult along Dock Street. Free yellow school bus shuttles run frequently each day from the Tacoma Dome, also stopping at three self-pay parking lots at 1179 Dock St., 1300 Dock St. and 1515 Dock St. Parking is free at the Tacoma Dome. There will also be bike racks at the festival.