The Great Sail By

Photo of our Great Sail By – courtesy of Michael B.

In a normal year I’d be out on the bay in Port Townsend, Washington right now wrapping up the finale of the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Instead, I’m sitting inside hiding from the worst air quality in the world. (The festival has gone online and you can participate for the next month.) Reader, John B, asked if I’d post some articles that have gone out of print, so here’s one originally published at ThreeSheets NW- and perfect for today.

I’d cashed in nearly all my vacation time to go on a family trip to Amsterdam. And while I didn’t regret the trip for a moment, it meant giving up the highlight of my nautical year: the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival.

As we flew over Greenland, en route to Europe, icy, white mountaintops emerged from the clouds, reminding me of sails. Big sails. Soon, as I gazed down at the frozen wilderness, I was thinking about the great sail by that happens on the final afternoon of the festival, when three hundred boats, from the tiniest homemade dinghy to schooners with 5,000 square feet of sail, emerge from the docks and parade around Port Townsend Bay. I loved experiencing the joy and beauty of so many boats in motion. I always got a kick out of waving to my friends and the sailors whose boats I admired. But I wouldn’t be seeing those sails this year and now, high above the snowy peaks, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad, despite the good fortune enabling me to embark on my current vacation.

But when we got to the Netherlands, my luck had changed. Every five years, it turns out, Amsterdam holds a huge maritime festival, called SAIL, and 2015 happened to be the fifth year since the last one. I scanned a Dutch newspaper and deciphered that 40 tall ships, scores of traditional boats, and thousands of spectator boats would gather on the IJ River for a sail-in parade just two short days after our arrival.

Unfamiliar with the city, my kids and I pored over a map, seeking out the best location to catch the tall ships as they arrived. We decided that an old quay on the northwest edge of town, not far from a local passenger ferry dock, would provide the ideal vantage point.

When we arrived, we discovered that hundreds of locals had had the same idea, and crowds thronged the spots closest to the water. Scads of small boats, filled with families and groups of friends, floated near the shore, while legions of sail and motor craft zipped back and forth. People drank wine, ate snacks, and reveled in the sunshine.

Traditional Dutch sailing barges, called skutjes, cruised along, followed by a contingent of tugs. Tubby wooden lifeboats, now transformed into recreational vessels, scooted by with their smiling passengers. Then, in the distance, the first tall ships came into sight, their masts towering over the smaller traffic, like a vision from sailing’s great past. Joy filled the air. People waved, smaller boats zoomed along in such close proximity to each other that I expected a crash at any moment. But despite the seeming chaos on the water, good will and safety prevailed.

Without a boat of our own, we longed to get on the water, too – and my kids soon discovered that we could board the nearby passenger ferry and ride back and forth across the parade route. Now we were part of the action, gently rocking on the waves while the wind blew in our faces. From our vantage point on the ferry deck, which we shared with dozens of bike-toting citizens, the variety of boats (and the people on them) provided endless fascination. We were entertained by the marching band playing on one boat, amused at the toy-like proportions of a traditional wooden sailing craft, and surprised by the stern, foreboding look of a military ship looming over us.

But as other spectators realized that the ferry offered great views, the boat became crowded, and almost no one disembarked at either terminus. That didn’t bother us until, as we gently bumped against the ferry dock, a uniformed official strode aboard, gesturing and yelling. We didn’t speak a word of Dutch, but we got the message: the ride was over.

Back ashore, I watched the parade continue, but being on land again had broken the magic spell. As we headed home, I wondered if I’d trade today’s experience to be on the water in Port Townsend. It was a question I knew I could never answer, but one thing was certain: I’d be there next year for sure.

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