For 20 years, the Commencement Bay Maritime Fest has been put on by a stalwart group of volunteers, maritime lovers and those dedicated to Tacoma maritime heritage and the growth of the maritime industries.
The Youth Marine Foundation supports activities of Tacoma’s Sea Scouts, a co-ed program for young adults between 14 and 21. Sea Scouting promotes good citizenship, improves members’ boating skills and knowledge through instruction and practice of water safety, boating, outdoor, social and service experiences and knowledge of Tacoma’s maritime heritage.
The Youth Marine Foundation is now embarked on a capital campaign to build a center for youth maritime training. You can get involved or send a donation to:
Early Beginnings. With 52 miles of shoreline, Tacoma’s past, present and future are integrally connected to the Waterfront. At the turn of the nineteenth century, skippers in Commencement Bay challenged one another to spontaneous races. Between World Wars I and II, dozens of shipyards dotted the shores from Gig Harbor to Tacoma. In the 1940’s, Tacoma’s Young Men’s Business Club sponsored a waterfront festival. Tuna clippers built at Western Boat and Martinac’s Ship Yard dominated the world’s tuna fisheries in the 50’s and 60’s.The Evolution. The Port of Tacoma began sponsoring annual boat tours in the early 80s to show the people of Pierce County the growth of our Port. With the exception of some construction at Martinac’s Ship Yard and fishing boats moored at Petrich Marine Dock, things for the working waterfront were quiet on the Foss Waterway until 1992 when a new organization, Citizens for a Healthy Bay, invited folks to the City Marina to board and tour the working boats of Commencement Bay. A couple of years later on a sunny Saturday in 1994, shipwright Mike Vlahovich invited fishermen from Tacoma and Gig Harbor to drop in at his land-based boat-building shop and hold a picnic afterward at Petrich Marine Dock.
The First Event. That winter, Clare Petrich called together folks from Citizens for a Healthy Bay, the Port of Tacoma and Vlahovich Boats and proposed coordinating their activities into one big festival to be held at the end of the summer after the fishing boats returned from Alaska. It took a while to figure out a name but by the summer of 1995, the first official Commencement Bay Maritime Fest was held. There was sea chantey music, Puyallup tribal dancers and good food at Petrich Marine Dock; Port and working boat tours, open house and an art exhibit at Vlahovich Boat Yard; a kayak paddle on the Puyallup River; and an opening ceremony with fishing boats from Tacoma and Gig Harbor flying their flags and parading across the Bay to Foss Waterway.
1997. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the building of the first 11th Street Bridge and the Tacoma Historical Society raised money to light the bridge. The Maritime Center opened its doors on Dock Street for exhibitions and boat-building for kids.
1998. The festival moved across the Foss Waterway to “Parcel Five.”. That year, the Sea Scouts joined in with boat trips and shuttles; owners of classic boats paraded down Foss Waterway to the Yacht Club; the Beltline brought a steam engine to town for free rides; and we had our first Tugboat Race–”the longest tugboat race in the world.” Nobody’s challenged that claim yet!
1999. We moved down the Foss Waterway to beautiful Thea’s Park, designed by Metro Parks for the best in maritime park activities. Our first juried maritime art show was held that year at Totem Marina (now Foss Waterway Marina) and the artwork for the following year’s Maritime Fest poster selected from the participants each year since then. We also collaborated with the Washington State History Museum on an art exhibit and the first Dragon Boat demonstration races occurred.
2000. The dragon boat races with their lion dancing and eye-opening ceremony had become an integral part of the Maritime Fest. That year, the artwork and schedule of events for the Maritime Fest received the first place “Gold Summit Award” from the Washington Festival and Events Association.
2001. Corporate Dragon Boat races were established and the Mayor of Fuzhou, Tacoma’s sister city in China, sent a delegation to compete against Mayor Crowley’s team and the Puyallup Canoe Crew; the Chinese won! That year, the kids’ events got bigger and better with the Titanic slide and activities in the Metro Park’s Kids Fun Zone.
2002. Maritime Fest welcomed two newcomers to the Foss Waterway – The Glass Museum and Thea’s Landing — located on Parcel Five, former home of the Commencement Bay Maritime Fest. We asked everyone to “Get Dinghy With It” as we initiated several new events including, the Gig Harbor Heritage Row and Velocity Boats.
2003. The park was filled with enthusiasm and excitement as the launch of the Commencement Bay Mayoral Challenge brought dragon boat racers from around the world. Our juried art show continued to draw out the “Who’s Who” in the art community. Amateur and professional musicians and poets entertained for Open Mic and Fisher Poetry Readings at the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum.
2004. Quick & Dirty Boatbuilding was introduced with local teams building a boat in one day and competing in a race at the mouth of the Foss. The Dept. of Natural Resources provided a marine life Touch Tank for kids of all ages and the ILWU Local 23 sponsored a “Catch & Release” fishing tank. John Childs donated his fireworks to the Fest and everyone was treated to an award-winning display while Jonathan Harris performed songs from his new CD!
2005. Following the Tall Ships event in July, Maritime Fest welcomed Tacoma-built Fairliners to the Pier. The Working Waterfront Maritime Museum celebrated Jack Fabulich as Mariner of the Year. Our poster (created by Hank Baarslag) and public service announcement (created by Phil Chang) won the Washington Festivals & Events Assocation gold prize!