Home Port Plunders: Festival of Sail

For the last few years, for Father’s Day, my family and I have gone to the Washington Brewers Festival, but we thought we’d try something different this year. I heard about the Festival of Sail in Tacoma a few months back, and while details of the event were scarce, any opportunity to witness a tall ship is a win in this Captain’s Log! Unfortunately, the event suffered from a lack of organization and poor planning.

Before I continue in detail, here’s a short list of things that this event needs to improve:

  1. Poor transportation planning. The shuttle pick-up and drop-off locations were not clearly marked, the shuttle duration and frequency was unknown, and the event communication made it sound like on-site parking was either unavailable or incredibly limited in capacity. There was no clear advantage to the shuttle at the UW Tacoma campus versus the Tacoma Dome Station and taking the bus, or at least which would be preferable depending on where you were coming from.
  2. Poor placement of the south gate. The event entrance on the south dock was just before the dock itself, which had limited capacity for safety reasons. The line moved incredibly slowly, and we waited over an hour in line at noon just to enter the event.
  3. Screenshot taken on Sunday, June 18. Still no schedule for the entirety of the weekend.

    No program/schedule of eventsThe website promised a plethora of entertainers, from music to magic to comedy to pirate crews. Other than a short bio of each entertainer, there was never any schedule posted to the website of the entertainers other than the music stage. There was no program or schedule of events available on-site. One of the pirate crews I spoke to told me they ran several cannon demonstrations throughout the day, but it was at the end of the dock and they had very few people show up for any of them. I would have loved to attend, but I didn’t know where to find any of the crews. Even now, as I write this post on Sunday – the last day of the event – the website still says to “check back” for more details as they become available.

  4. No entertainment or food options at the south dock. Overall, the south dock felt like an afterthought. There were no entertainment options, no food or drink beyond the smoothie stands that were everywhere on both ends, the gate entrance was poorly managed, and worse, we were informed that to get to the other end, we had to either take the water taxi (which was scheduled to arrive every 20-30 minutes and was always full), or leave the event gate and either take the shuttle or walk two miles to the other end, then stand in the entrance line again on that end.
  5. Food trucks were overwhelmed. All the food trucks were at the north dock, and even at 3pm, most of them had a 30+ minute wait just to order. One family I spoke to just after 3 said they’d been waiting for their food for over 40 minutes because demand was so high. This was not the fault of the food trucks themselves, as they were all clearly scrambling as fast as they could. I can’t imagine how they must have looked during the lunch rush. Literally the only food option we had that didn’t involve an incredibly long wait were scones, and that’s only because the truck was able to prepare them dozens at a time.

Moving on to the detailed events of the day.

The event gave several options for parking and transportation, but they all made the assumption that we were familiar with the area. Tacoma is about an hour’s drive from my house (further for my parents), and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been there, so we know nothing about the area. We arbitrarily chose to park at the university campus and catch the shuttle to the event. Upon reaching the shuttle pickup point, there was a complete lack of signage indicating we were in the right area. A few others were already there before us, and several more showed up over the course of the next 20 minutes, and we all began to wonder if we were in the right area at all. The shuttle finally arrived, and the driver confessed that the shuttle pickup area where we were waiting was a late addition, and the initial shuttle route was supposed to be much shorter. The shuttles were scheduled to arrive approximately every 20 minutes, but due to poor route planning and unpredictable traffic, all 3 shuttles ended up queuing one right after the other – in other words, it wasn’t one every 20 minutes, it was three every hour.

Our parking location was only about a 15 minute walk from the event, but it involved a large staircase and my dad has limited mobility. The shuttle route circled around, making several impromptu stops to pick up more passengers who all looked equally confused about where they were going, and 15 minutes into the drive, we realized we were basically right back where we started, just one block down at the bottom of the staircase. The shuttle took almost half an hour to go what should have been a 15 minute walk. Even with my dad’s limited mobility, the time we spent waiting for the shuttle plus the actual drive time, we still would have made it to the event faster by foot. Worse, we realized after we got there that there was, in fact, on-site parking available (at least at the south dock).

The event planning didn’t get much better from there. We stopped at the south gate with “the world’s largest rubber duck” and a few of the tall ships. The shuttle driver didn’t know which gate had which ships available; it was already after noon, and we were scheduled for a 4pm sail on the Zodiac. All the shuttle driver knew was that the north gate was the main gate and had most of the ships, so our initial plan was to stop at the south dock, see the ships there, then gradually make our way to the north dock.

Big mistake.

The south gate queue management was horrendous. We spent over an hour in line just to gain entrance to the event. The gate was actually at the dock, and the dock itself has a limited capacity for safety. It was after 1pm by the time we finally got down to the dock to see the limited tall ships available. Even with the controlled capacity, many of the ships were crowded, mostly with children unsafely running amok both above and below decks, squeezing by yours truly and even attempting to push me down a staircase once. I usually enjoy children, but I’ve never wanted to throw children overboard more than I did today. This sentiment was shared even by some of the event volunteers – who were equally unhappy with the event organization, and many of them didn’t know what was going on either – who also commented that not only did the port not even provide life jackets for the children running around, but some of the children were playing around in the murky marina water filled with all kinds of nasty things (where do you think the ships dump their waste grey water?).

This was the line in front of us AFTER we’d already waited for 20 minutes.

Now for a bit of positivity: of all the ships on the south end, though, the Lotus was the most memorable. Built in 1908-1909 here in Seattle, it was – at the time – the largest privately owned motor yacht on the west coast. The staterooms were about as large as you’d expect, but the galley and common areas of the classic houseboat were so roomy that it would be easy to forget you were actually on a houseboat. The top decks featured a large recreational area where one could easily sit for lunch, to read a book, or just have a large outdoor social event on board.


After hurriedly looking at each of the ships at the south dock, we awaited the water taxi to bring us to the north dock so we didn’t have to wait through what we assumed would be another chaotic mess of confusion and disorganization at the entrance gate. The shuttle arrived and filled up, leaving a few passengers behind who simply couldn’t board due to capacity limits. There was only one water taxi shuttling people to and fro, so those poor souls would have to wait at least another 30 minutes as the water taxi made its way back and forth.

The crew of the Lady Washington working hard to furl the sails after their voyage.

We saw the majority of the tall ships we expected to see as we approached the north dock. Local favorites Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain were on full display. Fun fact: the Lady Washington has been in several movies and TV, most notably as the Interceptor in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, as well as Star Trek: Generations, Once Upon A Time, and Revolution. Seeing such a long dock full of tall ships fully rigged is a most marvelous sight for anyone who hears the beckoning of the sea.

It was now 3pm and we hadn’t eaten lunch yet. The available food trucks all either had very long lines or had temporarily stopped taking orders so they could catch up with those they had in their queue. The only exception was the scone truck (Fisher Fair Scones), and only because they had literally dozens of scones pre-made and ready to go. They sold out of strawberry shortcake who knows how long ago, so raspberry scones would have to tide our bellies over until after our sail.

Despite a day full of clouds, the weather itself kept a decent breeze and stayed dry until it was time for us to finally board the Zodiac for our sail. The rain fortunately kept at a small drizzle, but the wind was in hiding. My curse remains. There is ne’er a breeze when I sail.

Upon boarding the ship, a few late passengers caused us to be short on trained crew since some of the volunteers had to deboard the ship to allow for them. No matter, more opportunity for this captain to step up! I helped raise the mainsail and the foresail. The Zodiac’s rig features four sails in total (jib, staysail, foresail, and mainsail): the mainsail of the Zodiac is the largest on the west coast at over 4,000 square feet! Total sail area of all four sails is about 7,000 square feet.

The mainsail was a heavy lift, and I barely had any energy left for the foresail, but I refused to give in to my burning arms. The volunteer crew – myself included – struggled with the rhythm of raising the foresail, and it’s apparent in the video as my hands struggle to grip the line and keep it taut. We got it together in the end, but that first half was definitely less than well orchestrated.

The ship cat watches for safety hazards on the deck. Keep that line coiled!

In addition to four sails, the ship also features a black and white furry crew member. I went below decks after the sails were raised to find her resting in one of the beds of the main saloon. She was friendly and comfortable around the ship, having spent all her life aboard. When the children came below to find her, she quickly sought more private refuge when they surrounded her, eventually coming up to the top deck.


The Zodiac’s acting mate, Henry, giving a safety briefing to the passengers. The majestic Lady Washington sets sail behind him.

The mark of a true sailor is one who can sail without wind, and the acting mate aboard, Henry, did the best he could. His expertise was apparent in the way he gazed at the lines and the sails, trying to make the best of a hard sail. Alas, the wind never came, and the crew did all they could. We were stuck in the doldrums and eventually had to motor our way back into port.

We stopped in the Rock the Dock Pub & Grill for dinner before returning home. I spoke again with one of the pirates I’d encountered earlier in the day. The crew of Pirates of the Plateau may, in fact, be my crew in spirit. They attend events such as this, paid only enough to cover expenses for their cannon fires and other related items, and they run a haunted house during October that’s reportedly one of the best in the area. Unfortunately, they’re based out of Buckley, which is a bit far for this pirate. I wish there was a crew of similar minds up in my area. I live in a port city, but the port is largely geared for commercial and naval activity, and there are few public events other than farmers markets and outdoor concerts. Public boating events are unheard of, and there are no public pirate crews that I’m aware of in the area. There’s a clear opportunity here, and if I had the time for it, perhaps I’d start one.

All in all, the Festival of Sail in Tacoma has a lot of work to do in future years for their event planning. If I attend again in the future, I’ll be sure to go directly to the main gate in hopes of better overall enjoyment.


  1. I agree with everything you wrote, aside from one statement: “where do you think the ships dump their waste water?”

    This is most certainly not the case, as it is highly illegal to do so. Several of the ships stopped at my marina to pumpout throughout the course of the weekend, despite the time required to do so. These guys are very professional and wouldn’t dump black water into the waterway, at least based on the crews that I’ve met and interacted with. I will concede, however, that some may discharge gray water (sink water, shower discharge,etc.) overboard, as most boats do not have gray water tanks and there’s no legal requirement for them to capture it.

    Aside from that minor quibble, your assessment seems spot on. The city specifically hired the out of state company, Draw Events, due to their expertise at running these types of events, but it certainly didn’t reflect in the overall level of organization and planning. Also, the person in charge of planning the dates for June instead of July or August should be forced to walk the plank. Of course, if it was this chaotic and disorganized with minimal attendance, I shudder to think what would have happened had they actually met their projected attendance of 200k.

    Ian Wilkinson
    General Manager
    Foss Harbor Marina

    1. Noted! I’ll clarify in the post that I meant grey water, not black water. Thanks for reading! Perhaps next year the event organizers will at least rent some wind!

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