Nantucket Maritime Festival -September/October 2011

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Jim Powers

Back in 1979, an annual event was launched to celebrate the island’s seafaring heritage, while at the same time showcasing a way for local fishermen to develop a market for underutilized fish species like mussels, monkfish and squid.

Seafest was a true community event, and featured a scallop-opening contest, plenty of seafood, music and children’s activities. It only continued into the early 1980s, a victim of rising insurance premiums and other organizational challenges, leaving many islanders lamenting its demise.

Last year, however, the Egan Maritime Institute and ReMain Nantucket revived the spirit of Seafest at the inaugural Nantucket Maritime Festival, a day of activities at Children’s Beach and Brant Point that paid homage to the island’s maritime history and connection to the sea.

It proved to be quite a success, attracting between 1,500 and 2,000 people the last Saturday in September for an afternoon of harpoon-throwing contests, knot-tying demonstrations, kayak races, whaleboat rowing, a tour of the Brant Point Coast Guard Station and Brant Point Light, a “touch tank” of island sea creatures, and plenty of music and seafood.

This year’s festival is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 1, and is being held in conjunction with the second annual Coastal Communities Conference, Thursday and Friday, Sept. 29 and 30 at various locations around downtown Nantucket.

The festival is bringing back all of last year’s popular activities, with a few new ones thrown in for good measure, said Jean Grimmer, executive director of the Egan Maritime Institute.

“We were thrilled with all the activities that were provided by our partners, 25 nonprofit organizations, last year. It’s that cooperation and partnership that really makes this day work,” she said.

“The team is back together again. Everyone is willingly doing this thing on the first day of October this year, which is nice, because it’s the first day of family-scalloping season, so we can have a scallop-shucking contest. Last year we had to shuck oysters, which are a little harder.”

Also on tap this year, Carl Sjolund will bring his scallop dredges and nets to show how commercial scalloping is done, the town’s shellfish propagation lab will be open for tours, and internationally acclaimed folk-singer Bob Webb will perform a selection of sea chanteys and maritime songs at the Children’s Beach bandstand.

“I think it’s going to be just terrific fun. We will have rope-bracelet demonstrations, quarterboard-carving demonstrations, there’s someone interested in making scallop lights. Everything will be back, and more,” Grimmer said.

That includes some good-natured competition as well, in a special four-way tug of war, dinghy races and rowing contests. Grimmer said she’s hoping to recruit teams of island tradespeople, pitting electricians against plumbers, or carpenters against painters, for a year’s worth of bragging rights.

Events like the Maritime Festival are important to keep alive the island’s special bond with its surroundings, Grimmer said.

“It connects us with the sea that is so important. A lot of time we go about our daily lives without even remembering we are on an island. It’s important to remember we can have fun on boats, at the beach, and continue to make the water a resource to our children,” she said.

“It’s also a way to reach out to new Nantucketers, who maybe haven’t had the experience of the old Seafest.”

On a more serious note, this year’s “Living on the Edge” Coastal Communities Conference will address the unique challenges in planning for those areas where the land meets the sea, said Melissa Philbrick, executive director of ReMain. It serves as a fitting complement to the festival, she added.

“What we have been thinking about for the past couple of years is that the downtown’s con- nection with the harbor is what makes it unique not only from the rest of the town, but from the rest of New England. It’s part of why we’ve supported the water-quality studies that have gone on and other initiatives. The festival is a wonderful way for the community to celebrate what happens because of that connection,” she said.

“The conference, on the other hand, is a way to think about on a more serious level the challenges of living on the waterfront. The idea of the land-sea interface doesn’t get talked about a lot. Others talk about the deep ocean, or what happens onshore. The interaction between the ocean and the shore is what this conference is all about. To pair a day of regional inquiry with a fun day celebrating it makes natural sense to us. It’s not imperative that they go together, but it’s a way to think about the fun and the serious at the same time.”

While last year’s conference examined the impact of sea-level rise on land, this year’s topic is more focused on planning.

“A lot of work has been done offshore, not in the first 300 feet from shore. We’ve watched the Massachusetts Ocean Plan come into being, and it has real significance for Nantucket, and for every other oceanfront community,” Philbrick said.

“But we really want the conference to not be about Nantucket, but a topic that is important to Nantucket. In many ways Nantucket has already addressed marine and coastal spatial planning in the form of our harbor plan, but Nantucket’s a place where a lot of people care about these things, and we’re hoping people who care about these things will come here now. We’re not trying to plan for Nantucket, but talking about things that are happening nationally and regionally, to inform the decisions we make about our own waters.” 

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