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The Origins of the Wooden Boat Festival

In Hobart we have excellent sailing waters, world class boat building timbers, a rich but largely undervalued maritime history, excellent timber workers in craft, furniture and boats, active music traditions and an emerging international food industry. As well Tasmania had an existing haven for ocean vessels – Sullivan’s Cove which features the famous Constitution Dock. Combined with an established tourism infrastructure, these ingredients were perfect for a cultural maritime event.

Hobart’s global location though was to become the biggest challenge. Situated in one of the globe’s most sparsely inhabited corners, the attraction for visitors had to be very good to ensure international visitors would come and make the event sustainable.

In 1994 two friends threw themselves into the organisation and it was not long before our enthusiasm spread to hundreds of people. They turned up on the fine sunny November Saturday. People with boats turned up from Sydney, all over Tasmania and from Melbourne. Beautiful models were sailed into Constitution Dock and displayed in a marquee.

A modest grant from the State Government was enough to make the first festival a sensation; well, a sensation to those who were already passionate about wooden boats. It was just a weekend event, two days, and the Sunday arrived with wet easterly drizzle. Remaining damp all day did nothing for our locals. One feature was a French patrol boat which arrived from Noumea carrying a traditional canoe from Isle de Pines, thanks to some work behind the scenes by Jean-Rene. The music was great and Elizabeth St Pier was packed with tasty food stalls organised by French born local Catherine Brys.

Entry was free, we wanted to demonstrate the idea before committing to future editions. From the outset a biennial event was to be put in place so that organisers and boat owners could alternate every second year with relaxation. The 1996 and 1998 shows came around quickly, but each event suffered from increasingly bad weather. I gave up my technical career in surveying and became the full- time director as the event began to mature. A break-though came as Tasmania’s charismatic Premier (and Tourism Minister) Jim Bacon took an interest in the Festival. Together we shifted the dates to February and I also took the opportunity to make it a three-day event, incorporating the Monday which was a public holiday.