Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival
by Fred Bennett
Extraordinary backyard builders and pros share their creations in St. Michaels at the largest small craft festival.
I identify myself as a hopeless romantic who believes, like John Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” I see no reason why the things we make can’t be simple, functional and aesthetically pleasing. In my search for beauty, I am drawn to traditional, small boats, especially those made from trees. I wax nostalgic about plucky little ships constructed of wood cellulose and bronze screws, smelling of fresh varnish and pine tar.
If you are wistful for a place and time when people surrounded themselves with unique and beautiful objects painstakingly crafted by human hands, I have just the shindig for you—the Small Craft Festival at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) in St. Michaels. This event proves that regular people are capable of making incredible things.
The gathering began humbly in 1982 with a small group of amateur and professional boatbuilders who wanted to create a Bay-area small-craft get-together similar to one they’d attended at Mystic Seaport. Jim Thayer, a boatbuilder from Virginia, approached CBMM’s operations manager, Kate McCormick, with the idea for a rowing race in traditional boats. McCormick and her boss, Jim Holt, gave the Museum’s blessing, and the rest is history.
Gradually, MASCF began to grow. The festival is led by a volunteer steering committee and coordinated by the Museum’s John Ford, who humbly takes little credit where it’s due. Ford reports that in 2016, there were 123 boats entered by more than 250 small-craft enthusiasts from 14 states. MASCF is now the largest small boat festival on the Atlantic coast—perhaps even in the entire country.
What can you expect to see?
First, take the family to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where the admission price includes access to the festival. Walk around and check out the little boats, although you might also take time to scope out the bratwurst and fried clam vendors. Bring your camera, as there are many beautiful skiffs and canoes and kayaks and funky little powerboats and sailboats to see—some traditional and some surprisingly high-tech. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet the builders and owners and ask them questions. Everyone is friendly and enthusiastic. Some are professionals. Most are regular people who have decided they’re going to do something new, different and a little bit extraordinary with their spare time. You’ll be amazed to discover that many of them had never picked up a hammer or saw before they built their boat. Don’t be surprised if you begin to imagine yourself, a year hence, proudly standing there in paint-splattered dungarees next to a thing of beauty you have created with your own hands. You won’t be the first festival-goer to be inspired by the possibility of building your own.
The weekend holds plenty of opportunities to see these beauties perform on the water. There is a sailboat race, and there are spirited paddling and rowing competitions, even for the kids. The younger ones can play with little pond boats they have made themselves in one of the numerous children’s workshops.
The event organizers clearly appreciate the beauty of the little boats and they realize that their value lies in the shared experiences and enduring friendships that the festival make possible. Some attendees met here, eventually married, and now bring their kids to the show.
Throughout the weekend, you’ll hear music and laughter coming from the camping area provided by the Museum for festival participants. On Friday evening, after the Museum has closed, festival participants enjoy live entertainment, steamed crabs and oysters, and a fire at the campsite.
On Saturday evening, there is a catered dinner and an awards ceremony under the big tent, followed by tech presentations, star-gazing, and musicians who jam into the October night.
Ten or twelve years ago, I was approached by a man and his young son on the dock as I was preparing to go out for the sailing race on my own little home-built boat. The boy was full of questions. When I asked the man how he had come to find the festival, he pointed to an enormous yacht anchored out in the Miles River. He told me his son had begged him to take the dinghy in to “check out all the cool little boats.” As I cast off to head for the starting line, I off-handedly suggested that the two of them should, “Pick out a design you like, buy the plans, and just build it!” The man laughed and told me he couldn’t hit a nail straight. His son looked up at him and said with absolute sincerity, “I could help you, Daddy!” The following year I watched the two of them carry a beautiful little skiff down to the water and row out into the harbor at Fogg’s Cove while Mom proudly snapped pictures of the big event.
Thanks to Jim Thayer and the folks who have carried on his vision for 33years, there are people who know how to make things. You could be one of them. If you love boats and appreciate the nautical traditions of the Bay, enjoy being around beautiful, hand-crafted things, and relish the company of really nice people, visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels on the first Saturday in October. I’ll see you there.
Learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival and opportunities for learning about boatbuilding, visit www.cbmm.org. They also have great programs for kids.