Three ale-swilling shark hunters lounge in a wooden boat cabin under a single swaying night lamp and tell stories of who has the best scars. The sea is calm. There’s a loud knock on the wooden door. The door swings open. It’s a representative from the Maritime Museum Louisiana of Madisonville:
“You boys seem to be looking for a competition. How about coming into shore, building a wooden boat inside 14 hours, then racing it up to the Tchefuncte River Bridge without sinking?”
The shark hunt is abandoned. It’s time to build a boat.
This isn’t quite how the original Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival was started. According to Chloe Stephan of the Maritime Museum Louisiana, it started something like this:
The event was started in 1991 by a group of boaters who wanted to celebrate their wooden boats. Over the years the event grew in popularity and when the Maritime Museum opened, the boaters/organizers turned the festival over to the museum to serve as a fundraiser (2000). It serves as a major fundraiser for the museum to this day.
“Major fundraiser” is a completely accurate descriptor, but from a pair of eyes on the shoreline, a spectator is filled with a sight that could be comparable to Troy’s fleet of a thousand Greek ships.
The 90-degree temperatures have drifted on and left a wonderful cool river breeze. Live music reverberates raucously across the water in the bright mid-morning sun. Festivalgoers teem across the Tchefuncte River Bridge on foot, electric bikes, and even golf carts. At the Children’s Village, kids decorate pumpkins and frolic on bounce house slides. The Freedom Boat Club and other vendors chat amiably with passersby. The shoreline is packed with spectator boats. The water teems with wooden vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard and Sheriff patrol on the outskirts. Festival grills and smokers throw billows of swirling steam that mingle with the sky.
With a front-row view to all of this organized joy, and a direct eyeline across the river from the Wooden Boat Festival, is the longtime homestead for Tchefuncte River and Lake Pontchartrain boaters: Marina del Ray.
A race that celebrates “that sinking feeling”.
Anthony Cassard is the longtime General Manager at Marina del Ray. While he often works on the biggest fall festival in Madisonville, the number of Wooden Boat Festivals he’s attended now rests in the double digits. The festival has a profound effect on Marina del Ray for this weekend and hosts boaters that come from as far as Mississippi for the event. With all of the fun chaos onshore, it still doesn’t quite compare to the chaos on the river with a fleet of not-always-seaworthy vessels:
My favorite thing about the festival is the dirty boat contest. That’s basically a two-day event where they bring in novices to build these boats over two days and then at the end of it on Sunday they have a race. So it’s always fun – about 90% of them sink. So, it’s entertaining.
There’s one time – my fondest memory was the water was high and they didn’t open the bridge. And so we had a whole bunch of dirty boats just slamming into the [bridge] – because a lot of people tend to put these masts just to make their boats more ornate, but several of them just crashed into the bridge because the water was so high. Just took them out.
It’s always fun to see the designs that people make and come up with, and try to float ‘em, and then they sink. It’s fun.
The Quick ‘n’ Dirty boatbuilding contest is a feat of deadlined craftsmanship. The Maritime Museum hosts up to 20 teams who have 14 hours to assemble boats within a designated 10’ x 20’ space onshore. Crews are generally four to six members, who must bring their own tents, tools, and building materials, and complete a seaworthy vessel by Sunday at 1 p.m.
At 1:45, boat crews line their boats up for a parade from Mabel Drive down to Water Street. Think of the Titanic leaving from the docks at Southampton, but these ships are about ten feet long, completely wooden, and do not include a racquetball court.
Crews are allowed to have one to two members compete during the race, an approximately 200-yard jaunt up to the Tchefuncte River Bridge and back. According to the Maritime Museum’s Quick ‘n’ Dirty rules, “The first leg of the contest is a sailing leg; the other is a rowing or paddling leg. Wind direction on day of contest will determine the starting line.”
Racers compete for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, as well as “Best in Show”, a “Shipshape Award” for best constructed, and a “Subsurface Cruiser” award for the boats that achieve, as Maritime Museum Louisiana puts it, “that sinking feeling”.
The community effect.
The Quick ‘n’ Dirty contest is a great deal of fun on an individual and team level. From a recreational boating and community standpoint, it’s an immense draw for folks who don’t normally spend time on the water. Anthony spoke about the people who flock to the Tchefuncte shores on this weekend:
The community coming out to the area is the big thing. You want to get people that wouldn’t ordinarily have access to marinas and boating infrastructure, things like that, out on the water and experience it…They come from all over the area – Folsom, Covington, North of Madisonville…especially when the weather’s nice, starting to cool off in October, it’s a great time to have it.
Chloe Stephan of the Maritime Museum Louisiana expressed a similar sentiment at the uniting element of the quirky, excitable gathering:
The most memorable part is getting to watch how the festival brings people together. There is a lot of laughter and joy in this festival’s atmosphere. Families and friends are having a blast and spending quality time together. Community is a big reason why the Wooden Boat Festival is such a success!
The truly eclectic array of wooden boats.
A first-time spectator at the festival may experience a sensation of arriving at a regatta or a trade show designed explicitly for wooden boats, but blended with steaming crawfish and cold beer. Chloe Stephan of the Maritime Museum Louisiana spoke about the 2023 highlights:
There are all types of wooden boats and a few “classics” which may not be entirely wooden, but have interesting wooden aspects to them. Boats range from classic pirogues and “putt-putts” to Biloxi Schooners. Last year’s poster boat was a steam launch from [the] USS New Jersey (BB-18). This year’s poster boat is the Glenn L. Swetman, from the Biloxi Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum, a classic Biloxi Schooner. The Maritime Museum conducts wood boatbuilding classes and builders who have completed their boats often display them in the festival. This year over 70 boats will be on display, both in the water and on trailers along Water Street.
The impact on Madisonville businesses.
During the Saturday and Sunday of the Wooden Boat Festival, Madisonville packs with people who drive from every corner of Louisiana and beyond to experience the festival and walk Madisonville’s streets for two days. Marina del Ray’s proximity to the event isn’t an exaggeration – the Tchefuncte River Bridge is a quarter-mile walk away and tenants at the marina have the front-row seats for every bit of the race. Anthony spoke to the weekend influx:
We get transients basically. We get probably 30 to 50 tenants that come from other marinas in for the weekend. They come in, and we also have RV spots – we have six of them, so they fill up. So we get a lot of transient business from it.
Seeing an influx of 30 to 50 tenants for one weekend makes an impression. Take it one step deeper – think of someone who buys tickets for a Taylor Swift concert six months ahead of time. Anthony and Marina del Ray experienced a similar surge for the 2023 Wooden Boat Festival:
We started getting calls back in April. We don’t start taking reservations until the month prior. September 1st is when we start actually accepting reservations for it. But we get people trying to book up as early as April.
The Maritime Museum Louisiana’s role and community sponsorship.
The Maritime Museum Louisiana has been able to host such a sprawling event with help from its vendors, sponsors, and boatbuilders over the past 32 years, as well as community donations. The perks of being a sponsor manifest on the Friday night before the big event at the Captain’s Ball (also known this year as the Toyota Maritime Mania Patron Party):
Basically, they give us a T-shirt, a poster, and some tickets. They always have a “Captain’s Ball” on the Friday night before the event, and so I always give our tickets to staff members. So they can attend, as long as they promise to be well-behaved (laughing)…We try to sponsor every year. It’s a good cause.
The ball, the Quick ‘n’ Dirty race, and the Festival – it all stems from an organization whose mission is to preserve and spotlight the culture and significance of Louisiana maritime history. From the Maritime Museum Louisiana’s “Mission” page:
“Bringing Louisiana’s Maritime History to Life,” is the driving mission of Maritime Museum Louisiana…The museum brings Louisiana’s maritime history to life through unique interpretive programs, exhibits, and publications. These programs include the time-honored craft of boat building, hands-on field trips, constructing underwater robots, restoration of the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse, and other exciting educational opportunities for people of all ages.
Exhibits at the museum include a Tchefuncte Wildlife Display, a mid-19th Century “Life On The Bayou” diorama, and deeply Tchefuncte-specific history like the display of the SS Pioneer submarine, a Confederate-built experimental sub that was scuttled in Bayou St. John during the Civil War.
Within the Festival Tapestry is Marina del Ray.
General Manager Anthony Cassard expressed that he thought, “The best vantage point to see it is actually in the town itself.” Marina del Ray is, however, an embedded fixture in what has become a historic annual piece of Southeastern Louisiana boater camaraderie.
Marina del Ray’s onsite restaurant, The Blind Tiger, hosts hungry festivalgoers who wander in for its daily-changing chalkboard menu of fresh food. Its parking lot offers free parking to attendees who walk across the bridge. Its docks fill with spectators who sit and swing their legs over, waiting for the race and enjoying the fall air.
Now in its fourth decade, the Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival exists as a rich quilt of Southeastern Louisiana culture and maritime history. Within this tapestry, woven in as an integral piece, is the calm undulating shoreline of Marina del Ray.