If you’re not one of those people who mixes up Harbor Days with the Wooden Boat Festival — Olympia’s other summer celebration of boats — you probably know that the Labor Day festival celebrates tugboats.
But if you aren’t a regular at Harbor Days, which will fill the waterfront with festivities beginning Friday, you might not know that these days it’s about much more than that.
“Tugboats are a dying breed, I hate to say,” said festival organizer Carol Riley. But the festival is growing, attracting 55,000 people over its three days with live music, lots of kids’ activities, and the Nisqually Tribe’s salmon bake and beer garden.
“I’m making sure that there’s lots and lots to do,” said Riley, who took over management of the Kiwanis Club of Olympia-run event three years ago. “I’ve been getting so many people saying it’s changed so much.
“The only way that this festival is going to sustain itself is to make it exciting for kids and families, for people of all ages and not just for tugboat lovers,” she told The Olympian, adding, “You can become a tugboat lover. I have.”
Tugboat lovers — and boat enthusiasts in general — will still have plenty to see, of course. This year, there’ll be 17 tugs on hand, including Olympia’s beloved and restored Sandman, which will be participating in Sunday’s races for the first time in several years.
Among the other vessels in town for the weekend will be the tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, the steamship Virginia V, the U.S. Navy admiral’s barge Old Man IV, and the schooner Tordenskjold, which fished the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea for a century.
Kids’ stuff includes the opportunity to build a “salmon-bot” with the Hands On Children’s Museum on Saturday; a sand-sculpting demonstration, happening all weekend; a quick-carve sand sculpting competition on Sunday; face painting; a pirate storyteller; and the new Lego brick-building station, run by Lego artist Dan Parker of Fife, who’s created a 3-foot-by-7-foot working waterfront scene to which kids of all ages can add their own nautical creations.
“It’s a fun little harbor scene with all different boats in it, including some boats that you wouldn’t necessarily see in the modern age,” Parker told The Olympian.
Parker designed most of the scene from scratch, but it also incorporates items such as a tug built from a kit Lego marketed in the 1970s. He’s been working with Legos professionally for nearly 20 years, building everything from a Space Needle replica to a casket in which a young man who died of cancer was buried.
The music lineup this year covers a broad range of genres, including the 5-Man Trio, American’s First Corps Band, a jazz ensemble from Joint Base Lewis McChord that played last month at Music in the Park; local favorite The Psychedelic Shadow Show, which performs with go-go dancers; and the River Ridge Taiko Ensemble, the only high-school group in the region to play Japanese Taiko drums.
In fact, the festival is now a full-fledged tourist attraction. On Friday, the Virginia V will cruise down from Tacoma, bringing 58 people — from Canada, Texas, California and Nevada as well as elsewhere in Washington — to spend the weekend in Olympia.
It’s the first time such a cruise has been organized as part of Harbor Days, Riley said.
“They’re leaving their cars behind,” she said. “It’s basically traveling the old-fashioned way.”
Olympia Harbor Days
What: The 45th annual festival combines tugboats and maritime history with sand sculptures, building with Lego bricks, live entertainment, a beer garden, a salmon bake, and more.
When: 5-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Where: From Percival Landing to Port Plaza, downtown Olympia
More information: harbordays.com
Tall ships: The tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain are visiting Olympia, offering tours and sails through Monday. Tickets are $42-$79 for sails, with tours for a $5 donation. 800-200-5239, harbordays.com/schedule
Virginia V: The historic steamship Virginia V is also visiting during the festival and offering excursions for $20-$50, with some cruises free for ages 12 and younger. harbordays.com/schedule
- 5 p.m.: Squaxin Island Tribe opening blessing, Percival Landing
- 5:15-8 p.m.: The Psychedelic Shadow Show (’60s and ’70s), Percival Landing
- 6-8 p.m.: The Popoffs (rock), Port Plaza
- 10-11:30 a.m.: Choro Tomorrow (Brazilian), Percival Landing
- 11 a.m.-5 p.m.: Tugboat show and tours
- 11 a.m.-3 p.m.: Port of Olympia tours every hour on the hour
- Noon-1:30 p.m.: 5-Man Trio, America’s First Corps Band (jazz), Percival Landing
- 1 p.m. Tribal canoe races, Port Plaza
- 2-3:30 p.m.: Smooth Chicken (oldies), Percival Landing2-3:30 p.m.: Zumba dance, Port Plaza
- 4-5 p.m.: Budd Bay Sea Shanty Singers, Percival Landing
- 5-7 p.m.: The Popoffs (rock), Port Plaza
- 5:15-7 p.m.: Pumphouse (classic rock), Percival Landing
- 10-11:30 a.m.: Yodelady (fiddle), Percival Landing
- 11 a.m.-1 p.m.: Roger Fernandes (Puget Sound Salish stories), Port Plaza
- Noon-1:30 p.m.: Mukana Marimba (African), Percival Landing
- Noon: Parade of tugs along the waterfront
- 12:30 p.m.: Tugboat races, visible only from the water
- 2-3 p.m.: River Ridge Taiko Ensemble (Japanese drumming), Percival Landing
- Noon-4 p.m.: Quick-carve sand showdown with Form Finders, Percival Landing
- 3:45-5:45 p.m.: LOTT Troubadours (rock), Percival Landing
- 4-6 p.m.: The Popoffs (rock), Port Plaza
- 5:45 p.m. Squaxin Island Tribe closing prayer, Percival Landing