With the region in the home stretch of summer, preparations for the 50th anniversary of HarborFest, set to run from September 6 through 8 in Sag Harbor, are under way.
HarborFest, which began as the Old Whalers’ Festival in 1963 as a way to attract visitors early in summer, was gradually pushed to mid-September as it grew into a three-day event complete with music, food tastings, contests and historical tours. This year, it will be held a bit earlier to capitalize on the still-lingering summer crowd, according to Alan Fruitstone, the event chairman.
Events for HarborFest 2013, organized by the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, largely center on the Long Wharf area but span out to include the entire village.
The weekend will kick off with a benefit at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on the night of Friday, September 6, called HarborFest Fiesta. Proceeds will go toward renovations at the museum, set to start on September 11.
That Friday also will feature an exhibition of a solar-powered boat called the Novella, which recently circumnavigated Long Island, in the harbor. The boat, which can reach a top speed of about 6.2 knots, is 29 feet long and uses twin electric motors.
On Saturday, September 7, Long Wharf will be packed starting at 9 a.m. with a farmers market, a craft fair and the annual Taste of Sag Harbor, which “is basically a big food court with beer and wine and any type of food you can imagine,” according to Mr. Fruitstone. Local restaurants expected to participate in the Taste of Sag Harbor event include Page at 63 Main, the Golden Pear, Bay Burger, Muse in The Harbor, and others.
As the day goes on, there will also be demonstrations by the U.S. Coast Guard, face painting, karaoke, walking tours through local landmarks, corn and clam shucking contests, and a performance by the Sag Harbor Community Band.
At noon, the famous whaleboat races begin, where locals row out to a canvas whale anchored in the harbor and attempt to make contact first. The races go off in heats of two teams competing head to head, with the ultimate winner being crowned Sunday afternoon.
“The old-timers really look forward to the race—it is a lot of fun,” said Mr. Fruitstone. “It is truly the highlight of HarborFest.”
One of those old-timers, David Lee, a staple of Sag Harbor who helped found the festival back in 1963 with former longtime mayor John Ward, said he looks forward to the whaleboat races all year, despite changes from the original format.
“Back in ’63, John and myself and a few others got together and said, ‘We have no industry anymore. We need to do something to help our economy a bit,’” recounted Mr. Lee. “The first year was a success, but then we got [John] Steinbeck involved as the master of ceremonies for the second year, and things really took off.
“We had people coming from all over Europe to compete in the whaleboat races,” he continued. “They would race out to this whale and have to harpoon it to win, not just tag it. Then, one year, the Save the Whales Foundation came and strongly rejected the idea of harpooning a canvas whale. So now we just have the racers tag it. The New York Daily News had us on the front page. Hell, we got so big the village made us shut it down for a few years. The race died of its own success!”
As Mr. Lee alluded to, despite celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the first festival, the 2013 HarborFest is not the 50th time the event has taken place, since there have been a few years when the village didn’t approve the festival.
To finish this year’s festivities, Sunday, September 8, begins with an 8 a.m. pancake breakfast at the firehouse. Afterward, most of the events from the previous day continue, along with sidewalk sales and children’s bounce castles on Long Wharf. At 11:30, there will be a children’s tug-of-war, and, at 4 p.m., a lobster-roll-eating contest begins.
There may be a schedule of events and a lot of the same participants year after year, but Mr. Fruitstone said he loves the unpredictable atmosphere of the festival.
As John Steinbeck once wrote about the Old Whalers’ Festival: “No one can foresee what will happen here but the prospects are dreadful and beautiful to contemplate. After all, the Old Whalers whom we celebrate lived dangerously, and we cannot let them down.”