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The Big Little Boat Festival (pictured during judging in 2019) draws an impressive collection of small craft. Photo: Chesapeake Light Craft

Big Little Boat Festival Celebrates Small Craft

Boat lovers and builders rejoice!

The Big Little Boat Festival is coming to Camp Wabanna at the mouth of the Rhode and West rivers May 27-29.

Hosted by Chesapeake Light Craft (CLC), the festival will celebrate small boats of all kinds and convene those who have a passion for building them—whether from one of CLC’s wooden boatbuilding kits or not. 

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“Going back to 1999, the overarching goal has been to bring together people who are into small wooden boats,” CLC Managing Director John C. Harris tells us. “We first called it ‘OkoumeFest,’ after an African mahogany ubiquitous in small wooden boat construction, but we resolved that we needed a larger venue and a new name after drawing 500 people in 2019. ‘Big Little Boat Festival’ captures the vibe, as this is all about people who love boatbuilding and human- or wind-powered craft having a great time showing off their projects, comparing notes, and sharing their affinity for kayaks, canoes, rowing boats, and small sailboats.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic led to a low-key, one-day gathering in 2021, Harris says that CLC is “pulling out all the stops” this year, with the family-friendly festival featuring more on-water and on-shore activities than ever.

There will be dozens of CLC’s popular designs available to try out, from high-performance sailboats to kayaks, rowing craft, and paddleboards. And, Harris hopes, a 12th-century Viking ship replica currently under construction. Seminars and demonstrations on boatbuilding and watercraft will abound as well, with presentations by experts including Harris; “kayak guru” Nick Schade; boatbuilding and paddling expert Joey Schott; and New England Ropes and Pettit Paints representatives. 

Many attendees will bring their own boat, or in many cases boats, to display, with CLC judging and bestowing awards upon completed projects that Harris says “represent hundreds of hours of labor and often resemble exotic furniture.” There will also be on-water competition, including 3- and 6-mile paddling races and a 20-mile sailing race, plus CLC’s first-ever family cardboard boatbuilding challenge. 

Harris describes the location for the festival as just about perfect.

“Camp Wabanna is the ideal venue,” says Harris. “It doesn’t require crossing the Bay Bridge (the festival was held on Kent Island for awhile). In addition, the accessibility and size of the beach are great for launching small boats, and the Rhode and West Rivers provide perfect conditions for them. And, last but not least, having actual camping facilities—with conveniences such as showers—is great, too.”

Longtime attendee Dan Thaler can’t wait for the festival to start. 

A resident of Westchester County, N.Y., Thaler first got “the boatbuilding bug” in 2010, after discovering and building a CLC Sheerwater Hybrid 17. He attended his first festival that year. He even started his own custom wooden watercraft building business, Moonlight Marine, in 2012, and he has built roughly 15 new boats and completed another 10 for clients since. 

Thaler will be bringing a Micro-Bootlegger Sport (last year’s Best in Show winner) and a Nymph 12 Canoe with him this year, but his full CLC build resume also includes a Sheerwater Hybrid 16 (built for his wife); a Great Auk 14; and two Petrols. It’s a collection that’s earned him six festival awards.

“It’s all about the camaraderie,” says Thaler, who meets up with a couple of festival friends to kayak around Annapolis and Eastport each year. “I like showing others my builds and seeing theirs, but my greatest joy is just sitting on the shore and talking about boatbuilding and boats, usually with a beer in hand.”

Laszlo Morocoz, who’s made the short drive from Glenn Dale, Md. to every festival since 2003, echoes the sentiment.

“I have friends that I’ve only ever seen at the festival, but when we’re back together it’s as if it’s been a minute,” says Laszlo. As for the water and boats, it gives me the chance to ‘mess about’ in some beautiful and very functional boats that I’d never otherwise try, plus show off mine and look at what my buddies have built.”

Morocoz, who built and competed in the Bay Bridge Paddle in a West River 18 kayak last year, makes his passion for the process clear.

“I just love building boats,” says Morocoz. “The first truly fun moment is when the boat ‘goes 3D’ – that is, changes from a pile of flat plywood pieces to a three-dimensional hull – and all of a sudden there’s a boat in my shop. Of course, the big one is when the boat is launched, becoming a magic carpet that can take me on adventures. Knowing that it’s all the result of my labor, innovation, and skill is very fulfilling.”

Harris says home boatbuilding is at an all-time high, with CLC’s sales up a whopping 70% since 2019. He recommends that festivalgoers get their tickets (available for the full weekend or single days) ASAP and plan to arrive early.

For tickets and the full schedule, visit clcboats.com/blbf.  

-Steve Adams

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