By Douglas Feiden
The historical roots of HarborFest date to the early 1960s when a California transplant named John Steinbeck and a handful of his drinking buddies gathered in a second-floor room at Baron’s Cove Inn to sketch out what would soon become Sag Harbor’s signature event, the Old Whalers Festival.
But its modern roots date to 1991, and they coincide with the publication of Dorothy Zaykowski’s, “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty.” To call attention to the longtime village historian’s work, its publisher, the Sag Harbor Historical Society, turned to the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce to help build public awareness.
The Chamber’s response was swift and enduring: It re-launched the storied festival, which had been dormant for years, initially branding it “Sag Harbor Celebration,” a rather lackluster sobriquet. Shortly after, it was rechristened HarborFest — and before long, its great mascot, the floating whale, began bobbing off the Long Wharf.
Now, the hugely popular, two-day festival is poised to mark its uninterrupted quarter-century run as the premier block party on the East End — and perhaps the only one that encompasses the length, width and breadth of a village, even as it juts deep into the glistening waters off its shores.
The Chamber is still running the show. And it has zero doubts that the jam-packed, lineup of events on tap for Saturday, September 10 and Sunday, September 11 will be an exuberant celebration of the village’s maritime history, a child-and-family-friendly embrace of its culture and a rollicking and mouth-watering mega-bash that will also herald the 25th anniversary of the festival’s resurrection.
“It will be a big outdoor community-wide block party with tons of food, dozens of events, lots of vendors, plenty of activities for the kids, all kinds of live music acts, quality arts and crafts, good deals on Main Street, and of course, our famous whaleboat races,” said Lisa Field, the Chamber’s president and owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store. “And those are just a few of the highlights!”
Of course, there are some mysteries about HarborFest that even its organizers cannot unravel, and one of them involves the great white whale, the festival’s life-size mascot, with its unsmiling open mouth and set of ominous-looking teeth protruding from a fixed lower jaw.
“I know that the elves don’t come out in the middle of the night to stock the shelves of the Variety Store, even if that’s what it may seem like for the customers,” Ms. Field said. “But on HarborFest, it’s like you just wake up one morning, and then suddenly ‘Bam!’ — the whale is just out there floating in the harbor, and we don’t really ever know how it got there.”
Speaking of which, the 23-year-old whale has been showing its age of late, and the Chamber is launching a “Save the Whale” campaign with donation buckets for the whale’s repair, maintenance, or more likely, replacement. It hopes to raise $3,000 to $5,000, and it will dramatize the appeal by displaying a banner of the poor creature with two Band-Aids affixed above the blowhole at the top of its head.
“It’s not that easy: Disney World might know how to go out and get a new floating whale, but for us, it’s not just something you go and purchase,” Ms. Field said. “We want to make sure that this symbol, which is such a key part of HarborFest, will be floating out there for another 25 years.”
In the meantime, starting on Saturday at 9 a.m., the Sidewalk Fair kicks off on Main Street, the Arts and Crafts Fair gets underway in Marine Park and dozens of HarborFest vendors open for business on the Wharf. Also on tap: The ever-popular potato sack races.
Music reverberates throughout the day, starting with the Sag Harbor Community Band at 11 a.m. and continuing until a Sag Harbor Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary-hosted concert wraps up at around 10 p.m.
On both weekend days, there will be whaleboat races, a children’s corn-shucking contest on Windmill Beach, “Hula Hoop Fun” at the Sag Harbor Kids booth and a children’s tug-of-war, also on the beach. Sunday’s events will wrap up after a 4:30 p.m. lobster roll-eating contest at the Bay Burger booth.
One of the high points of HarborFests past has been the chance to consume copious quantities of clam chowder, and that tradition will continue with the Chowder Tasting on the Wharf, beginning at noon on Sunday.
Formerly a Chowder Contest, it morphed into a tasting this year with the same delectable fare — and the same beneficiary, the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry, which feeds roughly 250 people per week. A $15 donation, which also covers the chowder mug, courtesy of the Bridgehampton National Bank, is all it costs to, literally, chow down.
Pantry volunteers will still be ladling out the soup, but they got a big assist from the Sag Harbor Partnership, which approached the participating restaurants, helped secure the needed health permit and supplied the signage for the event.
“There’s 12 restaurants, and six of them are new this year,” says Partnership board member April Gornik, the artist-activist who created signs for all the restaurants donating their chowders.
That honor roll includes new participants Harbor Market, Cove Deli, Schiavoni’s Market, Page, Wolffer Kitchen and Corner Bar, as well as returnees Dockside, Cromer’s Market, Golden Pear, LT Burger, Il Capuccino and Bell & Anchor/Beacon, she said.
“Each participant is donating six gallons of chowder — typically clam chowder, but it can be any chowder, and some are donating corn chowder – so we’ll have 72 gallons of chowder,” Ms. Gornik said.
Continuing with the math, she added, “You get one ladle of each of the chowders, each ladle contains four ounces, so theoretically, you could roll out of there stuffed to the gills with chowder.”
The Food Pantry, Ms. Gornik said, is one of the community’s most wonderful organizations, and she added, “It’s the least we can do step up and lend them a hand. Besides, what would HarborFest be without the chowder?”