As a boy, local resident Dirk Early fondly remembers watching a 30 foot long replica of a whale skimming through the waters of the bay during the Old Whaler’s Festival of the 1960s. Some 20 years later, after the festival was discontinued and the whale had long since been destroyed, Early banded together the community to build a new whale for HarborFest. During this year’s festivities, a patched up whale will grace the bay waters, as members of the community have once again come together to keep this village symbol alive.
There were two original whales, one was black and another was white, built in the early 1960s by several local men, including Tom Buttonow, Bob Freidah and John Galoski, and served as a compliment to the Old Whaler’s Festival.
“We took a 25 foot boat and built a 30 foot whale on top of it,” recalls Freidah.
Buttonow pointed out that the original whales featured moving tails, but were constantly damaged during the festivities since part of the fun of the event was harpooning the whale in memory of the village’s whaling history.
But by the end of the 1960s, the festival was discontinued due to difficulties in obtaining the necessary permits from the village, remembers Freidah.
With the creation of HarborFest in the early 1990s, Early decided to bring back the replica of the whale and employed the Sag Harbor Fire Department and friends to help in the effort. Early and friend Roy Schoen sketched preliminary drafts of the whale on a napkin at The Corner Bar and later spoke with Buttonow to learn how the original ones were constructed.
With the help of the fire department, Early purchased a small rowboat for $200 to use as the base of the whale. The new whale, with its white body and smiling mouth filled with pearly teeth, took almost seven months to build as the bulk of the work was done by a crew of volunteers after work or on the weekends. The project, said Early, was mostly financed by the Sag Harbor Village Fire Department and through private donations.
The whale made its official debut during the fourth of July parade in 1993 and has remained a village fixture every since. But this year, the reproduction was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The bottom of the boat, which the whale sits atop, was in desperate need of repair and wasn’t in sound condition to return to the water.
In 2009, as was the case in 1993, working on the whale — tis time to fix it — became a community effort with several locals donating their time and service. Although the bottom of the boat was in bad condition, Early said it couldn’t be replaced without destroying the whale in the process.
“Every inch of the whale is incorporated into the boat,” remarked Early.
Thus, Early and members of the team involved in repairing the whale contrived a creative solution. Sag Harbor’s Russ Nill, who owns a roofing company out of Southampton, made the bottom of the boat waterproof by lining the bottom with black rubber roofing material, which Early predicts will work like a charm come this weekend.
For now, the fixed up whale is waiting on land at the Ship Ashore boat yard, owned by Rick Pickering, until it can return to its native home for HarborFest.
But this time around, there will be no harpooning — Greenpeace put a stop to that years ago.