Fisherman’s festival heritage
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Back in the late 1950s when the Fisherman’s Festival first started, Bodega Bay looked very different.
The west side of the bay was undeveloped. Rose Gaffney, famous for fighting PG&E’s plans for nuclear plant on her land, had her ranch there and chased trespassers away with a vengeance.
Where the Bird Walk is today atop high berms, it was level and there was an island, according to Glenice Carpenter, who has lived in Bodega Bay all her life.
The newly formed Grange didn’t have a hall and was thinking about putting one on the shore. They held barbecues and brought in carnival rides where the Smith Brothers Road is today.
Then the Fisherman’s Festival came into being and brought together Bodega and Bodega Bay.
The booths were hammered together by volunteers. Right from the start there was a boat parade and a blessing of the fleet before the fast moving, dangerous salmon season began.
By 1964 the crowd had outgrown the town, the volunteers were tired, and they retired the festival. But in 1972 a dynamo named Donna Freeman decided to revive it. By this time the west side was developed, and there was a park big enough to accommodate the crowds.
She and Janet Mantua led the committee that made the festival happen for years.
The early festivals began Friday with a dance at the Grange Hall. Young ladies were encouraged to sell tickets and were called the Belles of Bodega. The one selling the most tickets was crowned at the dance.
A very generous weekend resident used to take the Belles to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco for an outing and buy them new dresses to wear during the boat parade.
The revived festival under Freeman’s leadership had themes. Once it was Hawaii, and the decorated boats bore palm trees. There was a fierce contest for the best decorated boat. Sponsors usually bought the decorations.
Sponsorships were given up when too many politicians got involved and feelings ran high. On the bicentennial in 1976, the boats had everything from the Statue of Liberty to George Washington on board.
During a period when Santa Rosa considered dumping its sewage into the ocean, a clean ocean theme led to colorful entries in the parade, including an outhouse off the back of one boat labeled Santa Rosa that appeared to be dumping into the bay.
Rules evolved. During the Blessing of the Fleet, boats circle around the lead boat as a prayer is said, then a memorial wreath is cast into the sea.
The superstition was that the first boat back had good luck for the salmon season. But the race got out of hand one year and the first two boats collided as they entered the jaws, doing expensive damage. That was not good luck for anyone, so the race evolved into today’s more sedate return to the harbor.
Once, as the wreath was cast, a curious whale popped up right in the middle of the circle of boats, offering its own blessing. Some years it rained on the parades; some years it was so warm young women wore bikinis to the fishermen’s delight.
The lead boat is always greeted by daredevils on surfboards begging for beer, which someone always obligingly tosses them. Once they tossed back a huge abalone that no one would claim because the head of Fish and Game and two wardens were on board. People kept tossing it like a hot potato until the Fish and Game director claimed it.
The Bath Tub races have evolved into the Wooden Boat Challenge on Saturday. It has always a favorite with crowds.
Students from the Bodega Marine Lab started the custom of water fights during the race and could always be counted on to produce something bizarre.
Once they had a raft with an actual bathtub on it, and a toilet. A long-legged blonde was in the tub, which was overflowing with bubbles, and a trumpeter sat on the toilet playing as they raced.
Sometimes the makeshift crafts sink. The Coast Guard always stands by.
This year the festival theme celebrates the Russian settlement of Bodega Bay. There’s no telling if the boats will take on a Russian look, but don’t be surprised. One thing is for sure. It’s going to be a lot of fun.