Harbor Days: Landlubbers welcome

The waters off Olympia will again be loaded with tugs for Harbor Days celebration this weekend. (Olympian File Photo)
The waters off Olympia will again be loaded with tugs for Harbor Days celebration this weekend. (Olympian File Photo) The Olympian

Harbor Days, happening this weekend in downtown Olympia, is known around the Puget Sound as the best tugboat gathering.

And who better to vouch for it than Robin Paterson, who has been attending every year since 1975 and who, with wife Kae, owns this year’s logo tug, Joe.

“We made it once without a boat, but we’ve never missed it,” said Paterson of Gig Harbor. “It’s marvelous, that’s what it is.

“Because it’s a three-day weekend you don’t have to bust yourself getting there or getting home,” he said. “The race is in the middle. You’re in the middle of town with ice cream stores and used bookstores and hardware stores and a marvelous farmers market within a 10-minute walk of where you tie up.”

The festival is on as usual this year, with races, crafts, food and children’s activities. It’s in a new location, however, because Percival Landing is under construction.

“Harbor Days is indeed happening, and it’s moved north,” said festival coordinator Nancy “Siggy” Sigafoos. “It’s closer to the farmers market.”

She encouraged festival participants to carpool, walk, bike or take public transportation, since parking could be more challenging closer to the market.

Of course, for the tug owners, transportation is no problem: They arrive by water.

For the Patersons, it’s about a 31/2-hour journey from Gig Harbor at a speed of about 8 mph aboard Joe, a 1942 Foss the couple has owned for 25 years.

So popular is the festival that Paterson knows more than one boat owner who has traveled from as far as British Columbia to be here.

“Harbor Days is known throughout Puget Sound as the best tugboat festival,” said Chuck Fowler of Olympia, co-author of 2009’s “Tugboats of Puget Sound.”

The Patersons are thrilled to own this year’s logo tug, honoring Joe as the oldest boat to attend last year’s festival and return this year. (Previous winners aren’t eligible.) Joe is mostly a cruiser these days but still occasionally does some small towing jobs.

Joe is the Patersons’ fourth tug since they traded in their sailboat for their first tugboat about 45 years ago. Literally.

“We’d sailed for a long time,” Paterson said. “Kae was pregnant, and we went out for a lovely afternoon sail, and then a pretty stiff breeze came up somewhat unexpectedly. She didn’t have to tell me; I could see it on her face that it was really not a delightful sail for her.”

The next day, they went to look at tugs and fell in love – and the rest is maritime history.

“They are Mr. and Mrs. Vintage Tugboat,” said Fowler. He and wife, Karla, who came out of retirement as the festival’s logo artist to do the illustration of Joe, have been friends with the Patersons for three decades.

“Over the years, Robin and Kae have purchased old wooden tugs that are no longer serviceable, and they’ve converted them into cruising tugs. They love the history of the boats, and they have helped to preserve that history.”

The Patersons have won the tugboat races three times, Robin Paterson said. “I think somebody let us win,” he added.

But for him and other boat owners, the festival is as much about reuniting with longtime friends as about racing.

“For a lot of us who go to Harbor Days, it might be the only time all year that we see each other,” he said. “We look forward to getting together and talking.”

When fellow tug owners tell him that they might skip a year because of the high cost of fuel, he said, “My response is, ‘On Sunday afternoon, you are going to say to yourself, “Gee, this is a nice weekend. It sure would be nice to be in Olympia.’ I say, ‘Why don’t you come rather than bemoaning the fact that you didn’t?’ ”