Classic Boat Festival:


By Denton Pendergast, Victoria Harbour History

Since 1977 the Victoria Classic Boat Festival, initially a “one-time “happening”, has become one of Victoria’s most popular annual events. Admirers from all over the world flock to the Inner Harbour’s floats in front of the Empress Hotel each Labour Day weekend to admire as many as 130 of yesteryear’s most beautiful boats.

A Recognition of Excellence

In addition to serving as a celebratory gathering, the festival serves the development of the classic boat community by offering an optional judging service. Festival’s judges, each an expert in their field, stand by to meticulously inspect participant’s vessels, offering guidance and suggestions to those owners dedicated to the correct restoration of their vessels. Many boats return improved each year until they reach the pinnacle of their restoration and are recognized at the awards dinner that caps each year’s festival. In this way the festival contributes in a very tangible way to the health of the classic boat community.

The Festival’s Story

In the fall of 1977, a group led by Bob Leach of the Sidney Gaffers and Keith Cameron of the Maritime Museum of BC planned to commemorate Captain Cook’s bicentenary by building a replica of the first European ship to be built in the Pacific Northwest, John Mears’ Northwest America. A request for a provincial grant was denied and sufficient corporate funding was not available. The idea of a classic boat festival blossomed within the group which had grown to include Bev Highton, former owner of the schooner Lorna Doon, and President-elect of the Victoria Real Estate Board (VREB). Bev and VREB agreed to sponsor the festival.

In July 1978 the VREB hired Jim Russell to coordinate and promote the festival. Port Townsend had successfully started their own classic boat festival the previous year and the Victoria group got in touch seeking guidance, which was generously given. The close relationship that developed between the two festivals continues to this day. Labour Day weekend arrived with 32 classic boats moored in front of the Empress Hotel. The first Victoria Classic Boat Festival was underway!

Frank Fredette, sealer, boat builder, naval architect and Thermopylae Club member served as the festival’s first judge and Honorary Commodore. One award, Best Sail was presented at the seafood wrap-up dinner served at James Bay’s White Eagles Hall. After the celebrations the participants were loaded onto double-decker buses and returned to their boats. With a good time had by all the weekend generated enough enthusiasm to begin what has become a significant event in the classic boat calendar.

1977: Ideas are Born

In the fall of 1977, Victoria was busy planning festivities for the upcoming bicentenary of Captain Cook’s arrival on Vancouver Island (Nootka Sound, 1778). Unfortunately, a struggling provincial economy meant that arts and culture funding were hard to find. Despite this obstacle, a small group, led by Bob Leach of the Sidney Gaffers and Keith Cameron of the Maritime Museum of BC, led a community-wide campaign to secure funds to build a replica of John Mears’ ship, the Northwest America.

It became clear to the group that corporate funds would be needed to build such a replica, however, not in time for the 1978 Captain Cook bi-centennial. However, this small group was determined to celebrate the bicentennial with a display of some kind. Gaining momentum, the group became inspired by the Wooden Boat Festival that had celebrated its first year in Port Townsend. Under the leadership of Bev Highton, President-elect of the Victoria Real Estate Board (VREB), and former owner of the schooner Lora Doon, the VREB agreed to sponsor the first Victoria Classic Boat Festival

1978: The First Classic Boat Festival

The first Festival saw 32 boats in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, overseen by judge and Honorary Commodore Frank Fredette – sealer, boat builder, naval architect, and Thermopylae Club member. Pulling boat races were a hit with young and old, sea shanties were sung, Jim Saul played his saw, and everybody had a great time. One award was given — Best Sail — at a seafood dinner at the White Eagles Hall in James Bay. After much dancing the participants were loaded on to double-decker buses and returned to their boats in the Inner Harbour in front of the Empress Hotel.

1989: A Popular Tradition

Over the first decade, the Festival’s popularity grew to see hundreds of boats sail to Victoria on Labour Day weekend each year for the Classic Boat Festival.

1998: The Festival Continues to Grow

After the first Festival, the Victoria Real Estate Board (VREB) considered this to be a community event worthy of ongoing Board sponsorship. The VREB continued to grow the Festival to include a Welcoming Reception, over 30 awards, a dozen judges, a formal Awards Banquet, Classic Open Sail and Schooner Cup Races, and the Sunday Sailpast – all of which are still part of the Festival today.
After two decades of independent sponsorship, the VREB welcomed a new sponsor: the Times Colonist (1998 – 2000).


After sponsoring the Festival for two years, Black Press replaced Times Colonist as a presenting sponsor until 2009.

2007: Rowing Regatta

A Classic Rowing Regatta is scheduled, sponsored by the Gorge Rowing and Paddling Centre.

2010: Canoe Cove Marina & Boatyard

After 3 decades of leadership, the Victoria Real Estate Board and Black Press announced that they were stepping down as the presenting sponsor. The Classic Boat Festival Society is formed, made up of a team of volunteers to find a source of financial support to ensure the Festival’s longevity.

Canoe Cove Marina became a major sponsor along with support from the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and the Maritime Museum of BC, allowing the Festival to continue.

2011: Growing Partnerships

The Victoria Classic Boat Festival joins forces with the Open Boat Festival in Brentwood Bay, seeing a number of new open boats participating in the Festival.

2017: The Festival is Transferred to the Maritime Museum of BC

The Victoria Classic Boat Festival Society officially transferred the Festival over to the Maritime Museum of BC. The vision going forward for the Festival includes a focus on public engagement for a variety of audiences to discover our unique maritime heritage. This year includes several new fun, family-friendly, activities to educate audiences on wooden boats and how they have shaped our maritime culture. What started as a one-time event will surely continue for years to come.