Wooden Boat Festival celebrates nautical culture on the Tchefuncte
J.C. Cheveallier launched the S.S. Shrimp’s Galore on Saturday afternoon along the scenic banks of the Tchefuncte River.
The captain had built the wooden boat himself, and his craftsmanship was evident as the vessel quickly slipped through the water and in a matter of seconds, reached its destination.
That doesn’t sound like an uncommon scene for the town of Madisonville, which has a maritime history that dates back centuries.
But on that particular day, the wooden vessel was only 1 foot long and the water on which it sailed was contained within a long, metal tub sitting on a strip of grass just off Water Street, rather than the coffee-colored water of the Tchefuncte.
Cheveallier isn’t your typical boat captain, either. He’s a 12-year-old seventh-grader who was visiting his grandparents for the weekend.
The Chevealliers were some of the nearly 30,000 people that were expected to attend the 24th annual Wooden Boat Festival on Saturday and Sunday throughout Madisonville in west St. Tammany Parish.
The event is presented each year by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, which has a mission to preserve and celebrate the rich nautical culture in southeast Louisiana.
The Wooden Boat Festival shares the purpose. This year, approximately 100 wooden boats of varying lengths and from various states were on display, either on the river, or on Water Street.
There were the usual festival draws of music and food, but also educational activities, informational booths, a Children’s Village, and of course, the vast array of boats themselves, which are the festival’s main attraction.
“Wood has a life to it,” said Don Lynch, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum interim director. “It has something that plastic boats doesn’t have.”
That’s a feeling shared by Clint and Sue Cheveallier, who live in Folsom and have brought their 47-foot boat to the festival for three consecutive years. They cited numerous reasons for attending, but said the friendships they have forged with other members of the boating community are of particular importance to them.
“One of the nice things is that boaters have a fraternity among themselves,” Clint Cheveallier said, while perched in the captain’s chair of his boat. “You meet people for the first time in your life and you’re friends instantly with all of them. You look forward to seeing each other next year. The festival gives out awards for the nicest boats, but for me, it’s not about that. It’s about the camaraderie of it.”
It’s also a chance for groups such as the Lake Pontchartrain Power Squadron to reach boaters. The squadron educates boaters on safety, and volunteers from the organization were on hand to talk with festival-goers about the services they offer.
“Boating obviously is a big deal in Louisiana and it’s a big deal for us to help people boat safely,” said Barry Pipes, the past district commander for the local collection of power squadrons.
The opportunity to teach is not lost on Lynch, either. He referenced the impressive collection of information and artifacts at the museum and said the festival celebrates a tradition that is extremely important in south Louisiana.
“Wooden boat building is a dying art,” he said. “It dates back to a time before Madisonville was even a town. We know that in the early 1800s people would come down the Mississippi River and sell wood in New Orleans and then make their way back across the lake on their way to the Natchez Trace and back home. It’s just integrated in our area, especially in our town.”
In an effort to keep the craft of wooden boat building alive, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum holds a series of wooden boat building classes each year.
And at the festival, the Quick ‘N’ Dirty Boat Building Contest featured 18 teams that were provided all the supplies needed to build a small boat. Teams are allowed a day and a half to complete the vessel, paint it and showcase it in a parade held the last day of each festival.
“It’s a really enjoyable thing for everyone who takes part,” Lynch said. “It’s just a lot of fun. And we’re happy to help people have fun while continuing a tradition that is such a big part of who we are as a community.”