Sunnyland Boat Festival is a sure sign of Spring

You’ll see classic boats of all shapes and sizes at the Sunnyland Boat Festival on Lake Dora in Tavares, Florida

Exemplifying the old adage about turning lemons into lemonade, organizers of the 37th annual Sunnyland Boat Festival—considered the unofficial start of the classic boating season—have rolled up their sleeves and are making the best of a bad situation.

Last September, Hurricane Irma wiped out all of the docks used for the show, which is scheduled for March 22–25 on Lake Dora in Tavares, Florida. So organizers were planning to hold a dry land event with a beach party theme—until, on February 11, Tavares announced it is installing temporary floating docks that can accommodate up to 25 boats. Now, classic boat enthusiasts will get the best of both worlds.

“We’re thrilled to know that we’ll have docks, but we were ready to make the best of it either way,” Festival Chairman Terry Fiest says. “When a hurricane comes through, you hear about tornadoes on the outer edges of it, and that’s what got us. It took out all the docks and every boat—40 of them. It was devastating. There were above-water issues, underwater issues. The cleanup was quite a task. It hit us a lot harder than people know.”

Sunnyboat Boat Festival attendees not only get to see great classic boats, they also have an opportunity to speak with owners and special guests about everything from general maintenance to complete restoration
1939 23-foot Greavette raceabout
1970 Streblow 23-foot Sport Utility, Mr. T III
Mike Matheson’s 1939 36-foot Hutchinson

“Since all of the vertical pilings were still there, we were going to have boats tie up there and then shuttle people to shore with dinghys and pontoon boats; now we don’t have to do that. I already hired a couple of beach bands, so we’re still going to have our first annual beach party. It should be a lot of fun.”

Fiest is in his 22nd year as chairman of the Sunnyland Boat Festival (he jokes that “it’s a life sentence”) and has helped build it into the largest antique and classic boating event on the East Coast. The show, sponsored by the Antique and Classic Boat Society’s Sunnyland Chapter, has attracted as many as 250 boats (140 on the water, 110 on display and for sale on land) from 28 states. New this year is the Festival of Speed, which includes a display of 60 antique and classic cars and modern supercars. Fiest is expecting 8000 spectators, “if the weather is good.”

The weekend begins with a reception on Thursday, March 22, at the Tavares Pavilion on the Lake, where city officials will discuss plans for permanent docks. The show itself begins Friday, March 23, at 9 a.m. and runs through Sunday, March 25, at noon, weather permitting. Weekend passes are $10.

A series of symposia will be held throughout the day on Saturday, March 24. Brian Keen, a boat restorer from Cincinnati’s Motor Boat Garage, will demonstrate restoration techniques; Don Wilson, a marine engine restorer from Legendary Restorations in Venice, Florida, will discuss essential parts and how to diagnose potential problems; Peter De Vito, past president of the Sunnyland Chapter, will talk about research and documentation; Motor Boat Garage’s Dennis Ryan will share tips about boat trailer safety; Robert Lyon, of the Antique Boat Center in Cincinnati, will lead a discussion of market trends; and Bo and Kathy Muller, of New Hampshire’s Muller Boat Works, will be joined by other guest speakers for a Q&A session to wrap up the day.

Tavares is nicknamed “America’s Seaplane City,” so not surprisingly seaplane rides are also available for a fee. For more information visit the City of Tavares or the Tavares Chamber of Commerce.