Anchors aweigh! Sunnyland Boat Festival is the unofficial start of the season

After a bit of a shakeup last year in the wake of Hurricane Irma—notably the lack of permanent docks, which were destroyed in the tempest—the Sunnyland Boat Festival and its enormous crew of volunteers are making the best of their “new normal.” In fact, there’s a silver lining in the late-2017 catastrophe: new docks are in the works, and fewer boats make the annual show a bit more manageable.

“All systems are a go; everything is falling into place,” says event chairman Terry Fiest, who has been at the helm for more than two decades. “Considering the circumstances, we’re happy with what we’re able to offer. It looks like we’re going to have a great show.”

The 38th annual Sunnyland Boat Festival—hosted by the Sunnyland Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS)—will be held March 21–24 on Lake Dora in Tavares, Florida. Events will take place along the expanded Wooten Park waterfront.

The highly anticipated show is considered the unofficial start of the classic boating season.

1930 Gar Wood 30-foot, Miss America IX
Chuck Mistele’s 1930 Gar Wood 30-foot, Miss America IX Jim Wangard/Classic Boating

What makes it unique is the diversity of it,” Fiest says. “We have inboards, outboards, wooden boats, fiberglass, Amphicars, a swap meet/flea market… If you’re into boats, there’s something for you. Plus, there’s the community part of it. It’s an annual homecoming, a great gathering of great people year after year. And it comes at the right time; everyone has had enough of winter.”

Fiest says the Sunnyland Boat Festival and the community of Tavares are still feeling the effects of Hurricane Irma, which plowed through the area in September 2017. Temporary floating docks were brought in to accommodate boats last March, and they will be required again this year. The city has contracted with EZ Dock Inc., based in Monett, Missouri, to provide upgraded, high-quality docks for this year’s show. Fiest says those docks—which he refers to as an “Erector set”—will be assembled March 18–20. They will provide slips for 70 boats.

So when will permanent docks be built? That’s difficult to say, and here’s why: “Consider all of the organizations involved in something like this,” Fiest says. “The city, the county, the state, the EPA. The EPA got involved because the storm sank a bunch of boats and there were oil spills. There are still permanent pilings there that need to be removed, and it takes a special permit from the EPA to pull those. It’s a long process.”

Jim Hassfeld’s 1973 17-foot Gillman Jersey Speed Skiff
Jim Hassfeld’s 1973 17-foot Gillman Jersey Speed Skiff Jim Wangard/Classic Boating
1956 Chris-Craft 26-foot Sedan
Jack Bingham’s 1956 Chris-Craft 26-foot Sedan, Jac-N-Lynn Jim Wangard/Classic Boating

Fiest says the city of Tavares is optimistic that new docks could be ready by the 2020 show, but Fiest doesn’t want to get his hopes up. “There’s always red tape,” he says. “If it happens, great. If not, what we have in place is a pretty good solution.”

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, the largest antique and classic boating event on the East Coast, has attracted as many as 250 boats from 28 states, but that was B.I.—Before Irma. One week before the event, Fiest says 67 boats have registered for a slip and 43 have signed up for dryland display. An additional 20+ boats are expected to be in the “Field of Dreams” sales area.

“We were stretching ourselves a bit there for a while,” Fiest says. “It takes a lot of work when you have numbers like that. I think it’s a little more manageable now.”

1929 Chris-Craft 26-foot Model 5 Runabout
Single Malt, a 1929 Chris-Craft 26-foot Model 5 Runabout owned by Sunnyland Boat Festival Chairman Terry Fiest Jim Wangard/Classic Boating

The Sunnyland Boat Festival requires a team of 200 volunteers, and many of those will be working on the floating docks to keep show goers moving so the weight is evenly distributed. For the second consecutive year, a Festival of Speed Car Show will also be held; Fiest is expecting upwards of 100 cars.

The weekend begins Thursday with the ACBS quarterly meeting, followed by a reception in which city officials will share an update about the permanent docks. The show itself begins Friday at 9 a.m. and runs through Sunday at noon (weather permitting). Weekend passes are $10.

The ACBS is hosting a Boat Racing Legends symposium on Thursday at 9:30 a.m., in conjunction with the Florida Vintage Raceboat Club (FVRC), followed by a program focusing on fiberglass and outboards at 12:30 p.m. A Captains Party is set for Friday night, and attendees are encouraged to wear a beach shirt and enjoy music from the Caribbean Chillers. The Festival of Speed Car Show is Saturday.

Tavares is nicknamed “America’s Seaplane City,” and seaplane rides are available for a fee. For more information visit the City of Tavares or the Tavares Chamber of Commerce.

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