COVID sinks Sunnyland Boat Festival again

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Wooden classic boat bow at Hessel
Carol Gould

Terry Fiest is feeling the pain of COVID-19. Not physically, thankfully, but still at a personal level. Fiest, chairman of Florida’s Sunnyland Boat Festival, has announced the cancelation of the annual event for the second year in a row. It had been scheduled for March 25–28, 2021.

“I love the show. I really wanted to have it this year, especially after canceling last year,” Fiest says. “But I’m 78, and the vast majority of our volunteers are also elderly people, so we’re among the most vulnerable. When your people start coming to you—not just one or two, but a lot of them—and they’re saying, ‘We just can’t do it,’ you have to listen.”

The Sunnyland Antique Boat Festival, hosted by the Sunnyland Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS), is considered the unofficial kickoff to the classic boating season. Each year, antique wooden boat owners from across the country bring their runabouts, cruisers, and other classics to Tavares—located 36 miles north of Orlando—for four days of seminars, activities, and get-togethers on beautiful Lake Dora.

The pandemic changed all that.

Sunnyland Boat Festival docks
Antique and Classic Boat Society

Fiest says the show’s board of directors actually decided in December that it should cancel the 2021 show. In addition to concerns about the health of Sunnyland’s 200 volunteers, who average 75 years of age, Fiest says Florida’s social distancing guidelines limit the size of any gathering; Tavares’ marina is still under construction after suffering damage from Hurricane Irma in 2018; and the company that has provided temporary docks in past years suffered hurricane damage to its facility several months ago.

“You’ve got to read the tea leaves,” Fiest says. “Put it all together and the decision was pretty obvious.”

Fiest says a large local celebration will be held when the marina is completed this summer, but it will be nothing compared to the next Sunnyland Boat Festival.

“We’re coming back in 2022,” he says, “and we’re doing it right.”

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