Volunteer pool dries up for Penn Cove Water Festival

Tribal members from the Puget Sound area and Canada race their canoes in this year’s Penn Cove Water Festival in May. The future of the festival is in doubt unless new volunteers step forward to keep the popular Coupeville tradition alive. - Nathan Whalen / Whidbey News-Times
Tribal members from the Puget Sound area and Canada race their canoes in this year’s Penn Cove Water Festival in May. The future of the festival is in doubt unless new volunteers step forward to keep the popular Coupeville tradition alive.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen / Whidbey News-Times

After 20 years of organizing a popular Coupeville festival, the cadre of volunteers is trying to find some help or they may have to cancel the event.

A small group has always coordinated the Penn Cove Water Festival. While the festival attracts throngs of visitors from on and off Whidbey Island, the volunteers are burned out after organizing such a large event each year for two decades.

“We’ve always had a problem of getting year-round volunteers,” said Molly Hughes, member of the Penn Cove Water Festival Association, adding that plenty of people are willing to donate time the day of the event. She describes herself as the “newbie” on the board even though she has served for eight years. Nine people currently coordinate various aspects of the festival.

After putting together the 20th anniversary festival several months ago, Hughes said exhaustion is taking its toll on the board members.

The Penn Cove Water Festival  occurs every May as a celebration of Whidbey Island’s Native American heritage. The festival is noteworthy because of the canoe races that attract competitors from tribes across the Puget Sound region and Canada. In addition, the weekend event features Native American storytellers, dancers, arts, crafts and children’s activities.

“It brings the Native American culture into our European-American culture,” said Rick Castellano, executive director for the Island County Historical Society Museum. “It’s something that we can’t afford to lose.”

The Penn Cove Water Festival actually dates back to the 1930s, continuing until World War II in its first incarnation. Castellano noted a photo of one of the original festivals shows a Native American boy and a Caucasian boy competing together in a sack race.

“That photos says a lot about the importance of this event,” Castellano said.

The current revival of the Water Festival started in 1991 and it was organized at the time by the WSU Beach Watchers.

“Though we had no idea what we were doing, we amazingly were able to get a dozen tribes to bring their canoes and participate in the first races,” said Susan Berta, one of the longtime volunteers.

She stepped down as association president because of the demands of her job with the Orca Network.

Hughes said organizers are considering canceling next year’s festival, or reducing its size. The reduction in size however doesn’t seem viable because it wouldn’t eliminate such costs as insurance, portable toilets and racers’ costs and prize money.

To round up more public help for the festival, Hughes is organizing a meeting Monday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m. at the Coupeville United Methodist Church. She hopes volunteers will come forward to serve on the board.

Berta said the association needs people to help apply for grants or fund raise and at least three to four new people to replace association board members who are retiring due to family issues, health, or the demands of jobs or other volunteer work.

In addition to burnout, the Penn Cove Water Festival board is suffering from a new funding obstacle.

Volunteers relied on donations from tribes in the region, along with those from businesses and the town of Coupeville. However, none of the tribes awarded the Water Festival Association any grant money this year. Hughes estimated the tribes’ support accounts for approximately 25 percent of the festival’s funding.

Next month’s meeting will also focus on finding new funding sources for the festival, Hughes said.

The Penn Cove Water Festival has drawn visitors to the island for years and into the shops, bed and breakfasts and restaurants that dominate downtown Coupeville.


“I would hate to see that event go away,” said Lynda Eccles, executive director for the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce.



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