By Emily J. Weitz
There are two villages on the East End, separated by 9.7 miles and three bodies of water, that share something essential at their cores. Greenport and Sag Harbor are the region’s two deep-water ports and both their histories and cultures reflect this essential fact.
In the next two weeks, both villages will celebrate their maritime and whaling histories in respective fall festivals. With the option of the Peconic Bay Water Jitney service as well as the Shelter Island ferries, members of both communities can easily spend the day on “the other side” and share in the salty character of their sister town.
The Greenport Maritime Festival, which takes place on September 22 and 23, is in its 23rd year and it’s grown with each passing year. There are a few events that have stood the test of time, and really capture the essence of Greenport.
“The parade has been around since the beginning,” says Ron Breuer, president of the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport, an organizer of the festival. “As have the fishing boat contests, where people go out for snappers, and the dory races. They all reflect the maritime culture. We’re an old sea town that’s been around since the 1600s, and our whole culture has been built on the deep harbors of the water. This festival reflects that.”
The festivities completely take over the town, shutting down both Front and Main streets to vehicles.
“They’re wide streets you can walk up and down,” says Breuer. “There are events all along the streets, like music, a kids’ alley with crafts relating to maritime history. In Mitchell Park, on the water, you’ll see old ice boats, craft boats that have been built and are on display right on the land. We’ll also have tall ships in the water.”
Just walking through Greenport, you can feel its history, from the seaport museum to the old railroad terminal. In the seaport museum is a boat used in World War II, which will be on display for the festival.
“German submarines were a menace up and down the coast,” explains Breuer. “People who couldn’t serve went out and hunted for submarines on their own, and if they found something they’d call for an airstrike. We have a survivor, 92-year-old Greenport resident Jack Fisher, who will be the grand marshal of the parade.”
Of the relationship to its fellow deep-water harbor, Breuer dubs Sag Harbor a “sister city.”
“It depends on who you speak to,” he says, “but I think of them as sister cities. We did a lot of whaling, rum running, fishing, oysters — same as Sag Harbor. We are linked in our maritime histories, how sailors went back and forth. And the villages are very much alike, with their old churches and businesses.”
The implications of the culture of a sea town run much deeper than simply affecting the jobs people had or the materials they used to build, said Breuer. It goes right to the psychology, to the way people grew up in these places.
“Both of these villages were commercial, hardworking places,” says Bryan Boyhan, editor and publisher of The Sag Harbor Express and organizer of the whaleboat races, one of the most popular events at Sag Harbor’s annual HarborFest.
“It becomes part of the DNA of those who live out here. The families of these towns have sent their children out to fish commercially or to go look for whales,” adds Boyhan. “Families had to make a living and one of the toughest ways to do it was to work on the water. And because of where we are, we sent generations out to sea.”
“This is something we celebrate when we celebrate our respective maritime histories,” he says.
The first incarnation of HarborFest, which will occur this weekend, came about in the early 1960s, when John Steinbeck was living in Sag Harbor.
“There was a group of guys who realized Sag Harbor needed to be promoted as a tourist spot,” explains Boyhan. “Everybody realized the factories that had been operating here for decades were slowing down. So they created the Old Whalers’ Festival, capitalizing on Sag Harbor as an old whalers’ port.”
With all sorts of competition, from retriever contests to international whaleboat races, the festival got big fast. It didn’t hurt that Steinbeck was involved.
“There was an old whalers’ contest, a beard growing contest, walking tours,” says Boyhan. “But the signature event was these whaleboat races.”
After about a decade of success, the festival, which was held in June back then to attract summer visitors, was discontinued and it wasn’t until 1990 that HarborFest was revived by the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce. The whaleboat races, food booths, craft vendors and the parade all came back. These days, the festival is organized by the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce’s vice president Alan Fruitstone, and Boyhan still runs the whaleboat races, as he has every year since HarborFest’s reincarnation 22 years ago.
“The whaleboat races are like they were in Steinbeck’s time,” says Boyhan. “It’s spectator friendly, and it’s a competition where you can cheer and get behind a team. It’s a blast — a friendly but serious rivalry. You’ve got teams out there that have shown up for years.”
Fruitstone, who took over the festival a few years back, has tried to infuse a culinary aspect to the weekend with lots of local restaurants, vineyards, and breweries getting involved in “A Taste of Sag Harbor.” Along the food lines, Joe and Liza Tremblay’s Bay Burger will host what has become an annual lobster roll eating contest and the weekly farmers’ market will also be moved right onto the Long Wharf so people can get their fresh-from-the-farm produce.
“It’s really become about the tastes of Sag Harbor,” says Fruitstone. “Someone described it to me as the longest street fair that extends out over the water, and it’s true.”
But the historical aspect of the weekend remains. With the whaleboat races, cemetery tours, and walking tours, people have the chance to get to know Sag Harbor in a more intimate way. The Eastville Historical Society, which celebrates the African and Native American populations of Sag Harbor, will be open to visitors, as will the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum and the Custom House.
“People get a chance to see Sag Harbor in the off-season, when the pace is better, and get a better understanding of what is here,” says Fruitstone.
And with a shared past — and friendly rivalry — Breuer sees a chance for residents of both Greenport and Sag Harbor to reconnect in the coming weeks over their deep-water roots.
“Hopefully we’ll start exchanging more,” says Breuer, referring to the access residents of both villages have to the other through the Peconic Bay Water Jitney which travels between Sag Harbor and Greenport. “Now that people have a great way to get across, I’d like to see more interaction between these two sister towns.”