The annual Great Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Sculpture Race is a unique event perfect for an October weekend getaway in Washington.
If you’re the type of person who loves kitschy places and events, they aren’t hard to find. You just have to know where to look. Central Poland has a country music festival built around American country western tunes, Paris has a sewer tour that could end up being the highlight of a romantic visit to the City of Light, and Bunol, Spain, celebrates local agriculture by hosting thousands of people who throw tomatoes at each other at a festival each year.
If you’re staying in the U.S., it’s also possible to find events that are so bad, they’re actually really good. In the Pacific Northwest, Port Townsend, Washington, hosts a kinetic sculpture race that includes all types of people-powered contraptions that take over the streets for one weekend in autumn every year. For the uninitiated, think of it as a Monty Python-esque parade/road rally filled with an assortment of bizarre contraptions operated by racers who must complete a two-day, 10-mile course that includes a short dunk in Port Townsend Bay next to downtown, a run through a sand pit at Fort Worden, and a slog through a mud bog at Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
This crazy race is the thing that helped this writer fall in love with this quirky, artsy town on the Olympic Peninsula. Even better, the event unexpectedly helped improve a father-son relationship when all this dad was looking for was a way to amuse his 7-year-old son while his wife was out of town at a family reunion. Admittedly, some people might balk at the idea of taking a kid who doesn’t like surprises to a chaotic road rally. The list of things that could go wrong is extensive, but when you’ve got a whole weekend to entertain a kid who is easily bored, anything is worth a shot.
An Artsy Town for a Funky Race
The Great Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Sculpture Race may rely on people power to stay in motion, but the main way to get to Port Townsend from Seattle is an old-fashioned ride on the ferry. There is little direct public transit from the Emerald City to Port Townsend, and traveling by car is the only way to get there ahead of the pack.
At first look, the town of Port Townsend may seem like a simple, pretty, 19th-century town in the upper left hand corner of the country. It’s one of only three historic Victorian seaports in the country, and the locals take that status seriously, celebrating the town’s heritage with the prominently located Northwest Maritime Center on the waterfront, various regattas, and a Wooden Boat Festival every year.
Underneath the surface of all the Queen Anne architecture and a historic district filled with 120-year-old brick buildings beats the heart of a wild woman. The local cinema is an art house theater that hosts a film festival with some of the movies shown outdoors on a blow-up movie screen. It hosts the Brass Screw Confederacy steampunk extravaganza in June, and when all the tourists disappear in October, the artsy locals let their hair down and start building some of the craziest conveyances you’ve ever seen for the race.
Over the years, my favorite sculptures have included a giant wheel, a fire-spewing tractor, and a contraption that looked like a toilet with the number two on the side, presumably to entice fans to yell, “Go number two! Go number two!” as it pedaled through the race.
Preparing for the Race
I wasn’t sure if my son would enjoy these spectacles. The challenge was that he always wanted to know where we were going and what to expect when we got there — and I loved the element of surprise. Over the years I had learned not to surprise him, but I wasn’t sure how to explain a kinetic sculpture race to a 7-year-old.
The one thing I knew was that my son loves building things, from Lincoln Log ranch houses to whole towns made of Lego blocks. I decided to ask the organizers if we could show up the week before and help out. In reality, we didn’t actually build much, but my son’s eyes lit up when we rode in the wheeled chassis of a sculpture and again when he watched a participant build a spider sculpture that would eventually have moving legs.
Knowing he loves to roll around in the sand, I also took him to the beach at Fort Worden on the edge of town. Originally built as one of three army bases to protect Puget Sound from invasion in the early 1900s, it’s now a 433-acre park with lodging in restored officers’ quarters, old armaments to climb on, and a beach filled with driftwood ready for building. By the time we left, my son was a happy camper.
An Amazing Connection
In the end, the beach was calling, and it was time to go. We never made it to the finish line, but I was still the victor. It’s not always easy to predict what each day will bring, but at least I’m sure of one thing: My son and I will always have Port Townsend.
You will see some bizarre and interesting contraptions if you choose this wild adventure. Be sure to take plenty of photos and share them with us on Instagram.