Chestertown Sultana Downrigging Festival spotlights boats and bluegrass

By Sophie Foster

Opinion Editor

Chestertown’s annual Sultana Downrigging Festival was held on Cross Street from Friday, Oct. 27 to Sunday, Oct. 29.

The festival advertises itself as geared around “tall ships and bluegrass,” according to the event website. It is one of the largest gatherings of tall ships in North America and exists predominantly to offer attendees sails, tours, and exhibits pertaining to the docked ships. Additional elements include live bluegrass music from a vast array of local groups, lectures, family-centered activities, and regional food. This was its 23rd year.

According to its website, this festival operates with the core intent of raising funds for the Sultana Foundation’s environmental literacy programs, as well as other participating nonprofit organizations. Washington College is a gold-level sponsor of the weekend.

Boats present included AJ Meerwald, Maryland Dove, Kalmar Nyckel, Lynx, Pride of Baltimore II, Sigsbee, Virginia, and the Sultana itself, which is a reproduction of its 1768 namesake.

The original Sultana was used for the enforcement of the tea taxes by the British Royal Navy which preceded the American Revolution in the eighteenth century, according to the website. The contemporary Sultana, however, was built in Chestertown, launched in 2001, and is used today for the purpose of educating students on historical and ecological subjects related to the Chesapeake Bay.

Tours of the tall ships were offered frequently throughout the weekend. The ships could also be viewed in motion as they regularly sailed the Chester River before parading home.

The ships are not the only crucial component of the downrigging weekend, which, according to sophomore Liz Fitzpatrick, was so crowded that it made it hard to find parking downtown at all, festival attendee or otherwise. The other half of the festival’s draw are the myriad of bluegrass performances.

In the music village, consisting of several tents set up to accommodate performers, food vendors, and visitors, a number of bands took the stage over the course of the three days that the festival was open.

One such band was Flatland Drive, who returned to Chestertown and performed Friday night after playing on both Saturday and Sunday at the festival in previous years. According to dobroist Alan Rausch, the band plays a lot of weddings and events in the area and subscribe to the belief that “it wouldn’t be bluegrass without an instrumental.”

Their band in particular consists of five members hailing — as is common for the festival’s performers — from the Eastern Shore. The group’s other members are guitarist Don Schlater, bassist Rodney Collins, mandolinist Steve Margulis, and banjoist Curt Fox. According to Rausch, Collins writes the majority of their songs.

“When a bass player writes the songs, it’s a little different,” Rausch said, emphasizing the importance of the distinctiveness of the sonic elements of bluegrass music on the whole.

Otherwise, those in town for the festival, community members coming out to connect with one another, and WC students alike had the opportunity to attend events like a wetlands preserve exploration, art exhibitions, book features, a free firework show, and walking tours, among other activities.

“It was nice,” senior Leah Thivierge said. “It was very hot and there were no seats left in the tent so I was out in the sun on the dock, but the music was good.”

According to Thivierge, familiarity was an aspect of the draw — she had seen both The Plate Scrapers and The Dirty Grass Players previously, so looked forward to hearing them again during the festival’s Saturday lineup. Thivierge also pointed to the Wicked Sycamores as a highlight of her time at the downrigging festival.

“You’ve got to love a female-fronted band,” she said.

The Sultana Downrigging Festival is gone for the year, but students looking to check it out in a fall season to come can check in on their planning processes at, or follow the work of the Sultana Foundation at

Photos by Sophie Foster

Photo Caption: Attendees from far and wide gather to enjoy annual Downrigging Festival

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