The boardwalk at the Port of Brookings Harbor was packed all day Saturday with people eager to partake in everything crab.
It was the inaugural Southern Oregon Crabfest, and featured crab races, a chowder-tasting contest, fresh crab sold off the dock and, at the end of the evening, a crab dinner for 240.
“It was a great crowd,” said City Manager Gary Milliman. “Just seeing people, they seemed pleased by the event; they were having a good time. I would say it looked successful.”
That’s important for Robert Grosz of Brookings, who has spent the past several months organizing volunteers, crab fishermen and sponsors as an off-season event to draw tourists to town.
“I think we did pretty well overall,” he said, “They estimated there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people there, and all the restaurants in the port were standing room only. Zola’s was three hours out for pizza, Sebastian’s had 16 people waiting for tables, Chetco Seafood was completely full, Hungry Clam couldn’t keep up, the kettlecorn people couldn’t keep up with their orders, and I heard three motels were sold out.
“At 12:30, the (boat) Pisces sold out their 250 pounds,” Grosz continued. “By 3, we heard there wasn’t a crab in the port.”
A crab fisherman said the local port usually brings in 5 million crab each season; fishermen this year are hoping to get 750,000 to 1 million during what is shaping up to be the worst season since the 1970s.
That didn’t deter crab lovers.
“The one mistake? We underestimated the desire for people to eat fresh crab,” Grosz said. “We need to focus on that next year. We could’ve taken and fed 1,000 or 1,500 meals; we could’ve sold a lot of crab that way.”
Some fishermen opted not to go to sea that week, in fear of damaging their boats on the debris from the shrimp trawler Jo Marie that sunk Jan. 20 and couldn’t be dragged into harbor until the night of the 27th.
“Many decided not to go out,” Grosz said. “The Pisces was nice enough to go out and catch enough crab for the festival and to sell on the port.”
On the boardwalk
Vendors were on hand selling “nautically-themed” art, and fishermen selling crab from their boats ran out by 2 p.m. Most of the events were fundraisers for various groups in the county.
Mark Curran, director of Pennies for Pooches that runs the animal shelter in Gold Beach, said about 100 crab chowder tasters, donations and proceeds from a silent auction garnered his organization $1,100.
“It was great,” he said. “We definitely enjoyed being a part of it. We’ll be there next year, that’s for sure.”
First prize of $75 was awarded to Tonya Eld, the $25 second place went to Carl Rust, and third prize was captured by Sylvia Yoch, who won $10.
In the silent auction, David and Suzanne Rotz won a golf package and lodging at Bandon Dunes; Gene Chickinell won passes to Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Kalmiopsis Elementary School teacher Teri Poponi’s class painted ceramic pots and filled them with succulents to use as centerpieces that were auctioned off during the dinner, as well. The pots were auctioned off for between $15 and $30 apiece, garnering about $600 for the elementary school’s garden.
The crab races were popular among the younger set, attracting children to cheer on their crustaceans; the crabs were returned to the sea after the event.
And dinner, a sell-out event, attracted about 240 people from as far away as Medford — a primary intention of the festival — and featured fresh-cooked crab, salad and bread. Beer could be purchased from Tightline Breweries and Chetco Brewing and background music was provided by Scott Graves of Stagelights Musical Arts Community.
“The dinner went great,” Grosz said. “We were a little slow getting the food out, but all in all, it went really, really well. We kept hearing people say it was the best crab they ever had. We were very pleased with that.”
The Cape Ferrelo and Harbor fire departments, whose members cleaned and cooked crab, prepared salads and other foods, benefited from the crab sales. Others, including the Rotary Club and Soroptimists, received funding, as well.
And there were glitches, as any start-up event will experience. Candles provided the only light at the beginning of the dinner when the electricity went out, fishermen ran out of crab to sell over the dock at 2 p.m. and some expressed their desire that the event be held over two days instead of one.
“It was a learning experience for everyone involved — it was their first year,” Milliman said. “I hope they’ll continue to build on it.”