ISLAND HEIGHTS – Despite an ominous backdrop of black clouds and sticky humidity, Sailfest NJ 2023 proved irresistible to thousands who flocked to the waterfront.
The festival smoothly sailed past the looming storm threats that ultimately never materialized. In contrast, Berkeley officials canceled Community Pride Day a day in advance due to adverse weather predictions. And Barnegat’s Pirate Day abruptly stopped at 1 pm when thunder and lightning was witnessed.
Sailfest NJ first hit the water in Toms River’s Huddy Park as a modest sailboat race and coastal gathering in 1991. However, the event proved popular, and they soon needed a new harbor.
As the wave of enthusiasm for the event swelled, Sailfest NJ decided to drop its anchor at a fresh location in 1995. The scenic River Avenue spot in Island Heights has consistently lured more than 15,000 attendees each year, spanning from landlubbers to fervent nautical devotees.
Sailfest NJ 2023 beckoned visitors into a world of endless adventures, commencing with a voyage of discovery amidst a bustling assembly of 125 vendors. Among them, numerous crafters passionately embraced nautical themes, while local businesses eagerly extended their offerings.
Families reveled in the joyful chaos of kiddie inflatable slides while sailboat races danced gracefully across the river’s surface, a mesmerizing display of nautical skill.
The Toms River Yacht Club hosted the sailboat regatta, featuring four boats in the spinnaker category and 13 in the non-spinnaker division. While the information was considered provisional at press time, Skipper Trace Dittenhofer’s “Smoke” clinched the top spot in the spinnaker category, while Peter Maes’s “Gator” secured first place in the non-spinnaker division.
Various eateries indulged foodies with a smorgasbord of flavors, and those of age had the opportunity to kill the heat with a cold beer or two.
At the stroke of noon, a part of the venue momentarily paused for a poignant 9-11 Reflection Ceremony. Here, veterans, first responders, and the memory of those lost in the 9/11 attacks were honored with a solemn reverence that resonated through the hearts of all in attendance.
Live music set the tone and kept the energy alive throughout the day, creating a dynamic atmosphere that didn’t fade until 10 p.m. The bands played an assortment of music and offered performers an opportunity to showcase their talents.
Not everyone in attendance came from the local area, as many from other parts of the state, New York, and Pennsylvania, marked their calendars to find some extra fun. Among them were three uniformed Navy recruiters stationed in Philadelphia.
“We’re here to raise Navy awareness and spend some time with the community,” said Navy Counselor First Class Dino Tobia, originally from Toms River. “We’re also here to recognize what happened on 9/11.”
What truly makes Sailfest NJ special continues to be its community-driven focus. The Rotary of Toms River orchestrates the yearly extravaganza, overseeing sponsorship coordination, vendor and entertainment arrangements, and the solemn 9/11 remembrance ceremony. The event’s proceeds are channeled towards noble causes.
“All of the money goes to our scholarship program and non-profit organizations,” said Dion Johnson, Rotary Club president. “Unlike other non-profits, we do not keep a single penny for administrative costs.”
Johnson said the Sailfest NJ 2022 event resulted in the distribution of more than $90,000. Scholarships are awarded to area students in public, private, and vocational schools interested in pursuing further education. After this year’s proceeds are tallied, Rotary Club members will collectively decide on allocations to non-profit organizations.