Alaska, Arts, Events, Featured, Maritime

How The Mermaid Festival & Harbor Opening Came To Be

Mermaid Festival committee members: Elle Zernia, Jeremy Horn and Shelly Shank in front of The Breeze Inn located on the Seward Highway, which will be the focal point for the festival.

By Kelley Lane for Seward City News –

Download the Mermaid Festival Events 2017 Flyer Here

The temperatures are on the rise and daylight hours are lengthy this time of year. Seward is filling up with people as businesses all around town spring back to life after their winter sleep or low season. In this time of waking up, we have a new community wide celebration that’s joining with Seward’s long time Harbor opening weekend. The Mermaid Festival, the brain-child of Elle Zernia and Shelly Shank, along with Jeremy Horn, will be making its debut this coming weekend, May 19th-21st, with festivities spread around town, throughout the Harbor and downtown Seward.

The Seward Harbor Opening Festival began in the 1980s, as a way to celebrate the beginning of boating season, and joined with the many communities around the world who hold boating festivals in the spring, summer and fall. This yearly festival was supported by Seward’s three vibrant yacht clubs William H Seward Yacht Club, Kenai Fjords Yacht Club, and Sailing, Inc. The “Spring Fling” festival was originally designed for boaters with regattas and other boat-centric activities. The festival enjoyed success, but it eventually began to dwindle.

In 1994, Deborah Altermatt came on the scene with her purchase of Sailing, Inc, based in Seward. Altermatt, along with Leslie Simutis and Dot Bardarson organized a renewal of Harbor Opening weekend, which included the whole community of Seward. The new name, Seward Harbor Opening Weekend, or “SHOW”, included music and dancing in the Harbor Plaza, as well as the closure of South Harbor Street in order to facilitate safety and greater inclusion of the harbor area businesses. The weekend grew in participation and events, gaining enthusiasm each year. The festival continued under the leadership of Altermatt and one of her staff members, Arin Lever in the ensuing two decades. In 2014, Lever moved to Montana, and for the past two years, Harbor Opening had “morphed again, back into a Harbor event,” said Altermatt.


The Seward Boat Harbor on a lovely cool early spring day, Mount Alice in the background.

This year, The Mermaid Festival seeks to weave the Harbor Opening Festival back into the fabric of Seward’s harbor and downtown businesses, with events taking place around town. The two festivals will take place alongside one another, with complimentary happenings. The weekend begins with a Pirate and Mermaid Pub Crawl on Friday night, May 19th, with stops at bars around town to get a “passport” stamped at each place. Saturday’s festivities will include a military appreciation bbq hosted by the Seward Chamber of Commerce, fishing for kids at the Lagoon, live music and entertainment with food and art vendors throughout the Harbor area, as South Harbor Street will be closed from 8am-8pm on Saturday, May 20th. The longtime boating events will be happening as usual, including the Plaque Installation Service for mariners who have died this year, taking place at the Seward Mariners Memorial with the assistance of the Seward Ministerial Association, who will also be blessing the Seward fleet of boats. The yearly Boat Parade will take place at 4:30pm on Saturday, a tradition in which boats from the Seward Boat Harbor process out of the Harbor, along the waterfront to the Sea Life Center and then back into the Harbor. The unveiling of the new Puffin mural on the south side of the Harbor 360 Hotel will take place immediately following the Boat Parade, with author Jackie Pels on site to sign copies of her book “Framed by Sea and Sky: Community Art in Seward, mural capital of Alaska.”

Download the Mermaid Festival Events 2017 Flyer Here

Elle Zernia, Shelly Shank and Jeremy Horn have been working most of this past winter to organize and build support for the hoped-to-be-annual Mermaid Festival. Zernia operates Captain Jack’s, a fish packaging and shipping business for quality locally-caught fish, based in Seward’s Harbor area. This past winter, she was in contact with Shank as they were working on developing fishing and lodging packages for visitors to Seward. Zernia got the idea to put together a Mermaid Festival and called Shank, who was enthusiastic about the idea and had been wanting to organize something similar since attending Anchorage’s West End Block Party four years ago. The two got to work, enlisting Jeremy Horn, who’s served as the Seward Music and Arts Festival’s merchandiser for a number of years. They have used Facebook and word-of-mouth to get the message out to visitors and vendors alike, and are expecting upwards of 3,000 attendees. Zernia and Shank hope that the festival will “bring [fellow Alaskans] to Seward in the shoulder season,” when Seward’s weather has transitioned to warm and beautiful. Zernia hopes that the Mermaid Festival will “benefit all of Seward,” by serving as a “good kickoff for a summer that’s going to be totally amazing.”

For more information about the Mermaid Festival, including a full schedule please visit their Facebook page at: or stop by The Breeze Inn at 303 North Harbor Drive.


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