Life on the Water: Seattle's Boating Culture

The Emerald City's prime waterfront location attracts boaters from around the world.

Every Tuesday night during the summer, Seattle’s Lake Union is covered with boats. The air horn sounds and the race begins. All sorts of vessels, from makeshift floating docks to 70-foot sailboats, mill about in every which way. It’s the Duck Dodge, and there’s nothing else like it in any city in the country. It’s less of a formal race and more of a party on the water and has been a Seattle tradition since 1974.

Boating rituals like these are central to Seattle’s core. Opening day celebrations, holiday boat parades and crew regattas are all part of the city’s cultural heritage. From pleasure boating to the commercial industry, whether a boat or house or a plane, if it floats it’s apart of the history and culture of Seattle. Water is everywhere in this city, even buried in the namesake -- Chief Sealth -- and it’s a part of everyone who lives here.

From the beginning, Seattle was an international seaport, shuttling goods to Canada, Europe and the eastern coast of the United States. The California Gold Rush sparked even more activity, fueled by that state's growth and need for goods from the Pacific Northwest. Seattle’s port shipped lumber, fish, coal and other goods south.

“We’re really tied to the maritime industry as part of our economic health and growth,” said Chuck Fowler, president of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. After the city was settled and businesses started growing, yacht clubs and recreational boating became more popular, Fowler says.

For Transportation

In the 1850s, a ferry system started up to transport people around the area’s lakes and islands. The “Mosquito Fleet,” a swarm of steam-powered vessels, carried people all over the Puget Sound. The only surviving mosquito fleet steamer, the S.S. Virginia V, can still be seen chugging around Seattle’s waterways. The old steamer, now a national historic landmark, was restored in the 1990s and can be chartered for private events.

The Mosquito Fleet became a part of history in the 1930s when the railroad and highway systems took over as the main mode of transportation.

The state bought what was left of the Mosquito Fleet in 1951, becoming what’s now the Washington State Ferries. The large car and passenger ferries travel all over the Puget Sound and have become Seattle icons. The ferry system is the largest in the country, carrying millions of people and cars every year. At Coleman Dock in downtown Seattle, you can take a car and passenger boat to Bainbridge Island or Bremerton and a foot ferry to Vashon Island.

For Pleasure

In an area so entrenched in commercial maritime history, it’s only natural to have a significant amount of pleasure boating. Many estimate that Seattle has the most pleasure boats per capita than any other city in the country.

“We consider this the boating capital of the world,” said Mike McQuaid, spokesman for the Lake Union Boats Afloat Show.

Seattle is a perfect place to boat, McQuaid says, because water is everywhere and plenty of interesting harbors and fair winds in the spring and fall make for great sailing.

No event illustrates Seattle’s pleasure boating culture better than the Tuesday night Duck Dodge on Lake Union, which runs from May through August. Come one, come all -- even if you don’t have a boat you can still participate. The rules are simple and few: sail by the committee boat, get acknowledged and you’re in. There are three races each Tuesday, beginning at 7 p.m.

“There’s nothing like it in any city that we know of,” said Duck Dodge Committee chairwoman Kim DuBois.

At the height of summer, more than 100 boats take part on any given Tuesday night. Any boat that floats is welcome to join in -- from dinghies to 70-footers, DuBois says. If you don’t have your own boat, go online to the Duck Dodge Website and sign up to crew someone else’s boat.

“It’s a great way to spend a Tuesday evening,” DuBois said.

Although noise regulations have somewhat toned down the partying since the late 1970s and early 1980s, it’s still the city’s best parties on the water.

For Housing

Seattle boating isn’t just about fun -- some people make their homes on floating boats known as houseboats. In Seattle’s Lake Union, with the backdrop of the city skyline, there are about 500 floating homes.

“There’s nothing like living on a houseboat in the middle of Seattle on a smooth and peaceful freshwater lake. It’s a dream lifestyle,” says Rick Miner, a real estate agent who specializes in selling houseboats and waterfront homes.

Seattle’s houseboat community was made famous in the movie, Sleepless in Seattle. Actor Tom Hanks’ character lived on a Lake Union houseboat. That same houseboat recently went for sale for $2.5 million.

Each dock is a small neighborhood of houseboats. Tied up on the same dock, neighbors live in close quarters and learn to respect one another’s living space. That means no peeking in windows or stepping onto someone’s home without asking. There are often small channels that separate one dock from another, where houseboat dwellers tie up canoes, kayaks or even sailboats. The houseboats are known for their quirky style, sometimes-wild paint jobs and eclectic decor.

Darlene Madenwald has lived on a Lake Union houseboat for 18 years. She likes the security of having neighbors nearby and the low-maintenance yard work (there isn’t any).

“If I need a cup of sugar, here you only have to walk a few feet,” says Madenwald, who enjoys the camaraderie on the dock. They have yearly garage sales and an annual barbecue with a pie contest.

Because of their limited number, houseboat real estate is pricey and sought-after. But it can be a good investment. Statistically, houseboats appreciate far better than other homes, Miner says.

Houseboat living isn’t for everyone. The houseboats are moored to the dock and sometimes they come loose. They do rock a bit with the waves, although they come with shock absorbers, and you can move around a bit especially if you’re at the end, Madenwald says. Few houseboats come with more than one parking spot and you have to schlep your groceries down the dock, she adds.

But many houseboat dwellers say the lifestyle is well worth the trouble. Even on the gloomiest Seattle day, walking down the dock is like escaping to a vacation, Miner says.

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