SI Vault
Emmett Watson
May 07, 1956
Set between Lake Washington's calm waters and 2,000 miles of salt-water coast, Seattle offers an endless variety of boating to 50,000 yachtsmen
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May 07, 1956

Seattle: City On The Water

Set between Lake Washington's calm waters and 2,000 miles of salt-water coast, Seattle offers an endless variety of boating to 50,000 yachtsmen

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One event more than any other, the colorful, crowded Opening Day Regatta pictured on the preceding pages, brings into sharp focus the mass mania for boating that has overtaken the city of Seattle. The celebration, scheduled for May 5 this year, involves nearly a thousand boats decorated with signal flags, dancing girls and anything else the owners happen to think of. It is, in short, as big and uninhibited as a regatta can get. But in Seattle, the boating capital of the Northwest and perhaps the busiest yachting town in the country, the opening celebration is just one more party in a season filled with fun on the water.

Seattle is, in fact, a city of water. No less than 50,000 people own boats in and around the town, and a casual look at Seattle's geography (see map pages 50-51) will tell you why. Western Washington's metropolis rises almost straight out of sheltered Puget Sound, dividing the salty headlands of the sound from one of the nation's great aquatic playgrounds—a tranquil, 16-mile-long body of water called Lake Washington. Just north of Seattle's downtown office district lies smaller Lake Union, where a fortunate dentist, doctor, lawyer or businessman can look down on the tantalizing sight of his own boat moored and awaiting his leisure.

The city itself is almost surrounded by 193 miles of waterfront, including 100 miles of fresh-water mooring space. Cutting east and west through the town, the Lake Washington ship canal equalizes the 33-foot difference in water level between sound and lake, giving boat owners the run of about 2,000 miles of incredibly beautiful coastline dotted with small islands and safe harbors south all the way to Olympia and north to British Columbia and beyond.

In the past year alone, 34,573 pleasure boats carrying 275,781 passengers—almost half the population of the town—were checked through the Government Locks at the western end of the canal, with marine traffic jams on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July that would make a Chicago cop shrink back in horror.

To occupy this bustling mob of boating enthusiasts, there is a wide and happy variety of boating to be found right on Seattle's watery doorstep. For a working man on a tight budget, boating in Seattle means family outings in the precious daylight hours after quitting time in a $500 to $1,000 outboard cruiser. For an executive owning a $30,000 yacht, it may mean weeks of concentrated cruising out of Puget Sound to the islands of British Columbia and even Alaska. One typical boat-owning Seattlite might well be 13-year-old Billy Schumacher Jr., who last year won the national Class JU and AU stock outboard championships against some of the best racers in the world. But Billy is only one youngster picked from the large group of Seattle teen-agers who are ignoring cars for boats. The Seattle Outboard Association reports that nearly 50% of its 200 registered racing outfits are manned by teen-agers.

Another typical Seattle boat lover is a chap named George Prince, a transplanted Easterner, who lives on the shore of Lake Washington. George's pleasure comes from rowing a one-man shell right off his front yard in the same waters where the bellowing hydroplanes, like Willard Rhodes's Miss Thriftway, or Stan Sayres's hallowed "Old Lady," Slo-Mo IV, take their regular tune-up runs.

Then there is the Seattle obstetrician who sails off his home on Lake Washington, keeping a wary eye on his private dock, where a very special kind of storm warning may go up any instant. To keep the doctor posted, his wife hangs diapers on a pole. A single diaper is the first warning: "Patient going into labor." But two diapers herald the crisis: "For heaven's sake, turn to."

Rowing is a deeply meshed source of Seattle pride. Every spring and fall a big, graying Dane named Al Ulbrickson sends the University of Washington's famed eight-oared shells skimming over the lake in daily workouts. The university's Conibear shellhouse houses 17 eight-oared shells and six fours—all of them designed and built by George Pocock, a master builder who holds an American monopoly in construction of the light, thin-skinned craft. Scattered over the nation are the Navy's Rusty Callow and 10 other Washington-bred crew coaches, five of them trained by Ulbrickson himself.

This remarkable boom in fun afloat, besides creating a critical shortage of mooring space, has made Seattle and Puget Sound the playground for some of the nation's top boating events. In 1950, for example, Auto Dealer Stan Sayres took his Seattle-bred Slo-Mo IV overland to the Detroit River and won the Gold Cup. Exercising his right as champion, Sayres elected to defend his title on Lake Washington—which he successfully did for four consecutive years with Slo-Mo IV and her sister ship Slo-Mo V in front of home town crowds up to 500,000. Even last summer, when Joe Schoenith's Gale V won the Gold Cup back for Detroit, one eastern owner ( Guy Lombardo) remarked wistfully: "It's a shame to take this race away from Seattle—this is the greatest boat race course in the world."

No sooner had the sounds of the race died down when an outfit called Greater Seattle Inc., a group of boat-loving boosters who had helped finance Sayres's earlier defenses of the Gold Cup, allotted $25,000 to create a new spectacle, the Seafair Trophy race. The Seafair will be run off August 4-5 and is sanctioned as the unlimited hydroplane championship of the U.S.

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