Admirals in crisp white trousers and navy jackets line a grassy field in Montlake while dozens of multicolored flags snap on a flagpole above. Golden epaulets on their shoulders and white feathers on their hats, the group stands at attention as a small cannon fires from the emerald lawn that skirts the red-roofed yacht club. You’d be forgiven for thinking the operetta HMS Pinafore was unfolding here on the shores of Portage Bay: Welcome to opening day of Seattle boating season.
If you had to isolate the heart of Seattle’s seagoing identity, at least the recreational wing of it, Seattle Yacht Club’s annual ceremony would be a solid pick. Always the first Saturday in May, all the way back to 1913, the club’s tradition-heavy fete is just the start of the day’s agenda. By 10am, the Windermere Cup regatta races begin on the Montlake Cut, and then the day ends with the club’s boat parade along the Lake Washington log boom, where yachts and sailboats tie up to watch the festivities. It’s a celebration of all things boaty, from racing sculls to historic steam-powered relics.
It’s obvious that Seattle is a maritime kind of town, with streets all tumbling toward a bay, lake, or ship canal of some kind. Indigenous people carved cedar canoes and hunted our waterways, then George Vancouver scouted the shoreline from the full-rigged HMS Discovery. The industry boomed when the nineteenth century Klondike Gold Rush flooded the city with prospectors wanting a ride north (or back south in defeat). Soon after, Ballard became a fishing hub and an off-season home for much of the Alaskan fishing fleet. Puget Sound was already a tangle of ferry routes when the region’s roads were still a work in progress.
But through it all, we’ve played on the water too. Just peer across Lake Union during any summer day—or even when the sun makes an appearance mid-November. You’ll see rowers working their sculls, the paddleboard yoga masters striking a precarious pose. The electric boats bring newbies onto the water, past the Seattleites that live on its surface year-round in floating home neighborhoods.
Northwesterners may suppress their competitive nature on land (see: Mariners, the baseball variety), but all’s fair on the high seas. Three days after the solemnity of the Seattle Yacht Club ceremony kicks off the season, Tuesdays become Duck Dodge day on Lake Union. The 45-year sailing race series is mostly a laugh—costumes are as important as race standings, the prize is a duck decal, and of the 12 official rules, at least five are identical: “No hitting one another.” By August, Seafair’s hydroplane races turn the wider Lake Washington into a kind of water-top Indy 500 for superpowered motorboats, a 69-year-old tradition.
We don’t just enjoy boats here; we build them, too. Especially the fancy ones. Delta Marine on the Duwamish is the country’s foremost megayacht maker, crafting cruisers up to 240 feet long—the kind of boat with walnut burl sideboards in the formal dining room and an on-board herbarium. Westport Yachts on the coast and in Port Angeles produces more yachts than anyone else in the country.
But parked right next to the hundred-footers, or tied up at the log booms that center the biggest boat parties in town, the occasional lowly dinghy bobs in the waves, too. Seattle loves its kayaks and creaky old motorboats, its barely livable sailboats and even its inflatables. Some of us even pull them out all year, to fish well into the fall or wave at the choir on the Christmas Ship parade. There’s an official opening to boating season in Seattle, but there’s no closing day.