Words: Lisa Samuelson // Photos: Alex Kwanten
Ask most people in the country what’s significant about the first Saturday in May and the typical response might be “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” aka the Kentucky Derby. But for many Northwest boaters the answer is a resounding “Opening Day!”
Just as the Kentucky Derby has its own set of rich traditions – mint juleps, elaborate hats, and singing “My Old Kentucky Home” – so too does Opening Day. It begins with a morning of crew races culminating in the Windermere Cup, followed by the blast of the cannon at noon to start the parade of boats – from powerboats to sailboats, yachts to dinghies, wooden to fiberglass, and amphicars to seaplanes. The parade is led by a flotilla of eight boats known as the Husky Navy — volunteers who offer their boats to carry the Husky marching band and cheerleaders through the parade and on over to Meydenbauer Bay Yacht Club to play for the members there, post-parade. This year’s Husky Navy will include boats from Seattle Yacht Club (SYC), Queen City Yacht Club, and Tacoma Yacht Club. The day finishes at 1800 hours on the lawn of SYC with an awards ceremony with trophies given to the 12 winners of the parade, followed by a closing ceremony that includes the lowering of the Colors from the yardarm, the firing of a canon preceding the lowering of the Canadian and American flags, and the playing of Taps by trumpeters from the Husky alumni band.
The running of the first Kentucky Derby was in 1875 and the history of celebrating water festivities in Seattle is just as old, also dating back to 1875 when races were first held on July 4 in Elliott Bay. Opening Day, as we know it today with a parade through the Montlake Cut, first sailed in 1920 to celebrate the opening of Seattle Yacht Club’s present facilities in Portage Bay. Spectators lined both sides of the Cut to view the 25 or 30 boats as they paraded by, flying their dress flags. Among those invited were the officers and members of Queen City Yacht Club, which then operated from a floating clubhouse aboard a barge on Lake Union. The boats finished the celebration with a regatta in Lake Washington sponsored by Queen City. Today, yacht clubs come from all over the Salish Sea, from as far north as Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia and as far south as Olympia. And yes, for some boaters, such as Queen City Yacht Club members Denise and Terron Lindholme, mint juleps are also involved in their Opening Day celebrations, combining two great traditions (and this year, a giant hat for Denise!)
OPENING OF WHAT?
Opening Day can be puzzling to newcomers to Seattle. Suzanne Lusnia was a recent transplant from Florida 22 years ago when a co-worker invited her to Opening Day. Opening day of what, she wondered. What’s opening about it? Informed that it was a local boating tradition, she gamely went along and even packed a bathing suit, not understanding then that boating in Seattle was a wee bit different than boating in Florida. A year later she was dating the boat owner, eventually married him, and hasn’t missed an Opening Day since, rain or shine. Opening Day is now a family tradition. Both her kids have been every year since they were babies. Daughter Megan Skene, 17, has been Junior Commodore and Junior Rear Commodore at SYC. Last year she and a dozen SYC Juniors worked for hundreds of hours on their entry in the parade and took home the Tim Berger Memorial Trophy for best decorated boat in the youth category.
In answer to Suzanne and many others’ questions about the opening of boating season, unlike other parts of the country, the boating season never actually opens or closes around here. We’re a lucky lot in that we can keep sailing and cruising year-round. The calendar is full of winter regattas such as the South Sound Series, Race to the Straits, Blakely Rock, and Frigid Digit, and get-togethers for power and sail such as the epic Winter Rendezvous in February in Poulsbo. So, while known as Opening Day of the boating season, in reality it’s the kick-off to the busy spring and summer season. It’s the impetus to get your boat ready for a summer of cruising or racing, a time to reconnect with boating friends, meet boaters from other clubs, and celebrate another great beginning of being out on the water throughout the year.
Scott Grimm has been attending Opening Day ever since his parents joined Queen City when he was two years old. He in turn joined when he was 29. When asked how many he’s attended over the years, he laughed and said, “Better to ask me how many have I not been to! I’ve probably only missed 10 in 58 years.” In fact, it’s Scott and his boat Kay Gee Lady, a 1956 54-foot Chris Craft, that led the Husky Navy last year and will do it again this year with the Husky band and cheerleaders onboard along with Scott’s kids and grandkids.
OPENING DAY SCHEDULE
Greg Gilbert estimates he has attended about 20 Opening Days, with two different boats, both classic wood yachts, Mer-Na, a 1930 Blanchard 36-foot motor yacht, and Winifred, a 1926 46-foot Lake Union dream boat. For him, Opening Day is the time to get his boat shipshape and looking good for the parade. In some years that has included varnishing by floodlights on a Wednesday or Thursday night before the Saturday parade. On his dock he’s called the “midnight varnisher.” Varnishing is not the only effort that goes into getting his boat parade-worthy for Opening Day. One year, to match the Hawaiian theme, he hired a Hawaiian dancer to hula her way through the Cut on the bow of his boat. His efforts have paid off with a first-place trophy for Mer-Na and six second-place finishes over the years.
Mike McGuane’s first Opening Days were with his parents, grandparents and dad’s crew onboard his dad’s six-meter sailboat. His earliest memories of “doing” Opening Day on his own are with his two brothers on a 15-foot plywood ski boat called Flying High. They would putter around the log boom, poaching food and beer from other boaters. The first time he did the parade with his son it was themed My First Cruise. “We had an old beat up Coronado 25 and we dressed in swabbies with white t-shirts and big huge orange life jackets,” he reminisced. “We practiced the Salute to the Officers so well we got a good cheer back from them. “
OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD
The first Opening Day to have a theme for the parade was in 1959, and the theme was Hell’s a Poppin. This year’s theme for the May 6 event is Emerald City Aahs!. According to SYC Admiral Bruce Campbell, it was “chosen to encourage more boaters to decorate their vessels honoring the beloved symbols of the Puget Sound area – and flying monkeys would be a kick too!”
Flying monkeys might not be out of the question. Parade participants take their decorations seriously and get very creative. One often-mentioned memorable entry was from Bremerton Yacht Club for the 2007 theme, Musical Memories. It was a giant 22-foot high Elvis head with lips and eyebrows that moved and 11 Elvis impersonators onboard gyrating and swiveling their hips to the music.
The members of the PNW Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS) pride themselves on uniquely interpreting the themes. Last year, for A Great Escape, rather than focusing on a destination as an escape, they chose to interpret it as a great escape from jail with boats full of members clad in prison stripes being chased through the Cut by member boats decked out as police boats. This won them the SYC Group Spirit Trophy given for “crowd-pleasing spirit AND enthusiasm in attire, decorations and actions.” For Myths and Monsters, they brought back the mythical and elusive iconic Grazing Rainiers mascot beer bottles. (Although that year they were disqualified for unknowingly breaking the SYC rules against displaying commercial signs.
According to member Frank Gonzales, “It didn’t matter that we didn’t qualify for a prize as we had such a blast with the theme and the crowd loved it.”) Tales of Seattle resulted in the ACBS fleet all wearing large whale tail hats created by member Marsha Erickson, who is legendary for creating head gear for the club over the years.