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Duck, Duck, Let Loose

by Doug Hansen
Duck, Duck, Let Loose Racing Sheet Image

Tuesdays in the summer are for dodging ducks, and the place to do it is Lake Union. Anyone who has looked out at the lake on a summer Tuesday night can’t miss the mass of sailboats tumbling across the water. The race has been going in one form or another since 1974 and is on the bucket list of any Pacific Northwest sailor or non-sailor. The rules are simple: It’s a lap of Lake Union and ducks have the right of way.

To say that Duck Dodge is a casual race is a bit of an understatement; all are welcome, and outright competitiveness is blatantly looked down on when it gets in the way of having fun. Regarding the boats taking part, any vessel is welcomed as long as it floats and has some form of a sail. Everything from top-notch racing boats to small, home-built, single-person dinghies are regular sights on the racecourse. The participants are just as wide-ranging, mixing lifelong sailors and racers with people who are brand new to boats, and everything in between. Keeping with the lightheartedness, every week has a theme, posted online at the beginning of the summer; the list includes fan favorites like Toga Night, Pajama Party, and of course, the legendary Tropical Night, complete with a barge as one of the rounding marks where volunteers hand out beers as racers pass by.

While it seems chaotic to a newcomer, there is a method to the madness as the eclectic mass of boats is split into five starting groups that separate the fleet based on the speed of the boats and the crews. Starting positions are given out when racers sail past and check in with the volunteer race committee that’s anchored in the center of the lake. The assignment is predominantly a self-selected program, but the catch is that if your boat wins too many races in a row, you get bumped up to the next fleet and fight it out with the faster boats. Things start promptly at 7 p.m., with the first start of fast boats usually sent on two laps of the posted racecourse and the rest of the fleets on a single lap.

The winners of each fleet get a golden duck sticker to proudly display on the mast of their boat. Many veteran Duck Dodge skippers have dozens of little ducks covering every inch of their mast. (Some even need to hoist a crewmember up with a halyard to find an open spot to place a new sticker.)

Of course, we can’t forget what some say is the main attraction of Duck Dodge: the raft-up. As the racers finish and the sails come down, the fleet begins to gather around the committee boat for what is, without a doubt, the best weeknight party in the city. Boats stack on one another, spreading out across the lake in a flotilla of debauchery as grills fire up, music cranks up, and the sunset is in full swing. Throughout the party, there is a constant stream of people from boat to boat. The tradition with a Duck Dodge virgin is to visit every boat on the raft-up, kissing the master or the mast, a lighthearted tradition that makes for some tremendously funny moments. Things end as the raft breaks up at 10 p.m. with no questions or exceptions; there is a warning ten minutes before to give everyone time to get back to the boat they came on, and once it starts to break up, there is no stopping it.  It is a sailboat event like no other, and everyone who has taken part has been left with an abundance of fantastic stories to tell and the occasional one they cannot.

My favorite Duck Dodge story involves meeting a girl sailing on her dad’s boat at the raft-up. A little over a decade later, this summer, we got to take our 10-day-old daughter out for a sail and won her first gold duck on grandpa’s boat. (We opted to skip the raft-up on account of bedtime).

For those looking to get in on the fun, the Duck Dodge Facebook group is the best place to learn more. There, you can find people posting about the race, boats looking for crew, sailors looking for boats, and anything else you can imagine.

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