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Meet me in Viking City

by Norris Comer

Poulsbo VikingsFor most outside observers, the cold drizzle of the Puget Sound winter means sweaters by the fireplace and a mug of dark roast coffee in the local indie café. Outdoor fun is supposed to take place on the mountains where adrenaline seekers don their skis and the reflective types take in the scenery from their snow shoes. Most people assume the Northwest’s fleet of recreational boats, often wrapped up in canvas or on the hard, are idle. Boaters around here surely take a break this time of year, no?

How wrong they are. Enter the Winter Rendezvous held in Poulsbo, Washington, a defiant boater-oriented celebration of the Pacific Northwest winter held in February. The Winter Rendezvous, now in its fourth iteration, has become a local event mainstay that captures the classic all-weather Northwest boating spirit. This year the three-day event runs Friday, February 10 through Sunday, February 12, and is Star Wars themed with the tagline “May the Fourth Be With You!” Events range from the Opening Ceremony party that will take place in the Tatooine Cantina housed within the Sons of Norway Lodge to the Outer Rim Poker Run that’ll send participants to different small businesses downtown. An art walk, whiskey tasting, downtown historical tours, and a patchwork of live music are just tasters of the celebration’s offerings. Vikings are a common sight as Sons of Norway affiliates join the fray. They may meet their matches this year, for the Jet City Saber Guild is said to appear in full Jedi and Sith regalia. Lightsaber-wielding Vikings? We can only hope.

The Winter Rendezvous channels some of that sweet Mardi Gras mojo; it’s a dollop of Tampa’s Gasparilla pirate festival wrapped in a Portland Rose Parade tortilla and sprinkled with Oktoberfest seasoning. The celebration is a tactically delivered amount of fun during a time of year when all Pacific Northwesterners could use an excuse to turn the key and leave the slip. But how did we get to this point where Jedi, Vikings, and the mayor of Poulsbo judge glogg together after a day of boating in the rain? For the answer, we turn to Chip Hanauer, the legendary hydroplane driver, one of the event organizers, and the spiritual leader of the event. As with many good boating ideas in the Pacific Northwest, it started with a few guys and plenty of beers (see our Race to Alaska feature in our June, 2016 edition, R2AK Race or Revolution?).

Poulsbo Vikings - Winter Rendezvous“Three lonely men were drinking beer at Elliott Bay Marina,” says Hanauer. “We were sitting there and enjoying a beautiful late August evening. I think I said, ‘Everyone does rendezvous during summer weekends. Let’s do one in the worst weekends possible!’” Hanauer laughs. “And we drank just enough beer to make it happen.”

The three founders are Chip Hanauer, Dwight Jones (Manager of Elliott Bay Marina), and Sam Bisset (Communications Director of Ranger Tugs & Cutwater Boats). After a brief brainstorm, it was agreed that February was the worst month weather-wise in the Pacific Northwest for a boater by conventional measurements. The three founders had a feeling they were onto something.

“We live in boating paradise. We bike year-round and golf year-round. We should boat year-round too. The winter around here is just serenity. The docks are empty in the San Juans and you can have it all to yourself,” says Hanauer about winter boating in the Pacific Northwest. “I’m a contrarian by nature, so it kind of defeats the purpose of only boating in the summer when everything is crowded. The next step was to sober up the next day. We figured we’d check out Poulsbo,” continued Hanauer. Poulsbo seemed like a good target for several reasons. Not only is Poulsbo an easy run from most points in the Sound, but the charming historic downtown has plenty to offer, all within walking distance of the large, well-equipped marina. But the motley crew of dreamers needed their champion on the ground. It is all well and good to have an idea, but the success would depend upon cooperation with an excited community that understood the vision. Hanauer visited Poulsbo and “literally ran into” Tammy Mattson, co-owner of Tizley’s Europub in Poulsbo. It was a match made in heaven.

“This would not work without Tammy and her ability to get the whole town behind the event. It’s amazing. We’ve tried to do the same thing in other places thanks to the success we’ve had here, but they just didn’t have a Tammy. If more communities had leaders like Tammy and the pro-boater mindset, anything would be possible,” Hanauer states.

“It’s our Mardi Gras,” explains Mattson. “We here at Poulsbo love the people that come to the event and it creates an exciting and fun ambiance throughout the town. All the great characters that come are the best! It’s just a gas.” One never knows what to expect thematically from year to year. Last year the theme was “Menagé à Trois” in honor of 2016 being the third rendezvous.

“We just got to keep it weird!” says Hanauer. “We don’t ever want to get into a pattern. If it ever stops being weird, I’m going to stop doing it.” Good times aside, the event also has some very real tangible positives for the small, boat-positive community.

Poulsbo Vikings - Brass Kraken“In the winter, we’re usually slow and quiet. For our downtown, the Winter Rendezvous is a big economic burst for our locally-owned mom and pop businesses,” says Mattson. The sentiment is echoed throughout boat-friendly towns on the water that are subject to a seasonal economy. If you’ve ever walked down Winslow Way on Bainbridge Island, Washington during the summer, you probably know firsthand what the model looks like. Hordes of summer visitors come with eyes wide open and appetites for fun. Ice cream shops may have to close early because they run out of inventory while college kids on break work overtime to get rental kayaks on the water. All that economic lifeblood stops come September, and the local businesses that make a place like Poulsbo special face months of lean pickings. Boating events like the Winter Rendezvous can be an economic oasis in the desert. Round the County, an iconic sailboat race in the San Juans held in November, has a similar effect in Deer Harbor and West Sound on Orcas Island, which is a party stop during the event (see our Round the County feature in our November, 2016 issue). Hosted lighted boat parades are also used in places like Gig Harbor to give the off-season an adrenaline boost.

What’s more, the Winter Rendezvous has a component of charity. Causes in the past, including Parkinson’s disease research, scholarships to West Sound Academy, and Morrow Manor domestic violence survivors, have received thousands of dollars in donations.

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