Sucia Island, a horseshoe shaped gem found among the northernmost San Juan Islands, encompasses craggy rocks, sweeping grasses, and towering trees dotting stunning stretches of shoreline. From Shallow to Echo to Fossil bays, the calm, cool waters there have presented boaters with cruising opportunities for decades—a present all made possible by the Recreation Boating Association of Washington (RBAW).
First formed as the Puget Sound Interclub Association and later incorporated as such in 1956, the later-renamed RBAW and its earliest leaders—among whom numbered first president Everett “Ev” Henry of Rainier Yacht Club—worked to save the 814 acres offered by the islands from being heavily developed. The 24 Northwest yacht clubs that served on the founding body rallied to raise $25,000, reportedly half the value of the land at the time. They then purchased the archipelago, and donated it all back to Washington state to be preserved as a park so that boaters for generations to come could—and would—reap the benefits of her beauty. Perhaps the dedication sign that is perched at the head of the dock in Fossil Bay says it best: “Placed in the trust of the state 4-29-60 for yachtsmen forever.”
That canny maneuvering in the best interests of boaters still speaks well to the ambitions of RBAW today, as the membership-based, all-volunteer-run organization continues to passionately promote recreational boating within the state through three primary arenas: advocacy, awareness, and conservation.
“Sucia was our first claim to fame, and it really exemplifies the vision from our first club leaders for preserving areas for boating in the state,” says current president Bob Wise, who owns several marinas on the Kitsap Peninsula. “Today, our board is made up of similarly like-minded boaters, I’d say passionate boaters from all areas of boating, who are working together to affect change.”
One such area where change often manifests is within the legislative halls in Olympia. RBAW employs a full-time advocate, who works with the elected representatives and regulatory agencies on policies that affect the marine pastime, everything from safety to tax issues. “It’s incredibly important to us that we are there to speak up for boaters, to provide a voice, within these sessions,” explains Wise.
Case in point: Last year during the budgeting session, RBAW fought alongside the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA) and others to rally against a proposal to double the Watercraft Excise Tax. (Many argued the proposed tax wouldn’t have been fair for boaters as the fees were to go to maintaining roadways, not waterways.) Testifying in committee hearings, RBAW flooded legislators with almost 17,000 messages in disfavor; and the tax failed to pass. More recently, RBAW also helped in a bipartisan push to secure several million dollars in state funding to help rid our waters of derelict vessels, thus tripling the amount directed at that effort. They have also been working closely with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell to advocate that more resources to be directed at Seattle Harbor Patrol. (Currently just one vessel and 13 staff are responsible for the safety of over 200 miles of Seattle shoreline around Elliott Bay, Lake Union and Lake Washington.)
RBAW also works to keep boaters in the loop on the water, too.
The organization was the one to spearhead this year’s Mind the Zone campaign on Lake Union, which drew attention to the seaplane advisory landing zone and promoted safety awareness among the growing number of boaters, paddlers, kayakers, and others who frequent the lake during the busy summer months. “Lake traffic has increased significantly over the past several years, and it came to light that perhaps many new users weren’t even aware there was an advisory landing zone, or what it meant when those buoys flashed,” says RBAW Vice-President Andrea Pierantozzi, who spearheaded the initiative. “So, we jumped into action to make sure that everyone could share the water safely.” Pierantozzi and her team created a vast social media campaign that featured the catchy #MindtheZone hashtag and included a video that garnered over 350,000 views, rallied area businesses and boating clubs to help spread the word to consumers, and posted signage so that adventurers were aware of the advisory zone before casting off.
Similarly, in 2021, when boating access to Andrew Bay in Lake Washington was threatened due to noise complaints from on-shore neighbors and concerned boaters, RBAW members sailed out to the spot on their own vessels and chatted with boaters face-to-face, reminding them to be respectful of the shared space. They asked boaters to take a pledge to that effect, and over 1,200 individuals did so.
“It all goes back to the theme of what we do and who we are,” says Pierantozzi. “Educating our own, protecting our own, and preserving access to amazing boating.”
Which is exactly why RBAW has spent the last two and a half years on a preservation effort that returns them to their roots: On December 28, 2021, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the association officially closed on the joint purchase of the historic Lakebay Marina located on Mayo Cove in Pierce County. The intent is to restore the iconic property, which includes 2.8 acres of uplands and tidelands as well as the marina facilities, and again turn it over to the state for management as a marine park, just as it was done with Sucia Island in 1960. “It’s an absolute gem in the South Sound and has the potential to be even better for boating, another Sucia. The vibe is incredible, you are just a couple of minutes away from the cities, yet feels worlds away,” says Wise, who had been eying the property for years and spearheaded the recent effort.
Now that they have possession of the property, the restoration phase has begun. The derelict docks have been removed and prep work has begun to replace them, as well as the fuel dock. RBAW will rehabilitate the building and redo the boat ramp to make it more accessible for vessels, including trailerable ones. Between grants and fundraising efforts, RBAW has raised $2 million towards the effort, but several more million will be needed to complete the project, which Wise estimates will take 2-4 years. “It’s a great project, and it’s something we want to do more of; to keep growing public access to the water, and creating permanent conservancies for boaters,” Wise says. He adds, with a chuckle: “This one took 60 years to find, I sure hope the next one comes along a bit quicker. We’ll certainly be looking.”
Wise states that RBAW is actively looking for community help with the Lakebay Marina project —donations can be made on their conservancy website at rbawmarineparksconservancy.org—as well as always looking for new members to join the 11,000-member-strong association. Membership to RBAW is just $20 a year. That fee helps fund all three arms of the association’s efforts, as well gives members perks such as discounts at such businesses as Fisheries Supplies, access to e-newsletters and insider info on issues affecting boaters, invites to activities, and the right to fly the RBAW burgee.
“I love putting my heart and soul into fighting for things that are important to us boaters,” says Pierantozzi of becoming involved with RBAW. “We are getting to determine the long-term future of boating and help contribute to its preservation. That’s a pretty incredible legacy.”
>> To learn more about the Recreational Boating Association of Washington, become a member, or donate to their efforts, visit: rbaw.org.