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Originally published May 11, 2013 at 7:07 PM | Page modified May 11, 2013 at 8:39 PM

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Heated competition at sunny Seattle Maritime Festival

Seattle Central brings a can-do attitude to the Seattle Maritime Festival’s boatbuilding competition.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sure, most of the folks at the Seattle Maritime Festival Saturday had fun simply enjoying the festivities and the sunshine.

But for some, festival fun meant heated competition, the defending of past titles and strategizing.

Even if that strategizing basically meant drinking beer the night before.

Tavis Hamilton, 21, sat surrounded by dozens of empty Rainier beer cans Saturday morning at Pier 66, where the annual boatbuilding competition was taking place.

He and two classmates from Seattle Central Community College’s Seattle Maritime Academy formed one of the seven teams in the race. The goal: to build, in six hours, a boat capable of winning a speed race around the Bell Harbor Marina.

Hamilton knew there were more professional teams to compete against — including shipyards.

But he had the school’s name to defend. Its team last year won the “dirtiest boat” category (which, unfortunately, was not a category this year. New this year was a “first boat to sink” category.)

And that didn’t stop his team from getting lots of support from passers-by.

“OK, you guys win,” said one man, seeing the beer cans. “Just give them the prize now.”

“Now that’s recycling!” said another.

The beer receptacles were all part of a canny strategy by Hamilton’s team to build pontoons to float their boat, which they were making out of plywood, caulk and spray paint.

The idea to use the beer cans came to Hamilton last week. Inspired by a drinking game called “wizard’s staff,” in which drinkers tape together empty beer cans until they form a long stick that they call a “wizard’s staff,” he figured: Hey, those might make good pontoons!

Recruiting a bunch of buddies to help ingest the beer and getting up early to start working on the boat despite the “preparation” the night before, Hamilton said his team’s strategy in the race would be to “hope to God you can row it fast enough before it sinks.”

That strategy, however, was not a winning one, as a U.S. Coast Guard team took first place in the race.

At another section of the marina, where the survival-suit race was about to begin, the team from Ballard High School was going over some last-minute strategies.

In the survival-suit race, seven teams race to get into neoprene survival suits, jump off the dock into the water and swim to a raft. First team to get all four members out of the water wins.

For the Ballard High team, the strategizing had started weeks before.

“We recruited ringers,” said John Foster, lead teacher of the Ballard Maritime Academy, a program within the high school. “They’re from the swim team.”

Last year, he said, the team had students who knew all about survival suits but “not so much about the swimming.”

This year, he figured, they’d try the opposite, even going up to the San Juans to swim in survival suits to train.

Though the team has yet to win the race, it did beat the Coast Guard once and the Army once, Foster said. “That felt pretty good.”

Alas, this year was not Ballard High’s year either — though it got arguably the loudest cheers from the crowd.

“I was surprised how hard it was to move in the survival suits,” said Amanda Stathas, 17, a junior at the school. What made it more difficult, in part, was that the suit was longer than she by several feet and the zipper came up to her eyes, rather than to her mouth, making it harder to swim.

The winning team — again — came from Foss Maritime, the defending champions and winner of 13 past survival-suit competitions.

Part of the strategy for winning, said team member Vince Roney, 23, was gaining speed in putting on the survival suit: putting one arm in a suit, grabbing the hood over the head with the other and then pulling up the zipper.

The other part, said team coach Neftali Alas, was pretending it was a real emergency.

Plus, there was one more incentive, said Alas — a text message from his boss this morning, saying simply: “Bring the trophy home.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.

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