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Pacific Northwest | May 2, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMay 2, 2004seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
TASTE
ON FITNESS
NORTHWEST LIVING
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY ERIC SORENSEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ALAN BERNER

Racers dance, drink, dress up and dodge ducks at Seattle’s Silliest Sailing Classic
 
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Devil with a blue dress on, Larry Senn is in Duck Dodge haute couture and enjoying his favorite Mexican beer, Corona.
Nothing says Duck Dodge like pirates having sex on a plank.

It was late on a June evening, which means the sun had yet to set behind Queen Anne Hill, and the regatta was milling around the middle of Lake Union, much as it does most every Tuesday through the finest days of summer. It was Pirate Night, one of the Duck Dodge's myriad themed evenings, and the scurvy dogs on S/V Alucinor were decked out in eye patches and throwing booty — chocolate coins — to the neighboring boats. An Argosy Cruises charter floated by for a closer look, men in white shirts, drinks in hand, looking on from the upper deck.

And there, on a plank off the Alucinor, a pirate and wench acted out a Kama Sutra joyride, the pirate's cries of "argh!" loud enough to be heard on Westlake.
 
The Duck Dodge schedule and crew listings can be found at www.duckdodge.org
That's the Duck Dodge: unabashed, sporty, energetic, youthful and free. To which we can add that it's quintessentially Seattle: wet, active and outdoors, plus creative, adventurous and competitive. But laid-back.

Like some other notable local institutions, it was started by a couple/three guys. It turns 30 this year, which marks it as a classic but also invites the criticism that it's not what it used to be, that it's sold out or gone corporate or knuckled under to the people in legal. Yes, the party raft breaks up at 10 p.m. now, not 2 in the morning. They don't race year 'round anymore, and its veterans don't perforce carry pencil and paper to jot down phone numbers for prospective dates.
 
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Sailboats jockey for position as they round a buoy at the northwest corner of Lake Union. Racers follow a list of rules, including Numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11, all of which read: "No hitting one another."
But it is still a floating festival of youth and skin and beery sunsets, togas, pirates and pajamas. It has no letterhead, a rudimentary Web site, no budget and a code of behavior that borders on the tribal. It is an act of defiance, celebrating long, carefree summer days as if they will never end. It dares the world to tame it, then turns around and drops its pants, an actual ritual performed at the end of each evening by the crew of the aptly named "Shoot the Moon."

"Basically, it's just good, clean fun," says Tim Morgenroth, sailor, Boeing engineer and organizer in the early '80s. "Yeah, there's people that get wild and drink and go skinny-dipping, but it's mostly just good, clean fun."

•   •   •

IT'S EASY TO FORGET when you see "Jackie O" out looking for "John Jr." on Dead Celebrity Night, but these people really are sailors, and the Duck Dodge really is a sailboat race.
 
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There's plenty of time for souvenir photos on another sunlit Tuesday night of racing.
The whole thing started when Mike Rice and Ron Lloyd bought a Blanchard Senior Knockabout, one of the classic Lake Union sailboats. The guy they bought it from had an International 110, a similar-sized boat that, judging by its waterline and the rules of physics, should be about as fast.

Which begat a little lightbulb of inspiration — a race to see which boat was faster.

The name of the winner is lost to history, at least at this writing, but the following week saw the shores of Lake Union plastered with posters for a follow-up race.

"Lake Union Beer Can Regatta" or "Tenas Chuck Duck Dodge," the signs proclaimed. "Every Tuesday Eve. — Start at 7:00."
 
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There are more lines on a sailboat than a comedian has good ones, and you better keep them straight. Neophytes be advised: Don't call them ropes. The Duck Dodge may be all about fun, but these racers are serious sailors.
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With space at a premium on board, good sailors know to keep the deck clear and stash their stuff down the hatch.
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On a small catamaran Jack Herndon is "hiking out," working to level the boat using his body as a counterbalance.
There was a nicely sketched map of the race course — a start in the middle of the lake, aka "Tenas Chuck" for "Little Water," a run to the red buoy at the southern end, then the buoy by Ivar's Salmon House, around the buoy by Gas Works Park, an on-your-honor turn beneath the Aurora Bridge and back to the middle of the lake.

It's hard to believe the world worked this well before the Internet and Web sites and mass e-mails, but some 30 boats turned out the next week, and they kept coming, year after year, sometimes nearly all year long.

It helped that all comers were welcome. Like the poster said: any sailboat, any size, any crew, any sail. There was also no entry fee and only one rule: Frighten a duck and do a 720-degree turn. Hence the name Duck Dodge, and don't call it "the Dodge."

Racers took to rafting up afterward around a single anchored boat, dancing, drinking, dragging anchor clear across the lake. Then at the end of the season in 1982, the Harbor Patrol dropped by and ominously asked who was in charge.

That was Morgenroth. He was tempted to act as if no one was in charge, as if someone's parents had just knocked on the door and smoke was in the air.

"Everybody was pretty much in denial," Morgenroth remembers. "I couldn't just tell them to go away. That wouldn't work."

So he piped up and got the word: "They said, 'You guys are too dangerous. You're crazy. You're making too much trouble, etc., etc., so this is your last year.' So I had a project to keep it intact."

He spent the winter in détente, visiting with police, the Coast Guard, homeowners and Kenmore Air, which flies floatplanes on and off the lake. He got a safety boat, telling whoever showed up in a small boat that they were it. They moved the race buoys to stay out of the busy traffic lanes, then staged the starts — fast, half-fast (get it?), cruiser and dinghy — to avoid the crush of 50 or 70 boats on a single starting line.
 
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Erlin Love and a friend seal another Duck Dodge with a kiss.
It's safe to say Morgenroth saved the Duck Dodge, and in more ways than one. First, he imposed enough order to keep the race from being shut down. And, he did so without breaking its spirit.

Even now, the race is doing what the best institutions do: preserve something pretty much as it is, even while people change around it. Morgenroth saw as much last August on 48 North Tropical Night, in which a floating island, complete with palm trees, outhouse and beer keg, served as one of the race marks.

"Everybody was younger than me, but other than that it was the same Duck Dodge: the kind of people that were there, the way they were carrying on and having a good time.
 
Photo
At 10:25 p.m., there's still a blush in the sky as a boat heads back to its Fremont moorage after a midsummer-night's Duck Dodge, the Aurora Bridge in the background.
"There just seems to be this underlying appreciation that people have for the setting itself. The fact that here you are in the middle of a downtown area being able to race yachts around. What an incredible deal that is. Then you anchor and you have a party with all these people you share something in common with. And everybody is in a happy mood. You go from boat to boat and there's no off-limits. Everybody just knows everybody. You don't have to be afraid of someone or distrustful. Whoever's there, you say hello and it's like, you're all the same, you're all safe with each other."

•   •   •

ONE MINUTE, Lake Union is its usual self: the hulk of Gas Works rising off the north shore, houseboats, moored boats, maybe a monster gravel barge getting pushed by a tug.
 
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Sunglasses, sideburns and hat are all it takes for Chris Comte, above, to be Blues Brother John Belushi with a hint of Elvis on Dead Celebrity Night. Below, Susan Laraway is clearly Marilyn Monroe — even from 100 yards away. "Like I always say before every Duck Dodge, I apologize if my breasts fall out of my dress."
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Then sailboats start popping up out of nowhere, like all those baseball players who suddenly appear in "Field of Dreams."

They're all under sail — two-masted ketches and canoe-sterned cruisers and long-decked off-shore boats and wet-decked dinghies that navigated the Montlake Cut from the Washington Yacht Club — so there's mostly the sound of wind and displaced water, and the occasional flogging sail.

"It's amazing," Bill Stange says one night as he jockeys his San Juan 24, a mid-'70s sloop, toward the starting line. "You come out on the lake and it's instant quiet. Five minutes from now, it's going to be utter chaos."

Already it is a little nutty. It's Dead Celebrity Night. Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy of "Star Trek" is on the committee boat, which officiates the race, and the Vegas Elvis is on the bow of Restless.

Then Ignitor pulls alongside the committee boat with the "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" theme song blaring. Ron Ernst takes off a sport coat and dons a red cardigan and some sneakers. The whole crew shouts "Hi neighbors!"

Stange, 47, is an Alaska Airlines flight attendant and Duck Dodge veteran of so many years he named his boat "Tuesday," which leapt to mind when he said to himself, "You know, all I'm ever going to do is race on Tuesday." The mast is festooned with the coveted duck stickers awarded winners.

On this night his shirt says "Sail Fast" on the front and "Love Slow" on the back, but the real split in his personality comes in his typical Duck Dodge approach to the race.

He indeed sails fast. In 1988, he single-handed a 30-foot boat named "Intense" from San Francisco to Hawaii in a then-record 11 days, 15 hours and 21 minutes. His spinnaker, the billowy foresail that looks like a hot-air balloon on water, is so big it would be illegal in most races.

And in mid-race, when his crew is struggling to set the spinnaker and set the pole that holds the sail into the wind, the crew seems to be a study in panic: "Pole to starboard! Change of plans!"

But just when things go south, Stange and other skippers will fall back on a universal calming mantra: Hey, it's the Duck Dodge.

Or this interchange, which took place as he charted a narrow course between two kayaks.

"Safety would be nice!" said one of the kayakers.

Stange let the remark hang in the air, then said: "Nobody died."

•   •   •

There are rules:

Rule 1: No hitting one another (with or without boats)
Rule 2: Rules of the road apply
Rule 3: No hitting one another
Rule 4: Take all marks to PORT
Rule 5: No hitting one another
Rule 6: Bribing the committee is against the rules (while anybody is looking)
Rule 7: No hitting one another
Rule 8: There is no rule No. 8
Rule 9: No hitting one another
Rule 10: Follow all the rules
Rule 11: No hitting one another
Rule 12: Never make a duck change its course (Dodge the Duck)

That last rule is vestigial and unenforced. Rule 6 is so flaunted that racers will give the committee cash payments in full view of the media. Try to complain to the committee at the end of the race about some perceived transgression and you get shrugged, even laughed off. Hey, it's the Duck Dodge.
 
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The race over, sailors shield their eyes from the setting sun as they approach the committee boat to raft up for post-race socializing.
Even rules 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 get a lot of leeway, because, well, accidents will happen.

Larry Christensen showed me as much. He had me out on his Hobie 21, a small catamaran, which is two thin pontoons, a trampoline in the middle and so much sail it feels like your ears are getting pinned back the first time a big gust hits. We were going about as fast before a race last August — it was Toga Night — and ended up crowding around the committee boat to read the posted race course.

To the uninitiated, this looks more dicey than perhaps it is, and Larry is a good sailor, being 71 and having sailed in several oceans. But Larry was reading the board and sailing his catamaran. He didn't realize the committee boat hadn't anchored yet and was motoring.

He learned this just as the committee boat's bow anchor loomed inches from his head and the bow itself plowed right into our seat.

Christensen was sent flying onto the trampoline, looking, well, like an old man who just got hit by a big boat. The aluminum tubing of the seat was bent badly. The people on the committee boat were aghast, as if they had just killed one of the Duck Dodge's most admired institutions.

Were he looking to complain, Christensen might have noted he was on a starboard tack, which gives a sailboat right of way, or that a sailboat has right of way anyhow against a boat under power.

He shrugged it off.

"I would never think to raise a huff about that or have them fix anything," he said afterward. "Those are my friends, and they put on the Duck Dodge that helps everybody. It doesn't matter if I was in a sailboat and was on starboard tack. I was clearly unaware, so it was my fault."

He was out the next week — Committee Re-Appreciation Night. His seat was repaired with duct tape.

•   •   •

IT IS AN INTOXICATING experience, this Duck Dodge, and I don't even drink.
 
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A good breeze keeps this whirligig blowin' in the wind on the bow of Thistle Dew, the committee boat for this night's Duck Dodge.
First there's the simple act of messing about in boats.

"You can get in an Opti, an Optimist, and enjoy the sailing," says Christensen, referring to the classic pint-sized training boat, "because there's something about a boat moving through the water with the wind that just gladdens your heart."

Then there's the setting: a lake settled into the improbable heart of an emerald cityscape.

"It's a wonderful way to spend a weekday evening," says Kim DuBois, head of the race committee for the past seven years. "Tuesday night, break up the week. You look on I-5 and there are cars bumper to bumper, but you're out there on a boat. Where would you rather be on a Tuesday night? That's probably what makes us go back all the time."

I started out on the first Duck Dodge of the year for a quick daily story and ended up returning for most of the summer, much of it under the mere guise of doing work. As I write under gray, non-summer skies, leafing through notebooks in a windowless office, certain moments flash back like pieces of a dream.

There's Morgenroth, finessing his 40-foot Airloom, using a 3-inch piece of yarn in the rigging to gauge the apparent wind direction and orient 15 tons of boat. At the bow was Jenny Lahti, blond and pert, the 24-year-old picture of youth.

"She's awesome," Morgenroth said from the helm. "It makes me wish I was 30 years younger."

As if on cue, the stereo system played the Beatles "Long and Winding Road."

You know: "tha-a-at leads to your door."

"This music is making me cry!"

There's Susan Laraway, a Gig Harbor accountant, getting dressed on Alucinor for Prom Night. She was Marilyn Monroe on Dead Celebrity Night and the aforementioned wench, having spent $100 on fishnet stockings, fabric and Goodwill clothing, then sewing costumes until 1:30 a.m. On Prom Night, she was Madonna's "Like A Virgin" persona, complete with elbow-length gloves and the merry-widow bodice she wore on her wedding night.

"Like I always say before every Duck Dodge," she said from down below, "I apologize if my breasts fall out of my dress."

Jared Hickman wore a prom dress made from a scrap of old sail, Kevlar thread with a Mylar overlay, sleeveless but with a high neckline.

"I was thinking pretty Amish," he said, "except for the open back."

Then there was Ron Ernst on the last Tuesday of the summer, leading Ignitor and the committee boat in a farewell rap:

Whatcha gonna do with the Duck Dodge gone
Empty lake don't got no throng
Man I gotta tell you I be sad
Can't drink my beer and can't be bad.

It was the first week of September. Where the sun wouldn't quit in June and July, it was now going down less than an hour after the race start. The wind was gone, too, robbed of its energy. The dinghies were limping around the Aurora Bridge mark.

It's my last image of the Duck Dodge: a Laser silently ghosting on the ink-black water, a flashlight lighting his sail, his transom turned toward the lights of the bridge and the dying glow of a too-quick summer of Tuesdays.

Eric Sorensen, a former Seattle Times science reporter, sails his 15-foot wooden sloop, Whim, out of Kenmore. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.

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