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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
"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
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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