Opening Day of Boating Season is one of the Seattle area’s oldest traditions
Great cities are home to events that carry on traditions that resonate far beyond their official boundaries. Think strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, or mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby.
There may not be a sugary dessert or cocktail of choice, but the Seattle Yacht Club’s Opening Day of Boating Season – with its members’ dress code of blue jacket, white shirt, tie, white pants or skirt and white shoes – may be the closest the Pacific Northwest comes to having an annual tradition along the same lines as what happens each year at the All England Club or Churchill Downs.
After being canceled by COVID in 2020 and held virtually in 2021, the waterborne party in Montlake is back, with festivities planned for most of the day on Saturday, May 7.
Boating is part of living in the Northwest and has been since the dawn of time. In Seattle, Opening Day has been a big deal for more than a century. The event features a boat parade, and the University of Washington crew hosts races against other teams from around the world, and the celebration is centered around Portage Bay and the Montlake Cut. Watching the parade and races is free, and it’s all organized by the Seattle Yacht Club.
The club was founded in 1892 – though the concept of recreational boating and things like boat races in Elliott Bay date to the 1870s. In a city that sometimes struggles to sustain traditions, SYC is among the oldest of old-school Seattle institutions and is very steeped in the ceremonial – from the dress code, to the Navy-like ranks of the ‘Commodores’ and ‘Admirals’ and other club leadership, to the flags and other pomp and circumstance of Opening Day.
With its lighthouse-like tower, the club’s headquarters are visible on the east shore of Portage Bay and easily spotted from the Portage Bay Viaduct of SR-520. It’s a stately old building with docks and moorage for hundreds of boats. The complex is officially known as the “mainstation” because it’s part of a network of moorage spots from Puget Sound to the north of Vancouver Island called “outstations” – where SYC members can meet up with other members, tie up their boats and take care of basic maintenance.
Admiral Pete Rosvall and Michele Shaw are members of the Seattle Yacht Club who earlier this week led a tour of the Portage Bay facility and shared details about this year’s festivities. Admiral Rosvall is part of what they call “The Trio” – which also includes an Admiralette and a Vice Admiral. The titles are honorary and the appointments are year-long for this three-person volunteer team whose job is to lead all the planning and run the show on Opening Day.
The events stretch out for nearly a week, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck operation. This isn’t surprising, since Seattle’s event, says Pete Rosvall, is considered one of the biggest celebrations of boating anywhere in the United States.
But, Rosvall and Shaw say, the beginnings were somewhat inauspicious.
“The notion would go back to about 1895 and the Fourth of July,” Rosvall said. “It didn’t actually happen, but there was a notion.”
In those years, Fourth of July was one of the only civic holidays celebrated widely and with great regularity each year in the United States, so it made sense in Seattle to add an element of recreational boating to the mix of parades and picnics and fireworks.
In 1895, Rosvall and Clark told KIRO Newsradio, the Seattle Yacht Club was just three-years old. They planned to contribute to the Independence Day celebrations by staging a boat parade and a “sham” – or simulated naval battle between yachts armed with fireworks – in Elliott Bay.
“But it got rained out,” Rosvall said.
The sham “was really in honor of history, but this was just Roman candles that were on either side of this area for the parade,” Michele Shaw said. And, along with the rain – which, apparently was a Fourth of July thing in Seattle even as long ago as the second Grover Cleveland administration, “they had a wind that came up that blew out all the Roman candles,” Shaw said – sham over.
Shaw knows her Seattle Yacht Club history. She’s been a member since 1962, and she helped write the centennial book that was published in 1992.
Shaw says that the late 19th century and early 20th century were busy and growing years for the club – it was a time when the very idea of recreational boating was emerging in an area with a lot of water and not much in the way of roads. In the early decades of non-Indigenous settlement, maritime travel was something rarely done for “fun.” It had been a necessity for moving people and goods from one place to another, so recreational boating was truly a novel concept, and in the late 19th century was mostly for the wealthy.
Widespread recreational boating would come later, and would really take off after World War II, and, a few years after that, would get a further boost with the Gold Cup hydroplane races coming to Seattle. Early boat races and Gold Cup winner Slo-Mo-Shun IV were, in fact, sponsored by the Seattle Yacht Club, though Seafair was, and still, is a separate event.
But long before all that, the really big year for SYC was 1920. That was when they relocated from West Seattle and Elliott Bay and built the facility which still stands on Portage Bay. The timing made sense because the Ballard locks and Montlake Cut had recently been completed, connecting Puget Sound to Lake Washington. When that first big Opening Day was held in 1920, the First World War had recently ended, and the Spanish Flu pandemic had subsided. Seattle boaters were ready to celebrate.
Participation grew steadily in the 1920s, and Opening Day was held each year throughout the Great Depression and even during World War II, though festivities and participation during the war years were curtailed somewhat by the absence of so many boaters who were busy overseas. Following victory in Europe and Asia, the first post-war Opening Day in 1946 is believed to have been one of the largest in the event’s history.
In those decades before the Sonics, Mariners and Seahawks brought nearly year-round professional sports to Seattle, Opening Day captured attention far beyond Portage Bay, and recreational boating played a near-central role in the area’s civic and leisure culture. But, even in those years, a boat parade didn’t necessarily translate to television like some other sporting events. Though Michele Shaw says at least one TV station – who shall remain nameless – tried to make it work.
“They did a TV show of the entire parade,” Shaw said. “I was the person that worked with them on that and I warned them. I said, ‘There’s lots of space between boats going down [the parade route]. I can’t remember [which TV host] I was with, [but] we ended up talking about the dog over here on the lawn” and similar topics to fill up the time.
“They did one year of the full broadcast of the parade,” Shaw said. “And that was it.”
For an event that’s best experienced in person, either aboard a boat in the parade or watching from the shore, Pete Rosvall and Michele Shaw are clearly delighted that Opening Day is back in non-virtual form this year.
And Rosvall says that with all the similarities to a century ago – in particular, the parallels between the Spanish Flu and COVID – the theme the committee chose for 2022 is “Roaring 20s.”
“There’s a lot of pent-up energy,” Rosvall said. “One of the things The Trio does [is] go out to the yacht clubs, basically Royal Vancouver and Royal Vic all the way down through Olympia, and we talk about the theme, we talk about Opening Day and what’s going to happen.”
What kind of response did they get to plans for 2022?
“Clubs that [in the past] said ‘We’ll send four or five boats,’” Lundvall said. “They’re asking if they can bring up 18 or 20.”
“So it’s going to be something else,” he said.
And, for the record, while the Seattle Yacht Club organizes Opening Day every year, there is no similar event in November called “Closing Day.”
Boating season “never closes, it just reopens,” Rosvall said. “If you live in the Pacific Northwest and you’ve got a boat, you boat a lot during the course of the year. You just have to be more careful [in the autumn and winter] because the wind and the weather do dictate where you can go and when you can go.”
Speaking of weather, this is Seattle, after all, and it’s been a very cold and wet spring so far – plus, who could forget 1895? Will attendance or other numbers help measure whether or not this year’s Opening Day of Boating Season is a success?
“It’s always a success,” Rosvall said, laughing. “Even when it rains, it’s full. People make their plans early. I’m already looking at the weather for next week – so far, so good. But it’s fun even if it’s raining.”
Regardless of the forecast, it’s clear that Rosvall and Shaw believe in the Seattle Yacht Club and Opening Day, especially in the sense of community that members continue to find at the club’s Portage Bay home more than a century after it was built.
Still, though, whatever the weather on May 7, it’s probably best to leave the Roman candles at home.
TRAFFIC NOTE: On Saturday, May 7, 2022, the Montlake Bridge will be closed to vehicle traffic from noon until about 4pm.