A weekly community sail that welcomes all for a good time
Growing up in eastern Washington, Bryan Heer didn’t have much exposure to the world of sailing. “My dad sailed a little bit, but I was really young,” he says, “And my uncle had sailed before, so it was something that was interesting, but I never got a chance.”
That is, until Heer moved to Seattle, where sailing is a part of the city’s culture. He noticed that every Tuesday evening during the summer, Lake Union would fill with dozens of sailboats, ranging in size from large racing yachts to single-person dinghies. Then, last summer, a friend of Heer’s bought a sailboat and invited him to join as crew for the Tuesday night events.
“A couple weeks after he got it, he said, ‘Hey, let’s do Duck Dodge,’” Heer says. “So pretty much my first experience sailing was Duck Dodge.”
Duck Dodge began in May 1974 as the “Lake Union Beer Can Regatta.” Three friends, Ron Lloyd, Mike Rice, and Bruce Gilbert, approached the City of Seattle and asked permission to hold a casual Tuesday evening sailing event on the lake. The city declined, citing potential concerns about boats interfering with waterfowl. The friends decided to hold the event anyway, but they instituted a rule that remains to this day, “Never make a duck change its course.”
Because of its unique rule, the “Beer Can Regatta” was also known as the “Tenas Chuck Duck Dodge.” In Chinook, a Northwest indigenous language, Tenas Chuck is the name for Lake Union, meaning “little water.” Over time, the name shortened and the event became simply known as Duck Dodge.
From those early days, Duck Dodge has grown and become a Seattle institution. This year, it’s bigger than ever, according to organizer Mike Danger Adams. “Last week, we had 92 boats,” Adams said in May. “The two largest yacht clubs in the area are Sloop Tavern Yacht Club and Corinthian Yacht Club. And neither of them on their weekly races approach how many boats we have on the lake.”
While there is a set course and a committee boat full of volunteers who start the boats in a series of five staggered waves, Duck Dodge isn’t really a race. It’s a floating party. Unlike many sailing regattas, any size or type of sailboat is welcome to participate. Each week, there’s a theme, and sailors are encouraged to dress in costume and decorate their boats. Themes for the 2023 season include “Pajama Night,” “Mardi Gras” and “Prom.” After everyone completes the course, there is a big “raft up” in the middle of Lake Union where sailors socialize and cross boats to get to know one another.
Adams says the event strives to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone regardless of age, creed, heritage, gender, orientation, or skill level. If you’ve never sailed before, but want to learn how, he says one of the best ways to get involved with Duck Dodge is to volunteer with him on the committee boat.
“Once the raft up comes along, go boat to boat, make friends and find a boat to be on,” Adams says. “The event is an amazing stepping stone into the sailing world for people that have never been part of the sport before, and it opens the door to an amazing, close-knit community.”
It’s that community that keeps new sailors like Bryan Heer coming back week after week. “It’s been a good way to really get into sailing,” he says. “And there are a lot of spectators too. You have a good view of the city as you’re going around. It’s pretty fun.”
You can learn more about Duck Dodge on the “Duck Dodge – Lake Union” Facebook Page or at Duckdodge.org. //
Chris Maccini is a writer, audio producer, and sailor based in Spokane. During the summer months, you can find him sailing his Catalina 22 on Lake Pend Oreille.