Hydroplane races return to Sammamish River slough after 38-year absence


High speed boats raced on the Sammamish River slough this weekend for the first time since 1976 at the Kenmore Hydroplane Cup.

The crowd was eager and enthusiastic, even though the races had to be suspended after the first two heats due to wind, which made Lake Washington too choppy and unsafe for the boats, according to race officials. Racers still ran exhibition races for fans, despite the conditions.

IMG 2686Dave Culley, who raced on the slough this weekend and in the 1970s, helped design and build his hydroplane boat with Ed Karelson. (Photo by Tori Hartman)Dave Culley, who raced on the slough in the 1970s and again this weekend, said the change turned out to benefit fans since spectators got a better chance to see the boats from the bridge, rather than just watching the boats start and finish.

“This slough race got a lot of people started in boats, me included, and I used to watch the race when I was about 10 in the mid-50s. I never thought it would happen again, but here we are,” Culley said.

Boat racing on the slough was a popular event from 1933 to 1976, and nearly 80,000 people came from all over the Pacific Northwest to watch the races every spring. Before professional sports teams like the Seahawks and the Mariners came to Seattle, boat racing was part of the identity of this region, according to Culley.

“The focus was bringing the community to the river, and showing the community a little about our history and our identity,” said Gaul Culley, the local artist who organized the event, and who is Culley’s daughter-in-law.

Gaul Culley has been working on bringing the races back to the slough for over a year. She met with the historical societies in Kenmore, Redmond, Bothell, and Woodinville to discuss the values they wanted to focus on with the river and the community.

IMG 2796Racers whiz by in an exhibition race at the Kenmore Hydroplane Cup. Although some of the races were canceled because of the wind, that meant spectators got a better view. (Photo by Tori Hartman)“What really brought me to the slough race was not only the history, but using art and history as a conduit to make a community event,” Culley said.

Even Kenmore Mayor David Baker eagerly jumped into one of the race boats to go for a ride.
“It’s a huge part of Kenmore. I know people have talked about trying to bring it back for a long time, so I’m really excited that we’ve managed to do it,” Baker said.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the residents; they want access to the water, they want to see things and do things on the water, and so this is a chance to show them we’re working on it,” Baker said.

City officials plan on making the Kenmore Hydroplane Cup an annual event, as well as other waterfront improvements.

Twelve boats made it onto the water this weekend, according to Jan Shaw, the race commissioner from the Seattle Outboard Association — a better turnout than she hoped for.
“This is our passion — we race boats because we want to,” Shaw said. “We grew up in this organization.”

Many of the people who played a part in coordinating and planning this event are also involved in Seafair. The slough races set the precedent for bigger events such as Seafair, which didn’t begin until 1950, almost 20 years after the slough races had been going on annually, according to Gaul Culley.

Ed Karelson raced on the slough from 1953 to 1961, and he has been building boats in the area for most of his life. He laughed about how different the races used to be.

“People used to throw rocks and shoot BB guns at us as we raced,” Karelson said.
Now, the races are much more expensive to run, he said, because of insurance and liability issues.

This year’s event was the result of collaboration between several community organizations, including the Kenmore City Council, Seattle Outboard Association, 4Culture, Seafair Boat Club, and the Hydroplane Boat Museum.

“I consider this event a piece of artwork, and yeah there were a couple little smudges and different things that happened, but overall it was a masterpiece,” said Gaul Culley.

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