A new model-boat pond brings a historically favorite pastime back to a Seattle park.
There’s a new way to learn to sail in Seattle, and it doesn’t require a lifejacket or last-minute scrambling under a swinging boom — in fact, you don’t even have to board a boat.
It’s pond sailing, and thanks to the efforts of the Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) and the Seattle Parks Foundation, a 100-foot-diameter pond was built specifically for sailing model boats at Lake Union Park.
The park’s grand opening was last September, but pond sailing is a good-weather pleasure, so this summer will be the real inauguration for this circular pond, now home to the biggest fleet of miniature wind-powered boats north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and west of New York City’s Central Park. Available for public use through the CWB on weekends, 30-inch-long wooden boats can provide an easy introduction to sailing basics.
“We teach you how to trim the sails, about wind direction and the basic parts of the boat,” said Mindy Ross, the center’s education director. “The experience really shows people they can sail a boat and that there’s not a mystery behind it. It’s a great way to see the physics of sailing in action and begin to understand why boats are designed the way they are.”
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Inspiring bigger things
A 25-year veteran sailor, Ross is fairly new to pond sailing, and quick to tout its benefits. She’s noticed that when people experience the concepts of sailing on a small scale — one you can literally hold in your hands — they more easily make the connection between how the sails are trimmed (changing how tight or loose they are) and how the wind moves the boat. She said pond sailing has inspired more than a few folks to pursue sailing larger boats on the bigger pond next door: Lake Union.
Even in the gentlest breeze, model boats will scoot across the pond, Ross assured. “And if your boat stalls out, that’s where patience comes in. The wind will eventually fill the sail, and the boat will cross the pond. If you’re going to go sailing, don’t expect to get anywhere fast.”
She added that the pond is only knee-deep, so if your boat swamps (or patience is in short supply), you can always wade out to retrieve the wayward vessel.
Another saving grace you won’t find on bigger bodies of water: If your little vessel rides a fresh nor’wester at ramming speed toward the pond’s concrete edge, have no worries. Foam floats pad the pond’s inner rim.
A history here
“Free sailing,” as it’s called — distinguishing it from motor-powered model boating — was a popular Seattle pastime from the 1920s to the 1940s. With racing clubs holding events at Madison Park, Lake Union and Green Lake, in 1941 a 200 by 800 foot pond was constructed at Golden Gardens and became a hub for the sport. Pond boating lost traction after a fire destroyed the entire Seattle Model Yacht Club fleet around 1945, followed by a decision in the 1950s to fill in the pond amid fears that standing water harbored polio germs.
In its heyday, the sport was especially popular with school-aged boys who built the boats in class in “manual training” (today’s shop class). For the past 11 years, the CWB has helped revive an interest in pond sailing by sponsoring boatbuilding in Seattle schools. Currently, a group of fourth and fifth graders at Pathfinder School in West Seattle are building Pirate R-boats as part of an after-school program. The small boats are modeled after a full-sized sailboat designed in 1925 by Seattle skipper and designer Ted Geary, who also developed plans for a 1:12-scale model Pirate. The model’s blueprints, published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1927, were popular with children of that era and are back on the workbench today. Geary’s original, full-sized Pirate, the first West Coast-designed and -built racer to compete on the eastern seaboard (it took the 1929 national championship), is on display at the Center for Wooden Boats.
Scott Rohrer, CWB past president and a former professional yachtsman, led the Center in acquiring and refurbishing the Pirate, and founded the school program.
“The Pirate pond boat gets kids interested in a sport that they wouldn’t have been otherwise,” said Rohrer, an ocean marine insurance broker. “It sails like its got eyes. It balances well and features the same sailing characteristics of a successful real boat; it sails like a real yacht.”
“It’s really cool to see kids get off their computers and get involved in a different kind of sport that most people don’t know about,” said Crissy Marshall, a Pathfinder teacher who has helped students build boats for two years. “They start something from scratch and work all year to complete it. It’s a professional piece of art — not like a kit you’d buy at the model store and glue together, stick a mast on and sail. This is very, very technical.”
Pond regatta coming soon
The students are in the final stages of this effort, and will be racing their finished crafts at a Lake Union Park regatta on June 4. The students started with blocks of wood and will end up with beautiful hand-painted vessels on which they’ve done everything from glue and sand, to stitch and rig. Ross estimates that building a Pirate model takes at least 50 hours.
“The toughest part is staying focused and pushing through the monotonous parts,” Marshall said. “The sanding takes a long, long time.” (For one young boat-builder, this part of the project made a lasting impression, indicated by the CWB pond boat named Sandpaper.)
“There’s a lot to learn from this one little dynamic thing they make themselves,” said Johnathan Stevens, a sculptor and retired Seattle teacher who has been involved with the boatbuilding program since its inception, and is the Pathfinder program’s expert-in-residence. “They learn geometry, how to use tools, the science of why the boat doesn’t tip over, and how a wing works — which is basically what a sail is.”
Like Ross, Stevens grew up sailing and can’t seem to get enough boat time; he’s a regular on the CWB docks.
“Every time the pond boats come out, they’re a real kid magnet,” he said. “The park is a place where people can get silly, play with kids in the water and go sail a boat. A man came up to me during the park opening and said, ‘This is just like Paris.’ The pond boats make the park come alive.”
“Pond-boat sailing is a great opportunity to reignite an accessible maritime activity and reintroduce it to new generations,” added Ross. “We provide great access to the water in a central location, and pond sailing is a great way to have fun with friends and family. Everybody can sail a boat.”
Kathryn True is a Vashon Island-based freelance writer.