Center for Wooden Boats offers weekly outings on the water, just one of many ways to learn more about sailing around Seattle.

Share story

As I wait in line at Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, my young son toddles up and down the dock sporting his bright yellow lifejacket with my wife close behind. He freezes to stare at an elegantly refurbished sailboat bobbing in a wake, one of about six at dockside that morning.

We are waiting for our chance to board a small wooden boat as part of the center’s Sunday Public Sail — a program that’s been a fixture in Seattle for 40 years.

We’re just a few blocks from Amazon’s downtown offices, but it feels like we’ve stepped into a dramatic change of environment.

Around boats, things don’t move like normal. Platforms sway, your world pitches and heaves. The sounds, smells and colors — everything is different.

We push away from the dock, unfurling a white canvas sail and soundlessly picking up speed. City life melts away. Shoulders relax. Smiles creep across faces. Waves lapping against the hull are both thrilling and Zen-like.

A living relic

Our boat, the Admirable, one of four boats offering rides this day, is a sprit-rigged sailing gillnetter, built around 1900.

At one time this was a working boat helping fishermen haul salmon from Alaskan waters. Now it’s a living relic of the ancient art of boat building.

From the banks of Lake Union a thundering seaplane roars to life. Minutes later it dashes down an aquatic runway not far from our boat and glides into the air. While traveling under sail is thrilling for the kids aboard, nothing can compete with the drama of airplanes taking off and landing on the water.

For grandmother Suzanne Anderson, visiting from Kentucky, our hourlong voyage is her first time aboard a sailboat, and she grips her seat with white knuckles. Fortunately, the still waters on Lake Union mean that the most dangerous part of our journey is stepping on and off the boat. At one point, some of the passengers even take turns at the huge wooden oars.

About half of our 13 passengers are novice sailors, which doesn’t surprise our volunteer skipper, John Kuchta. He says that’s usually true for locals and tourists alike.

Sailing is a quintessential part of the Northwest fabric, yet it remains foreign to many of us, says the center’s executive director, Michael Luis.

Because we have so much water around our area, people just assume that everyone owns a boat. But many of those who grew up here never get an opportunity to sail, he says.

Luis points at the gleaming new high-rise buildings in South Lake Union, noting the thousands of new tech employees — many of whom hail from places where sailing opportunities are rare.

The program has been wildly popular, says Luis. “We don’t really need the publicity for the Sunday Public Sails,” he admits. On busy summer days — such as when cruise ships are in town — up to 400 people can show up, and the center turns away more people than it can serve.

Still, it continues to be an excellent first introduction to the delights of boating.

Luis says the idea is to expose the public to watercraft with a whimsical soft entry, and some will enroll their kids in sailing camps, or rent a rowboat, or join a restoration program.

Hooked on her first trip

Handling the lines on our voyage is Rebecca Boyd of Seattle. She was once a passenger on a Sunday sail, and then got hooked. She took a volunteer training class, then worked in the center’s boat rental livery. Ours was her first trip crewing with passengers aboard.

My own toe-in-the-water sailing experience came my senior year in college when I took a sailing class during spring quarter. Once a week, we cruised around Green Lake, learning the basics in little Toppers and two-person Lasers.

The fundamentals of sailing a small craft also apply to larger boats, so when I backpacked around the world later in life, I had the confidence to crew on larger boats, opening up a whole world of unique travel opportunities.

Maybe our Sunday sail will be the salient moment for the kids on our voyage, and it will kick off a lifelong affection for sailboats.

Or maybe they’ll just want to pilot seaplanes for a living.

If you go

Sunday sails

The Center for Wooden Boats, 1010 Valley St. on South Lake Union, offers one-hour boat outings on Lake Union on Sunday mornings year-round. In addition to sailboats, there are a number of historic wooden watercraft including one with an electric motor and a steam-powered vessel.

Trips are free but donations are encouraged. Sign-up begins at 10 a.m. Space is limited so get there early to secure a seat.

The center organizes sailing classes for all skill levels and ages. Classes are also held at the center’s Cama Beach State Park campus on Camano Island, at Medina Beach Park and Newcastle Beach Park.

For those with experience, small sailboats are available for rent on an hourly basis, as are rowboats, canoes, kayaks and a pedal boat.

More information

Sailing lessons around Seattle

Sailing classes abound in our area. Most start in the classroom with navigation and sailing theory before putting you at the tiller of a tiny sailboat. A sampling of offerings:

• Seattle Sailing Club, at Ballard’s Shilshole Bay Marina, offers 15-hour sailing courses in a basic keelboat for those 18 and older. $395 for nonmembers.

• Mount Baker Sailing Center, run by Seattle’s Parks and Recreation on Lake Washington, offers adult sailing classes (ages 16+) on weekends for $565. They also offer youth sailing camps (ages 8-11) and a class for women only.

• Seattle Yacht Club provides summer youth-sailing classes, group and private lessons, from Portage Bay near the University of Washington. Classes start at $275 for nonmembers.

• At Green Lake, Seattle Parks and Recreation teaches adults to sail small Toppers. Eight classes, $175. Kids ages 10-17 can join summer sailing camps for $200.

Sail Sand Point offers adult classes on a variety of boats including the Hobie 16, Lasers and a 20-foot keelboat, plus two levels for beginners. A wide range of youth camps are also available. Some scholarships provided.