Beautiful Photos of Seattle's Boat Culture

Seattle residents spend four seasons on the water.

Photograph by Ian Bates
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Sunbeams pierce through the grassy beach during sunset at Golden Gardens Park.
Photograph by Ian Bates

Nestled between Puget Sound and Lake Washington and with two hundred miles of shoreline, Seattle’s location lends itself to maritime life. And just as the city is known for its year-round rain, its residents are known for spending four seasons on the water.

The city pays homage to its Scandinavian and maritime culture at the Fishermen’s Fall Festival, with lutefisk-eating contests and tours of Ballard’s century-old Hiram Chittenden Locks and ship canal. Winter weather does not deter travelers from visiting one of Puget Sound’s three hundred islands, whether by kayak, motorboat, or ferry, in hopes of catching a glimpse of migrating whales, or simply to commute to their island home. Crew teams glide through Union Bay and the Montlake Cut in spring, and nature lovers flock to its shores to spot one of the area’s two hundred bird species, like the great blue heron.

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A man adjusts the sails during an excursion on Lake Washington.

Of course, summer is the apex of aquatic culture, when rainclouds retreat and the bright blue water and lush green landscape remind us why this Pacific Northwest alcove is called the Emerald City. Seattleites sail around Shilshole Bay before returning to Golden Gardens for sunset bonfires against the backdrop of the Olympic Mountains. Lake Union’s Duck Dodge (dubbed the “Lake Union Beer Can Regatta” in 1974) invites dozens of sailors to its weekly races. Seafair is Seattle’s unofficial summer kick-off, a 10-week festival celebrating all things marine, from seaplanes to salmon, pirates to paddle boarding (more than 100,000 people attend the fair’s annual hydroplane races on Lake Washington).

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The Jensen Motor Boat Company has been crafting boats in Seattle since 1906

Boating culture in Seattle is as old as the city itself. The Jensen Motor Boat Company has been crafting boats here since 1906, and the city’s shipbuilding industry was responsible for 20 percent of the watercraft built in World War I. Today, the Center for Wooden Boats celebrates Seattle’s maritime heritage with rotating exhibits and woodworking lessons in its boat shop.

Some love the water so much that they chose to live on it year-round, and the city’s floating homes perhaps embody Seattle’s grunge-and-glamour legacy. Seattle’s once-gritty houseboat culture was born in the early 1900’s as a crude means of housing loggers, and while the city’s residents shunned the lifestyle for decades, today it’s considered bohemian, quirky, and even luxurious (some homes sell for upwards of three million dollars). Today, there are still some five hundred houseboats on Lake Union (some can be toured annually).