It’s hydro season again. Sadly, the sport ain’t quite what it used to be. The races, which used to draw 250,000 people to the shores of Lake Washington, is having difficulties finding a footing in this age of 2,345 cable channels and social media.
It used to be huge in Seattle. Long before there were the Seahawks, there was Wild Bill Cantrell and the Gale boats, Jack Regas in the Hawaii Kai, Jim McCormick in the Miss Madison and racing bad boy Bill Muncey in the Miss Thriftway.
I grew up with these guys. From my bedroom window in Renton I could hear the guttural roar of the World War 2 V-12 fighter engines that powered these water-born aircraft. They flew along at breakneck speeds with only one square foot of the boat touching the water, the rest suspended on a cushion of air.
They were among my first heroes, as these were the days when drivers weren’t seated in closed cockpits. They didn’t even wear seat belts, believing (falsely) that in an accident they would be thrown clear of the boat. The only thing that kept them in these things were two hands on the wheel and a left foot jammed against the firewall as they reached speeds of 170 or so down the straightaways.
I am reminded of this because I recently became a supporter of the Unlimited Hydroplane Museum here in Seattle. There, they not only lovingly restore the old boats to their former glory but run them at various races, recapturing my youth every time one of those now vintage boats takes a turn around the course.
When I worked at Associated Grocers, I made it part of my job to smuggle out some of the old trophies and films that are in the museum now. I knew that if I ever left the company that one day all that history of the Miss Thriftway and Thriftway Too would be lost forever.
So it seemed fitting that I support the museum as much as I can. These wooden boats can’t maintain themselves, and a single trip down to the museum sends all those memories of my youth and young adulthood flooding back.
In 1988 I took a year off from the Seafair Pirates. My own pirate band was quite busy and it was a good time to step away, in part because they had a silly rule that you couldn’t ever go out in a pirate costume without them, even though you owned the damned gear yourself.
Of course, I never listened and my own antics led me to be in the presence of giants that summer. Over the years, the Pyrate Band has donated itself to raise money at auctions. It’s an easy way to give back. We provide the pirate band, you provide the party.
Earlier that year, we donated the band. We went for about $400 I believe. Eventually, the buyer contacted me. It was none other than Don Jones, the Managing Director of Seafair. He was having a little party at his house and wanted us to entertain.
On the appointed day we arrived at his home. As pirates, instruments in hand.
At the entrance, there were two large inflatable hydros, one filled with Miller Lite, the other with Budweiser, two of the major sponsors of hydros. This was going to be a great party, I thought. Don invited us to grab and beer and ushered us into his lovely waterfront home.
Then it struck me. There at the party were all my modern hydroplane heroes – Chip Hanauer and Jim Kropfeld for starters, Jim Lucero, boat designer, John Walters, driver of the Pay n’ Pak and occasional crew chief, Bernie Little, owner of the Budweiser – the list goes on.
And here we were, a band of pirates, brought in to entertain them. Being a pirate, and better, a pirate musician, is the ‘E’ Ticket at Disneyland. You get to go places no one else would get to, meet amazing people and do things you just can’t do as an ordinary pirate or civilian.
This was one of those days. The beers were flowing, the food was never-ending and the party was in high gear. The drivers and crews were an awesome bunch. They told stories, gave each other endless grief and one-upped each other for much of the night. All we had to do was sing some songs, mingle, make everyone laugh with our own antics and soak up the ambiance of hanging with the sport’s elite at the home of the head of Seafair, his own pirates not invited.
I must say one of the highlights was Jim Kropfeld’s decorations. He had broken his neck in a racing accident and was wearing a halo brace while it healed. It wasn’t hard to spot him in the crowd. On the large brace he was wearing, which included a halo to keep his head steady while he healed, other drivers had hung beer cans representing the two “beer boats”. You could hear him clinking and clanking wherever he went.
Sadly, the evening ended all too quickly. Our two hours drifted into three, then four, then five. We left about the same time as everyone else, sharing stories of our run-in with our hydroplane heroes all the way home.
As the boats arrive in the pits this weekend, I’ll think back to those days. Many of those wonderful guys are no longer with us. Their spirits will be in the Stan Sayres Memorial Pits this weekend. And I’ll be thinking of each one of them, not only this weekend but whenever I head down to the Unlimited Hydro Museum to ogle at the likes of the Winged Wonder, the Pay ‘n’ Pak, the Blue Blaster, the Bardahl, Wahoo, and soon, the Squire Shop.
I’m sure kids today have the same fun I did as a kid.
In the Emerald City, hydro fever and nostalgia upon me,