When the vintage hydroplane’s engine powers on, it sounds like I’m sitting right on top of a giant airplane turbine. Even through my ear plugs and clunky helmet, the rumble takes over my senses.
I’m crammed into the open cockpit of the 1973 hydroplane Pay ‘N Pak with driver Dan Heye, decked out in safety gear and squinting into the sun as we leave Genesee Park’s dock behind.
To commemorate my first Seafair in Seattle, I set about to not just watch the quintessential Seattle summer tradition of hydroplane racing, but to experience it firsthand. This way, I figured, I’d have a more nuanced appreciation of what the drivers are going through when I see the modern hydroplanes 一 which can hit speeds over 200 mph 一 zip around Lake Washington this weekend competing to win the Gold Cup.
That’s how I find myself holding on for dear life in Pay ‘N Pak as we accelerate across Lake Washington on a sunny Friday morning.
The wind rushes over us and water droplets fly by. Earlier, I was told the hydros hover 4 or 5 inches over the water. Now, I feel it. We’re flying.
Besides special occasions like this, Pay ‘N Pak and the other vintage boats at Seafair live in Kent’s Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum, where they help document the Seattle area’s long history with the sport.
Pay ‘N Pak was built in 1973 and won the Gold Cup, a national hydroplane competition, in 1974 and ‘75, museum Director David William said.
This year’s Seafair Weekend marks the first time in 38 years that the Gold Cup will be held in Seattle, making the weekend a particularly special time to experience this piece of Emerald City history. An unexpected Gold Cup victory from Seattleites back in 1950 is initially what brought the sport here, and over 70 years later, it’s still going strong.
“It became not just the centerpiece of Seafair but it became the centerpiece of our whole darn summer,” Williams said.
You can follow Seattle’s hydroplane history through the Kent museum’s boats, many of which have been restored to full functionality. Sometimes the museum makes rides publicly available for purchase 一 but this week at Seafair, I was honored to be the only extra passenger.
A handful of vintage hydroplanes sat at the boat dock Friday morning when I arrived for my ride. Each has a crew of volunteers who maintain, repair and sometimes drive the boats. Chatting with them as I hung around the dock, I was told that I’d never be the same again after my first hydroplane ride (“in a good way”) and that I’d get off the boat with a huge smile plastered on my face. I was also told not to forget to put ear plugs in before the engine started, or I wouldn’t be able to hear for the next four hours.
My excitement and nervousness mounted.
Unlike the state-of-the-art modern boats, Pay ‘N Pak only whizzes around at a pedestrian 120 mph, I was informed.
When the vintage hydroplane’s engine first fired up, it was still parked on the boat dock next to Lake Washington, and the sudden, loud noise made my heart jump. Over the engine’s roar, crew members communicated with hand gestures as they performed safety checks. Eventually, a crane hoisted the boat into the air and lowered it into the water next to a dock.
I donned a full-body suit, a life jacket and a helmet and quadruple-checked that I had ear plugs in.
As I climbed from the dock into the boat, I felt my first spike of actual fear: This is about to happen. But something about the weight of my safety gear and the act of being crammed into the cockpit (which normally fits just one person) with an experienced driver was comforting.
Accelerating on Lake Washington, I quickly learned that looking down invoked panic, so instead I kept my eyes on Mount Baker and the wide expanse of water in front of us.
More than boating, it felt like speeding on a motorcycle on a clear, windy day, but with a splash and a bump here and there. Then came the first turn. Heye and I slammed against each other as we reared to the left, and I held onto the boat for dear life.
Throughout the rest of the five-minute ride, I alternated between two states: a blissful and liberating sense of gliding over the water, and terrifying but exhilarating turns. I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to last forever or end right now.
But when we slowed down and pulled in toward the dock, my first thought was: “I wish we could do another lap.” My second one was: “What’s the closest I can get to having this experience again 一 a roller coaster?” My hands hurt from gripping so tightly, but like the crew had confidently predicted, I was smiling.
Equally smiley crew members helped me out of the boat. They seemed amused as I provided my overall review of the experience. (Going straight in a hydroplane: Thumbs up all around. Turning in a hydroplane: Only for the bravest among us).
As I took off my racing gear and hydrated, I spotted some modern hydroplanes running practice laps in the distance, preparing for the races later that day. It was satisfying to know I’d experienced at least a sliver of the thrill their drivers feel while on that water.
Did it change my life forever? I don’t know. But I feel more connected to one of this city’s oldest athletic traditions, and I’ll be Googling “roller coasters near me” when I get home.