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A boat racer and his daughter bring a beloved event back to Kenmore after a 38-year hiatus

A man competes in the Kenmore Hydroplane Cup back when it was an annual event. - Courtesy photo
A man competes in the Kenmore Hydroplane Cup back when it was an annual event.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Lifetime Kenmore resident Dave Culley's light blue eyes light up when he recalls sitting beside the Sammamish River watching boats whiz past.

Those slough races were a tradition for Kenmore until 1976.

"This was before Seattle had any football, soccer, basketball or any kind of sports teams; this was our sport team, this was the event of the year," said Culley, 69. "Thousands of people came from all over the Northwest to participate and watch the race. It was a social event; held right in our backyards and it was the most exciting time of the year for most of us."

The Kenmore Hydroplane Cup event returns in two weeks. The event will be held on April 5 at the north end of Lake Washington at the newly remodeled Kenmore Boat Launch. The timed exhibition race will feature a variety of boats including two cylinder and three-and-up cylinder boats, Native American war canoes, junior hydroplanes and RC hydroplane demonstration. Competitors will race one or two boats at a time up the Sammamish River, navigate around the challenging oval course and back to the Kenmore Boat Launch. The racing features competitors from the Seattle Outboard Association.

"This feels like revving an old football team," Culley said. "Some of us can play again, some of us can't. But all of us are thrilled it's happening again."

The original race, known as the slough race, was popular between 1928 and 1976 and drew crowds of spectators between 40,000 and 80,000. The race stopped after more and more houses were built along the river and the waters changed.

"Up until 1964, we could test a boat up and down Lake Washington with ferocity," Culley said. "Now we can't go faster than 6 mph. So we had to stop because of the times; we didn't want to stop, but sometimes these things just happen."

It was Culley's daughter-in-law, Gaul Culley, who is responsible for bringing back slough racing. The idea came to her in 2012 after graduating from art school.

"I wanted my first art work out of grad school to be a historic piece that was significant to the community," she said. "My work is about how identity is linked to place."

Gaul talked to members from the Kenmore Historical Society and learned the story about Kenmore's slough race.

"I was struck by this story and realized it meant something to my father-in-law," she said. "My husband's family has so much history here, there are multiple generations to this area. I knew I wanted to capture this event and then the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to bring it back to Kenmore."

Gaul organized a Sammamish Slough Race exhibit at Kenmore City Hall last April. The exhibit, funded in part by King County arts organization 4Culture, drew hundreds of racing fans and sparked interest in the hydroplane race.

"We had such an amazing turnout," Gaul said. "I expected to get around 250 people, but we had around 500. After this, I realized how important this race was to Kenmore and wanted to bring back the real thing."

Gaul attended a Kenmore City Council meeting and spoke about her desire to bring the slough race back. She received a standing ovation.

“This event not only signifies history, but showcases the future of Kenmore, as the city works diligently to improve access to the water and create more recreational opportunities for the entire community to enjoy,” said Kenmore Mayor David Baker.

Gaul was inspired to seek help getting the event started and she received it from organizations, including Seattle Outboard Association, 4Culture, Seafair Boat Club and the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.

"This didn't just happen from sending out a few emails here and there," Gaul said. "It was a ton of work. It was grabbing my father-in-law and walking around knocking on doors and meeting people face-to-face."

Gaul and Dave's persistence paid off. After about a year of hard work, they received the funding needed to get the event going.

"I called some of my old buddies and told them this was happening, and darn it, they didn't believe it," Dave said, laughing. "I also got calls from boat racers from all over the place saying, 'is this really happening?'"

Gaul said she expects 25 boats for this event. The opening ceremony will start at 10 a.m. with races starting at 11 a.m. and running throughout the afternoon. The opening ceremony will feature a musical performance by 4Culture grant award recipient Rulon Brown. The race will be announced by race legend, Chip Hanauer. The event will also feature youth and celebrity hydroplane racers, a Hydroplane and Vintage Yacht Show and an awards ceremony at 5 p.m.

Dave said he plans on racing a boat in the event. He won the last three races that took place for the unlimited hydro class before the event stopped.

"I was a young man at this last race, and was honestly, just proud to finish because the race is a challenge; so much can go wrong such as engine trouble, crashing the boat into debris," he said. "Now, I am going back to this race with the same attitude. I am, and have always been, just a boat racer doing it for the fun of it."

Dave pointed out that although the same fundamentals of the race will be brought back this year, it will be a different race then the ones that fill his childhood memories.

"Simply put, it's because it's been gone for so long," he said. "Most of the people racing this year never competed in the race before. Most of the people that use to race are either gone or unable to race because they are up in the years."

Admission is free for the event. The best viewing areas for the race are Log Boom Park, Kenmore Boat Launch and the public dock at Harbor Village Marina.

"I can't believe it's happening and I can't wait for it," Gaul said. "I fought for this event because I believe it is so, so important to our community. Not only does this encompass Kenmore's history, but national and international history."

Gaul pointed out the slough race use to be so popular, a German magazine once published a story on it.

"Boat racing is the identity of Seattle and I don't want that to be forgotten," Gaul said. "I want our kids to know the importance of where they came from and link their identity to its proper place; to the history of their home."

Several events will proceed and follow the slough race. On April 2, 192 Brewery in Kenmore will host an opening reception featuring iconic historical photos of the slough race by late photographer Bob Carver from 5-7 p.m. There will be a slide show presentation and discussion of the historic race from 7-9 p.m. at the Kenmore Heritage Society’s meeting at the Kenmore Community Club.

"We wanted to do this to educate people about the slough race before the event so they attend the event knowing its significance," Gaul said.

There will be a lecture on the history of the race by Steve Greaves from 10:30 a.m. to noon on April 12 at the Old Redmond School House Community Center.

"My goal for this event is that it will continue to be the opening of boat racing season," Gaul said. "I am having it April 5 because that's when it always use to be. I want this event to not only carry on, but be as significant to people as it once was."

Dave said he's proud of his daughter-in-law's efforts and is grateful for the chance to race again.

"Excited doesn't even began to describe how I feel," he said, smiling. "I mean, I've only been waiting for this for 38 years."

 

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