Sheriff’s office threatens to end holiday hydroplane race

Ty Christophersen steers his hydroplane toward the start of the annual Fourth of July hydroplane race last week. Christophersen and other participants say they’re willing to apply for a marine event permit. - Rik Forschmiedt Photo/
Ty Christophersen steers his hydroplane toward the start of the annual Fourth of July hydroplane race last week. Christophersen and other participants say they’re willing to apply for a marine event permit.
— image credit: Rik Forschmiedt Photo/

After receiving a flood of complaints about hydroplanes that race around the Island on the Fourth of July, the sheriff’s office says it will put a stop to the annual event next year unless those involved obtain the proper permit and adhere to marine regulations.

“All we’re asking is for them to follow the same rules that everyone else in the county does,” said Sgt. James Knauss, supervisor of the King County Sheriff’s Office’s marine unit. “It’s a cool event that needs to come into the current world of permitting and safety.”

Those involved in the race this year say they’ve yet to be contacted by the sheriff’s office, but they’re open to applying for a permit. They do, however, have concerns about the insurance requirements and noise and safety regulations that may come along with a permit.

“If it’s feasible to continue this in a legal manner, I’m all for it,” said Chris Van Buskirk, a longtime hydroplane racer who ran a boat this year. Van Buskirk said the event was permitted and insured decades ago but worries that meeting the requirements of a permit may be more difficult and costly now.

“If they make this a huge thing, that changes everything,” he said. “It almost becomes out of reach for something small, and that is a way for the opposition to get what they want.”

Larry Fuller, another longtime racer, agreed.

“It’s not like we’re trying to be renegades,” he said. “We’re trying to continue a tradition and have fun. … If they want to have a conversation with people, let’s sit down and talk.”

Hydroplanes have been circumnavigating the Island at dawn — first on New Year’s Day and then on the Fourth of July — for more than half a century. The event has garnered both criticism and praise over the years, with some Islanders complaining about the window-shaking noise the boats make early in the morning and others defending the race, saying it’s an Island institution. Some even call the annual event the beginning of summer.

“This is the fabric of Vashon,” said Brian Brenno, a multi-generational Islander who has been involved in the race since he was young. He kept time for it this year. “This is the kind of thing that native Islanders bemoan, of changes on Vashon. … If they shut it down, it would be horrible.”

Brenno said police have threatened to shut down the race before and may have even done so one year, but this is the first time he believes a permitting issue has come up.

Knauss, who has been with the marine unit for seven years, said he hadn’t heard of the hydroplane race until last week, when the sheriff’s office received a large number of calls from people complaining about the noise.

“It was off the hook this year,” he said.

Knauss, informed of the complaints, sent deputies from the marine unit to investigate and possibly issue fines at 6:30 a.m. on the Fourth. But by the time they arrived, the race was over.

He said that Vashon sheriff’s deputies were aware of the annual event, and he’s not sure why the sheriff’s office hasn’t intervened in the past.

“Maybe it’s just an Island thing that we don’t know about over here in the offices downtown,” he said.

Besides not having a marine event permit issued by the county or event insurance, Knauss said the racers definitely break sound ordinances each year and likely break speed limits as well.

Often permits for boat races provide exemptions from marine regulations, allowing participants to break speed laws and sound ordinances during the event. Knauss said it’s possible the sheriff’s office will allow the race to carry on as usual, but participants must apply for a permit, explain their plan for safety and work with the county to gain the exemptions. He is now working to contact race participants so they can make a plan for next year.

“I would hate to cite people for reckless boating if they could do it safely and legally and have the permit in hand,” he said.

Islanders, meanwhile, are speaking up in support of the Fourth of July racers, affectionately called the “hydros” by many. Talk on Facebook has been predominately in support of the race, any many reached by The Beachcomber said they know there are complaints every year but don’t personally know anyone who objects to the races.

“I’ve never talked to anyone here who says it’s ridiculous,” said Jeff Raymond, who lives on Quartermaster Harbor “To me, it’s a 50-plus year tradition on the Island, and I’m all for it. It’s one day, and the naysayers can all pound sand for that matter.”

Jean Bosch, who lives on Paradise Cove, said she’s been woken by the hydroplanes many times and doesn’t like it, but she would hate to see the race end.

“A lot of people love it,” Bosch said. “I’ve been annoyed by it myself, but I do have a soft spot for it in my heart.”

Race participants say they suspect those who call the sheriff’s office to complain may be new to the Island and don’t understand the tradition behind the event. More boats made it around the Island this year, meaning the noise may have been louder.

“There are a lot of new faces on Vashon,” Fuller said. “It’s possible they haven’t heard of it.”

Knauss said that since one Islander posted the sergeant’s contact information on VashonAll, a popular listserv, he has gotten calls and emails both in support of and complaining about the race. He wasn’t sure how many complained but said that most who were upset said they wouldn’t mind as much if they noise weren’t so early. He believes the sheriff’s office may allow the racers to break noise ordinances but will ask them to do it later in the day.

“That seems to be the main generator of the complaints,” Knauss said. “Maybe there’s some wiggle room there, in the reasonableness of the hour of day.”

Chris Van Buskirk, a hydroplane racer who noted that hundreds took posts along the shore to watch the event this year, said he’s willing to apply for a permit, but it would be difficult to hold the race later in the day. The small, light boats, he said, need calm water to operate on.

“We can’t really start later because it’s more rough. ... We prefer to keep it the way it’s been for the last 57 years.”

For now, racers say they’re waiting to be contacted by the sheriff’s office. They say they can’t imagine the tradition ending, but they’re eager to learn what it would take to make it legal.

“I guess we’ll all know at 5:30 next Forth of July, won’t we?” said Van Buskirk.


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