Despite a flood of complaints about the Fourth of July hydroplane race last year and a threat from the sheriff’s office to stop the annual event unless it’s permitted, the race will apparently go on uninterrupted tomorrow.
“With minimal staffing, I don’t know if I’m able to do anything,” said Sgt. James Knauss, supervisor of the King County Sheriff’s Office’s marine unit. “I’m not saying I won’t, I just don’t see how.”
Meanwhile, those involved in the annual race say the event shouldn’t require a permit, as it’s loosely organized with no official sponsor or prize money. While they know some complain about the noise, they say far more islanders support the longstanding tradition.
“If you try to do it right, it could be this huge bureaucratic nightmare, when it’s actually just a few people putting their boats in the water,” said Chris Van Buskirk, who plans to have a boat in the race tomorrow.
Vintage 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.
“It’s part of the fabric of this community,” said Brian Brenno, n islander who has been involved in the races for years. “It’s going to bother you for half an hour one time a year. Roll over and go back to sleep.”
Knauss, who has been with the sheriff’s office’s marine unit for eight years, said he hadn’t heard of the so-called hydro races until last year, when the sheriff’s office received a large number of calls from people complaining about the noise. At the time, he said his office would put a stop to the next races unless participants obtained a marine event permit and adhered to marine regulations. He said the department sometimes grants temporary exemptions for speed and noise ordinances and was willing to work with the racers should they take the steps to obtain a permit.
“All we’re asking is for them to follow the same rules that everyone else in the county does,” he told The Beachcomber last year. “It’s a cool event that needs to come into the current world of permitting and safety.”
Since then, however, race participants have not applied for an event permit from the county and Knauss has not contacted anyone involved in the race. Knauss said he expects the event will happen again on Thursday morning, as the office has already received calls about boaters practicing during the night.
“A couple people have been out testing their boats late at night and getting all kinds of complaints,” he said.
However, Knauss said that because of the department’s limited staffing, it’s unlikely that authorities will try to intervene this year. Deputies with the marine unit are not on duty at dawn, when the race traditionally begins, so it would be difficult to have a presence on Vashon without brining in special staff, he said. The Fourth of July is a demanding day for the small unit, which also covers rivers and lakes in the county, and Knauss said it was more of a priority to staff patrol boats during evening hours.
“The Fourth of July is a pretty big event everywhere, and trying to pull an entire crew together for 5 in the morning, when I really need them at 9, 10, 11 at night, it’s just not a proper management decision,” he said. “It would be irresponsible is what it would be. That’s what I’m faced with.”
Brenno, who has researched the history of the Fourth of July races, said the sheriff’s office and the Coast Guard have both threatened to shut down the event in the past, and may have done so once in the 1970s. While participants still don’t think they should apply for a permit, Brenno said he believes the four or five drivers planning to go out tomorrow morning would take responsibility if issued tickets during the race.
“If they are breaking the law for speed, if they are breaking the law for noise, they’ll accept that ticket and take it to court,” he said.
Van Buskirk, meanwhile, expects hundreds to line the shore for the early morning race tomorrow. He and Brenno say they suspect many who call police each year to complain about the hydroplanes’ noise simply don’t know the long tradition behind the race.
“They’re not aware it’s been going on for so long,” he said. “If people love Vashon so much, why do they want to change it?”