VYFS hopes to break world record on the harbor

An aerial shot of the record-holding raft-up, which took place last year in Michigan.  - Hovershots APV Photo
An aerial shot of the record-holding raft-up, which took place last year in Michigan.
— image credit: Hovershots APV Photo


With one month to go until it attempts to break a world record, Vashon Youth & Family Services is looking to recruit around 2,500 people to take to Quartermaster Harbor in kayaks and canoes for a gathering that organizers hope will be fun as well as bring in needed funds for the social services agency.

This month VYFS is starting a registration push for Raft Up, an Aug. 17 event where those involved will attempt to set a world record for the number of kayaks and canoes rafted up at one time.

VYFS Executive Director Kathleen Johnson said she believes about 500 people are already planning to come that day with their boats, but far fewer have completed the online registration which recently opened up and far more participants are still needed to try to set a record. The current record for rafting up is 2,099 boats.

Despite not having many people signed up yet, Johnson said that she is feeling very confident about the event, as the organization is planning an informal registration kickoff at this weekend’s Strawberry Festival. She believes now is about the time people start planning for August, and many won’t actually register until close to the event.

“It’s time to put those boats in the water,” she said. “I’m a little nervous about it, but I’m excited to see what Vashon can do.”

Johnson had the idea for Raft Up before she began working on Vashon. A couple years ago, she was flipping through a kayaking magazine when she noticed a photo of 1,902 colorful kayaks and canoes rafted up on a lake in Inlet, New York. That record-breaking event in 2011 raised funds for Susan G. Komen, and Johnson, who had worked for years in social services, thought it would also be a powerful event for a social services agency to put on.

“Rafting up” is a term used in kayaking; when there’s danger — high waves or a large boat approaching — kayakers or canoeists will often pull together, grabbing each other’s boat or oars to make themselves sturdier or create a higher profile for a passing ship. Johnson said the metaphor of rafting up is a perfect one for community life and for the mission of VYFS. When she was hired as the agencies new director a few months later, she mentioned the idea and others got excited about it as well.

“It speaks to bringing all sorts of people together and recognizing that we’re stronger when we’re together,” Johnson told The Beachcomber last year.

Since the New York event that Johnson saw in the magazine, the rafting-up record has been set once more, when a group in Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, organized a flotilla of 2,099 boats last year as a fundraiser for their local public schools. Johnson said VYFS decided to aim for 2,500 boats after learning that another group in Illinois will also attempt to break that record the day before Raft Up.

“It gives us a cushion,” she said.

VYFS originally planned to hold Raft Up last summer over Labor Day weekend, but organizers found there wasn’t enough time to prepare.

“The timeline was really too short to get the logistics organized,” Johnson said. “We wanted to do a nice job.”

Now, VYFS staff, board members and volunteers have been busy planning for every aspect of the weekend. The record-breaking attempt itself will be “absurdly simple,” Johnson said. Guinness World Records requires that paddlers raft up for just 30 seconds, with an aerial photograph to prove the number of boats and that none of the watercraft were touching the shore. Other details of the day, however, will be more complex.

Johnson noted that unlike other places where rafting-up records have been set, Quartermaster Harbor is surrounded by private homes and steep bluffs, making access to the harbor difficult in many spots. At Raft Up, beginning boaters will be encouraged to launch at Jensen Point, where a flotilla about 2 acres or less in size will form just off the shore. At Jensen Point, volunteers will also be on hand to help get boats in and out of the water.

VYFS hopes others will launch their kayaks and canoes from locations all around the harbor, and Johnson said she believes some with waterfront homes will even host parties and invite kayakers to put in from their yards. She’s also heard that some people are planning to paddle over from Tacoma. Once in the water, boats will go through specified checkpoints before joining the flotilla.

“When you consider everyone getting in the harbor and getting out, it can seem daunting,” she said. “But a lot of people are doing it on their own, and they know what they’re doing.”

Several island organization have volunteered to help with the event. VashonBePrepared and the Quartermaster Yacht Club are helping with safety planning and emergency preparations, Voice of Vashon will help volunteers communicate, and Shape Up Vashon and Puget Sound Energy — a sponsor of the event — are sending volunteers as well.

To add extra appeal to Raft Up, VYFS has organized a weekend of camping and concerts leading up to the main event on Sunday afternoon. Ten local artists are lined up to play a music festival at the Open Space for Arts & Community, which will also be a fundraiser, and more than 200 campsites will be available outside the Open Space and at the Vashon School District campus.

Johnson said VYFS decided to make the event into a festival of sorts both to make it more appealing for participants and to encouraged off-islanders to come over early, easing the congestion that could be caused by hundreds of people and kayaks traveling on the ferry.

“We’ve been in touch with the ferry system, and they’re not at all worried, but they’re not the ones that have to stand in line,” she said.

George Butler, a VYFS board member who until recently was president, said he hopes Raft Up will bring many off-islanders to Vashon, noting that with so many nonprofits and valuable causes on the island, it can sometimes feel like Vashon residents have been tapped out.

“It’s a small island, and people are getting heavily taxed,” he said. “How do you come up with something that is going to be attractive (off-island)? That’s one thing we have working in our favor on this.”

The event comes as VYFS, like many nonprofits, is struggling with the lingering effects of the recession. The organization has seen less funding from both government and private sources. In recent months it saw its county funding for the VIVA basic needs program run out, and much of the state funding that was funneled to PlaySpace programs through the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse was recently redirected.

Johnson said she believes the financial picture for social service organizations is improving with the economy, but any money raised during Raft Up will help, as it will go directly to fund services and administration. As part of its registration push, VYFS has been posting fliers for the event on and off Vashon, reaching out to local media, sending information to kayak shops and advertising the event on the internet, on social media and in Seattle-area music publications.

“We’re at a moment when we really need to be able to raise money so we can maintain services, not cut back further than we’ve had to,” Johnson said.

To that end, VYFS has set a fundraising goal of $35,000. Butler noted that it’s possible the organization could not break the record but still meet its fundraising goal.

“Part of the fun is breaking the record,” he said. “But if we don’t break the record it doesn’t mean people didn’t have a good time and we didn’t raise money.”

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