May 17

Summer Sailing

The Center for Wooden Boats will show you how to enjoy Lake Union

Imagine you’re gently cruising along the calm waters of Lake Union on a hot summer day. Or maybe you can see yourself walking along The Center for Wooden Boat’s dock, taking in its collection of unique interactive exhibits. Perhaps you can even see yourself building your own wooden water craft. Look forward to satisfying your inner sailor this summer at CWB. Whether you’re new to South Lake Union or are looking for the perfect Sunday Funday activity, the long-standing neighborhood institution offers a little something for everyone.

CWB was founded by Dick and Colleen Wagner, who started renting out boats from their houseboat on Lake Union in 1968. Their rental business stemmed from their increasing number of small boats that they rescued from closing repair shops, and eventually led to the idea to start a living museum that would focus on education through hands-on experience. Since its founding, the late Dick Wagner has emphasized that sailing be available to not just the elite, but to the public.

Sail:  Did you know that all rental options are wooden? Both longtime sailors and first-timers will find plenty of first-come, first-served offerings at CWB’s South Lake Union livery. Even better? There’s no need to leave man’s best friend behind, because dogs are allowed on rented boats.

If you’re a novice when it comes to watercraft, try renting a rowboat (holds one to four adults). If it’s your first time, CWB’s staff will even teach you the basics, such as what proper rowing form is. If you prefer letting your legs do the heavy lifting, check out the pedal boats (two to six adults).

For the more experienced, rent a kayak (doubles only), canoe, or a sailboat (both small and large available). You’ll only need previous experience for a kayak or canoe rental. But, keep in mind that if you’d like to rent a sailboat you’ll have to pass a sailing checkout test. Don’t forget to schedule it online at at least 24 hours in advance.

Looking to sail with a seasoned expert? CWB’s year-round Sunday Public Sails allow you to explore Lake Union on vessels such as electric boats, steamboats, yachts, and more. This family-friendly option takes you on a 45-minute to one-hour ride, allowing you to sit back, relax, and take in the houseboats, views of Gasworks Park, and seaplanes taking off. Sunday Public Sails are free, but donations are appreciated.

Learn: Try your hand at something new with CWB’s wide class offerings for both adults and the younger set, including classes ranging from learning how to build a two-person canoe to a primer on fundamental boat management skills. Sign up for all classes at

One of the more popular adult workshops is Kayak Building ($1300 members, $1500 non-members), with two sessions held in June and September, from 9am–5pm. This four-person class is the perfect opportunity to create your own Aleut Ikyak, a type of kayak used as the main mode of transportation in the Aleutian Islands. No experience is required.

For those itching to get out on the water, RaceNow! Summer Racing Series ($210 members, $260 non-members) teaches the ins and outs of sailboat racing. In teams of 2-3, you’ll start with a Thursday evening clinic, where you’ll practice sailing and go over racing strategies and rules. Afterwards, there will be three consecutive Friday night races to conclude this four week session. There are two available series in July and August.

For little ones, Woodworking for Kids gives children a chance to gain experience with hand tools and learn how to build keepsakes such as a toolbox or model boat. This class runs from 1pm–4pm, with various dates from June–August. Although the suggested price is listed as $235, CWB requests that you pay what you can; they even offer financial assistance if needed.

See: From rotating exhibits in the Boathouse Gallery to hands-on displays on the dock, there’s no shortage of eye-catching pieces to check out at CWB, which prides itself on being a “living” maritime museum. Learn the stories behind docked boats such as the Willits Canoe, named after designers Earl and Floyd Willits. Interactive exhibits (aka “Dock Toys”) like “Know Your Knots (a primer on knots essential to sailing) and “Signal Flags: What’s Your Sign?” are a great way to pass the time while you’re waiting for a sailing lesson. Don’t miss CWB’s climbable boats, where you’re free to climb aboard and explore—just remember to wear a life jacket.

Coming Soon

Opening in late fall/early winter, the newly minted Wagner Education Center, located feet away from CWB’s docks, will be used for classes and rentals. It will also include the Bill Garden Boatshop on the first floor of the building for more visitor programs. Beyond that, stay tuned to see more of CWB’s archived fleet (currently in storage), which will soon be displayed in all its glory inside the new building.

Remembering Dick Wagner

I had the opportunity to interview Dick Wagner for the premiere issue of Discover South Lake Union magazine. Wagner met me near the Boathouse to talk about the CWB and how it all got started. He introduced himself and handed me a stapled collection of papers. “Here is my curriculum vitae,” he said. It was immediately clear that Wagner wanted to be taken seriously, that he was eager to share his extensive knowledge and experience. We chatted for nearly two hours about everything from his love of architecture to a devastating motorcycle accident that prevented him from joining the navy and kept him in Seattle.

For Wagner, being around wooden boats seemed to be a spiritual experience. He valued how they were crafted by hand and how much patience it takes to build one. And he absolutely relished sailing. My favorite quote from our interview: “I eventually ended up buying my own boat. It was called Condor. You can meet a lot of ladies on the water. I took quite a few beautiful, intelligent ladies sailing. I ended up getting married to Colleen because she was the best at sailing.”

Without Dick Wagner, Lake Union wouldn’t be the playground it is today. He was dedicated to creating an environment where people young and old could interact with the water and its crafts. Celebrate his memory by simply appreciating the lake and all it has to offer. –Ethan Chung, editor, Discover South Lake Union

Story by Valerie Siu, Photos by Daniel Berman, Remembering Dick Wagner by Ethan Chung.

At The Center

SLU is the geographical center of Seattle