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Sunset at Husky Harbor in front of Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington

Sailgating: A Time-Honored Tradition on Lake Washington

As autumn sweeps across the Pacific Northwest, the crisp air buzzes with the energy of an impending season. Football is here, and with it, the resounding spirit of fandom manifesting in fight songs and shades of Windsor purple piped with gleaming gold.

College football fans in the Seattle area know that there are Saturdays, and then there are Husky Saturdays. On at least seven occasions this time of year, rain or shine, the region around the University of Washington erupts into pockets of die-hard Dawg fans looking to celebrate a successful season — both on the field and amid the resplendent scenery beyond its walls.

Rising from the waters of Lake Washington is Husky Stadium, referred to many as the football palace of the Pacific Northwest. With panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascade Range culminating with the 14,000-foot snowcapped Mount Rainier to the east, there are few sporting venues more spectacular than this distinct stretch of Washington shoreline just across the water from The Woodmark Hotel.

A sunset unfolds behind Husky Stadium with Husky Harbor in the background in Seattle, Washington

Photo: Scott Eklund/Redbox Pictures 

It’s no surprise, then, that tailgating here can be as much of an event as the home game itself. In an area encompassing water, mountains, and evergreen forests, and known for its entrepreneurial spirit, it’s even less of a surprise that tailgating has evolved to exhibit itself in many forms. When game day rolls around, fans purveying the Purple Reign pour in from every corner of Cascadia to honor their pre-kickoff rituals à la tailgate, lawn, parking lot, or even boat.

Boatgating, sterngating, sailgating.

No matter its appropriate nomenclature (which may vary depending on the fan you encounter), there is a unique pregame tradition dating back to the 1950s that reflects Seattle’s sprawl of interconnected waterways spanning the 13-mile-long Lake Washington, Lake Union, and into the larger Puget Sound. Often arriving hours before the Huskies suit up for a home turf exhibition, 70,000 of the team’s most loyal followers pack around every nook of the stadium’s exterior — with as many as 8,000 of them arriving at the venue’s 60-year-old docks via watercraft.

One such craft, the Waterways CruisesWest Star, picks up game-goers straight from the dock outside of The Woodmark’s Beach Cafe — some of them holding The Woodmark’s Husky Cruise VIP Ticket (offered during the home opener, homecoming game, and Stanford matchup), which includes exclusive access to a pre-game party on the patio of the chef-driven Carillon Kitchen.

Waterway Cruises' West Star on the way to a sailgating session in Husky Harbor in Seattle, Washington

Photo: Waterways Cruises  

Two hours before kickoff, guests depart from Carillon Point aboard West Star for a scenic jaunt across Lake Washington to be delivered to the heart of a nautical-themed party that has remained a custom here for generations – one that has birthed compounding traditions centered around the region’s natural beauty and undying love for the game.

In a bay of Lake Washington abutting the UW campus, just a Hail Mary throw from the east end zone, boats of every size and style descend on Husky Harbor, coalescing into a giant flotilla of passionate fans prepared to support the home team. Some boats are decked out with beer pong tables, grills, and big-screen TVs. Others boast floating museums of memorabilia painstakingly collected over decades of every type of season imaginable. Most moored craft bear fine local wines and coolers brimming with hop-infused microbrews and are happy to welcome fellow fans aboard, whether they are strangers or not.

Although the tradition of fervent tailgating is certainly not exclusive to any one team representing the country’s vast array of colleges, the party atmosphere in this specific section of Seattle — only one of three places in the country where a tailgate can be held on the water in such proximity to the stadium — is a scene to behold.

A boat skims past from left to right in front of Husky Harbor in Seattle, Washington

Photo: Waterways Cruises 

Walking dockside among the queue of gently rocking boats, one might notice rows of purple flags rippling above nautical compartments filled with jovial fans and alumni. Uniting to a boisterous soundtrack of brass and percussion, belted out by the university’s roving marching band, they partake in ceremonious feasts of fresh salmon, lobster rolls, clam chowder, and Dungeness crab fresh from the Puget Sound.

So whether boat hopping among the harbor’s docked and anchored patchwork of party vessels, or soaking up the surrounding revelry with a libation (or two) from the West Star’s comfortable cabin, experiencing a Husky match from this singular vantage is experiencing a true game changer in tailgating. And because the West Star remains open for the entire duration of the game, guests have the option of returning at any time to lounge (which many do during its bar’s reopening at halftime). Thirty minutes after the final whistle has blown, the boat departs to deliver its voyagers back to the shores of Kirkland.


View the schedule and reserve tickets for this season’s Huskies Waterways Cruises here. Your ticket includes a drink voucher for the onboard No Host bar.


Featured Photo: Scott Eklund/Redbox Pictures 

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