A First-Timer’s Guide to Lake Washington Watersports

Take a dip 💦

View of fall foliage and Mt. Rainier from Lake Washington in Seattle, Washington

📸: Claudia Cooper

Lake Washington is the largest lake in King County and the second largest natural lake in the state of Washington, after Lake Chelan. It’s vast, thoroughly chilled, and both wild and right here. You can enter Lake Washington on Seattle’s north end, center, or south. 

If your body allows you the privilege to swim, and you have never done so in Lake Washington, then we are officially in a fight and I need some space. Until then, here’s a guide for you first-timers.

Before you go out❗

Get a read on how the lake looks. If you haven’t noticed, the lake’s waters tend to get choppy depending on how winds cooperate.
The infamously never-finished 520 bridge (officially the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge) acts as a barrier to the direction of the flow of these winds. So one side of the lake agitates while the other remains calm. If south of the bridge is looking rough, it’s a safe bet that the north side of the lake will be much calmer—and vice versa.

Where should you go?

📸: Seattle Parks and Recreation

A family lays on the grass in Seward Park in front of the water as a sailboat and motor boat drift across the water

Thanks to Seattle’s “Shoreline Street Ends Program,” there are many public entry points. Check out their interactive map to see what access points may be near you.

The (typically) smooth waters of the north side of Lake Washington make Magnuson Park the ideal spot for families and beginner watersporters looking to improve their skills, and also potential lovers hoping not to embarrass themselves on a first date while paddleboarding.

If you’re looking to erase some of those hard-to-reach tan lines, there are some select nude beaches. Howell Park and Denny-Blaine are two Seattle mainstays for your beautiful birthday suits. The sloping hill of Howell Park lends to a more secluded and thoroughly nude atmosphere. (Just make sure to lather up with sunscreen. Because… ouch.)

A little further south, Madrona Beach is a Seattle treasure. With panoramic views of the Cascades and Mt. Tahoma in all her glory, it’ll leave you wondering how you could ever live someplace else. There are two platform docks—that both humans and ducks equally appreciate—where you can practice for the Olympic dive trials or, if you’re over-the-hill like I am, a pleasant hang and chat will do just fine. 

At the southern tip of the lake, meet Seward Park. It’s got beautiful 270° sweeping views of the lake, numerous swimming spots, and several kayak launches. But… What’s that sound? A vibrating orchestra of oomph, oomph, oomph cascades over the seemingly calm waters. Techno music or Drake, or a mix of the two, now seem to ever-circulate the air of Andrews Bay. What was once a tranquil cove has become Washington’s counter to the Vegas pool party. In the summers, Andrews Bay becomes a place for hundreds of Seattleites to shed their collective layers of clothing and inhibitions.

Can you get a DUI on the water in Washington? 🍺

Yes. Washington’s BUI (Boating Under the Influence) law prohibits anyone from operating any vessel while drunk or high. Have fun. Refresh responsibly.

Do stuff with a paddle!

📸: Northwest Paddle Surfers

People paddleboarding, kayaking, and boating on a lake

One of the biggest winners of the pandemic: the paddle board, otherwise known as a “SUP” (Stand Up Paddle Board). What was once a rarity, SUPs have quickly become one of Seattle’s watersports of choice. Look, we all need balance in life. This is especially the case on a SUP. So, get out there and find some balance

Kayaks and paddleboards constantly wander the lake, creating a community of paddlers on the water. Once again, shout out to Seattle’s “Shoreline Street Ends Program” for making the lake accessible for all of us out there.

The University of Washington operates a boat rental facility right on the lake (in Union Bay) where you can rent canoes and kayaks by the hour. Also in Union Bay, grab a paddle board at the Agua Verde Paddle Club, or if you find yourself across the lake, Northwest Paddle Surfers in Kirkland will help you fall in love with our local waters.

Do stuff with boats!

📸: Waterfront Adventures

A Centurion boat on the water on a sunny day

Have a friend with a boat? Shoot ‘em a text. Give ‘em a jingle. Your friendship may reap some bountiful rewards once the sun decides to show its face.

Don’t have a friend with a boat? There are options. We’re here for you. Check out boat rental companies like Waterfront Adventures or Yarrow Bay Marina, where you can rent boats and watersport gear. Or, check out the Airbnb’s of the water, with companies like Boat Setter and Get My Boat, where you can rent vehicles and watersports gear from actual owners.

👍 Do’s & Dont’s 👎

👍 Do bring a waterproof bag
👍 Do bring a waterproof speaker
👎 Don’t forget to secure your car keys in said waterproof bag 
👎 Don’t forget to secure your phone in said waterproof bag
👎 Don’t lose your paddle (it was a rough day, okay?)

If you’ve got a motor boat…

📸: Getty Images

Front shot of man catching the wake while wakesurfing

1. INNER TUBING: This is the perfect summer activity to get whipped around the lake at breakneck speeds with the high probability of losing your a) bottoms, b) top, or c) all of the above. If this occurs, have your friends drop you off at one of the nude beaches.

🌊 If you have a drawstring, tie it tightly. If you don’t have a drawstring… pray.

🌊 Make sure you have a good grip on the handles. Depending on the choppiness of the lake—and how much your driver likes you—chances are you will be going outside of the wake. That’s where the real fun begins.

🌊 If tubing with a friend, work on keeping balance on the tube as you go outside the wake. Shift your weight to one another’s side when need be. Your lives are in each other’s hands.

2. WATERSKIING: A classic. The Paul Newman or Sidney Poitier of watersports.

🌊 Let the boat do the work. This is honestly the toughest part of the process. It feels unnatural at first. It’s like the surf scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, “Don’t do anything. Don’t try to water ski. Don’t do it.”

🌊 Stay in a crouched position in the water until the boat naturally pulls you up.

🌊 Once you’re up, straighten your legs.

🌊 Keep your legs straight and close to one another. Take care of that groin of yours (trust me…)

🌊 P.S. Hey drivers! The proper speed for towing is around 30 MPH for water skiers.

3. WAKEBOARDING: The more “extreme” way to let loose and feel a rush behind the boat. Mullet encouraged.

🌊  Just know, you will fall flat on your face… everyone does at first. So, don’t get discouraged.

🌊 Using a shorter rope often makes it easier for beginners to stand up. This also means the wakeboarder is in the narrower section of the wake, making it an easier ride.

🌊 It’s a natural tendency for beginners wakeboarding for the first time to pull on the rope. Don’t ya do it. Wakeboarding isn’t about pulling yourself up, it’s about letting the boat pull you to your feet. If you tug on the rope, it will probably make your board’s nose dig into the water, causing you to fall flat on that beautiful face of yours.

4. WAKESURFING: All the rage these days. Wakesurfing’s an attractive alternative to traditional water sports like wakeboarding or waterskiing. It offers the ability to do fun tricks, can be surprisingly relaxing, and doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Also, it just looks cool.

🌊 Sit in the water with your heels on the edge of the board, toes pointing up.

🌊 As the board begins to move, let your knees come into your chest as you dig in your heels. Keep your knees bent until the board flips up to your feet and your weight is over the board.

Early bird gets the smooth 🐦

Craving the glassy smoothness of a still lake? Set your alarm and hit the lake early. During the summer, the lake tends to get choppier as the day progresses with other watersports-loving folks with the same idea.

The wind beneath your sails!

📸: Sail Sand Point

Two Regattas float side-by-side on the water with Mount Tahoma in the background

Seattle has an undoubtedly enthusiastic sailing culture. Luckily, some low-cost non-profit organizations in the greater Seattle area offer relatively affordable sailing classes and sailboat rentals, should you be interested in the whole shebang. Here are a couple of places you can dip your toes into the sailing world, test the waters, and see how life by the sails suits you.

Renton Sailing Center: A non-profit organization that promotes the sport of sailing through classes, races, and recreational sailing at Gene Coulon Park at the south end of Lake Washington.

Sail Sand Point: A non-profit sailing group in Magnuson Park that offers sailing classes for adults and teens, plus relatively cheap sailboat rentals. The long finger-shaped body of Lake Washington, mixed with the ever-present availability of wind, makes it a great place to learn.

Sailing classes will also prepare you to become your own post-apocalyptic version of Kevin Costner in Waterworld once water levels inevitably overtake the land and the world is forced to the seas to survive. (Sorry, that got dark quick.) Just remember, you are a little creature in a vast aquatic environment. Relish in it. Get refreshed while learning something new. Say hi to the ever-majestic Mt. Tahoma showing off in the distance.

Do I need a boater education card?

You are required by law to carry a Boater Education Card if you fit the following criteria:
– You operate a vessel with a 15-horsepower (or greater) motor
– You were born after Jan. 1, 1955
– You are 12 years of age or older


David Dossett Aberg

David is a multimedia writer covering stories on culture, sports, and goings-on around town. He resides between Seattle and Los Angeles, balancing writing for television and keeping his own sanity.

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