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Rowers from the Pocock Rowing Center on the lake one Saturday morning recently. 
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Rowers from the Pocock Rowing Center on the lake one Saturday morning recently.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Don't worry, that seaplane probably won't land on your kayak

Rowing a tiny boat can make a person feel small, especially with the roar of seaplanes overhead. But from the back of a shell, rower Andy Brassington calls it a great example of urban coexistence.

Brassington has rowed for five years and estimates planes have taken off and landed hundreds of times around him, always without incident— despite the lake’s popularity.

“On a hot sunny weekend day, it looks like, where are you going to land? It looks like a chaotic slalom course of boats,” he said.

All that traffic on Lake Union got some KUOW listeners wondering, how DO seaplanes land here?

Pilot Yvette Marble has the answer. It’s acrobatics on the part of both pilot and plane. Seaplanes are capable of nimble maneuvering, while pilots stay keen to the dynamic conditions around them. 

When she’s up in her Cessna 206 seaplane, Marble assesses the speed and direction of the wind and scans the water for an opening.

“When you're above looking down, you can really get a good idea of where everybody is and see the best areas for landing,” Marble said. “We're sizing up not just the positions of the boats, but what directions they're moving.”

Perspective is everything: Lake Union looks more spacious from the air.

Marble is the chief pilot for Seattle Seaplanes, a small operation located on Lake Union, and flies up to 12 times a day.

Landing on Lake Union never feels chaotic or dangerous, she said. 

“We have to be alert and we have to be paying attention to what we're doing," she said. "But we're pilots, that’s what we do.”

Seaplanes have used Lake Union for over 100 years, yet interviews and archive searches didn’t turn up records of seaplane accidents on the lake.

In the 1980s, Kenmore Air began scheduled operations there, pilot and director of operations John Gowey said. Gowey flies during the summer five days a week; he’s now in his 29th year with the company.

“Since about 2008 I’ve noticed a steady uptick in the number of users on the lake,” Gowey said, particularly paddle boarders and kayakers. 

But boaters have the right of way by law.

“We have to set up our take off and our landing in such a way that’s safe and avoids the other vessel traffic,” he said. “It’s easy to do when the lake’s not very crowded, it definitely does get more difficult as the lake gets more crowded.”

The summertime is “a little bit of a patience game,” as pilots have to wait for a clear path through boaters to emerge.

Seaplanes can curve if need be, and even take off at a 180-degree angle.

That super-power comes from rising up almost entirely off the pontoons (called floats) and riding on their edge, called a step.

“We don't have as much drag, and we're very maneuverable," she said. "We can just pivot on that point, so we can make turns to avoid boaters, and turning up to 180 degrees is possible.”

Seaplanes use this ability to take off down meandering rivers or in rugged terrain. Like this pilot:

If someone gets in the path of a takeoff or landing, it’s easy to pull back and decelerate to prevent a collision, Gowey and Marble said. Both pilots said it’s easy to see smaller users of the waterway, even standup paddle boarders.

The City of Seattle has been testing new light-up buoys tracing the lake’s center line that flash to alert boaters of incoming or outgoing seaplanes. The buoys are only for the peak summer months.

Lake Union has no air traffic control tower, like most airports in the United States, Gowey said. Instead, pilots communicate through a common radio frequency and alert each other of their positions.

And it turns out, landing isn’t the hard part; it’s taking off. Getting airborne requires a longer distance to pick up speed, and pilots don’t have the birds-eye view of their surroundings. By contrast, once a seaplane reaches the lake during landing, the water acts like a big brake, so aircraft don’t need as much space to stop. In either case, Marble always stays alert and keeps an alternate route in mind, she said.

“It is a good mental exercise,” she said.

And she loves it. Marble quit her office job and became a seaplane pilot eight years ago after going on a seaplane ride during a trip to Alaska.

“I said, ‘Hey this looks easy. I could learn how to do that,’ and so I moved to Seattle.”

Now the view from work includes Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens, and Bill Gates’ house (during 20-minute scenic flights around Seattle.)

“It’s very freeing, and it's different perspective on the world.”