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A Tour Of Lake Union With A Captain Who's Circled It 2,800 Times

Alison Marcotte
Larry Kezner steers the Fremont Avenue passenger vessel around Lake Union on June 28, 2014.

Capt. Larry Kezner blows the horn of the Fremont Avenue passenger vessel and undocks his boat from South Lake Union Park. Andy Kim’s popular ‘70s tune “Rock Me Gently” plays through the speakers as Kezner steers the boat around the southern shore of Lake Union. “Funky” background music is a staple of Kezner’s tours.

“Welcome aboard the Fremont Avenue,” he says over the intercom to the 24 passengers on board. “Thank you guys for coming out. Good sports for the cloudy day here.”

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
Larry Kezner stands outside on the Fremont Avenue, which is docked at South Lake Union Park.

Kezner, 69, gives one-hour tours of Lake Union and Portage Bay on Fridays and Saturdays, but he is primarily known for his 45-minute Sunday tours, when the ship turns into the “Sunday Ice Cream Cruise,” which includes a serving of the cool treat.

He knows Seattle’s waters well. A Seattle native, Kezner has traveled on sailboats since he was 12. Since he first began his narrated tours in December 1999, he estimates he has looped around Lake Union 2,800 times.

For this reporter, the Midwest has always been home. I grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, and I currently attend the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign. As a summer news intern for KPLU and a newcomer to the area, I’ve been fascinated by how so much of Seattle’s culture is associated with water — colorful houseboats line the lake, seaplanes are constantly landing and taking off, drawbridges are frequently opening for boats with large masts, and so on.

To learn more about the city’s waters, I reached out to Kezner, who took me along on one of his tours on a Saturday afternoon. As we traveled around the lake, we passed seaplanes from Kenmore Air getting ready to depart.

Seaplanes Navigate Around Slow, Stumplike Boats

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
A seaplane taxis on Lake Union near Gas Works Park on June 28, 2014.

Kezner says the lake is an uncontrolled landing zone. While the seaplanes go at about 70 mph, the Fremont Ave only moves at about 5 to 7 mph, making the boat appear stationary.

“We’re like stumps,” he says. “So they can pick a path, come down and set the airplane down.”

“So do they just kind of eyeball it to figure out where to land?” I ask.

“Yep, just eyeball,” he responds.  

Cats Love Houseboats And Floating Homes, Too

We continue our trip around the lake. The Fremont Ave passes a row of houseboats and Kezner points out on in particular — a green houseboat next to a yellow sailboat. He says he visited the houseboat when he was a junior in high school in 1962.

“Thought I could throw parties in it, you know, teenagers,” he laughs. “Could have bought it — should have; they only wanted $600 for it back then.”

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
Floating homes, including the "Sleepless in Seattle" home (left), line the edge of Lake Union on June 28, 2014.

Houseboats aren’t only attractive to homeowners. Cats love them, too, Kezner says.

“On warm summer days, you see cats all over the place, on their backs, feet up in the air, just soaking it up. It’s a good life to be cat on a houseboat,” he says.

I later ask Kezner to explain the differences between houseboats and floating homes.

“A houseboat is basically a barge or boat hull with some structure to live on it. It has to be licensed as a boat,” he says. “It’s different from a floating home, which is permanently tied up.”

The Four Drawbridges That Span The Ship Canal

As we sail under University Bridge and enter Portage Bay, Kezner shares some history about Seattle’s bridges. There four drawbridges that span the ship canal: University, Fremont, Montlake and Ballard.

The lowest one is Fremont Bridge, which has a 30-feet vessel clearance. The others have about 45-feet clearances, Kezner says. Fremont opens about 35 times a day and is one of the busiest drawbridges internationally, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation website. Kezner says his boat can pass under some of the drawbridges without having to demand a bridge opening.

A typical 26-foot sailboat would have a 30-foot mast, and it would probably request a bridge opening, Kezner says.

“The boats basically have a right of way going under those. A tall boat, like a tug boat or sail boat, other than at rush hour times, can demand to have the bridge raised for it,” he says.

Ballard, University and Fremont bridges are closed during rush hour on weekdays, which is from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., the Seattle Department of Transportation website states.  

‘We're Friendly Competitors Out Here'

When we pass another boat, Kezner blares the horn for a few seconds.

“That’s a signal; it’s port-to-port. I’m telling him we’re going to pass left to left,” he explains. The boat reciprocates the noise to Kezner.

“You know, we’re friendly competitors out here. It’s vicious on the phone and in the marketing, but once you’re out here, it’s very cordial,” Kezner says. “Everybody’s looking for each other. Nobody wants to get in a pickle out here. There’s enough problems,” he laughs.

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
The Fremont Ave's lower level includes painted countertops and bar stools.

The hour-long tour comes to an end and Kezner prepares to dock his boat. 

“In 2,800 landings in 14 years, I’ve only missed four days of operation,” Kezner comments. He’s had two mechanical failures that cut him out of work and two stormy days.

“I challenge the Washington State Ferries to come something close to that,” he jokes.  

Kezner completes his tour and passengers disembark the boat. 

“Bye now,” he calls to them, standing outside his boat and waving. He notices a child passenger wearing a pirate hat exiting the boat. “I didn’t realize we had a pirate with us!” he says.

I say goodbye to Kezner, too, and thank him for his time. My one trip around Lake Union may pale in comparison to Kezner’s 2,800, but it’s a step closer to better understanding Seattle’s water culture.