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free rowboat rentals

Life jackets are provided, or you can bring your own. (Photos by Natasha Dillinger)

Parent review: Free rowboat rentals on Lake Union

Here's the rundown on this family-friendly outdoor activity with a view.

Looking for an outdoor activity with a view? Try a family-friendly rowboat!

As playgrounds, wading pools and many parks remained closed over the summer, we regularly loaded up our tandem kayak with snacks and toddlers to paddle around Lake Union. While it gave us a much-needed socially distant outing, loading and unloading the gear and dragging the boat through the murky water of a boat launch was challenging. Also, we recognize the privilege that allowed us to buy a kayak several years ago during a time when they weren’t sold out and we could rent before we invested.

The Center for Wooden Boats recognizes the importance of providing equitable access to outdoor activities and has a 25-year tradition of offering free weekly public sailing trips on Sundays. While those trips are temporarily on hold during the pandemic, families can still participate in the Public Peapod Program (PPP) and rent a rowboat for an hour for free.

We reserved our hour on the water in advance and lucked out with a sunny day, although trips are available rain or shine. Not wanting to arrive late, we parked early and our kids spent a joyful half-hour on Lulu’s Slide, a playground just behind Daniel’s Broiler.

About 15 minutes before our reservation, we headed over to the west gate of the Center for Wooden Boats and met our volunteer greeter. Unfortunately, the gusty winds made the lake too choppy for small craft, but we could still paddle around the lagoon. With two young children, we were really just there for a new outdoor experience, and the change of plans didn’t bother us. This might be too big of a disappointment for families with older kids.

After some quick paperwork, we hopped into our little rowboat and enjoyed a leisurely route around the small lagoon. The area isn’t terribly large or deep, so rowing the traditional way was challenging and my husband decided to moonlight as a gondolier for ease. He refused to sing Italian opera, so I pulled up Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” on my phone and kept the snacks coming for the kids.

We didn’t stay the full hour because of the change of plans, but after returning the boat the kids enjoyed running around Lake Union Park, watching seaplanes take off and ogling the larger boats along the waterfront before we headed back home for lunch.

Free rowboat rentals: Know before you go

Reserve in advance: Rentals are free, but reservations are required and can be made here. They are generally available from 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Water safety is important: Rowboats are more stable than some other watercraft, but Washington water temperatures hover around 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and exposure can be deadly. Dress in warm layers, wear the required life jackets (provided, although we brought our own) and keep kids close to avoid accidentally falling in.

Flexibility is key: While we didn’t get to head out on Lake Union, we still enjoyed family time (and snacks!) in the lagoon. If your ride is cut short or canceled due to weather conditions, head to the playground near Daniel’s Broiler (labeled as Lulu’s Slide on Google Maps) or Lake Union Park.

Refreshment nearby: Multiple local coffee outposts will give you a chance to warm your hands after a chilly rowing experience. Herkimer Coffee, Caffe Umbria and Fresh Flours are all within a couple of blocks. Nearby restaurants with kid-friendly takeout options include Cactus and Duke’s Seafood on the waterfront.

Originally published in November 2020

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About the Author

Natasha Dillinger

Natasha Dillinger is a Seattle mom who paused a career in accounting and finance to focus on showing her two young children around the Pacific Northwest. Follow their adventures near and far at suitcasesinseattle.wordpress.com and on Instagram (@suitcasesinseattle)