Some fans prefer to spend their Water Follies on the water

By Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldJuly 27, 2013 

— A 59-foot houseboat anchored in the Columbia River was the perfect place for Jesse Medrano and his crew to take in Saturday's Water Follies festivities.

Even if it meant they were far from the hydroplane action.

"It's more exclusive out here," Medrano said from the deck of the rented boat. "You have different options. It's a unique place to meet a lot of different people."

Medrano rented the boat for Water Follies weekend so employees, family and friends could get off of the shore and experience the weekend from the water. He and his brother, Jerry Medrano, own Kennewick-based Versatile Media Group.

Like Medrano, hundreds of others sacrifice proximity to the hydroplanes every year for what they call a more isolated party that isn't centered around the races.

"If you're more of a race fan, you want to be on land," said Krysten Knight, 20, who has been coming to Water Follies since childhood. "But if you want to party, be on a boat."

Bob Russel, 34, of Kennewick, has been coming to the boat races for eight years. He agrees with Knight that the shore appeals more to people who want to pay attention to the races and their outcome.

"The hardcore people are more on the shore," he said. "That's where the action is."

Boaters said being on the water for the races keeps them cooler -- people on shore are asked to get out of the water when the hydroplanes are running -- and gives them the chance to tie up to other boats and meet new people.

Gregg and Gracie Starr didn't even consider getting close to the races when they decided to come to the Tri-Cities for their first Water Follies weekend. The couple from Lynnwood instead opted to tie up with seven boats out of view from the course.

Floating devices that served as mini-pools hung from the back of the pack of boats as people danced to techno music and hopped from vessel to vessel.

"It's a big floating party," Gregg Starr said. "We love it out here."

Gracie Starr doesn't feel like she is missing out on anything the weekend has to offer by choosing not to watch the races.

"Races?" she asked sarcastically. "What races?"

Along with the ability to jump in the water whenever they like, boaters said being on the water saves them money in the long run. The prices on shore can add up and make for an expensive weekend.

"It's less expensive to get into," said boater Angie Larson. "You don't pay for parking. You don't pay a lot for food. You don't pay those prices for alcohol."

Heather Vega has been coming to Water Follies for more than 20 years and has seen the races from almost every vantage point. She said she spends about $200 a day when she watches them from the shore, compared to $200 or the entire weekend on the houseboat.

"It all depends on what your focus really is," she said. "Usually if you're in a tent it's more focused on the boats. Nobody has been talking about the (hydroplanes) here."

Michael Schwanz -- who was on a boat to watch the air show -- agreed that boaters do miss out on being close to the action, but not having to deal with large crowds is well worth it.

"Not having to pay or deal with lines and parking is great," he said.

Almost all the boaters interviewed by the Herald said they enjoy being on the water because the atmosphere is geared more toward partying. The scene Saturday seemed to back up their claim. A man on a Flyboard -- a water-powered jetpack -- even soared through the air while throwing beers to his friend on a jet ski.

The Benton County Sheriff's Office, along with the Coast Guard and the Washington Department of Fish and Game, patroled the water to make sure everyone stayed safe. Cpl. Eric Magnuson said Water Follies weekend is "heaven" for boaters and it's his job to make sure they have fun while boating safely.

"This is a less forgiving environment," he said. "When accidents happen on the water they happen so fast they are usually tragic. Just our presence here ensures that doesn't happen."

Other than reminding people about safety regulations, deputies didn't encounter any major problems Saturday and boaters acted responsibly, Magnuson said. But at least one boater was arrested for operating under the influence.

Volunteers also patrolled the shore in boats to keep people and flotation devices out of the water when the hydroplanes were racing.

On the shore in Columbia Park, people said they enjoy being close to the hydroplanes while they race.

Tom Houck of Kennewick said he couldn't imagine coming to Water Follies weekend and not watching the hydroplanes race.

"I come down here to watch the action on the water," he said. "It's a nice family environment."

While there were plenty of families lining the shores of the river, the tents along the riverbanks also were packed with people who came to watch the races and enjoy the partylike atmosphere.

"You want to see the races," said Darrell Kuryvial of Alberta, who was at his first Water Follies. "We did spend a lot of time in the beer garden though."

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