Cruising Madison waters on USS Gus Arno

Cruising Madison waters on USS Gus Arno

Cruising Madison waters on USS Gus Arno

In the late ‘60s Madison Park was mostly renters and singles. Weekdays were quiet, but on weekends the taverns were jam-packed with party-happy regulars. Along came the invention of a wee party boat named The Gus Arno. It was to be a surreal way to over-fun and provide the revelers a new name to fame.

Our little dock at the end of Madison always had boats tied to it overnight and longer. One Saturday morning I wandered to the dock, coffee in hand, and noticed a watercraft tied to the dock I’d heard so much about from its owners, The U.S.S. Gus Arno. A rough description: 30-foot-long, 18-foot-wide vessel with a 4-foot-high bar filled with ice and various cocktail mixtures in jugs.  A large truck innertube was painted with “Gus Arno” on it. 

Back from the bar was the main salon where couches, chairs and tables from St. Vincent de Paul were placed. Further back on the 30-foot-long craft was the ship’s restroom, which was more than 6-feet-high with plenty of room on the inside.

At the stern was the captain’s chair built onto a 4-foot wooden frame. Alongside the captain’s chair was a large steering wheel and throttle to control the massive 50-horsepower Johnson and 25-horsepower Evinrude, which was just the right amount of power for the Gus and 30 passengers.

The raft was built on an iron frame supported by 36 barrels of a Styrofoam material. The dynamics made it much like pushing a brick through the water, but it wasn’t about speed; it was about enjoying a floating front room.

The cruising schedule was usually on Saturdays, departing at 9 a.m. sharp. Guests arrived with cocktails and treats for the day and dressed appropriately — no blues or whites. The motto: “The less the better.”

The expedition would usually head west of Edgewater and then slowly south. Music played on a low-fi portable radio through huge speakers similar to the old drive-in movie theater speakers that hung on car windows. 

Often when approaching beach bathers, we’d ask if anyone would like to cruise on the Pleasure Ship. Some ran away, others had mixed emotions, and the rest yelled, “Hell Yes!” Once a pleasant crew was intact, we continued to drift just past the 520 Bridge. Cars honked and an uninhibited yachtsman greeting was offered.   

One day a Grumman Goose (an amphibious flying boat in WW II) flew low and slow over the Gus, and someone yelled out the window, “Do you have a restroom?” “Of course, happy to oblige,” we answered. 

The pilot and his date needed the facilities. They landed downstream from the Gus and idled alongside. Quick introductions were made as his date used the powder room. Happy with the convenience, the pilot offered some very fine bourbon as we sat in the main salon enjoining the day. Boaters passing by asked, “What’s the deal with the plane?” We answered, “Oh that? It’s our dingy! You like it?”

A very important element of the ship’s stores was the house phone. A turquoise desk phone with a car battery attached to it was a great parlor trick — when a boat cruised by, slowly eyeballing our vessel, we’d ring the phone and answer it saying, “It’s for you!” This was way before any notion of cellphones. 

On many outings we had a full ship of 30. When a police boat came alongside, all was quiet.  The officer would say, “I could lock you all up for Section 107G (flaunting too much fun).” This cop was a good friend from Madison Park. The Gus was licensed and Coast Guard-approved but wouldn’t be for today’s standards most certainly.

A coast to the middle of the lake east of the dock tempted other boats to join us and sometimes tie up. We represented the Madison Park Yachting Club (unchartered) and were considered an amiable lot. On evening cruises, we fired up the barbies and barbecued steaks, fish and even lobster, and everyone was invited.

A news reporter who lived in Madison Park named Marty Lavine joined us and offered a photo of the Gus to the staff artist at Channel 7. The weatherman would say, “Here’s the Gus Arno in the San Juan’s, where the temperature is warm and the weather is clear.” There was even a large picture hanging in the Seattle Yacht Club.

Opening day of boating season was a great Seattle event for us. One such May day we motored to the Bellevue Yacht Club and joined the many boaters partaking of cocktails and dancing.  Some wondered about our validity being there but eventually accepted us. 

This yearly spectacle often made the Seattle Times newspaper — the word was out! Heading home after a full day of boating into the sunset was icing on the cake. 

Now, who was Gus Arno? 

To be continued.