AquaPalooza 2010

We find out how 7,000 boats and 65,000 people come together without a scratch.

Brad Paisley’s moment of realization came well into his set. A country music superstar whose current single is “Water” and whose 2010 road trip is known as the H2O World Tour, Paisley is accustomed to watery props. But here on Lake Travis, outside Austin, Texas, boaters have taken it to the extreme. Thousands are floating in front of his lakefront stage wearing bikinis and board shorts, straddling noodles or tubes while trying to keep their most-important assets — their drinks — above water level. Just beyond, tens of thousands more are dancing atop an estimated 7,000 boats, rafted together in relatively neat rows to form the most unlikely of concert halls.

Finally pausing to take it all in, Paisley suddenly blurts out the obvious: “This has got to be...the coolest show I’ve ever done!”

My question from the middle of it all: How will all these boats, in close quarters, escape unscathed?

Welcome to AquaPalooza, what promoter Sea Ray bills as the biggest on-water celebration in the world. By summer’s end, there will have been more than 100 individual AquaPaloozas scattered across 12 countries. None, however, will hold a candle to AquaPalooza’s 2010 “signature event” in Texas. This mega raft-up will attract an estimated 70,000 people. Here in Texas, it’s the can’t-miss event of the summer...and you can get to it only by boat. From my standpoint, that’s exactly the rub, a potentially deep rub.

Things start out quietly. Shortly after dawn on Saturday morning, Dustin Higdon, 13, and brother Dylan, 8, seem to be the only ones ready to party. Floating around in front of the massive AquaPalooza stage on inflatable tubes, the pair are the lone signs of life moving at this hour. For days, people have been trickling into the site to stake out prime viewing spots. Now, a mass of humanity is sleeping in, aboard the row upon row of boats that have already filed in.

Looking out at the prime real estate in front, most of it occupied by 40- to 50-foot Sea Rays, I ask Dustin and Dylan which boat they came on. They point to an unassuming 20-foot bowrider, wedged between several larger boats in the distance. “We got here a little after midnight,” Dustin says. “We slept in the bow, Mom took the bench, and Dad slept on the sun pad.” Later, I roust his dad from a little pre-lunch slumber to ask why. “Boating is what we do every weekend,” Mike Higdon explains. “We just love being on the water.”

Even if it means sleeping on vinyl coated with dew.

Livin' the Lifestyle
While it's fast becoming a favored activity of weekend boaters, the concept of rafting up has practical roots. Rafting up alongside another boat is a viable option for cruising boaters when dock space is at a minimum. Even owners of sport boats and bay boats and even PWCs define rafting as what they do on waterways across the United States and beyond each weekend. Friend hooks onto friend, a few more join the mix, and pretty soon you've got one long artificial island.

It’s simple, but it still needs to be done right. Typically, the first boat on the scene stakes out its territory, setting an anchor off the bow and another off the stern to keep the boat in position. It then puts out a minimum of two fenders on both the port and starboard sides. At AquaPalooza, some of the pricier rides wisely hang more. Between two Sundancers, for instance, we spot a veritable flock of fenders. Those that come alongside typically lower the bow anchor, and then back in and tie up side-to, cleat to cleat. Etiquette dictates that newcomers look around and make sure they’re not jumping in amongst a group of friends trying to stay together. Beyond that, it’s pretty much like a neighborhood block party. If you don’t know the new neighbors, chances are you will by the end of the afternoon. And if you don’t know the intricacies of rafting up, you’ll know those as well, thanks to the new neighbors.

Still, some neighborhoods are nicer than others. AquaPalooza’s front rows, closest to the stage, are mostly occupied by the gleaming new Sea Rays. Those aboard unquestionably have the best view in town. (Not so coincidentally, their show wasn’t free. The front row was offered as incentive to those who upgraded to a new boat before the show.) Other neighborhoods run the gamut, from the family-friendly suburbs to the seedier districts, where the occasional nude partygoer — not necessarily the prettiest — is on display.

Thus I learned an important lesson about big raft-up parties: Just as in any real estate scenario, it’s all about location, location, location.

Traffic Control
As it turns out, AquaPalooza's "neighborhood" of streets and avenues — its rafting grid — is the single most expensive component to the event. Created by the 'Palooza's own city planners, it's designed to accommodate 5,000 boats, neatly organized into mirror-image rows divided by a central highway. Earlier in my visit officials were privately noting that they didn't think the crowd would be as big as expected. But shortly after noon, with much of the grid full and a steady stream of boats stretching to the horizon, AquaPalooza is proving to be a very popular destination. Complicating matters is that many of those already in position have left the safety of their boats to cool off in the watery streets. Prop-driven boats are in close proximity to swimmers. It should be mass chaos. The combined forces of the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Travis County Sheriff's Office, Texas Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Coast Guard and safety patrollers such as Josh Bridges are trying their best to ensure it isn't.

Sitting atop a WaveRunner, Bridges looks like your ordinary laid-back dude in his early 20s. Get close, however, and the stress of the job is obvious. His mouth is set in more of a crease than a smile. “The biggest problem out here is that everybody is in their own little world,” Bridges says. “everybody’s out there having fun, but not everyone is paying attention to the safety precautions.”

I point out the irony that, in a sea of his carefree, partying peers, he and his fellow patrols quite possibly have the most stressful job of the weekend. “Probably so, yeah,” Bridges says with a laugh. “At least I feel that way!”

One reason it all works is skill sharing. A crew on a 20-something Crownline comes in with its idle running a little hot. Two guys on a Sea Ray Sundeck coach the driver to bump in and out of gear to slow his momentum while maintaining directional control. The Crownline slides into place, ding-free. Lines are shared all around. There’s even a free lesson on hanging a fender. Everyone is helping each other, knowing one bad move could have a domino effect.

The safety patrol’s biggest issue is keeping the flow of traffic out of the center aisle, which organizers want to keep open only to swimmers. Still, as show time draws near, an endless parade of boats is coming from every direction, trying to find the space that Bridges and his fellow patrollers assures them doesn’t exist. No accidents have happened, but Bridges is feeling the weight of the job.

“They’re really not responding right now,” he says, before heading back into the fray.

Somehow...It Works
Of course, we — Fish and Wildlife officer Selverio Pacled, photographer Grafton Marshall Smith and myself — are in one of those boats causing the problem. Under Pacled's careful guidance, we've been the restless concertgoer, up and down row after row, looking for stories and photo ops.

Some, like the Redneck Yacht Club, are obvious. A grungy, dockbuilding barge outfitted with grills, a bar, raised patio deck and the requisite Texas flags, it stands in stark contrast to the gleaming express cruisers of the front row. “You won’t see any other setup like this on the lake,” boasts charter member Jay Delacruz. “We’ve been planning it for eight months.”

Others, like the tiny dinghies of Tug’s Barbecue, require a little more investigative work. After spotting a red flag bobbing along adjacent rows, we finally track it down to a rather attractive, bikini-clad delivery crew selling hot, Texas-style brisket. They hope to sell 1,000 pounds of it by Saturday night. If anything, the quota seems too low.

Distractions are many. Yet, as the warmth of an early Saturday afternoon segues into a blazing hot midday, problems are surprisingly few. In fact, by day’s end there would be no serious accidents or injuries. Despite the ridiculously close proximity, despite the seemingly overwhelming numbers, boats and swimmers have somehow managed to establish a degree of mutual respect. The boats keep speeds somewhere between idle and neutral; those in the water, while not actually getting out of the way, at least seem to respect the props.

“We plan for the worst,” admits Roger Wade, public information officer for the Travis county Sheriff’s Office, “and hope for the best.”

Fortunately for Austin — and AquaPalooza — the best is just what they got. As to my question of how: It helps to have a lot of smart boaters in the mix, spreading good sense around the coolest show ever.

Super Bowls of Boats
AquaPalooza Bills itself as the world's "biggest" boating event, but you might get arguments from those who attend the following mega raft-ups.

Opening Day
Seattle

Since 1920, the Seattle Yacht Club has marked the “opening day” of the boating season with a boat parade through Montlake Cut. More than 300 lavishly decorated boats register each year, all in keeping with the parade’s ever changing, much anticipated theme.

Coast Guard Festival
Grand Haven, Michigan

What began as a picnic for Coast Guard personnel in 1924 has grown into a weeklong celebration honoring the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard that draws 350,000 people. A battle of the bands kicks things off and is followed by parades, ski shows, car shows, fireworks and the opportunity to tour Coast Guard vessels.

WinterFest Boat Parade
Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Dubbed “the greatest show on H2O,” Fort Lauderdale’s WinterFest Boat Parade has been a holiday tradition since 1971, featuring a charming line of lighted boats of all shapes and sizes. Coverage on national television is routine, and a long line of celebrity grand marshals ups the parade’s star quotient.

Gasparilla Pirate Invasion
Tampa, Florida

Every year, Tampa re-enacts the invasion of the city by mythical pirate Jose Gaspar, who sails into Hillsborough Bay aboard the world’s only fully rigged pirate ship. A fleet of pleasure boats initially seems intent on defending the city, before joining the buccaneers. Oh, whom are we kidding — it’s just one huge party, with more than 3,000 boats some years.

Lake Cumberland Raft-Up
Lake Cumberland, Kentucky

At press time, this bold newcomer promised to break the current Guinness World Record of 1,453 boats linked in a raft-up line at an event scheduled for August 2010. Did it make it? Check out lakecumberlandraftup.com for the results.