It’s not uncommon to see sailboats, yachts and other vessels gather on the calm, glassy water of Lake Washington hours before a college football game at Husky Stadium.
Even so, this was a most peculiar sight.
Washington fans have made the unique pregame experience of “sailgating” famous, and any given Saturday when their football team is playing in Seattle, Huskies adorned in purple are known to claim the body of water known as Union Bay as their own.
For at least one night, though, a small but ambitious group of Washington State fans decided to launch a turf war. What may have been more bizarre than that: the Cougars weren’t even playing.
First spotted by a few astute, binocular-equipped journalists in the mountain-high press box at the University of Washington, four Washington State alums who are part of the “Cougar Yacht Club” and a friend who’d driven from New York stood on a boat docked at the shore of Husky Stadium and proudly waved Ol’ Crimson flags as the national anthem played.
Yes, one team playing in Saturday’s game was wearing a shade of red on its uniforms, but it wasn’t WSU. Utah accepted a late invitation to play in Seattle just days after the 113th Apple Cup was canceled due to the Cougars’ COVID-19 issues and because the Utes’ original opponent, Arizona State, had to pull out for the same reasons.
As of right now, an Apple Cup isn’t scheduled to happen in 2020, but four friends who grew close through their shared passion of being on the water and rooting for the Cougars decided the absence of the rivalry game shouldn’t deter them from partaking in one of their most precious traditions.
“We’re Apple Cupping no matter what,” Nicole Rockfish, a 2011 WSU graduate, said on the phone Saturday night as she and her friends monitored Washington-Utah on TV from the chilly shores of Lake Washington.
Whenever the Apple Cup is played in Seattle, Rockfish, Charles Smith, Paul Twibell and Billy O’Brien like to add some crimson to the purple sea that forms behind the east end zone of Husky Stadium.
On Saturday, those four along with Matt Leach, a New York native who’s friends with Rockfish, reunited for a boat excursion on O’Brien’s 35-foot Carver Yacht which he’s nicknamed “Elation,” reasoning that “when you come on this boat, everyone’s in a state of happiness.”
The reputation held up on Saturday.
“It’s been really hard this year, with the lack of our fall jobs that we covet and adore,” said Rockfish, who works at Martin Stadium in a marketing and advertising role. Twibell is still involved with his alma mater as well, and takes photographs from the sideline of WSU home games. “And Apple Cup was something I was truly looking forward to, and then I got the call from Paul saying, ‘Hey, Apple Cup’s canceled.’ I said, ‘You can’t cancel the Coug spirit.’ You really can’t.
“I called the rest of the yacht club and I said, ‘We need to be seen, we need to go back to the stadium and I’ll putz over.’ My family thought it was crazy, but we’re very dedicated fans.”
Sometime during the first half, Twibell took a photo of Rockfish and O’Brien standing at the bow of the boat with their hands clamped to metal flagpoles each holding the iconic Ol’ Crimson flag. In the backdrop, Seattle’s orange sunset casts a bright hue off the lake water, while the floodlights of Husky Stadium illuminate the sky on a nearly cloudless night in the Puget Sound.
Seattle Times UW beat writer Mike Vorel first shared the photo on social media and it quickly racked up retweets and likes – either from Cougars fans proud to see a crimson flag waving a few hundred yards from their enemy’s doorstep, or Husky fans who couldn’t resist the temptation of a quick jab.
Some who’ve seen the photo may be surprised to hear that Twibell, who left his pro-grade Nikon cameras on his bed at home, shot the photo from his iPhone, touching it up with the Adobe Lightroom app.
“It was so funny because friends were like sending me the tweet and saying, is this you?” he said. “… Everyone here’s just checking their phones like, ‘It’s blowing up, it’s blowing up!’ ”
Smith posted a handful of other photos and videos from the excursion to a Facebook album titled “2020 We Didn’t Lose The Apple Cup Boat Trip” – a lighthearted dig at WSU’s seven-game losing streak in the rivalry.
No, the Cougars didn’t lose the Apple Cup, and by all indications, the yacht club didn’t lose Saturday’s turf war, or lake war. Frankly, the Huskies weren’t very interested in competing. Cold weather combined with the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to reduce the appetite for being on the water, and the scene on Lake Washington reportedly wasn’t much different than the one inside empty Husky Stadium.
“We’re the only ones out here, the other boats that are here have no symbology or flags on them,” Rockfish said. “It’s just Cougar flags out here right now on the marina.”
The group of friends on O’Brien’s boat didn’t mind the cool temperatures and were still able to abide by King County health and safety orders by keeping their “social gathering” to just five.
“We don’t see a single Husky flag out here,” said Twibell, who wore a Utah shirt Saturday night. “… If Pullman had a bay like this in front of the stadium, it would just be full of boats, whether we were allowed to be at the game or not.”
The yacht club may have considered the night a perfect 10 out of 10 had Utah staved off UW’s comeback and handed the Huskies their first loss, but a loud, collective groan came over the boat when Utes quarterback Jake Bentley threw the decisive interception late in the fourth quarter.
These particular WSU fans didn’t get the result they wanted at Husky Stadium – a trend that’s become all too familiar over the years – but, from the deck of a 35-foot yacht, they still salvaged some normalcy and tradition from a year that may end without the football game they treasure the most.
“Today was good, because we’ve all been so isolated from our friends and family,” Rockfish said.
“I’m glad we took this chance.”
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