Pat Douglass steers his 31-foot cabin cruiser, the "Wet Rat," away from its slip at Pier 121 Marina and slowly motors through the "no wake" zone on Lewisville Lake, about 20 miles north of Dallas. His business partner stands on the bow and watches boat traffic. His fiancee stands at his side on the bridge. Douglass wears a goatee and a star-spangled 'do rag over his thinning gray hair. Even at the helm, he looks more biker than boater.
Douglass, a Dallas-based dealer in used printer cartridges when he's not on the lake, is celebrating his 62nd birthday on this particular Saturday. He's also doing what he's done just about every weekend for the past five years both summer and winter. He's taking his boat and a load of people to a place on Lewisville Lake known as the "party cove," an enormous informal gathering of boaters where the women get naked and just about everyone gets drunk.
It's an incredible and, by most accounts, growing weekend summer party scene that looks like a water-logged Bourbon Street and feels like a friendly neighborhood bar. It's a place mostly for single twenty- to fifty-somethings where partygoers form friendships and make business contacts.
As the Wet Rat pulls into the party cove, scores of swimmers drift and bob in the bathtub-warm water, clutching cans of beer, wine coolers and glasses of champagne. Some have their dogs floating in inner tubes or wearing life jackets. Some carry cans of beer from boat to boat and socialize. Some just lounge on the lake.
Douglass drives his cabin cruiser near the banks of an old dam on the western side of the lake. He backs up to a smaller boat and ties onto it. In just a few minutes, another boat is tied onto the other side of the Wet Rat and a line of boats begins to form like cars in a drive-in movie.
Those who are already at the party cove know Douglass. They wave or yell a greeting. Out here, Douglass shares his boat with all comers--as well as his drinks and, sometimes, his photographs of naked women from the party cove. Out here, Douglass, like his boat, is known as the Wet Rat. Out here, he isn't a used printer cartridge dealer. He is king, and this is his domain.
Rumor has it that Wet Rat's approaching wedding at the party cove (to a woman he met there last year) may put an end to his reign. He says no; even when he's married he'll still be a regular part of what cove people say is the wildest, best and most uninhibited summer weekend party spot anywhere near Dallas.
"All you need to be welcome out here is a boat or a ride out here on a boat," Douglass says.
As soon as the boat is anchored and secured, Wet Rat and his fiancee, Bobbie Hall, put two bottles of champagne into a floating ice bucket and go into the water with purple noodle floaters between their legs. Terry O. Reilly, Wet Rat's business partner, a 30-ish guy with a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on his back, is on the boat mixing up a batch of Wet Rats, their own concoction of pineapple juice and liquor; they've equipped the large liquid dispenser with a special bubble machine to keep the pineapple juice mixed up.
Exhaust from sputtering generators wafts up from the water where dozens swim around with drinks in their hands. Music from competing sound systems blares across the water, and boat owners confess that a good set of speakers is a point of pride.
"Guys will sink a fortune into a speaker system--maybe $5,000--so they can hear the music as they wake-board. They use long-projection speakers," says one regular, who gave his name as "Diesel."
But apart from the music from various radios, on the water, the party cove doesn't seem much different from a happy hour at Hooters--except that it has a lot more hooters. A woman in the next boat who has a map of Texas tattooed on her left breast throws Jell-O shots in little plastic containers to swimmers and people on the boats.
Just about everybody drinks, and before long, just about everybody seems to be affected, which is all right, because that seems to be the reason people go to the party cove in the first place.
Douglass says he started coming to the cove shortly after he got his boat five years ago. He'd been a jet skier and raced sailboats before he bought the Wet Rat. The first time he came out to the cove, he says, he tied up to small boats, a sort of breach of etiquette because the usually snobby big-boat owners only tied up together, he says. At the party cove back then, the small boats sort of stayed in one cluster and the big ones in another.
Douglass also let occupants from small boats start using his boat's toilet, something much appreciated by women from speedboats, he says. It wasn't long before his boat became a place where anybody could go to use the restroom, escape the heat or get help.
The haven that the Wet Rat became paid off for Douglass in a big way last summer when Hall came aboard to escape an obnoxious man in the water who was offering the women shoulder massages. Hall, who had been at the lake with a friend of one of Douglass' friends, said that once aboard the Wet Rat, she saw that Douglass needed help with a badly sunburned head.
"The rest is history," says the 40-year-old Hall, who will marry Douglass on August 9 aboard the Lake Dallas Palace. Hall, who plans to wear a white bikini with a lace overdress, says she's nervous about the wedding because she, her mother (for whom she is a caregiver) and her 16-year-old daughter will all move in with Douglass.
The party cove group that hangs out with Douglass and regularly hops into and out of the Wet Rat were brought together by the lake, but their friendships have spilled out into their regular lives, they say. Although many seem to know each other by just their first names, they frequently get together outside of the party cove, Hall says.
"It's a big cultural melting pot out here," says cove regular Troy Maton, 28, who runs a media Web site for auto companies. "It doesn't matter what your job is; you all just hang out together. You look around, and someone could make 30K or 500K. You could hang with the VP of a company and be the mailroom guy from another."
And all of them could find themselves immortalized on Douglass' Wet Rat Web site, where party cove photographs from many previous weekends are posted and where there is access to links and information about lake activities. The combination of his hospitality, the Web site (www.wetrat.com) and maybe his age helped establish Douglass as the go-to guy. Most of the swimmers and boaters who drift by seem to know him. Even lake law enforcement is well acquainted with him.
"He's not really party central, but there's just always a lot of people around him and by him," says Jim Turner, a state game warden who patrols the lake. "He does a lot of helpful stuff for us."
In the air-conditioned cabin of the Wet Rat, in a row of binders on a shelf, are the pictures he's taken of naked or partially naked women at the party cove, and there are lots of them. You have to be invited to look at the pictures, and they don't leave the cabin, he says.
"That's where they'll stay," Douglass says. "None of those pictures has ever been put on our Web site."
Of course, who needs pictures when so much flesh is there for the ogling in the...well... flesh? A woman in a pink cowboy hat wearing a piece of string for a bikini bottom floats by facedown on an air mattress, then reveals her breasts to some eager men on a nearby boat. A buxom woman on a jet ski driven by a man pulls open her life vest, exposing her breasts to the row of boats and all of the swimmers. To the uninitiated, all of the skin is really more comic than erotic.
Which may not be exactly what the jet-ski flasher, Jay Joy, would want to hear, though when the Dallas Observer returned to the cove on another weekend, the uninhibited Joy was still bare, soaking in the sun with her more chastely dressed husband of 1 1/2 years, Rob.
"I'm from the beach, and I felt very landlocked in North Dallas," she says. "After you buy a house that backs up to a lake, you gotta buy a boat and Sea-Doos and all that stuff." She wears aqua gingham bikini bottoms and no top and has long, sun-bleached blond hair and sunglasses with Texas-shaped lenses.
The Joys move below deck on the Wet Rat to look at some photos. Rob says more specifically, "I'm going down to see her photos."
Photos, always more photos, and not the surreptitious, hidden-camera kind, either.
"I have to take my top off," says 32-year-old Terri (who didn't give her last name). Her husband, Scott, 38, wants to take a photo of Terri's and Jay's augmented breasts.
"These are not quite a year old," Scott says as he grabs Terri's breasts. "Friends told us about the Wet Rat Web site, and here we are. We just love to come and hang out," he adds without a hint of irony.
"I don't just sit out here without my top," Terri says. "There are other girls that do. Later in the day the tops come off...After a few drinks, it gets easier. You're less inhibited."
Everybody, including Douglass, says the cove is adult entertainment, and that's what newcomers should expect.
"It's just not a place for kids," Wet Rat says.
In 1993, Denton County officials formed a Lewisville Lake safety panel to "address Lewisville Lake's reputation as the country's most dangerous lake," according to an article in The Dallas Morning News. Two years later, a boat literally ripped off a young Carrollton woman's face as she sat in another boat in a marina no-wake zone, and the lake's reputation as a dangerous place seemed to stick with the media and public.
This year, five have drowned at the lake. Three died in the same accidental drowning while swimming from the shore, one man drowned when he jumped into the water in a swimming area and panicked and the fifth victim was in the party cove.
Lewisville Lake is crowded and has been the site of some bad accidents, but no matter what officials say, the truth is that the lake isn't all that dangerous compared with other lakes.
National and local statistics show that most of the lake's drowning victims were swimmers at the shore who sometimes were drunk, sometimes careless and sometimes just unfortunate.
"Based on accident report data submitted by Texas to the U.S. Coast Guard...Lake Lewisville doesn't appear to have a high number of reported accidents," says Bruce Schmidt, a statistician with the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C.
Schmidt, who extracted lake accident reports from national data, says Lewisville Lake seems comparable to other lakes as far as accidents go, and that if any Texas lake could be considered "dangerous," it might be Lake Travis, where the numbers of accidents show inexplicable increases and decreases. But, he says, it's not the body of water that's dangerous; it's the behavior of lake users.
The combination of water, smothering heat, alcohol-fueled energy and impaired judgment has worried law enforcement since the party cove became a regular attraction during the past decade or so, says Turner, the game warden who patrols the cove.
On June 7, Nick Morris, a promising 17-year-old high school graduate on his way to a full-ride football scholarship at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, drowned in the cove. He was found floating with his face underwater, though police aren't certain what happened. Toxicology tests on the boy were not yet available, and family members would not talk about it.
After the drowning, authorities said they planned to step up patrols in the party cove. Douglass says the hundreds of boaters who usually can be found at the cove and their "over-21 fun" make them an easy target when something on the lake goes wrong. He insists that the lake isn't all that dangerous, and neither is the party cove.
"I think the fact that we've been doing it for quite a few years without any real major incidents is pretty good evidence of that," he says. "The people that are out there, when you talk to them, they are very concerned about safety."
For instance, last month a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted at the cove. At first, from the story that was circulating, it sounded as if the woman had been dragged into a boat and raped. The true story, Douglass says, isn't great, but the incident can't be blamed on the party cove. He says the woman was sexually assaulted by someone unknown to party cove regulars while she was riding on a jet ski with him. Douglass says it also happened far away from the cove.
As the cove's unofficial photographer and engineer of the Wet Rat Web site, Douglass happened to have taken a picture of the jet ski operator whom police were trying to find after the assault, and he gave it to police. Most of the people in the cove know each other, even if only by first name, and they look out for one another, he says. They don't welcome troublemakers, and they band together to oust them if they show up.
Although public officials have said they want to settle down the partying in the cove, it doesn't seem like they could do much about it.
At the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, a more than 2-decades-old party cove is a regular weekend destination. As described by Missouri officials and depicted in an R-rated Web site, the scene in Missouri is pretty similar to Lewisville's but on a much larger scale. During the Fourth of July weekend, the Lake of the Ozarks attracted as many people as a rock concert, says Nick Humphrey, a corporal with the Missouri State Water Patrol who has worked the Lake of the Ozarks party cove since 1999.
"We're estimating about 2,000 boats in there, so you figure an average of five people per boat; you are probably looking at 10,000 people in there," he says. "Lots of nudity, lots of sex acts in public. A lot of drug use. Tons and tons of intoxicated boat operators...Alcohol and drugs and like a big concert--there's not enough officers to really get in there. We kind of patrol the edges of it...We just don't have the personnel, the manpower to get in there and work it."
Like at Lewisville Lake, Missouri authorities say they mostly become concerned with drunken boating, illegal drug use and public sex acts affiliated with the party cove. Incredibly, Humphrey says, while injuries are pretty common at the Lake of the Ozarks, drownings are rare.
"It's really, truly amazing, but we don't have that many drownings in the party cove, and I don't know how. You see guys sitting on the back of boats so drunk that they are just falling-over drunk, and people pass out in boats," he says. "We've had one drowning in there this year. I don't think we're averaging even one drowning in the party cove per year."
The Lake of the Ozarks party cove is so notorious and so wild that lawmakers several times have tried to regulate it out of existence. But, besides stepping up enforcement against drunken and unsafe boating, reducing lake speed limits is about the only way authorities can regulate it, he says.
"Last year I think one of the senators tried to introduce a bill that would prohibit more than a certain number of boats from tying up together, but I think once they started looking at it, they decided it would be next to impossible to enforce. What number do you put on that?" he says. "You start looking at people's constitutional right to assemble--it starts to become a constitutional issue."
On the Saturday before Douglass' birthday, the water in the Lewisville Lake party cove looks as jam-packed as a public swimming pool. It appears chaotic and unsafe, at least to a newcomer. Turner, the state game warden, navigates his boat carefully through the crowd.
"You got a hundred [swimmers] in the water, easy," Turner says over the chatter of a police radio, "...and actually it's not very crowded right now."
No one drowned at the party cove on Douglass' birthday. There was plenty of drinking and plenty of nudity, but no sex acts. Probably the biggest tragedy on this day--at least the one that evoked the most emotion--occurred when the Wet Rat's generator quit.
It meant that the food for Douglass' birthday party, scheduled for later that night at the marina, could not be heated up beforehand. Naked and topless women were forgotten while a guy named "Tinker" tinkered with the generator before deciding it needed more than what he could do on the water.
At another high point--or at least a strange one--a man and a young boy idled into the party cove and the vicinity of a boat with a topless blonde. The blonde was sitting on the back swimming deck with her legs stretched out, exposed like a Playboy model.
She waved at passing boaters and seemed to be basking in the attention. But as soon as she caught sight of the boy, she covered her breasts with her arms as if she'd been hit with a blast from the arctic. She briefly donned her top, then pulled it off again and resumed the parade-queen wave to male boaters after the boy and his father were out of sight.
In the early evening, with the sun still blazing overhead and a light breeze blowing hot as a dryer vent, Douglass pulls the Wet Rat ever so slowly out of his line of boats at the cove. A second line of boats has now appeared. The crowd looks a little younger and more rambunctious than the line of boats the Wet Rat left. As music continues to blast from nearby boats, a couple of boys appear to be vying for position on the tail of a boat, throwing punches and knocking each other into the water.
A few years ago, the Wet Rat might have had naked women on its bow for the trip back to the marina, a sort of Wet Rat tradition. Douglass says one time police stopped him because he pointed the spotlight at the bow onto the naked women, lighting them up for the whole lake to see. Police said they stopped him because the naked women were making their job difficult, Douglass says.
With his fiancee aboard and the wedding just a couple of weeks away, the only one on the bow for this trip home is O. Reilly, Douglass' business partner who is wearing swimming trunks and a sunburn. O. Reilly thinks he might "inherit" the Wet Rat after the marriage takes hold, something Douglass says is untrue.
The party cove wedding, to be officiated by a minister, is supposed to take place on a friend's houseboat in the early evening. Hall says family, friends and some party cove people will be invited to attend.
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When asked if marriage will be the end of the partying days for the Wet Rat, Hall sort of rolls her eyes and says, "No," and then a bit tentatively adds, "of course not."
Douglass is more adamant about staying with the party. He insists the marriage won't affect his weekend visits.
"There isn't any other place like it," he says.
Staff writer Merritt Martin contributed to this story.