Welcome to boating season! In my corner of the world, this is a year-around activity (albeit not tremendously popular in the winter months), but as of the first Saturday in May, it’s official!
Watercraft of every size, shape, color and purpose take to the H2O in droves. Temporary structures sprout up along our lakes, rivers, sounds and oceans, offering you the chance to rent your vision of freedom on the waterways.
Time to celebrate! And what better way to honor the commencement of maritime activities then with a regatta? That’s exactly how Seattle floats—with The Windermere Cup.
Since 1987, Windermere Real Estate brings together racing crew teams from all over the world for a chance to take home The Windermere Cup trophy. While the visiting teams vary from year to year, the University of Washington Huskies represent the home team for this auspicious event.
Fans crowd the narrow land edges of the Arboretum and the Montlake Cut for a chance to witness the festivities. On the water, yacht club members and other boat owners line up along the race course for a first-hand unobstructed view of the athletes in action. And just where did we fit in?
The log booms
Two very long rows of logs floating end to end (anchored in place) served as the boundaries for the race course. These logs also served as the top of our parking spot, as we backed up to one such tree trunk and proceeded to tie up.
In general, the boating community is a friendly and helpful group. Appropriate since each ties up not only to the log boom, but to each other as well. Get-acquainted conversations spring with every tie-up. Those with dinghies assist in the tie-up process, along with shuttling their own guests to and from the shore.
Each boat load of fans throws their own bash, music drifting from almost every vessel. Think one long, thin tailgate party—or “sailgate” as referred to by one of our neighbors.
The races—back in the day
What do spoons, tulips, hatchets and collars have in common? Oars, of course! Specifically racing oars. From spoons to tulips—common boat oar styles of yesteryear, today’s crew teams use the hatchet style oar.
Adjustable collars on the hatchet oars (positioned near the handles) allow coaches to assess the current skill of the rower, then increase the degree of difficulty as the athlete improves. Moving the collar higher up the oar pushes the boat even farther with each stroke.
Training equipment and techniques today are sophisticated and high tech. Years ago, manual labor jobs often took the place of formal offseason conditioning for our crew teams. And then there’s the shells. No longer wooden, modern day racing craft are made of durable synthetic materials featuring built-in seams so the boats can be disassembled for easy transportation.
Since originating in England on the Thames circa 1600s, the evolution of crew racing to the elite and popular sport we know today is highlighted throughout our history by several distinct mile markers—more than the ever-changing boats, oars and exercise programs. One such mile marker occurred during the Great Depression on these very shores.
A few days after our log boom adventure, we enjoyed a walking tour (on land!) honoring The Boys in the Boat and their famous legacy that came to pass pre-WWII. Led by former Husky women’s crew member Melanie Barstow (the “Boys of 1936” tour creator), we traveled through time from the UW’s current—and very modern—Conibear Shellhouse to the original ASUW Shellhouse on the water’s edge of the Montlake Cut.
A former Naval facility built in 1918—now on the National Register of Historic Places—this humble structure had a dual purpose. It served as a launch and storage for the UW crew teams, and as a shop for the assembly of the world-famous Pocock Racing shells.
George Pocock himself created his wooden boats under that roof. If these old floor boards could talk, they would be smiling as they told the very true story of how the Husky men’s varsity crew team came together (in a Pocock shell) to win the gold at the ‘36 Berlin Olympics.
The races—present day
Fast forward to modern times, and this year’s opening day contest. Pardon the reference, but this year’s races—22 total—were akin to singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”—one race right after the other.
Each lasted between 5 and 9 minutes—each a smooth yet sharp and speedy challenge on the water’s surface, and each marked with evidence of today’s tech and style: wireless headsets for the coxswain and rowers, sleek shells and the latest in lightweight uniforms. The winning teams crossed the finish line with no more than a second or two to spare, or considerably less.
When you hear the word “parade,” what comes to mind? Marching bands, cheerleaders, dignitaries, athletes, police and firefighters—and decorated floats? This post crew racing event contained all of the above mentioned elements, moving between the log booms with all the pomp and circumstance of any parade you’ve witnessed on paved city streets.
One noteworthy variation: all watercraft came back through the same course. In other words, any floating parade craft passed by all onlookers twice. No worries if you missed waving at a particular participant; the start and finish line were one in the same.
The course events ending, all boats proceeded to make their way home in whichever direction necessary. This created a common experience among all commuters: rush hour. Nothing like a little traffic jam to remind us we’re not alone when making our way down the many highways (and waterways) of life.
As we tootled along the no wake zone on our way back home, I wondered what thoughts crew racing fans had that year the UW crew team represented the USA in the ‘36 Summer Olympics. Hope, pride, excitement—my best guesses. Ears glued to their radios, voices harsh from yelling their enthusiasm as “the boys” crossed the finish line first—against all odds.
If only the boys knew their mile marker in the making—their very own and very famous moment in time—how much they continue to be celebrated. Their humble personas might be a bit overwhelmed.
But I think their pride in the continued success of crew racing at their old alma mater, and the celebration of this sport every first Saturday in May, would give them that “swing” feeling in and out of the racing shell, and the knowledge that it all was worth it—and still is. J 🚣♀️