Dusk in Seattle, and the U-Dub crew is still on the water. To the
rhythmic zep of oars acting as one, a pair of eight-man shells
glide east along the teeming channel, past the shipwrights,
houseboats and pleasure-craft slips, under the traffic-choked
Fremont Bridge and into the urban amphitheater of Lake Union.
It's an arresting sight, the Space Needle and the Emerald City
skyline glowing in the setting sun, and yet there's no time to
gawk. "Coxies, let's get a little sweaty out here!" Washington
coach Bob Ernst chirps into a megaphone, easing his launch
alongside the shells. "Full pressure! I want the water on fire!"
And so the Huskies grit their teeth and ignite, continuing a
tradition that has gripped the Pacific Northwest for a century.
Sunday's Head of the Lake Regatta, held on Lake Washington,
completed the fall portion of UW's 101st year of rowing, starting
on June 3, 1903, with a three-length victory over hated Cal. The
decades since have been wrapped in glory, from the Huskies' 72
national crowns (23 by varsity eights) to a role in cold war
diplomacy, from wins at England's Henley Regatta to an Olympic
triumph chosen by a Seattle newspaper--over Rose Bowls, baseball
playoffs and an NBA title--as the city's greatest sports feat of
the 20th century.
From that first race in 1903, when 5,000 fans gathered by foot,
boat and carriage, Sea-town and rowing have been a perfect fit.
"We have a huge water-oriented community, and nobody has a more
beautiful venue for the sport," says Ernst, a four-time U.S.
Olympic coach. "You look out here this morning, and there's the
sunrise and the water's glassy and Mount Rainier has snow on top.
The Northwest is all about the water and the timber and the
hills, and rowing slides right in there."
"It's part of our identity and culture," says Eric Cohen, a
former Huskies coxswain who has written an exhaustive history of
the program. "Even though 80 to 90 percent of the men and women
who turn out for the sport never letter, they still come to the
races, talk about it with their friends and consider it a big
part of their experience growing up. Then they encourage their
kids to row."
No event captures the Puget Sound's maritime madness better than
Opening Day, the annual yacht parade that has celebrated the
start of boating season (and the end of Seattle's dreary winter)
since 1909. On the first Saturday in May, as many as 60,000
rowdies fill the banks and boats along the narrow Montlake Cut
near the UW campus to drink Hale's Ales and check out the
procession of 50-foot Bridgedecks, 40-foot Chris-Crafts and
115-foot powerboats--but not before the Washington crews take on
international and collegiate rivals in the Windermere Cup, a
unique rowing spectacle.
"It's amazing," says Mary Reeves, the Huskies' women's senior
stroke. "People line their yachts up along the log boom [on Lake
Washington] for a week before the race, so you literally have
them cheering for you all the way down. Then you get to the Cut,
and it's just packed." So deafening is the echo chamber that
coxswains turn their electronic cox boxes up to 11--and still
can't get through to their teams.
Best of all for the fans, Opening Day doesn't cost a dime. It's
only one of the many enduring (and endearing) symbols of
Washington rowing, joining the Huskies' unique all-white oars,
the twin-spired Montlake Bridge that appears on their
championship rings and the graffiti on the walls of the Montlake
Cut, often of delightfully dubious taste, with such slogans as
CHICKS ARE BORN IN SHELLS; SENIORS '03: PARTY HARD, ROW HARDER;
and BUST A NUT IN THE CUT.
Simply put, tradition matters. For all the advances in rowing,
one of the sport's allures is its timelessness, the bonds that
link crews of today with those from a century ago--and the
centuries to come. "When we had 1,100 rowers at our centennial
banquet last May, they could all identify with everyone else,"
Ernst says. "Today we've got high-tech ergometers and
carbon-fiber boats that weigh half as much as they did 50 years
ago, but the bottom line is, if you're not willing to come down
here every day and bust your teakettle, then you're not gonna be
Any discussion of the greatest teakettle-busters in Huskies
history has to include four milestone years. There was 1958, when
a young brush-cut broadcaster named Keith Jackson called
Washington's upset of the Leningrad Trud crew from Moscow for
radio listeners in Seattle. The so-called "rowing diplomacy,"
arranged by the U.S. and Soviet governments, marked the first
time an American team had triumphed on Soviet soil--and surely
the first time a Russian crowd had given any Yanks a standing O.
(Jackson still considers the race the most memorable sports event
he has covered.)
Then there was 1977, when Dick Erickson's varsity eight ambushed
the British national team at Henley, the first time a U.S. crew
had won there in 18 years. And alums are still buzzing over the
Perfect Weekend in '97, when Jan Harville's women won the first
NCAA-sanctioned rowing title ever awarded and the men swept the
varsity, jayvee and freshman crowns at the IRA national
Yet the undisputed high-water mark--what the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer would call, in a 1999 article, the city's most
significant sports moment of the century--came in 1936, when nine
college kids, all Washington natives, won the Olympic gold medal
in Hitler's Germany. At a time when Seattle had no pro teams or
global identity, the local news media turned the Huskies into
celebrities, a source of civic pride. "We didn't think of
ourselves as just a crew squad or the University of Washington,"
says '36 coxswain Bob Moch, now 89 and a retired lawyer. "We were
rowing for the city of Seattle and the whole state."
The '36 Olympic final was an epic race. The national champion
Huskies had set a 2,000-meter world record in the preliminary on
Lake Grunau, but stroke Don Hume, their finest oarsman, had come
down with a severe cold. As Washington fell behind early, Moch
asked Hume to increase the stroke rate. "And Don didn't do it,"
Moch says. "His eyes were closed, and his jaw was slack." By the
halfway mark UW was in last place, and Moch was about to ask
number seven man Joe Rantz to stroke instead. "But then Don's
eyes popped open and his mouth clamped shut," Moch says, "and
away we went. The boat just flew." With a full grandstand
chanting Deutsch-land! in time to the German strokes, the Huskies
nosed ahead in the final 200 meters to win by eight feet.
Nearly seven decades later, the survivors of the legendary '36
crew met in September to scatter the ashes of Hume, their friend
and teammate, in the Guemes Channel north of Seattle. See, the
ties of a crew run deeper than any lake, whether you're Bob Moch
'36 or Sam Burns, class of 2004. The son of a Huskies rower,
Burns walked on three years ago and finished second with the UW
varsity at nationals last year, behind Harvard. He'll have one
final title shot next spring. "This is my last year," Burns says,
"and I'm realizing how much I'm going to miss all these guys."
Then he smiles, knowing full well that in a program like this,
graduation won't mean the end of anything.
For more about sports in Washington and the other 49 states, go
So deafening are the cheers that echo through Seattle's Montlake
Cut that rowers can't even hear the calls of their coxswains