Twenty-eight years after a newspaper columnist spurred Windermere and UW to create one of the rowing’s greatest annual spectacles, the Windermere Cup has attracted the best crews from Great Britain’s international-champion national program. The dual-race showdowns are Saturday inside the roaring Montlake Cut.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – The British were going to bring younger, more novice national crews to the 28th Windermere Cup.
Then they remembered the Huskies.
They remembered what their hosts during this week did to them last July at their famed Royal Henley Regatta on the River Thames outside London.
Oh, yes, the British men -- the winningest program at the last Olympics, a systematic machine UW Director of Rowing and Olympic-winning coach Bob Ernst calls the world’s finest rowing system -- remembers Washington’s varsity eight. They lived through the Huskies, the only collegians in the Grand Challenge Cup final field of national teams, equaling Germany’s previous record time in the Royal Henley, which was first raced in 1839. The veteran British had to set their own, new course record last summer to beat the Huskies, who had just raced the day before in the semifinals. It was the Huskies' first defeat since 2010, and it came a month after UW won its third consecutive U.S. national championship, and fourth in five years. The Huskies left behind at Henley an enhanced reputation as one of the finest university programs not only in America but the world.
Plus, the British know of the Windermere Cup’s internationally renowned, one-of-a-kind setting, the sport’s closest thing to rowing inside a football stadium. Tens of thousands of Northwest natives will be roaring on the close banks of the Montlake Cut again on Saturday morning. It’s a raucous scene that would likely overwhelm newbie rowers. Even the vets admit they have never seen anything like what awaits them this weekend.
“We initially thought about a bit more of a development crew,” Rob Dauncey, the coach of Team Great Britain’s heavyweight men’s eight, said Wednesday. “But then when we thought and remembered about the tough racing Washington gave us at Henley last year, where in the Grand eight and the Ladies Plate eight (final) we just managed to get past Washington. We thought maybe we ought to stiffen up our crew and, you know, give it a bit more power.”
The coach later added with only a trace of a grin: “Obviously, as a national team, we sort of expect to win.”
“This is the best competition we’ve had for a Windermere Cup since the very first one, with the Soviets coming here in 1987. It is absolutely the best rowing program in the world.”
Dauncey arrived Monday with an eight-man crew that includes six members of the Great Britain team that raced in the 2013 world championships. It is led by 27-year-old Daniel Ritchie, who won a gold medal last year in the men’s eight. After Saturday’s Windermere Cup kicks off its racing season, Team GB will compete in the European championships next month and in this year’s world finals in August.
This, as Ernst likes to say, is the real deal.
“This is the best competition we’ve had for a Windermere Cup since the very first one, with the Soviets coming here in 1987,” Ernst said. “It is absolutely the best rowing program in the world.”
The Windermere Cup has come to this in over a quarter century. It’s come from a challenge thrown out in 1986 by former Seattle Times sports columnist Blaine Newnham to UW to make the annual opening day to Seattle’s boating season a rowing competition more world-class, a challenge Windermere Real Estate founder John Jacobi read in his Sunday paper 28 years ago this week. Jacobi then teamed with Ernst and late, legendary UW rowing coach Dick Erickson to create what is now an event so highly regarded internationally, world champions wouldn’t dare bring anything but their best to compete in it.
Saturday’s Windermere Cup will be the first one with just two entrants each in the women’s and men’s finals that begin just after 11:30 a.m. at the Pacific Northwest’s biggest free sporting spectacle. This year, it’s two, dual-race grudge matches for the crystal, custom-made-in-Czechoslovakia Windermere Cup.
“We’ve brought the best,” Huskies men’s coach Michael Callahan said of the challenge facing his young team.
Last week the Huskies, ranked second, took down No. 1 and archrival California on the Golden Bears’ home course. That has injected even more belief into a program that has won five of the last eight IRA national championships and last year swept all five grand finals – from freshman through JV and varsity – at them.
“The best.” It befits this remarkable event. And its venue.
A CHANCE TO ROW ON THE WORLD’S MOST UNIQUE COURSE
This was my view from the 2 seat of the KIRO-television eight-man (and woman) boat Tuesday morning. That's Husky Stadium's jawed rooftops, in Union Bay beyond the east entrance to the Montlake Cut, one of the world’s most unique rowing courses.
This is the start of the stretch through which the powerful Soviet Union blew away the Huskies and everyone else in the first Windermere Cup in 1987, fulfilling Newnham’s, Windermere’s and UW’s hope to add spice to this event.
“I never heard a single word of the coxswain during the race, the people were so loud,”
Soviet rower Andrej Vasiljev said that day. “Even the finals of the world championships are not as impressive as this.”
I took the picture just before the start of the two media races that kicked off Windermere Cup week. KIRO was kind enough to take me on their crew, even though you probably have more rowing experience than I do.
We finished third — ahead of, ahem, KING-5, I should add, in the second, "grudge" match going back through the Cut west to east. At least that race had a stationary start. The first race, into the Cut from the east as the Huskies and British will race Saturday, began with a surprise: A scattered, almost shotgun-like start that left our boat behind. We never caught up over the approximately 300-meter sprint, far less than the 2,000-meter distance for Saturday’s Windermere Cup.
Once I got my oar more “squared” into the water for my strokes — thanks, my patient, veteran, 3-seat and bow neighbors bracketing me with advice — I did OK. That is to say, I didn’t “catch a crab” and topple the boat/entire crew into part of Lake Washington.
All the while, Callahan was roasting me from his Huskies’ coaches’ launch through his megaphone. I mean, he gleefully heckled me as if I was a Cougar inside Husky Stadium.
Seems UW’s rowers don’t take pictures while training.
"YOU HAVE YOUR PHONE OUT HERE?!!!" Callahan bellowed at me, his voice rising out of the megaphone to emphasize his mock and his disbelief.
When he wasn’t saying that, the veteran of a Navy family was razzing me for being an Army guy miscast on the water.
But that wasn’t the most humbling moment for me or our KIRO team. That came a few minutes later when Great Britain’s men’s eight sped by us in perfect unison while on a short training row. It was as if our boat was anchored to the bottom of Union Bay. And the British were barely breathing.
Britain sent its national women’s team to two previous Windermere Cups, in 1998 when it won and 2002 when it finished behind UW and Stanford. This is the first time the British men’s and women’s teams are competing at the same Windermere Cup.
When we got back to the dock the British were carrying their borrowed boat back into Conibear Shellhouse. We remarked to the visitors how fast they were out there. When I added “You looked like you were barely trying,” a tall, formidable British rower looked at me with a deadpan expression.
He didn’t answer. He just chuckled.
The immediate takeaway from the racing: It's not so much how powerful your individual stroke is; if it's not in absolutely lock-step synchronization with the other seven rowers in your boat, you won't win.
The races made me appreciate not only how well-conditioned, strong and sleek the Huskies' champion rowers are, but how exquisitely and intimately connected each of their movements must be. They are like a world-class orchestra, on water instead of inside a bandshell.
KOMO TV won the media race and its trophy — as it should have. Sports director Mike Ferreri rowed at the University of Iowa and has had his KOMO team practicing for the media race since, oh, about last June.
Ferreri’s spirit and coordination, plus the efforts of Windermere Real Estate’s Mary Lynn Thompson and Shelley Rossi and their staffs, made this fun race on a gloriously warm, sunny spring day the best of any Windermere Cup preliminary yet.
When it ended, Ferreri accepted the media-race crystal cup from Matt Lacey, executive director of the Pocock Rowing Center that is located under the University Bridge on Portage Bay. Ferreri handed the trophy to Dan Lewis, the veteran who has been with KOMO since 1987. Lewis recently announced he was stepping away from his news anchor position. He asked with a smile if he could come back next year and race for KOMO “as an alumnus.”
"You can be in my boat any time," Ferreri said to Lewis, who then kissed the trophy.
The British rowers patiently waited for all the novices to clear their training space, as the eight of us in red lifted and put away our Pocock training boat from the dock into the storage garage.
It is fitting we were racing in a Pocock, and that Lacey from Pocock was presenting the trophies for the media-race event at Conibear Shellhouse.
Hiram Conibear, coach of Washington’s then-infantile rowing program, learned through rowing circles of these British brothers and their shell building. Conibear, the “Father of Washington Crew,” traveled to 150 miles north from Seattle to Vancouver and rowed out to the floating shop in Coal Harbour, on Burrard Inlet between downtown and Vancouver’s Stanley Park, of George and Dick Pocock. He offered the British brothers and shipbuilders a job to build the Huskies’ eight-year-old rowing program a dozen racing shells. As Jim Daves and W. Thomas Porter describe in their 2001 book “The Glory of Washington: The People and Events that Shaped the Husky Athletic Tradition,” the brothers agreed to visit UW in the summer of 1912. Conibear offered the Pococks as a boat-building home the Tokio Café, which had been built in 1909 for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expedition on the edge of Portage Bay and Lake Union, beyond the west edge of the UW campus. At the time, the Huskies’ varsity crew house was the U.S. Life Saving Station on Lake Union.
The Englishmen weren’t overly impressed, but they agreed to build Conibear his 12 boats. Problem was, the UW coach was only able to secure initial funding for one. Dick and his father Aaron, who by now had sailed from England to join his sons in the Northwest, moved from Vancouver to Seattle to build Conibear’s Rogers. It was named for William H. Rogers, the owner of the Seattle candy and ice cream company that donated $200 to build the Huskies’ new shell in 1912.
Conibear’s growing program using the Pococks’ first custom boat attracted the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. In 1913 it invited Conibear and the Huskies onto the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as the first crew from the west to compete in the IRA’s annual regatta. Once UW and then Cal raced in them, the IRAs became the de facto national championships of college rowing.
By 1926, Washington had won three IRA national titles in four years – and built the foundation of the legacy George Pocock and Husky rowers have passed down to each other through a century of excellence at UW.
“It’s a great art, is rowing,” begins Pocock’s famous quote on the sport he helped grow in the early 1900s. “It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion and when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. You’re touching the divine. It touches the you of you’s, which is your soul.”
It touched the British souls into coming here for Saturday’s 28th Windermere Cup, though Windermere funding their travel costs from England didn’t hurt, either.
And, even if for only one morning, it touched our souls on the docks of Conibear Shellhouse on a glorious Tuesday in Seattle.
"The Windermere Cup and opening of the boating season is fantastic," Pocock’s Lacey said to us at the trophy presentation following the media race. "It’s like Christmas in Seattle for rowing."
WEARY OF FRIDAY NIGHT
The British were escorted Tuesday by local volunteers on a short shopping trip to Northgate Mall; the UW bookstore is also an annual Windermere Cup favorite for visiting crews, to stock up on Huskies gear to take home. Great Britain’s teams also enjoyed what their coaches called tremendous steaks Tuesday night at Daniel’s Broiler on South Lake Union. After Wednesday’s training they went on the “Crews’ Cruise,” the trip sponsored by the Seattle Yacht Club that takes the visitors out on private boats into Lake Washington, past the 520 bridge and, of course, Bill Gates’ lakeside estate.
“Everyone wants to see Bill Gates’ house,” SYC’s Michelle Shaw said.
Thursday night the Huskies and British teams will be back in Conibear for the customary Windermere Cup athletes’ dinner two nights before the races. Friday has some training and some free time.
That’s the night that some other, veterans who have come to race at Windermere Cups have indulged in as much as Seattle as they could get -- namely Australia. The 1996 Olympic champions partied their way in 1997 to getting beaten by the Huskies the next morning in what remains the Windermere Cup’s greatest upset.
I’ve been told these British mostly 25-ish year olds are under a strict training regimen that is limiting their chances for too many shenanigans.
Yet I somewhat playfully asked Dauncey, Great Britain’s men’s national-team coach, if he might let his guys loose on Seattle for some fun. He allowed that “perhaps” there could be time for that.
On Saturday night, after the racing.
O.B. Jacobi, the president of Windermere Real Estate and the company founder’s son, then showed he was a good Husky man – one keenly interested in the home team continuing its domination of seven consecutive Windermere Cup championships, and 11 of the past 12.
“If they want to go out Friday night,” a smiling Jacobi told Dauncey, “we can certainly make that happen.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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