The Golden Era of Coastal Rowing on San Francisco Bay
For the Annual Rowing Regatta of 1904, 25,000 people turned out to watch rowers from the Dolphin Rowing Club compete against their rivals the Alameda Rowing Club, the South End Rowing Club, and the Ariel club.
Held on July 4th of each year, the Annual Regatta was the biggest event of the amateur rowing calendar. Large cash prizes were available for the rowers and prestige for the clubs they belonged to. These and other regattas regularly drew crowds of several thousand and were worthy of headline news.
Clips from San Francisco newspapers from the turn of the last century reveal a time when competitive rowing along the shores of San Francisco Bay was a one of the region’s most popular sports – even more popular than Baseball!
The crowd was large numerically and in enthusiasm. It fairly packed the sloping banks extending half a mile on each side of the course and scores of boats laden with passengers flitted around the starting point and frequently provoked the judges to profanity by their trespassing upon the water reserved for the contestants. Two brass bands alternated in producing good music and the throng never slighted an opportunity to cheer. Each race was started amid encouraging shouts and finished amid a mighty acclaim complementary to the victor.SF Call – September 10, 1904
In these years, the competition between the Bay rowing clubs was fierce. The clubs and their rowers would compete amongst themselves as well as travel far and wide to races in Stockton, Vallejo, Sausalito, Alameda, and even as far as San Diego and Astoria. There were events for singles, for doubles, but the highlight was the four-oared crew. For these the club would field teams in junior, intermediate and senior races.
The Dolphin club owned a fleet of racing skiffs, shells and four-oared boats. With its position on the north shore of San Francisco, rowers trained and raced in challenging waters, and the boats needed to be both lightweight and seaworthy.
Lighter rowing shells had to be used with care. An 1892 story in the Examiner describes how a four-man crew training on the ‘Cuckoo’ narrowly escaped with their lives after capsizing in rough waters while trying to make it back to the club at night.
The farther they got down the bay the rougher became the water, and at last realizing the folly of trying to drive such a frail craft through such a heavy sea, the men decided to turn back and effect a landing at Meiggs wharf. The long slender raceboat had all she could do to keep afloat while bow on to the sea and as soon as the attempt was made to turn around she got in the trough and capsized. In an instant the entire crew were battling for their lives.(SF Examiner, June 23 1892)
It was a close call. They were in the water for an hour before their cries for help were finally heard by someone out at the pier. They were rescued wet and cold, but alive.
The rougher conditions of the Bay drove innovation and a local style of four-oared ‘barge’ evolved that was beamier and better suited for the rougher waters. Local boat builders competed to make new boats that were strong enough for the waters, yet light enough to be competitive.
The California was the Dolphin Club’s’ most notable four-oared racing barge in the late 1890s. At the turn of the century, it was joined by a new racing barge Dolphin purchased for $140.
Both underwent numerous changes during their lives to make them faster and more competitive, giving them a low sleek look. Newspapers would report on these developments to the betting public.
The old barge (California) is practically a new one as forty pounds of oak timbers have been taken out and two and a half pounds of pine put in its place.(SF Chronicle – September 15, 1901)
But the optimization maybe went too far. California was swamped and badly damaged in 1905, and then lost in 1906 after a marathon race between the Dolphins and the Ariel Rowing Club.
After the race, as the several boats of the Dolphin Club were returning to the boathouse at the foot of Van Ness avenue, the California, the second racing barge of the club, was struck by a heavy sea and swamped. The next sea, which was just as heavy, lifted the barge on its crest and broke it in two.(SF Chronicle – April 16, 1906)
More four-oared racing barges were built in the following years. We know at least of Yosemite, Eureka and Oakland, and there may have been more.
Birth of the POOA
Up until 1904, west coast rowing had been organized by the Pacific Athletic Association. But as other sports gained prominence, club rowers started to grumble at the lack of attention being given to their sport. So the Bay Area rowing clubs started to discuss the idea of an independent organization to manage rowing events.
By late 1904, the Pacific Association of Amateur Oarsmen was officially born – with the Dolphins, South-enders, Ariels and Alamedans as the charter founders.
The PAAO soon gained the interest of rowing clubs from Southern California, and despite the geographical challenges, San Diego Rowing Club in particular would go onto develop a long standing friendly rivalry with the Bay Area clubs.
But San Diego with its’ more protected waters would also push for the introduction of new rules and changes to the design of club barges.
The southerners want the law in relation to barges altered so that the men will sit over the keel of the boat instead of at the sides as at present. The San Diego men claim that for men who use shells, the barges in use by the clubs on this bay are impracticable and spoil all form and style for shell rowing…SF Call – August 15, 1911
In September 1911, the PAAO voted to allow rowers to sit over the centerline of the barges, and to allow the use of outriggers to hold the oars further out. This significant change allowed for the boats to become narrower, faster but less seaworthy. As rowing shells became lighter, the Dolphin Club and South End clubs became less and less suitable for competition.
After the Great War, enthusiasm for rowing seemed to fade in the popular press, and inland clubs pushed for competition on calmer waters behind Mission Bay. The clubs opened boathouses in Mission Bay, but development soon pushed them out and the San Francisco rowing moved to the flat water of Lake Merced.
Meanwhile, on the north shore of San Francisco, swimming began to rise in popularity. Rowers who remained at the Dolphin and South End clubs became essential as pilots, and the clubs acquired heavier boats capable of carrying swimmers.
What happened to the Dolphin Club’s four-seat racing barges is hard to say. An article from 1934 shows Irish and German teams at the club competing against each other, and there’s a few more pictures in the 50’s of four-seater barges rowing in the cove. But then, that’s about it.
Hearsay from old timers suggest they may have been moved to Lake Merced and then hidden in tunnels under the Great Highway. The South End Rowing Club still have one of their four seat barges in the rafters of their boathouses.
That might have been the end of the story, but change is once again afoot in the rowing world.
A new class of “Coastal Rowing” is gaining momentum around the world. In countries like Hong Kong, Portugal, the UK, Italy, and Australia, rowers are venturing beyond lakes and rivers to experience the thrill of rowing in rougher waters, currents and surf. New coastal boat designs are evolving to punch through waves and chop – without sinking. And four-seat coastal quads are now the big ticket at coastal rowing events. It’s possible, even likely, that the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics may change to this style of open-water rowing.
San Francisco Bay is ideal for this type of rowing. Despite currents, wind and unpredictable conditions, rowers from the Dolphin Club and South End Clubs have been racing on San Francisco Bay since 1877.
The Dolphin Club now has a new four-seat coastal racing barge once again, along with coastal singles and doubles. We’re encouraging neighboring clubs to join us in competition, and we have enthusiastic new coxswains working on forming teams with the hopes of bringing back coastal rowing.
Greetings from Mendocino. I woke up with coastal rowing on my mind and– lo and behold–found your article in my research! I had a fragmented sense of our clubs’ rich history with rowing and now I have colorful narratives to fill in the blanks. Thank you!
For a more in-depth history of rowing in the Bay, see South End: Sport and Community at the Dock of the Bay, by Bob Barde and Pat Cunneen (Gibbons Press, 2019). Although focused on the South End Rowing Club, it touches on ALL the rowing clubs in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area–from the first recorded races (c. 1850) to the present. (Full disclosure: the writer is one of the authors.)
Another good source on the subject is Bill Pickelhaupt, CLUB ROWING ON SAN FRANCISCO BAY, 1869-1939 Featuring the South End Rowing Club. [San Francisco]: [Bill Pickelhaupt], 1995. iv, 94 pp.