BY DANIEL JAMES BROWN
It’s almost that time of year again—time for opening day. In most of the country, that phrase summons up visions of hot dogs and line drives, a chance to shoot a large herbivore, or the opportunity pull a fat trout from a frothy stream. But here in Seattle, opening day is something else entirely. It’s the day thousands of us climb aboard boats and take to the water like so many gleeful ducks.
Come Saturday, cannons will boom, the Montlake Bridge will open its jaws wide, boat whistles will shriek, dogs in lifejackets will bark, fireboats will pump white plumes high into the air, elaborately decorated yachts will make their way slowly through the Cut, and Seattle will reaffirm its deep passion for all things nautical.
Not to be missed among all these spectacles will be the Windermere Cup Regatta, which will culminate late in the morning when the Washington varsity crews take on the British national crews. It should be a corker of a regatta. It will also be a reminder of just how deeply imbued the culture of rowing is in Seattle.
While researching and writing my recent book, “The Boys in the Boat”, it became abundantly clear to me right away that Seattle and rowing are nearly synonymous. I was stunned by how rich the history is surrounding not just the crew I was writing about — the 1936 Olympic crew — but the many fine crews that have plied the local waters over the past century. In the six years I worked on the book, I collected hundreds of fascinating historical facts, anecdotes and treasured memories — all pointing to Seattle’s deep affinity for the sport of rowing. But as I look forward to this weekend’s races there is one incident from 1936 that comes particularly to my mind.
In June of that year, rowing at Princeton, the boys from UW won the right to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. But just a few hours after that victory an official from the U.S. Olympic Rowing Committee — Henry Penn Burke from Pennsylvania — came to coach Al Ulbrickson and informed him that the boys, or the university, would have to pay their own way to Berlin. And, Burke continued, if Washington couldn’t afford to go, the Pennsylvania boys had plenty of money. They had come in second, and they would be happy to go in Washington’s place. Ulbrickson was flabbergasted and furious. No one had ever suggested that the boys would need to get themselves and their shell to Berlin. This was the depths of the Depression and none of the boys had two nickels to rub together, nor for that matter did UW. Burke left the meeting with Ulbrickson under the impression that Washington could not afford to go. Ulbrickson left the room with the same impression.
But that night, phones began to ring all over Seattle. Ulbrickson and the Washington press contingent — Royal Brougham of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and George Varnell of The Seattle Times — began placing calls back home and composing headlines for the morning editions of their papers. By the next morning, committees had been formed. By that afternoon hundreds of students and citizens were out on the streets of Seattle selling paper badges for 50 cents apiece. Donations began to come in from businesses and individuals: $1 from a donor who wished to remain anonymous, $5 from the Hide-Away-Beer Parlor; $500 from The Seattle Times.
By the time another 24 hours passed, the effort had raised $5,000 and the boys were good to go to Germany. But only because the citizens of Seattle stood up and said, “Yes they will go.”
It was, as someone pointed out to me recently, an example of Seattle’s 12th Man in action before Seattle even had a professional football team. Or, perhaps more aptly, as there are nine men or women in an eight-oar shell, it was Seattle’s 10th Man in action. Whatever you care to call it, it was a sterling moment in Seattle’s history, an extraordinary outpouring of civic pride.
So if you venture down to the Cut on Saturday to watch the crew races, be proud. Whoever wins, be proud. Be proud not just for the victors, but for Seattle’s long, marvelous tradition of coming together at the water’s edge to celebrate boats, water and community.
You won’t find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.
Daniel James Brown grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has lived near Redmond for the past 27 years. He has written three narrative nonfiction books including, most recently, “The Boys in the Boat” about Washington 1936 eight that won an Olympic gold medal in Berlin that spent four and half months on the New York Times bestseller list. The paperback goes on sale May 27. Learn more about “The Boys in the Boat” at www.danieljamesbrown.com.
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