Whaleboat racing competition took its current form in the Bay Area in 1965 under the sponsorship of maritime companies, using U.S. Coast Guard “Monomoys” (also known as lifeboats or whaleboats) built in the 1930’s and 40’s. By 1982, the Bay Area Whaleboat Rowing Association was formed to provide standards for safety and competition as well as coordinate regattas and other activities. By the early Eighties, new whaleboats were being built for the specific purpose of racing.

ERC was formed in 1980, and at that time, was a stepchild of the mainstream San Francisco rowing scene — it was the only “non-maritime” whaleboat rowing club in the area, lacking a sponsor in the form of large shipping company, city port, or Coast Guard jocks. As the story goes, we inherited the nickname ‘Renegade Bastards’ in 1985, during the notorious Alcatraz race. American President Lines’ Port Captain Carl Larkin was the race officiator (who was very prominent and one of the most influential people in whaleboat rowing at the time), and he was not pleased that ERC had won. After the awards ceremony he declared us “Renegade Bastards!!” and the name stuck. When we finally got our own boat in 1986, we named it the Renegade.


The unique legacy of rowing as a team sport stems from its origins in antiquity from commerce, transport, lifesaving, and naval warfare. Whaleboat racing in particular has been an integral part of the San Francisco Bay Area maritime community for well over 100 years. The whaleboat was once the most widespread of all small craft; in the late 1800’s it was known throughout the world and could be found in some of the most remote places on earth.

In 19th Century America, competition between watermen became very popular with the public soon after the formation of a Republic where tens of thousands of people earned their livelihood propelling watercraft with oars. From fishermen and whalers to pilot gigs and life-savers, from naval frigate-tenders and harbor ferries to Whitehall taxis and ships’ provisioners, hoards of people in America pulled an oar for a living.

One strictly enforced rule in those days was that whichever local boatmen first reached an incoming ship would be entitled to its business while it was in port — so the sighting of a visiting ship triggered a real race. As the great windjammers and steam ships of the mid-1800’s came to the Barbary Coast, local boatmen scrambled to react to their entrance in the harbor. In 1849, a house on Telegraph Hill was erected for the purpose of making signals visible throughout the city. With word of approaching vessels, competing ship’s chandlers raced each other as they rowed out to be the first to sell their outfitting services. Once in Yerba Buena Cove, the visiting ship’s crews often faced long layovers while their captains negotiated for cargo to carry on the return voyage. With wages spent and time on their hands, the crews would race their lifeboats.

All of this led to dramatic contests, although fairly disorganized, and soon caught the public’s attention and interest. With this attention grew the opportunity to make a quick dollar by betting on the outcome. Through the early 1800’s, larger and larger crowds were drawn to these match races, which evolved from marginal contests to mainstream events.

By 1873, rowing was the most popular sport in the Bay Area, with a total of nine rowing clubs in San Francisco alone. Professional rowers were celebrities, and even a few fearless women started to participate as well. Meanwhile, rowing, like any successful venture, developed a dark side. Cheating, throwing and fixing races, damaging equipment, poisoning and death-threats were known to occur. Samuel Crowther wrote in Rowing & Track Athletics in 1905:

“A race between prominent crews was witnessed by ten to fifty thousand people, and the betting was like that on a horse-race. Modern police arrangements were unknown, and the referee seldom decided against the home crew. In match races, each sculler was followed by a pilot barge, usually rowed by eight oarsmen with a passenger in the bow, who urged the sculler on and at the same time intimidated the opponent; it was win at any cost. The visiting oarsman had little chance; if the crowd did not break his boat before the start, he would have to run a gauntlet of craft as soon as he took the lead, and many a man had his boat cut in two by a barge when leading toward the finish–every trick possible was played.”

Scandals began to spread among the professional rowers, and a consequent call for the purity of amateur oarmanship in the sport changed the clubs from a colorful rough-and-tumble collection of outcasts to a respectable group moving up in the middle-class. We still strive for this ascension today.


Louis White’s Sardine-and-Beer Training Diet

On September 23, 1883 a long anticipated, single-scull 3-mile race took place between two highly regarded rowers in San Francisco, Leander Stevenson and Louis White. In the weeks leading up to the race the local sports magazine “The Breeder and the Sportsmen” covered the training regiment of both competitors:

“…Stevenson is training hard, rowing twice a day, while White is paying no attention to his preparation. His morning exercise consists of a walk to his office where he toys with a pen all day. He then takes a breather to the French liquor store in the next block and improves his wind with a bottle of Schlitz beer…and a box of sardines. If the weather is unusually warm, he takes a row up mission creek to Seventh Street bridge, stopping on the way to ogle the beauties in the box factories….”

When all was said and done, White won the race easily.


Monomoy Surfboats, the closest relatives to the boats we race in today, were designed for the high surf off Monomoy Island and Chatham, Massachusetts. In the pre-motor days of life saving, surfmen rowed these boats to the shipwreck, sometimes taking hours to reach the survivors. Their motto was,”You have to go out, but you do not have to come back.”

The Monomoy design is an evolution of the classic utilitarian whaleboat: a double-ended, lightweight, cheaply constructed boat to be rowed or sailed under all conditions in pursuit of whales and for use in general ship’s work. In 1934 the U.S. Coast Guard standardized the design for contract purposes, and thousands were built for use as lifeboats and gigs aboard not only naval and military ships but also commercial freighters and ocean liners. The boat is quite simple and Spartan.

Monomoys are found today in many U.S. Naval and Maritime Academies throughout the U.S. However, between BAWRA, the Sea Scouts and the California Maritime Academy, the biggest concentration of Monomoys in the world is here in the Bay Area. Most of the BAWRA Monomoys have been built in the last 25 years. Some are wood, some are fiberglass and some are combinations of the two. Despite the different construction methods, in the end it’s the bastards on the crew that win the race, not the boat!

1985 ERC Team
Whaleboat going out
Whaleboat in a wave