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Lake Washington Regatta at Seward Park - 1947

Rowing is the oldest intercollegiate sport in the U.S. that began with a race between Yale and Harvard Universities in 1852. Years later, in 1903, Washington’s crew program started and reached World Championship ranks by 1936. At the end of WWII, the GI bill drew record enrollment to colleges, so did the enthusiasm and tryouts for crew. Al Ulbrickson, UW Coach with an Olympic gold medal under his belt, was raring to get back at the National Championship stage after a lull in competition during the war.

Washington State leaders, alongside the UW Sports Program, rallied for a national Regatta on the new Lake Washington course on the south side of the I-90 Bridge. $50,000 was the price tag. Thanks to the Lake Washington Regatta committee, the reps of the Seattle men and women who put up the money, the event came to fruition on June 28, 1947. The sprint course, 2000m (1.2 miles), started just north of Lakewood Marina heading toward Andrews Bay, finishing at the swim beach in Seward Park.

The top 12 teams, Yale and Harvard, Cornell, California, Penn, Syracuse, Princeton, M.I.T., Washington, Wisconsin, Columbia, and U.C.L.A, boarded the new Great Northern Railroad’s Olympian Hiawatha train, following the IRA National Championship in Poughkeepsie, New York. For many of them, it was their first time to the Pacific Northwest.

Royal Brougham writes the day before the race, ”Doc, examine my silly head and see what makes me do things like this... through force of habit or the demands of an exacting public, a writer must attempt to tell in advance who will win a race of America’s greatest boats. Ten out of the dozen have a chance. So closely are these crews matched, the width of a baby’s hand may separate the winner.” (Seattle P-I, June 28, 1947). Brougham’s picks were Harvard 1st, Cornell, California, and Washington, 4th.

The Seattle P-I reported over 150,000 spectators showed up that day, the largest crowd and greatest sports spectacle in Seattle’s history. The newsreel claimed 200,000 people flooded the shores of Lake Washington. The crowds were there from the start, to see a swimming competition, a log-rolling exhibition, a speedboat race, a Native American canoe race, a water-skiing exhibition, a quad rowing race, and a Seaplane show. All took place before the sprint.

Two thousand boats of every kind lined the log boom, “hordes of policemen, patient, cheerful and briefed to the hilt on the special traffic arrangements.” Homes along the boulevard held open houses, lawns crowded with friends, spectators filled windows and porches and every inch of the hills, wherever a view of Andrews Bay could be found. The race was over in less than six minutes. So close was the finish that Royal Brougham’s live KOMO broadcast, from overhead in the blimp, brought the news to the jam-packed shore. Harvard first, followed by Yale and Washington 3rd.

Brougham reported the following day in the P-I, “It was a lightning fast race, as the time proved, Harvard did it in 5:49, a new world’s record for the 2000m. Settling a blistering pace down the beautiful Lake Washington course, Coach Tom Bolles’ Varsity-8 carved itself another chunk of glory with its crimson blades winning the championship of America from the finest field in crew history. The perfectly coordinated, expertly trained boat from Cambridge led its ancient rival, Yale, over the finish line by nearly a length. And driving furiously into the roaring maelstrom at the finish came the Cinderella crew from Washington, the glamour boat load of freshmen which only a week ago found itself in the Husky varsity. A fine Washington showing, brought to a close a highly successful year so capably coached by Al Ulbrickson.

All in all, it was a day that made American rowing history and more than that, it proved that Seattle has the water, the climate, and the brains with which to stage a regatta unmatched by any rowing event ever held.” (Brougham, Seattle P-I, July 29, 1947). Visiting coaches from all over America were unanimous in their praises for the highly successful regatta and its perfect location.

The last intercollegiate regatta on the Lake Washington course was in 1969. It was University of Washington coach Dick Erickson who revamped the crew program in the 1970s, bringing back crew for female students after a 50-year hiatus. He connected the Seattle Yacht Club and Seafirst Bank in combining and sponsoring Opening Day with a regatta. For the past 38 years, Windermere has hosted the annual Windermere Cup/ Opening Day Regatta at the Montlake Cut. This year (2024) was special with invitations to Italy’s and Wisconsin’s crew teams and special guests from the Boys in the Boat acting crew. They celebrated the history-making Varsity-8 from 1936 in the hometown of Conibear Shell House.

Crew racing on Seward Park course, Lake Washington, 1947 Courtesy UW Special Collections (UWC1999)


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