Whale of a Boat

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I recently moved to California from Texas, and thanks to the sport of whaleboat racing, my literal perspective on the Bay Area has been at sea level.  My view has been from the wooden seat of a 2,000 pound boat dubbed the Lallah Rookh. I row this boat with seven teammates from the Straits of Mare Island Rowing Association. Our races take place all around the Bay Area.

We have raced from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. As we sat in the Lallah Rookh, bobbing on the water, I marveled at how close we were to the iconic prison, and at the spectacular view of the Bay and City.

At the Berkeley Marina race, the expansive view of the surrounding bay waters took my breath away.

Racing in Vallejo, the remnants of naval ships and old buildings at the Mare Island Shipyard harkened to a bygone era and the proud history of a city.

But I must confess, when we raced in choppy waters from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, I focused more on surviving the row than on noticing the scenery.


Whaleboats hold eight rowers, a coxswain who steers and coaches the boat, and a bowhook who calls out the stroke count. Whaleboats look like fatter, much heavier row boats and are built to survive rough seas. In the 18th and 19th centuries, whaleboats were used by most boaters, including the Coast Guard life-saving service.

Whaleboat racing has its roots in the history of the Bay area. When cargo ships pulled into port to unload, the ships' crews had time on their hands. So they took to racing around the bay, and a sport was born -- a sport with a colorful past, including gambling and even fist-fighting.

Today the competitions are fierce but friendly, and are always followed by a festive meal and awards. Whaleboat rowers come in all ages and sizes and from all walks of life. What they share is a love of the sport, a commitment to their team and a pride in participating in this Bay Area tradition.

I am grateful for my sea level perspective on this beautiful area, and indebted to a group of rowers devoted to preserving this unique piece of San Francisco history.
With a Perspective, I'm Jacqueline Genovese.
Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Medicine and the Muse program at Stanford's School of Medicine.