History of Lake Merritt Rowing Club

By Meredith May and Robert Kidd

Rowers have been competing on “Oakland’s Crown Jewel” ever since civic leader Samuel Merritt dammed up an arm of the San Antonio Estuary in 1869 to create Lake Merritt.

Homeowners who lived along the lake built small, private boathouses and invited their friends and neighbors to see who was the better rower. An entrepreneur rented canoes and flatboats from the 12th Street Dam, and the occasional spontaneous sprint would draw a crowd of onlookers.

At the turn of the century, Oaklanders embarked on a progressive City Beautiful movement, and approved $8 million in bonds for a new City Hall, Lakeside Park, and a Municipal Boathouse at Lake Merritt. The new boathouse was built with the 1906 earthquake in mind. Constructed of reinforced concrete, it housed a pumping station for firefighters in the mid-section and the two wings were used to store canoes, sailboats, and rowboats. The boats were available to the public, expanding lake access to others besides the wealthy lakeside homeowners. The upper floor of the East wing was a tea room for spectators.

A year later, Oakland high schools began sending their students to Lake Merritt for physical fitness. It was common then to see young women in ankle-length white dresses, pulling themselves around the lake in wooden rowboats. Every year, crews of boys and girls hosted a Water Carnival, and decorated their boats with flowers to make them look like swans and dolphins.

Thousands put on their finest suits and dresses and gathered for Lake Merritt’s first adult regatta in 1916. The boathouse offered balconies and refreshments for spectators, and anyone who wanted to could test their mettle in a boat.

Powerboat racers held regattas in the 1920s and 1930s. The sport became so popular that a national powerboat regatta was held, and organizers put 50 loudspeakers around the entire lake to broadcast the races.

The Lake Merritt Rowing Club didn’t form until much later, after the humbling defeat for the American team at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. For the first time since the beginning of the modern Olympic games, the United States did not win the gold medal in the premiere rowing event – the men’s eight-oared crew.

West Germany crossed the finish line first, and the Americans went home determined to copy everything the winners did, from the shape of their oar blades to the new style of brief, high-intensity training. The Americans noted that the West Germans began rowing as children, in hundreds of organized rowing clubs. Most Americans saw their first crew shell during their freshman year in college.

Lake Merritt Rowing Club was founded in 1961, one of the many grassroots rowing clubs founded across the country in the wake of the American defeat in Rome. The founders included World War II hero Admiral Clyde King, and the legendary University of California crew coach Ky Ebright.

The new club was designed to provide rowing recreation and competition opportunities for East Bay adults and youth, and to cultivate potential Olympic rowers.

Lake Merritt accomplished both.

In 1980 and 1984, member Valerie McClain was named the coxswain for the American Women’s Olympic crews. Valerie began rowing at Lake Merritt as a high school student. Other Olympians who have rowed with Lake Merritt Rowing Club include 1964 silver medalist Don Sperling, 1980 and 1984 rower Patricia Spratlin, 1984 and 1988 coxswain Mark Zembsch, and 1984 gold medalist Kristen Thorsness.

Lake Merritt Rowing Club started junior programs to introduce East Bay youth to boating, and with Ed Likkis as coach, consistently placed among the top four junior crews in the nation.

Women were also a crucial part of the club from the very beginning. At a time when few boat clubs let women in the front door, Lake Merritt Rowing Club was fighting to let them race in regattas. In 1962, Lake Merritt and three other clubs across the nation formed the National Women’s Rowing Association to give women a shot at serious competition. Lake Merritt hosted the national championship regatta of the National Women’s Rowing Association in 1964, 1967, and 1974.

Collegiate women were also largely banned from major regattas, so in 1979 Lake Merritt Rowing Club founded the Bay Area Rowing Festival to provide high-quality racing for female students. In the years that have passed, women have become an accepted part of the rowing scene, and gender-based rowing associations have been dropped, due in part to the efforts of the Lake Merritt Rowing Club.

 
 

Masters women’s rowing continues to be one of the strengths of the club. The senior women’s team took a bronze in the 1978 Nationals held on Green Lake in Washington State, and has continued to medal regularly at statewide championships and local regattas.

Lake Merritt Rowing Club attracted late-bloomer athletes such as Cam Jones, who at 91 is the club’s most senior member. Jones joined after retiring from his private engineering company at age 70. He went on to dominate the 70-80 age group in sculling events, winning Oakland’s Head of the Estuary regatta five times. Jones has since retired his oars, but he still takes 5 a.m. walks around the 3.5-mile lake, and waves hello to fellow rowers as they practice.

Today Lake Merritt Rowing Club has approximately 200 members, and offers competitive teams for masters men and women, plus novice and intermediate classes for adults who are learning to row. The Summer Youth Rowing program, begun in 1979, is still going strong, with rowers coming from all over the Bay Area. High school teams from Berkeley and the Bentley School also practice on Lake Merritt.

The Ladies of the Lake, a women’s whaleboat club that formed in 1916, still practices on Lake Merritt. In their white sailor hats and blue bibs, the still look like they did in the early days. There are 51 members, and the average age of a Lake Lady today is 74.

The newest group to join the boathouse is the Bay Blades, a competitive team comprised of gay and lesbian rowers that began practicing at Lake Merritt to prepare for the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam.

The Club currently sponsors one annual regatta. Each summer brings hundreds of masters crews and single scullers to the Lake Merritt Sprints or the SW Masters Regionals. In 1989 and in 2000, Lake Merritt hosted the Masters National Championship Regatta, sponsored by the United States Rowing Association.