ABOUT THE BOAT
WHAT IS A BAWRA AND WHAT ARE WHALEBOATS?
BAWRA and it's Heritage
The Bay Area Whaleboat Rowing Association (BAWRA) is made up of clubs with men's,
women's and mixed teams based in San Francisco, Oakland, Vallejo and Benicia.
The teams compete during racing seasons in the spring and fall.
The boats we row in are Monomoy Surfboats, technically lifeboats of U.S. Coast
Guard design. However, they are the descendants of whaleboats that were carried
out through the rough surf of Monomoy Island.
The rowing and racing of these heavy, fixed seat boats on San Francisco Bay
comes from multiple traditions.
Shore-Based Whaling in Colonial Times
Monomoys are descendants of the shore-based whaleboats used off Cape
Cod and Monomoy Island. Here is
a print of Colonial shore-based whaling off Cape Cod. On the right is the
whaleboat with it's high sides, symmetrical bow and stern, and the cox
standing at the stern
the steering oar.
By the mid-1700's, the decline of whales off the coast led to the development
of sailing vessels that could pursue the whales into deeper water. You've read
Moby Dick, haven't you?
That Others Might Live
As early as the 1700s in America, dories were launched from shore by lifesavers
to save shipwrecked people in distress. In 1871 the United States Lifesaving
Service was established, which became part of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.
The Coast Guard today serves as the nation's front-line agency for enforcing
our laws at sea, protecting our coastline and ports, and saving life. The boats
used for lifesaving co-evolved with whaleboats, and are the ancestors of the
boats we race in today.
Ships in Port
As the great windjammers and steam ships of the mid-1800’s came to the
Barbary Coast, the rapid increase of commerce led to the demand for the earliest
possible information about their entrance into the harbor. In 1849, a house
on Telegraph Hill was erected for the purpose of making signals visible throughout
the city. “A couple of arms, which could be raised or lowered at pleasure
on a high pole, indicated by their position whether any water-craft was coming
in at the Golden Gate, and, if so, what its character; if a steamer, whether
a side-wheeler or screw steamer; if a sailing vessel, whether ship, brig, or
schooner. All the business men and many of the women and children were familiar
with the signs....” --Nineteenth-century historian John
With word of approaching vessels, competing ship’s chandlers
raced each other as they rowed out to be the first to sell their outfitting
Once in Yerba Buena Cove, the 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 each other in
THE MONOMOY DESIGN
the pre-motor days of life saving, surf men from a life-saving station would
first try to rescue stranded sailors and passengers with a breeches buoy
life ring, hung from a line between shore and the shipwreck, and pulled to
If the breeches buoy was not usable, they rowed to the
shipwreck, sometimes taking hours to reach the survivors.
They had two types of vessels -- lifeboats that were very heavy but self-righting
due to air bladders in the bow and stern, and surfboats that were much lighter,
but were difficult to right if tipped over. Because of their lighter weight,
surfboats were used whenever possible. Only the heaviest of seas brought out
the heavy lifeboats.
Surfboats, which we row in, were designed for the high surf off Monomoy Island
and Chatham, Massachusetts (Cape Cod).
“Made to both transit the most unimaginable waters that
nature could conjure and to return through the same surf loaded with
the storm's victims, these boats required a degree of skill unparalleled
mariners. Keen knowledge of the vagaries of breaking surf, instant, explosive
power to take advantage of the interval between combers and relentless
grit to continue rowing while beyond exhaustion were prerequisites to
a crew even
entering a surfboat.” -- Hull
Monomoys are 26’ long with a 7’ beam and draw of about 2‘ with
the crew on board. Most weigh over 2,000 lbs. The rowing configuration is double-banked,
that is, the eight rowers sit in four pairs side-by-side on fixed thwarts (benches).
(In single-banked boats, like racing shells, rowers sit fore and aft of each
other, each on their own seat.) Each rower handles a single 12’ wooden
oar. The oars range in weight from 11 to 15 lbs. A coxswain stands in the stern
and steers with a 16’ oar. In a BAWRA race, a 10th person rides in the
bow for added safety.
“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
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.” -- From
Wooden Boat Magazine, A Tale of Two Sisters: Carvel vs. Cold Molding,
1982 By W. Tay Vaughan, III
ROWING WHALEBOATS TODAY ON SAN FRANICSCO BAY
Competition took its current form in 1965 under the sponsorship
of maritime companies, using U.S. Coast Guard Monomoy Surfboats (aka whaleboats)
in the 1930’s
and 40’s. By 1982 the Bay Area Whaleboat Rowing Association (BAWRA) was
formed to provide standards for safety and competition as well as coordinate
regattas and other activities. By the early eighties, new whaleboats were built
for the specific purpose of racing. Liability insurance is provided to all
BAWRA rowers through the Masters Rowing Association.
About Iron Oars
Iron Oars and the other boats raced in BAWRA regattas are
Monomoy Surfboats, descendants of the sturdy vessels used on the Eastern
design was standardized by the
U.S. Coast Guard in 1934, and they were used for seamanship training and
as general utility boats aboard Coast Guard cutters and merchant ships.
Iron Oars is one of eight fiberglass whaleboats commissioned
by BAWRA club members in 1985. They were made by Harborside Marine in San Diego,
in 1986. Utah International, the mineral and mining company, commissioned
and christened their boat Iron Oars as both a play on words as well as
their heavy ash oars! The price of the boat and hardware, including a boat
cover and bottom painting, was $18,346.25. It could cost over $40,000 to
of these whaleboats today.
was formed in 1979 as a mixed team (men and women rowing). We quickly acquired
a set of oars, and worked with other clubs to use their boats in practice and
the 1990’s, ITCRowing formed a partnership with Utah International
(which later became owned by BHP) to use Iron Oars in races. In return
we shared the
labor and expenses associated with maintaining the boat. BHP raced
in the men’s
divisions, ITC raced in the mixed division.
When the BHP team stopped rowing in 1999, ITCRowing bought Iron Oars. At
that point we expanded to row in all three divisions: men's, women's and mixed.
The BAWRA Fleet
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
Most of the BAWRA Monomoys have been built in the last 25 years. Some are
owned by individuals, some by clubs, and some by corporate sponsors.
Some are wood,
some are fiberglass and some are combinations of the two. Despite
the different construction methods, in the end it’s the crew that wins
the race, not the boat!